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HIV/AIDS-Ravaged East Village Music Scene Focus of Documentary

By Serena Solomon | December 1, 2011 7:59am
Mimi Stern-Wolfe at her piano in the East Village apartment she has lived in for forty years.
Mimi Stern-Wolfe at her piano in the East Village apartment she has lived in for forty years.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

EAST VILLAGE — It was said that each young man returning home from World War II knew seven others who didn’t — but in the war on the immune system wrought by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, some survivors knew as many as 75.

That's the scope of a new documentary film about the effects of HIV/AIDS on New Yorkers, which chronicles the late 1980s and early '90s, when America was gripped by fear and misunderstanding about the then-mysterious virus with no cure, through the eyes of an East Village musician who watched her friends die en masse.

“Mozart died when he was young,” said Mimi Stern-Wolfe, the subject of the new musical documentary “All The Way Through Evening,” which premieres Thursday night on World AIDS Day at the Duo Theatre on E. Fourth St. “But these day’s you didn’t expect an illness to wipe out a whole section of people with such swiftness.”

The film follows Stern-Wolfe as she organizes an annual concert, the Benson AIDS Series, a long-running event that uses music and dance to honor those who died of HIV/AIDS. The event is named for Eric Benson, a musician and director who was a friend of Stern-Wolfe's, died of HIV/AIDS in 1988.

In the three decades since its discovery, worldwide 30 million people have died of AIDS-related causes and 34 million are living with the disease today, according to the United Nations.

Rohan Spong, who filmed and directed the documentary, followed Stern-Wolfe through the East Village as she recalled her friend Benson, whose East Ninth Street apartment served as a "salon" for her and others to make music together.

Stern-Wolfe fondly recalls the nights when Benson was in good health, and played host to singers and musicians before his death. Stern-Wolfe is aiming to preserve that feeling with the concert.

“I was a producer of music,” she said, “That is what I was interested in, and I saw that there was this beautiful music that was going to be lost.”

But it wasn’t only Benson who died from the disease among Stern-Wolf’s circle of friends.

“There were a lot of deaths,” she recalled. “They were all homosexual, and everyone was worried.”

Spong said during the process of making the documentary, he “interviewed people who knew 35 people who had died of HIV/AIDS. One guy knew 75.”

Stern—Wolf said her sick friends would make the trip to St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village or to Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side — and never come home.

Stern-Wolfe first told Spong about the salons, the music and her friends lost to HIV/AIDS in the longtime restaurant Veselka on Second Avenue and East Ninth Street, across the street from Benson’s old apartment.

“The men were all artists, not dissimilar to the people I know,” said Spong, 30, a native of Australia, who is openly gay. “The story resonated with me, because if I had of been born 20 years earlier, that would have been me.”

Eric Benson and Mimi Stern-Wolfe perform together.
Eric Benson and Mimi Stern-Wolfe perform together.
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Mimi Stern-Wolfe

Not only does the documentary commemorate Benson's life, it tells the story of other talented musicians who were lost to the disease through the years. Chris Deblasio, a Manhattan resident who died in 1993 at just 34 years old, wrote the musical piece that gives the film its name.  

Spong, who lectures at a university in Melbourne, Australia, in addition to making films, described the song as "a five-song cycle about men dying of in New York City."

In the documentary, he captured Stern-Wolfe as she organized the 2010 concert, marking its 20th run.

For Spong he was able to capture this story decades after it started, but recognizes it was Stern-Wolfe who carried it for so long.

“Mimi has kept this music alive all through the night," he said. "She is the link between the past and the present."

"All the Way Through Evening" premieres Thurs., Dec. 1, at the Duo Theatre, 62 E. Fourth St.

The Benson Aids Series will hold its 21st concert on Sun., Dec. 4, at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center, 107 Suffolk St., at 6 p.m.