In his 55 years as an entertainer Jerry Farber has never been more than a few feet away from a laughing, warmly appreciative audience. Farber, a classically trained pianist who initially added comedy to his routine to deal with hecklers, has spent his long life packing them in, in comedy clubs in Atlanta and around the country.
But in early May, on his 82nd birthday, he found himself in a sparsely furnished studio at Emory University with a grand piano, performing for YouTube with little more than a small video crew for his audience.
For someone who has spent most of his life listening for the laughs, the quiet of the studio was disconcerting. Twice he stopped the performance to complain to his production crew.
“This is not working, I told them. And it took me a while, a moment to realize when I perform, I play for an audience. It was like playing football was a broken right arm. It’s like I couldn’t grasp what I was doing. So I told the camera woman who’s studying film at Emory and was volunteering. I said, I just don’t think this is gonna work. I’m not feeling good.”
But for Farber the silence after so many years of laughs was a small price to pay for helping out a friend who has struggled with the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, the fatal disease that gradually shuts down all muscle function. His conditioned worsened last year. Meanwhile, his wife lost her job during the pandemic and is struggling to pay his health care costs.
His friend with the disease, Kip Heinzmann, married and the father of three, watched the performance silently from a motorized wheelchair in an assisted living facility. Although his mind is still active, his body has almost completely shut down. He can only move one hand. In better times he would have had plenty of laughs for Farber’s performance.
The veteran comedian has lost count of how many times he has helped out a sick or ailing friend or helped an organization with its annual fundraiser. Once he learned of Heinzmann’s desperate condition, his response was immediate.
“He couldn’t have been happier to help out,” according to Heinzmann’s brother-in-law, Howard Kelman, who helped organize the charitable birthday event, “I said, Jerry, can you help put together this fundraiser for Kip? And he said, without hesitating, ‘100 percent. I’m in.’”
Farber knows from his own experience the importance of a helping hand. Earlier in life he had a serious gambling habit that drained every penny he made and all he could borrow.
According to him, it took five or six years of constant support from friends and the help of Gamblers Anonymous to get him through that difficult time. The road to recovery began one evening when he was standing in line at the old Garden Hills movie theater in Buckhead.
“I was standing in line maybe five or six people, and I owed every one of them money. And I’m thinking I am such a slug. My parents and all the great people standing next to me love me; they don’t deserve that. And that was really it. I went to Gamblers Anonymous and a guy said, ‘I’ll give you eight to one that you’re not going to come back,’ but I did it. It took going through hell to get there.”
For Heinzmann and his family, the last year has been particularly challenging. Not only has his condition progressively declined, but finances have been extremely difficult. His wife, Michelle, who is was recently furloughed from her job as a preschool teacher at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, hopes that the money to care for her husband lasts as long as he does. The strain is evident as she talks about her husband’s declining condition.
“It’s scary. It’s just very scary. I have to work on bills. I have to work out payment plans. And that’s our way of life. He needs more care than he gets, but it’s just not feasible for us. We’re paying for two households now.”
On his birthday, Farber’s performance raised $7,200, which pays for a little over a month of care for Kip Heinzmann in his assisted living facility. Over the last year his family and friends GoFundMe campaign has raised a little over $41,000. It’s still short about $20,000 of what it will take to care for Heinzmann in what may be his last year.
If he survives through next May, Farber hopes to make the benefit next year on his 83rd birthday with a live audience. For him, the laughs have been in short supply during the last few months.
“I’m still battling. I picture myself as a Rocky Marciano in the late rounds. That’s as testosterone laden as I get. I like to say, Jerry Farber is boxing one more round.”
To make a donation to Kip Heinzmann, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/kip-heinzmann-keeps-it-positive-fighting-als.