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Memorial for Gerald Nachman

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Interment: Private Service

Author, former Chronicle columnist and theater critic, and occasional lyricist Gerald Nachman died Saturday at Coventry Place, a senior residence in San Francisco, his friend Rita Abrams confirmed. He was 80 years old.

In addition to a five-decade journalism career that included positions at the San Jose Mercury (now the Mercury News), New York Post, Oakland Tribune and New York Daily News before The Chronicle, Nachman was also a noted author. In particular, his exhaustively researched books, “Raised on Radio” and “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s,” remain oft-cited sources. And on occasion, he moved from writing about art to making it, collaborating with local musicians Morris Bobrow and Abrams on musical revues.

Whether reviewing TV, film, theater and cabaret, sounding off as an entertainment or humor columnist, or composing a pedagogic tome, Nachman brought unabashed, even unapologetically supportive enthusiasm to his writing. He elevated his subject matter, especially the arts, by humbling himself before it.

Of Lee Remick, he wrote in The Chronicle in 1989, “Has Lee Remick ever won anything — except, of course, my undying devotion?” Or here he is in a 1988 Chronicle article on cabaret star Wesla Whitfield, a longtime Nachman favorite who died in February: “I always walk in to see Wesla Whitfield fearing she won’t be as good as I’ve claimed, and I always walk out realizing how much better she is than I’ve raved. Sensing I may have oversold Whitfield in the past, I try hard to find fault with her, truly I do, but the woman refuses to cooperate.”

When Nachman loved something, it left a mark on him — an imprint he endeavored to stamp, in turn, on his readers. Or as he put it, in the introduction to his “Showstoppers! The Surprising Backstage Stories of Broadway’s Most Remarkable Songs,” after some particularly “indelible” numbers, “musicals were not the same, and neither were we.”

“Jerry was a star in the skies of Bay Area theater,” said TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley. “His love for musical theater, and his support for those creating it, was legendary. At a time when musicals were often dismissed as an insignificant pop form, Jerry’s enthusiasm and honest criticism made a vital contribution to theater throughout the region.”

“Jerry is really responsible for a good deal of my career success,” said the Grammy-nominated singer Michael Feinstein, a champion of the Great American Songbook and the creator of Feinstein’s at the Nikko nightclub. “In 1985, I was unknown in San Francisco, and his glowing, smart and poetic writing gave me an instant audience and a following that led all the way to New York. He knew his stuff and was not afraid to voice an opinion, whether passionately positive or negative. It was clear that he loved music and wrote about it from a place that was about wanting to inspire others to discover it as well.”

He was very much a man of a particular era. Abrams, a songwriter, writer, performer and longtime friend, said that one could count on Nachman to “automatically” revolt against anything popular. She recalls a column arguing “why rock isn’t music.” His former Chronicle colleague Steven Winn said Nachman “was one of these timeless guys who seemed to stay the same age between 35 and 75. Part of that was his unusual personal style. He continued to wear a sweater vest and a necktie to the office long after everybody else started showing up in rags and jeans.” Chronicle colleague Steve Rubenstein recalled his fondness for pingpong, obscure candy bars, dial telephones and chocolate milkshakes. “He rarely took offense at being called a curmudgeon,” Rubenstein added.

If Nachman’s chief interests — cabaret, the golden age of musical theater, radio, midcentury comedy — were just as old-school, Nachman took that in characteristic stride. “For the acutely afflicted,” he wrote in “Raised on Radio,” “nostalgia is not a leftover ’70s fad or a passing trivia game but an ongoing condition.”

Oakland native Gerald Weil Nachman was born Jan. 13, 1938, to Leonard Calvert Nachman, a salesman and actor in the Little Theater movement, and Isabel (Weil) Nachman. He received an associate of arts degree from Merritt College and then a bachelor of arts degree from San Jose State University in 1960, beginning as a TV reviewer and humor columnist at what was then called the San Jose Mercury while he was still a student. He was a feature writer for the New York Post from 1964 to 1966 and a feature writer and TV critic for New York Daily News from 1972 to 1979, with a stop in the middle as columnist and film critic for the Oakland Tribune. For a time he was best known for his syndicated humor columns, “Double Take” and “The Single Life.” In 1979, he joined The Chronicle as a columnist and theater critic, reviewing not just theater but also film, cabaret and comedy. He left the newspaper in 1993 but continued to be active, appearing on KALW’s radio show “Minds Over Matter.”

His other books include “Right Here on Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan’s America” and two anthologies of his humor pieces: “The Fragile Bachelor: Perilous Adventures in the Single Life” and “Out on a Whim: Some Very Close Brushes with Life.” His work has also been published in Esquire, Newsweek, Travel & Leisure, GQ, TV Guide, Cosmopolitan, the Sunday New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

He married Mary Campbell McGeachy in 1966, and they were divorced 1979, an experience he chronicled in his first book, “Playing House: From Marital Ecstasy to Despair and Back Again.” He had no children. Plans for a memorial service will be announced later.

Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak