Stu Gilliam, comedian-actor, taught the Faith enthusiastically
(left) Stu Gilliam with Don Adams in an episode of Get Smart in the 1960s; (right) in 2012 with his wife, Vivian, in the Czech Republic. Photos courtesy of Vivian White Baravalle Gilliam
Stewart B. Gilliam—by professional identity, Stu Gilliam—a comedian, ventriloquist and actor whose career reached its height in the 1960s and ’70s, helped break ground for African-American comics to perform for racially mixed audiences in segregated states. A Bahá’í and enthusiastic teacher of the Faith for nearly four decades, mainly in the Los Angeles area, he had recently joined his wife as a pioneer in the Czech Republic.
Stu passed away October 11, 2013, in Ceske Budejovice after a heart attack. He was 80.
In a message expressing condolences to his wife, Vivian Lee White Baravalle Gilliam, and his daughter, Velnita Renee Woods of Texas, the Universal House of Justice wrote, “May his devoted efforts to serve the Cause as a pioneer together with you to the Czech Republic towards the end of his life be a source of encouragement and inspiration to his loved ones and friends.”
In its turn, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States praised his “ardent desire and strenuous efforts” in moving abroad “despite significant impediments to his health and mobility.”
And a letter from the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Los Angeles noted his “success as a Bahá’í teacher and popular speaker at firesides and other Bahá’í gatherings. Even in advanced sickness, Stu was an avid promoter of the Faith and its principles, just as concerned for the spiritual health of the doctors and nurses around him as they were in attending to his physical well-being.”
Born in 1933 in a middle-class area of Detroit, Stu was the grandson of a minister and grew up in a strong church tradition, according to an audio interview posted on the Web by a Bahá’í.
He proved a voracious student of a variety of performing arts, and was so gifted as a young ventriloquist that he left home at 14 to perform with a circus and in state fairs, then after a few years began to appear in clubs in Chicago. During his two-year service in the Korean War, he and his dummy Oscar entertained troops.
In the 1950s and ’60s he often worked a nationwide circuit of clubs with mainly or exclusively black audiences, including several appearances at the Apollo in New York City. He sometimes served as an emcee for mixed-race shows, but in several states was prevented from appearing onstage at the same time as white performers.
According to his interview, his growing comedy skills gained him connections and respect among “other writer-performers who wanted black entertainers as a whole to advance.” Recognizing his acumen with mixed audiences, the Playboy Club circuit placed him before largely white crowds, including in southern states where that constituted an open challenge to segregation laws.
The late 1960s saw Stu break into national television, including The Ed Sullivan Show, Playboy After Dark and The Dean Martin Show. He also traveled to England and France with Liberace.
Over the next two decades, he continued to appear on television — comedy, drama and game shows — and was a star of the sitcom Roll Out for one season. He also appeared in the 1975 Broadway production The Wiz; did voice work for many children’s cartoons; and acted in a number of movies, his last role being in Meteor Man in 1993.
In Los Angeles, Stu’s friend Al Waterford Sr. — whom he had met through a fellow comic, Waterford’s cousin Redd Foxx — introduced Stu to the Bahá’í Faith in 1975. He attended fireside gatherings with the Waterford family on their sailboat docked in Marina Del Rey; during one of those firesides Stu first met Vivian White.
In the Web interview, Stu said he was afraid his friend had become enmeshed in a cult. So “to get him out of trouble” Stu went to the Los Angeles Bahá’í Center, bought a number of books, got into his camper and drove upstate to a national park, where he spent some time camping and reading.
Before long he had decided he was also a Bahá’í. “It made so much sense to start with,” he reflected, “the ideal that religion is one.”
He was active for many years in area Bahá’í communities, notably North Hollywood.
Vivian White Baravalle, who had lived as a Bahá’í pioneer for 20 years in Italy, then since 1998 in the Czech Republic, crossed paths with Stu on a 2004 visit to Los Angeles. Both divorced from their previous spouses, they rekindled their friendship; in 2007 they were married in a ceremony at the Los Angeles Bahá’í Center.
He moved to be with her in Ceske Budejovice, but because of continuing treatments and surgeries for lung cancer and COPD, he spent most of his time in North Hollywood and Burbank. So Vivian would “commute” to California in the summers.
“Stu loved his adopted country, the Czech Republic, and its people, especially our many friends here,” his wife notes.
His burial spot is in Borsov nad Vltavou, a peaceful locale on the Vltava River.