Shell Shocked: The Herb Strauss Story: A Tale of Courage and Commitment
As you all know, Sanibel has a theater named after Herb Strauss. Not too many people remember who Herb Strauss was. I remember. I’m proud to say that Herb Strauss was a friend of mine.
Herb passed away in November 2007 of a rare form of cancer at the age of 78. He had been diagnosed with this disease when he was in his early 20s, but it went into remission for more than 50 years until two years before he finally succumbed to it. During the remission years, Herb lived life to the fullest and became the envy of his friends and family for his strong will, sense of humor and great courage.
A tragic thing happened to Herb and his wife Evelyn some 35 years ago. Their youngest daughter Laurie died of leukemia at the age of 27. From that point on Herb and Evelyn dedicated their lives to perpetuating her memory and fighting leukemia.
They created the Laurie Strauss Leukemia Foundation and held a benefit at Carnegie Hall every year to help raise funds to fight leukemia. During the course of running these annual benefits, Herb was able to attract top entertainers to perform for nothing to help generate attendance – and funding in the Strauss’ family battle to eradicate leukemia.
Herb and Evelyn owned a condo in Sanibel for many years, as they often made their way here to take a breather from the hard work connected to running the foundation and planning the annual benefit concerts. Herb made his presence known in Sanibel by helping to bring major entertainers to perform here. He personally raised the stakes at Big Arts where the top talent he was able to bring here contributed substantially to its fundraising and visibility efforts.
The name Herb Strauss may not be a household name to many in Sanibel, but his efforts on behalf of the theaters here, and the many friends he made are testament to the magnetic personality he had. Herb was a big bear of a man. He usually towered over most people and his strong hand shake was extended in friendship, never in anger.
Herb’s career was in advertising and production. Many of the more famous TV commercials in history are directly attributable to him. He traveled the world shooting commercials and was highly respected by his peers and clients. But, the most endearing trait Herb had was his love for singing. He had a glorious baritone voice, and as a sideline he was a cantor at his local synagogue in Port Washington, New York, for many years. He could sing his way effortlessly between great American standards and Jewish High Holy Day prayers.
Some years ago Herb was a guest at my birthday party up north. When the cake was being cut, Herb got up, proposed a toast and then sang a song of tribute impromptu without accompaniment. He had a great ear for music and wasn’t shy about trying out his booming, glorious voice on any occasion. The song “With a Song in my Heart” truly applied to Herb Strauss. He would usually sing one song at the annual benefit at Carnegie Hall to demonstrate to the stars waiting to perform off stage that he was in their league. And indeed he was.
When he learned that the cancer had come back after lying low for more than 50 years, Herb never skipped a beat. He never felt sorry for himself. In his mind he had been given a bonus of more than 50 years of life since the original diagnosis was made. He continued to plunge into the annual benefit and hoped that he could see it through to its conclusion just one more time. Herb fought the illness as hard as he could, so that he could once again host the benefit in November 2007. But time ran out for Herb. As fate would have it, he died just one day before the benefit. But, in the best tradition of show business, the show did go on and it was dedicated that evening to two Strausses: Laurie and her dad Herb.
The legacy of Herb Strauss is now secure with the renaming of the Sanibel Theater after him. I fully expect to hear his booming singing voice hovering in the clouds each time I drive by the Herb Strauss Theater in the future.
-Art Stevens is a long-time columnist for The Islander. His tongue-in-cheek humor is always offered with a smile.