James V. Cyrus, or Jim, as he was known to family, friends and colleagues, passed away peacefully on March 2, 2011 in New York City, following a courageous battle with cancer. He was 65. Born in Wheeling, West Virginia, he was a resident of NYC’s Lower East Side for most of his adult life.
In high school, Jim took an interest in civil rights and was among the peaceful marchers in Washington, D.C. who heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his eloquent “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Jim made national news by becoming the first African American in U.S. history elected student body president of an integrated high school. He was awarded a scholarship to attend West Liberty State College and received a degree there in 1967 before attending graduate school at Syracuse University.
Later, he was an editor with Macmillan Publishing Company where he helped to create social studies textbooks for elementary students across the country.
For years, he pursued an acting career, landing roles in regional and touring companies of Purlie, Guys and Dolls, Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope, and The Proposition.
Jim would later be employed at the American Indian Community House, Inc., where he stayed until he could no longer work due to his illness. Founded in 1969 by Native American volunteers as a community-based organization, AICH is a multi-faceted social support agency and cultural center serving the Native American community in and around New York City.
AICH provides programs in job training and placement, including a performing arts department; health services referral; HIV referral and case management services; and counseling programs for alcoholism and substance use.
Jim always spoke fondly of good friend Rudy Martin (1951-1993) a Tewa Navajo Apache from New Mexico, a talented lyricist, singer, and musician who was the PR director at AICH in the 80’s and early 90’s. Often working and singing together in Vegas-style shows in nightclubs and dinner theaters around NYC, Rudy and Jim also regularly sang back up for Bunny Parker in Atlantic City. Jim’s rhinestone jacket could be seen hanging on a coat rack in his office as a constant reminder of those singing days.
He always shared the story of how Rudy finally convinced him to take a job working at AICH. He went on to become the beloved Director of Performing Arts for 17 years. There he directed numerous theatrical and musical productions; coordinated actors’ showcases for industry show business agents and producers.
One of Jim’s greatest achievements was developing “Indian Summer,” a series of theatrical and musical productions held annually on the weekends for an entire month. These performances were SRO—but not always.
Not a shy person, Jim often took on the role of host for many of the shows he produced, but was just as happy working in the background, always ready to lend a hand to the technicians. He gave many people their very first jobs in production, and he was the first to congratulate them. A perfectionist, he would make it his personal mission, for example, to have the house piano tuned perfectly by a colleague, well ahead of time so performers could rehearse. He was always ready with a bouquet of flowers when the featured star exited the stage.
Well-respected among producers, directors and agents, some of the actors for whom he advocated early in their careers have gone onto successful careers on the global stage in film, music and the arts. They include Chaske Spencer, who is currently starring in the Twilight film franchise; Shelia Tousey, who has a recurring role on television’s Law and Order, has had a long and distinguished career in film and theater; and Irene Bedard, star of Disney’s Pocahontas and Chris Eyre’s film Smoke Signals.
He leaves behind his life-long partner Jeffrey Buckner and many family members still living in Wheeling, WV.
A memorial service for Jim is planned at AICH on Saturday, April 9th, 2011 starting at 1 pm. A Pot Luck Feast will follow the service. Visit the Jim Cyrus online memorial to learn more.