Heart Strings: How a 1989 Musical United Memphis & Raised Critical Funds for HIV/AIDS

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by Vincent Astor | photos courtesy OUTMemphis, and David Sheppard ©2017 DIFFA


According to a Chicago Tribune article from September 7, 1989, Heart Strings was ‘an upbeat musical production that brought its songs and dances of hope in the fight against AIDS’ to 30 cities during its 1989-1990 run.’ In fact, Heart Strings was a phenomenon. It appeared at the height of the AIDS crisis. Its purpose was to help unite a nationwide community facing something so horrible and unknown that there was no precedent. Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn were the honorary national chairmen of the touring show. In each city the 20-member touring ensemble was supplemented by a local cast and vocalists. The dialogue drew from letters and interviews of people whose lives had been touched by AIDS, and each narrative segued into a choreographed musical number.

DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) raises awareness and grants funds to organizations that provide treatment, direct care services, preventive education programs and advocacy for individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS. It was founded in 1984 by a group of passionate designers. DIFFA has emerged from a grassroots organization into a national foundation with chapters and community partners across the country that, working together, have provided more than $42 million to hundreds of HIV/AIDS organizations nationwide.

The organization began hosting fundraisers. Board member David Sheppard read An Interrupted Life in 1985 which inspired him to associate songs with the sentiments found in the book. When the concept premiered in Atlanta it was revealed that quotations from the book, which could have been written by a Person with AIDS (PWA), were actually written in 1944 by Etty Hilsum, a Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz at age 28.

A second, revised production made the message more inclusive and a national tour was created to help local organizations benefit from the knowledge gained by DIFFA and have a community-wide large fund raiser in their own cities.

Memphis was one of those communities which had not progressed to fund raisers encompassing the larger community. It became the third stop on the 1989-1990 national tour. A heavy binder of guidelines was brought to Memphis outlining 27 weeks of preliminaries which Memphis would have to accomplish in 16. This was much more intensive than the type of benefit Memphis was used to. A dozen drag queens, some specialty numbers and putting up posters in all the bars was the usual method.

Allen Cook, secretary of ATEAC (now Friends for Life) and Rebecca Locke (president of the Memphis AIDS Coalition, a fund raising organization) took on the task of co-chairing the entire project. Both organizations provided startup funds. Donations came from others in the area. Volunteers poured in to stuff and send gigantic mailings, solicit corporate sponsorship, sell tickets and attend to myriad details. People who would not speak to each other on the street or in the bar worked next to one another, turning the wheels for a benefit that would be unlike any seen before.

Both mayors, a state representative, the conductor of the Memphis Symphony, and several local celebrities joined the host committee. The South Hall of the old Auditorium was booked and Ticket Hub donated all the ticketing services. The theatrical community held benefits, and donated space for others. Ads flowed in from every sector of life—one of the points of the entire effort was to give those outside of the gay and lesbian community a chance to support a mainstream fundraiser. The mantra became, “Now, there’s something we can do.” It was a community-wide statement of the broad effect AIDS had on the community and a jab against the strong stigma associated with it. Several large corporations responded both nationally and locally.

1989 Heart Strings’ Memphis Steering Committee

(UPPER LEFT) Clockwise from top right: John Prowett, Mark Whitehead, Jack Woods, Chris Miller, Ann Brown, Allen Cook (Co-Chair), Rick Bray, Barclay, Martin Katz, and Richard Andrews, Not Pictured: Jerry Chipman and Toni Fetters. (UPPER RIGHT) Clockwise from top right: Susan Browning, Vincent Astor, J.J. Jones, Gary Cooper, Steven Solomon, Rebecca Locke (Co-Chair), Bob Dumais, Don Greisheimer, and Dwayne Branham, Not pictured: Donna McMillen, Stephen Pair, and Larry Beghtol.


Monday, September 25, 1989, was the date for the show. On the day before, cast and major supporters gathered for a festive brunch on the lawn of the Galloway Mansion in Midtown. The show itself had several noteworthy moments. It was basically a revue, the plot being a dark cloud menacing a village with sickness and how villagers reacted.

Larry Riley, then in his famous role in Knots Landing, flew in to host and narrate. Few knew then that he would become Memphis’ most prominent Person With AIDS (PWA) and die from its complications. Peter Barrosse Memphis first “out” PWA made his last public appearance to welcome the crowd.

The attendees saw a huge backdrop made out of panels from the NAMES Project (another first). It received a powerful, tearful ovation, just one of many that would happen that night. Another unforgettable moment was the rendition of Sometimes When We Touch sung by men from the Memphis Symphony Chamber Singers augmented by other local singers and chorus from the tour. It was the ultimate crossover between mainstream music and the experiences of those in relationships touched by AIDS. After the show, guests attended a large reception at the Crowne Plaza Hotel across from the Auditorium.

Approximately $40,000 was eventually divided among the three organizations. ATEAC (Aid to End AIDS Committee) and Memphis AIDS Coalition divided 85% of the proceeds while DIFFA retained 15% for its own efforts.

The effects of Heart Strings still persist. It was the greatest event to unite Memphis the gay and lesbian community has seen.

Vincent Astor was CoChair of the Gala Committee for Heart Strings Memphis which was followed in 1992 by another tour, An Event in 3 Acts—Heart Strings, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and You but that was not quite the success of the original Heart Strings. However, $35,000 was raised when a much larger display of Quilt panels was displayed at Rhodes College.