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Op-Ed: San Francisco film critic dies while delivering his review (Includes interview)

All journalists know that being in the business of media whether it be local or national, large or small, having someone remember you or give you a referral is a very welcome change of pace to the highly competitive and low-paying job of journalism.

This reporter was sad to hear the news of the death of Mayer. He was the entertainment and film critic writer for many of the district papers in San Francisco. The Westside Observer reported that Mayer died of a heart attack unexpectedly. “He passed away in late July from a massive heart attack suffered just steps away from the Castro Movie Theatre where he was delivering articles he had just written about regarding the annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.”

His death saddened me because he had been very gracious in helping me gain access to some of the most prestigious and coveted art and film events in the City. While San Francisco is known for its liberal reputation and innovation, like any place it has its “cliques.” And, for even the most seasoned of reporters, dealing with obstacles and barriers can be a set back when faced with a deadline.

San Francisco film and theater critic and journalist Tom Mayer in younger days back in the 1980s.

San Francisco film and theater critic and journalist Tom Mayer in younger days back in the 1980s.
Tom Swick

Attending events no matter how fancy or premiere can also be an aloof experience. Mayer was always gracious and took a moment to say hello to everyone even if he was with others interviewing or “schmoozing” to get details on some news.

“Yes we heard the bad news right away, “said Karen Larsen of Larsen Associates. Her publicity firm provides press info and details to all the media outlets in the SF Bay Area.

Larsen Associates also helps coordinate many of the events of the SF Film Society and others. Larsen noted, “Tom had delivered some papers to the Castro the opening day of the Jewish Film Festival with the article about the festival he had written. Then he went to the underground trolly train at Castro Station to go home and collapsed. We had expected him to come to the festival that night and were surprised that he did not show up. Later that night, she said we heard that he had died.”

Larsen talked of the early days. “I met him first when he was a partner-owner at the Roxie.” The Roxie Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District has become a leading spot for independent films and original local productions. Yet back in the 1980’s it was struggling and had not yet reached the treasured status it has today in the community.

“I did publicity on a lot of films that played there back in the day,” she said. “Tom wrote for several publications and would always be counted on to cover and report.” Mitch Bull, editor and owner of The Westside Observer published many of Mayer’s articles over the years; and often assigned him to critique a film or major theatrical event. Yet, Mayer was not confined or defined by one publication or any one interest, as Larsen explained.

“When Tom left the Roxie, added Larsen, he continued to write for Cine Source and newspapers in The Mission and Western Edition neighborhoods.”

The Westside Observer mentioned Mayer’s commitment to causes, especially ones that concerned social justice. In addition to his affinity for film and history, he was an activist. He helped to save historical buildings like The Fallon Building and the Victoria Theater in the Mission District. He also cared deeply about the social issues that impacted others,The Westside Observer also noted. His work as advocate was understated. Yet listening to those who knew him well and speaking to him in person on several occasions, reflecting back, it is clear the advocacy work he did was significant.

He advocated for LGBT issues and was among the pioneers in those early days of the 1970’s and ’80s, when San Francisco had only just begun to address the changing times. He was pleased to see social change especially when regarding social justice and equality.

But as the 2008 recession had its impact on the City, Mayer was among those affected. He managed to adjust to the digital revolution by becoming a tech writer for Hitachi. But he told me once, the cost of living had gotten so high, he and his life-partner Luiz Netto were struggling.

Photo of Tom Mayer at friend Tom Swick s place on La Playa out by Ocean Beach in the early days.

Photo of Tom Mayer at friend Tom Swick’s place on La Playa out by Ocean Beach in the early days.
Courtesy of Tom Swick

As a writer, activist and an adventurer at heart he was accustomed to challenges. But in the later years of his life as he entered into senior citizen status, the ability to endure and bounce back was not as easy.

He confided once that he did like the way people who fall on hard times were being treated. The City, the world he had known had become more unpleasant. And, even though it caused him pain and some humiliation, Mayer was determined to be the lion-hearted man he was.

With a reassuring baritone voice and a robust presence he always held his ground. News conferences, screenings, media gala events, he breezed through them. And always maintained his appreciation for the arts, even when an event or screening was lackluster.

Tom Mayer and photographer friend  Tom Swick.  it s of Tom and me on the roof of the building where ...

Tom Mayer and photographer friend, Tom Swick. “it’s of Tom and me on the roof of the building where we lived in Brookline, Massachusetts. (A suburb of Boston) This would have been taken in the ’70s or thereabouts,” said Swick (just before making the move to San Francisco).
Courtesy of Tom Swick

Like so many who come to San Francico from other places, he maintained a fervor for life and living, even when his spirit had been tattered. Financially, things were tough for him and it was a jolt to his self-esteem. But as the Westside Observer noted, he was determined to stay in San Francisco, his adoptive home. If he was not working for a paper or some other media related venture, he was volunteering for an organization or cause he believed in.

Raised in Pittsburgh, PA, Mayer received his degree in Film from Boston University. He lived in Boston from 1970 until moving to San Francisco in the spring of 1976.

It was his love of independent film, that lead him to the Roxie and eventually became part owner of the now well-established, Roxie Cinema. He was with the Roxie from 1976 to 1983. He was one of the forces that was instrumental in helping the Roxie to become the cultural spot it is today for independent films.

In his favorite corduroy blazer  Tom Mayer frequented the cafes  like Starbucks and Peet s. Always c...

In his favorite corduroy blazer, Tom Mayer frequented the cafes, like Starbucks and Peet’s. Always close to what was happening, he enjoyed living in San Francisco, even when times were not easy. When Tom first arrived in the City back in the 1970’s he was quick to make it his home. As Linda Ayers-Frederick noted, he was “involved in the leadership circle of Operation Upgrade – later known as the North Mission Association.” He was part owner of the now well-establshed independent film venu
Courtesy of Linda Ayers-Frederick

Funeral services were held on Friday, August 21, at Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in the City’s Castro District. “there was about 70 people who attended, said Will Ives, secretary at the Church. “It was more than anticipated that morning; and while Mayer was not a member, services were arranged through his partner Luiz, who is a member of our parish,” Ives said.

Long-time friend from his days at Boston University, Tom Swick who accompanied him to San Francisco in the 1970’s was sad and shocked to hear the news. Swick who lived on La Playa, near Ocean Beach for a time, eventually went back to New England and now lives in Connecticut.

He said that “on the day that Tom died, he was going to meet my nephew Ryan for dinner. Ryan, who had recently graduated from college in Connecticut, had moved to San Francisco the day before,” said Swick. “Though the two had never met face to face, they had been in touch for several weeks, he said as Ryan prepared for his move. I’d been very happy at the prospect of their becoming friends, knowing that Tom would be a great source of information about San Francisco for Ryan.”

But that was not meant to be, as Swick noted. Ironically just a few hours before, “Tom had emailed me and Ryan a link to that article he had written,” that was in the newspapers he was delivering to the Castro Theater, before he collapsed at Castro Station to hop the trolly-train.

Tom Mayer is survived by his brother in Pennsylvania, his life-partner of many years Luiz Netto; and the many friends he made.

“We always looked forward to seeing him at our screenings and film festivals,” Larsen said. Tom was always very supportive and a true film fan. We will miss him.”

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