A blog of general comment by one of L.A.'s best known commentator/essayists. Humor, drama, pathos, satire and, well, everything else.
It is 5 o’clock in the morning and there is a deep stillness over the mountains of Topanga. No coyotes wail or owls hoot. The small animals that own the night, the ones that scurry in the bushes beyond sight, have gone to their lairs. Soon we will begin to hear the low hum of commute traffic building on the boulevard in the canyon below, the early risers who will lead a parade of cars and trucks into the Westside or downtown or north toward the Valley.
But for now I am pretty much alone with my thoughts, and I am thinking of Peter Dennis, a good friend for 22 years who, during the course of our friendship, showed me how to laugh, how to remember and, at the end, how to die. I have thought often of him from the first time we met, glowing with life and excitement, to the last time I saw him near the end of his three-year fight against cancer, his hair gone, his complexion ashen, his voice a weakened whisper. Here was a gentle and loving man slowly disappearing from the life he loved so much, lost to us not by the diminishment of his soul but by the vulnerability of his body at age 75.
For more than 30 years Peter had been the stage voice of A.A. Milne’s stories of Winnie the Pooh and the other whimsical creatures of the “100 Aker Wood,” not just relating their adventures but creating their lives through the voices he gave them: the squeaking of little Roo to the snorting of Piglet to the dour, baleful observations of the donkey Eeyore. Sitting alone on stage, looking a bit like everyone’s favorite uncle, he was the gentle guide of a child’s imagination, taking us back to a sweeter time in our lives when we too walked the trails of the woods with Christopher Robin, past the trap for the heffalumps and the place where the woozle wasn’t.
Pooh wasn’t just for kids. Peter read from Milne’s works at gatherings of friends that celebrated the little bear’s “birthday” and once read for the 90th birthday party of my mother-in-law, Betty Lello, who sat with tears in her eyes listening to him re-create the stories she had once read to school children during years as a teacher. Winnie the Pooh was for everyone.
Peter never gave up on life. Just a few days from death, he could still smile and even laugh softly as he listened to friends and relatives tell stories of his triumphs and antics, his goodness and his caring at a living memorial given by his wife of 30 years, Diane Mercer, in their Shadow Hills home. I see him wrapped in a white robe that concealed a mid-section bloated by a rare form of cancer that defeated his best efforts to survive. When he accepted his fate, a new tranquility seemed to settle in, allowing him at the end to slip gracefully into his dreams.
We met in 1987 when I attended the performance of his one-man show “Bother!” at the Coronet Theater in West Hollywood. I learned later that he and Diane lived in the Canyon. I was both touched and intrigued by his passion for Milne’s stories, which he had discovered in 1976 as a drama student in his native England. He became Pooh’s voice in Britain and then in the U.S. 10 years later, performing in theaters, festivals and universities on two continents, reminding us all that there is still a place for us in the enchanted forests of our imagination.
Peter and Diane moved to Southern California in 1991 and became naturalized American citizens in 2005, celebrating in their Shadow Hills homes with many of the same friends who would attend his living memorial four years later. Peter’s acting career expanded beyond stories of Winnie the Pooh to roles in film and television, but it was his magical rendition of the endearing friends of Christopher Robin for which he will be remembered.
“Pooh is my life,” he once said to me, “and he’s in other people’s lives too. There’s a great commonality to him. There’s so much caring.”
In addition to his wife Diane, Peter is survived by his brother Michael Dennis of Kent, England, by a sister Dorothy Barker of Auckland, New Zealand…and by his many friends in the 100 Aker Wood.
Al Martinez is a Pulitzer Prize winning essayist, former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, author of a dozen books, an Emmy-nominated creator of prime time television shows, a travel writer, humorist and general hell-raiser. Try him. He's addictive.
Joanne Cinelli Martinez is composed of artist, poet, gourmet chef, interior decorator, photographer, volunteer, and all around intelligent person; also the life long partner and care taker of the simple but happy little man who runs the blog. She views him with suspicion and uncertainty. It is a cautionary love story.