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Arnie Reisman, Journalist, Former Island Poet Laureate

by Bill Eville, Vineyard Gazette

Arnie Reisman, journalist, playwright, poet, television and film producer, and raconteur who led with a smile and backed it up with a quick wit, died suddenly early Monday, his wife Paula Lyons confirmed. He was 79.

A man who had his fingers on the pulse of nearly every corner of Island life and was curious about everything and everyone, he embraced politics, social justice issues, puns, ferry and Vineyard Haven post office woes, and turned everything into art. He was the Vineyard poet laureate from 2014-2017, was a member of the Cleaveland House Poets, and was the current board chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, where he also performed in numerous productions, many of which he wrote and directed. He also hosted the playhouse’s poetry cafe.

“I am in shock,” said MJ Bruder Munafo, executive and artistic director of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. “He was our leader at the theater, our board president. He was irrepressible in the best way, with a big personality and we loved him so much.”

Mr. Reisman had been a columnist for the Vineyard Gazette for over a decade, his essays chronicling the intersections of Island life and his own eclectic career. He had extraordinary recall for details and throughout his career had found himself frequently in the middle of historic events. He wrote about those events along with issues big and small, from Groundhog Day and parsnips, to racial equality, the Gardner Museum art heist and covering Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin concerts in the 1960s.  

In a recent column he looked back on his time as a young reporter at East High School in Denver, Colo. The current high school editor, Leo Kamin, at his alma mater had tracked him down for an interview, which Mr. Reisman used as material.

“I see by the headlines from your era you had about six dances a year,” Leo noted. “We have only one.”

My response: “That’s because we discovered rock’n’roll.”

Arnie Reisman was born on May 1, 1942 in Chicago and grew up in Denver, Colo. He graduated from Brandeis University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. During his long career as a journalist based mostly in Boston he was editor of Boston After Dark, which later became the Boston Phoenix, did feature writing for the Boston Globe and numerous other publications, was a television producer for Consumer Reports, WGBH, WCVB, where he produced a profile of Norman Bridwell the creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog books, for which he won a New England regional Emmy award.

With his wife Paula Lyons, he was also a panelist on NPR’s Says You!, the long-running comedy quiz show. His final column for the Gazette, filed earlier this week, was a tribute to the show.

His documentary film work included Hollywood on Trial, an examination of the red scare and blacklist period in American history, The Big Dig, The Powder and the Glory, about the rivalry of Helen Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, which became the basis for the Broadway musical War Paint, staring Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersol.

His Vineyard credits would require a 10-act play to list, ranging from books of poetry, nearly a decade of columns for the Gazette, to numerous plays and films.

“He had so much to say to all of us and aren’t we so lucky he did say so much to us in so many forms,” Ms. Bruder Munafo said.

His friend Dr. Gerald Yukevich recalled a man who was as committed to social justice as he was the arts. Mr. Reisman was the former vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and on the board of the Vineyard Conservation Society and the Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation.

“Though his wit and intelligence were keen, he was also a powerful moral force for justice, for freedom, and for giving wings to the imagination of individuals and of our struggling democratic society,” Mr. Yukevich said. 

Mr. Reisman and Paula Lyons, his wife of 39 years, were inseparable and well known in the Vineyard community. They met in 1979, when they first started working together. In a 2008 profile in the Gazette, they both admitted that the first date did not go well.

“I took her to a place that just about killed the relationship,” Mr. Reisman recalled. “A Japanese restaurant in Back Bay, one of these places that was totally into Japanese custom. You had to take your shoes off and fold your legs under the table. I watched her do this and she was as comfortable as an erector set, disassembling before my eyes. She’d never had Japanese food before. It didn’t go well. I was a nervous wreck.”

Despite the awkward first date, the couple gave it a second chance.

“Our next date was a shopping expedition to buy her some home appliances,” Mr. Reisman said. “There was less at stake I guess, and we hit it off.”

Not long after they were married they rented a house on the Vineyard in 1983.

“I had never been here,” Ms. Lyons said in the story. “But he said ‘Let’s just rent a house for July and if you hate it, we never have to go back again. We found a house on the Middle Road, and it was magical.”

The couple moved to the Island full-time in 2011 and became involved in nearly every corner of Vineyard life, together and as individuals.

“I am bereft,” Ms. Lyons told Gazette Monday morning. “It was a great life. His friends are a legion.”

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