In Memory of Bernard N. Bragg
Bernard Nathan Bragg passed away on October 29 in Los Angeles, California. Bernard, or BB as he was known, had celebrated his 90th birthday on September 27. An icon of stage and screen, he was perhaps the most instantly recognizable deaf person in the world. It can fairly be said that he blazed the path for generations of deaf people to enter the performing arts.
Bernard Bragg was first and foremost a performer. Influenced by his father, an amateur actor and theatrical manager, he was a regular in plays at the New York School for the Deaf. As a Gallaudet College student, Bragg studied language and literature. He acted in several plays and directed an adapted version of Escape, by John Galsworthy, during his senior year.
Settling into a teaching career at the California School for the Deaf at Berkeley, Bragg directed student productions. He also performed in and directed shows organized by the National Association of the Deaf and the Los Angeles Club of the Deaf. His star was rising, but no one could predict what lay ahead.
In 1956, Bragg attended a performance by the French mime Marcel Marceau in San Francisco. Enthralled, he went backstage to meet Marceau, who offered to teach him mime that summer in Paris. Upon his return to the United States, Bragg took his act to playhouses and theaters all over the United States. According to the New York Times, he delivered bravura displays in which he portrayed every animal on Noahs ark and every instrument in an orchestra.
Bragg hosted a television show, The Quiet Man, on KQED-TV in San Francisco from 1958 to 1961. In the mid-1960s, Dr. Edna Simon Levine, a renowned psychologist with a lifelong interest in deaf and hard of hearing people, recruited Bragg to the newly-established, federally-supported National Theatre of the Deaf. In 1967, Bragg left his job at CSD Berkeley and moved to Connecticut, where NTD was based. His appearance the same year with a stellar ensemble cast of deaf performers on NBCs An Experiment in Television brought the company widespread recognition, and led to national and international tours and several appearances on Broadway.
Bragg was an artist in residence with the Moscow Theatre of Mimicry and Gesture in 1973. He performed in a U.S. Department of State tour of 25 countries in 1977, and trained actors in Sweden and other countries. In 1979, he served as technical advisor for and acted in the television movie And Your Name is Jonah, starring Sally Struthers, James Woods, and the young deaf child Jeffrey S. Bravin, who is now executive director of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut. ASD, founded in 1817, was Americas first school for deaf students. In 1980, he collaborated with Dr. Eugene C. Bergman, a Gallaudet University English professor, on the play Tales from a Clubroom, which premiered at the National Association of the Deaf centennial conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.
During his career, Bragg taught and conducted artistic residencies at Gallaudet, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology, and California State University at Northridge. At each school, he was involved in theatrical productions. Some of his more notable plays were adapted for international audiences.
Braggs last public performance at Gallaudet University was in February 2012, as part of his The World is My Stage tour. The proceeds from this performance were split between the university and the National Association of the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center. In 2013, he played himself in No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie.
Accolades for Bernard Bragg have poured in during the last week, with hundreds of people the world over posting remembrances on social media.
Long-time friend Dr. Genie Gertz, a Gallaudet alumna and dean of the universitys College of Arts and Sciences, wrote, The mold broke when they created Bernard. He did not just leave a mark. Rather, he left footprints everywhere, and as a result created a masterpiece. May he forever continue to create masterpieces wherever he is.
Marlee Matlin won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1987 for her performance as Sarah Norman in the 1986 film Children of a Lesser God. Matlin, an honorary trustee of the Gallaudet University Board of Trustees, wrote, When I was eight years old, as a young girl who yearned to be an actress, Bernard Bragg came into my life at just the right moment to offer inspiration and motivation. That is because back then I really had no role models to look up to. Bernard eventually became my mentor and teacher. Though he was applauded by many for his brilliant skills as an actor, teacher and author, he holds a very special place in my heart as the dearest friend, and no matter what distance or circumstances separates us, his life is a legacy that will live forever with me.
David J. Kurs, another Gallaudet alumnus, is now artistic director of Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles. Kurs wrote, There will never be another [like Bernard Bragg]. Because of him, we have Deaf theatre. He was the voice in our head, our greatest champion, mentor, and friend. We all wanted his talent, energy, passion, commitment to excellence, and enthusiasm. In the words of Candide, one of his roles, he always did the best we know by embracing the simple joys of life and the people of our community. His loss is deeply felt by the many lives across the world that he touched.
In 1977, Bragg received a Special Tony Award from the American Theatre Wing. The World Federation of the Deaf bestowed upon Bragg the WFD Special Lifetime Achievement Award during the organizations 50th anniversary celebration in 2001 in Rome, Italy. He also received WFDs International First-Class Merit Medal. He was inducted into the San Francisco State University Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Gallaudet University Hall of Fame in 2015. In 2014, the National Association of the Deaf presented him with its Legacy Breakthrough Award. The New York School for the Deaf in White Plains named its auditorium and theater in his honor in 2016.
Bernard Nathan Bragg was born on September 27, 1928 in Brooklyn, New York, to Wolf and Jennie Stoloff Bragg. He graduated from New York School for the Deaf in 1947, and earned his bachelors degree in English at Gallaudet in 1952 and a masters degree in special education at San Francisco State University in 1959. In 1988, Gallaudet awarded him the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.
Bragg wrote three books: Tales from a Clubroom (Gallaudet University Press, 1981) with Dr. Eugene C. Bergman, 53; Lessons in Laughter: The Autobiography of a Deaf Actor (Gallaudet University Press, 1989), as signed to Dr. Bergman; and Meeting Halfway in American Sign Language: A Common Ground for Effective Communication Among Deaf and Hearing People (Deaf Life Press, 1994) with Jack R. Olson.
A noted philanthropist, Bragg gave generously to causes in which believed passionately, including the National Association of the Deaf, the World Federation of the Deaf, and his alma mater, Gallaudet University.
Such is Braggs stature that he was honored by news obituaries in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Playbill. He was featured on NBCs Sunday Today With Willie Giest on November 4.
Bernard Bragg left no immediate survivors. A shiva, or memorial open house, was held on October 31 at the home of longtime friends Sharon Ann Dror and Kenneth S. Rothschild in Burbank, California. Celebrations of his life are being planned on both coasts during 2019. Contributions in his memory may be made to The Bernard Bragg, '52 & H-'88, Performing Arts Chair Fund at Gallaudet University, Deaf West Theatre, or the Jewish Deaf Community Center.
On a personal level, my parents, Waldo T. Cordano and Jean Kelsch Cordano, both attended Gallaudet while Bernard was there. My sisters and I grew up with stories about him and his theatrical accomplishments.
Let us remember Bernard Bragg, his outgoing personality, his vast repertoire of talents, his prolific body of work, and his generosity to all humankind. Let us thank him for opening the doors of stage, television, and film to countless deaf and hard of hearing people. Finally, let us thank him for showing the world what deaf people can achieve. His memory will endure forever, on Kendall Green, the universitys historic campus, and throughout the nation and the world.
Roberta J. Cordano, President
Roberta J. Cordano