They sold Frank Burnette’s things. I didn’t find out about it until that afternoon, as I was standing in the Iowa Capitol building, getting ready to rehearse and then perform Lincoln’s Last Interview.
I wish I’d known. Frank lived in a storefront on Court Avenue. There were posters, probably hundreds. Books, mostly old hardcovers, as I remember.
Theater was the beating heart of my relationship to Frank. I met him early on in my time in Des Moines. Julie and I moved here to co-found the Des Moines Social Club, and Frank was an amazing early supporter. He and Zack Mannheimer had bonded over a love of powerful theater, theater with sex, violence and danger, theater that unsettled and disturbed. Frank brought a passion to his work that was re-energizing for artists whose foreheads felt bloody from continually banging against walls. He reminded you that this stuff, this art that had consumed our lives actually mattered to people who weren’t in theater themselves.
Of course Frank was in the theater, as a producer and supporter. But he was first and foremost the ultimate fan. If he liked a show he’d see it many times; if he produced it, he’d be there every night, in the front row, usually laughing before the punchlines because he loved so much what was about to happen.
It was probably years of talking and drinking with Frank before I even got pieces of his story. The time in the Navy, as a JAG. The marathons. Heading up soccer reffing for the state of Iowa (on who was worse, boys or girls: “Oh, girls. Girls were the worst. The first game of the year, there was always some flagrant foul well off the ball, and you learned never to call that one, because that was payback for something that happened last year.”) He’d been a lawyer at one of the great firms in town, and left it. He did work, defense work I believe, for people all over the place. And he lived in that oddball storefront full of books and posters, a place you could easily imagine getting lost for an hour. He had a family he lived apart from, and whom I never met until after he was gone. I never got the full measure of the man—you never do, do you?—but his warmth, passion and generosity kept me going in some rough times.
Frank loved to talk and drink with folks. He helped get The Lift and Vaudeville Mews started, and was a crucial spiritual godfather and source of theater support for the Des Moines Social Club and Mooncoin’s Martin McDonagh Project. He loved people who were crazy enough to try to do awesome things here in town, and helped how he could. He was an amazing force and a great friend who could drive you nuts at times. But there are a lot of us in town who still can’t quite believe he’s gone, who still look for him in the front row of shows he’d love. He’d have loved Fences at the DMSC, and would have been there every night. If it’s Wednesday and I have time in the evening, I drop into the lift and order a Frank’s dirty martini, which is the only way I can drink anymore with one of the best dirty old men I ever met.