Bill Cohen, Salesman Who Found A New Career To Match His Large Personality

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Bill Cohen died at age 92. (Courtesy Alison Cohen)
Bill Cohen died at age 92. (Courtesy Alison Cohen)

In one life, Bill Cohen traveled throughout New England selling metal moldings and extrusions to floor-covering stores. He was outgoing, famously persuasive and filled with the desire to please every customer.

When his daughter, Alison Cohen, was about 13 or so, and her two brothers a few years younger, Bill entered a second life. He loved borrowing plays from the local library and performing them aloud with his children. Ebenezer Scrooge was his signature character.

“And one day we read in the local Town Crier that Theater Newington was putting on 'A Christmas Carol' for their annual production,” Alison recalled. “We dragged him down to audition. And he famously put down the script and did it from memory — and was perfect.”

He'd hit all the high points: the misanthropy of Scrooge, combined with the gusto of Bill.

" 'Every idiot,' " said Alison, imitating her father, " 'who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stick of holly through his heart, he should!' "

A newspaper clipping of Cohen as Ebenezer Scrooge in a production of "A Christmas Carol." (Courtesy Alison Cohen)
A newspaper clipping of Cohen as Ebenezer Scrooge in a production of "A Christmas Carol." (Courtesy Alison Cohen)

Thus began his next, unpaid life.

Bill scoured the papers for auditions throughout Connecticut: "A View From the Bridge," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Lovers and Other Strangers."

"We were very concerned when he tried out for 'Fiddler on the Roof,' because he absolutely could not sing and could not dance,' " she laughed.

For years, he juggled the two careers, rearranging his travels to accommodate rehearsals. Lines were run everywhere. Alison remembered one year when she worked at a local diner.

“And I was in the kitchen with the owner of the diner, and he said, 'There’s a guy out there, he’s crazy!' And I said, 'What do you mean?' and he said, 'He’s talking to himself.' And I looked through the kitchen door to see my father. And I said, 'Oh, he’s not crazy, that’s my father. He’s practicing a play!' "

For Bill, a spotlight was a nutrient.

“He got standing ovations,” Alison remembered. “I mean, people really responded to him. He just had this very dramatic way about him. Let’s just say he appreciated the audience approval.”

At the same time, he loved turning his light on others.

“My dad was famous for being the first to stand up pretty much at any performance and yell 'Bravo, bravo!' That goes true for whether he was watching Broadway, or my niece’s flute performance or my other niece’s tennis performance," Alison said. "He was very big on audience appreciation.”

Bill’s impoverished beginning — the family story goes — included sleeping in a bathtub because there was so little room in his family’s Depression-era apartment. Life could have been viewed as tragedy. Yet somehow, he turned abjectness into joy.

“I would say to people who asked about him that he was always a glass-full kind of a guy. And my brother would correct me and say, his glass was overflowing,” Alison said.

When he died at the age of 92, his true and loving audience ended the funeral service in unorthodoxy: with a standing ovation.

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This segment aired on May 31, 2017.

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Elissa Ely Creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project
Elissa Ely is a community psychiatrist in Massachusetts and the creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project.



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