Muralist, set designer Max Gorgal dies
by Cynthia Laird
Artist James Max Gorgal, who created the murals inside Dennis Peron's former Cannabis Buyers' Club on Market Street, died Sunday, January 1 at the home of his friend Rebecca Graves in Louisville, Kentucky. He was 68.
The cause of death was a sudden heart attack, said David Smith of San Francisco, who is the adopted son of Mr. Gorgal.
Known as Max, Mr. Gorgal, who was openly gay and had previously lived in San Francisco, returned to the city in 1996 at the invitation of David Nash as the medical marijuana issue was taking center stage because of the Proposition 215 campaign (Compassionate Use Act). He became the artist-in-residence at Peron's cannabis club near Civic Center, where he executed the memorable cannabis leaf and rainbow facade, along with five floors of interior wrap-around murals. Peron's club was a hangout for all manner of medical marijuana supporters, including those involved in the campaign.
"The murals that he created at the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers' Club set a beautiful backdrop for the members and the national press that visited the club during the height of the medical marijuana movement," Smith told the Bay Area Reporter. "The mural he did on the front of the CBC on Market Street with a huge marijuana leaf underneath a painted rainbow flag was bold and in-your-face, which was part of the strategy for marijuana acceptance. He was very inspired to create art back then."
From San Francisco, Mr. Gorgal moved back to New York City where he got a job working for the Cunard Lines, designing party decor aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2.
Born to Henry and Helen Gorgal on July 19, 1943, in LaSalle, Illinois, Mr. Gorgal attended St. Roch's grade school, St. Bede Academy, Illinois Valley Community College, and Northern Illinois University. He went to Cleveland Play House as an apprentice in 1965, where he worked in the scene shop, mentored by Paul Rogers, a brilliant scene painter and set designer.
Drafted in 1966, he served in the U.S. Army in Germany, directing musicals. After his overseas stint, Mr. Gorgal came back to Ft. Lewis, Washington, where he continued his directing and designing until his obligation to the government was fulfilled. After spending time in New York City, he returned to Washington in 1971 to accept the position of artistic director at the Centurion Playhouse, a small theater funded by the Army at Ft. Lewis. There he designed, directed, and even performed in many shows (Take Me Along, The Three Penny Opera , You Can't Take it With You ). He also directed, designed, and acted at theaters in Seattle, and designed for the Seattle Opera Company (Gypsy Baron ).
Mr. Gorgal moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and then to San Francisco where he developed Chanteusie Time (a one-woman cabaret show). In the early 1980s, Mr. Gorgal directed and designed a number of big musicals in Aurora, Illinois He was then offered the opportunity to be artistic director of Le Petit Theatre de Vieux Carre in New Orleans. He lived there about six years, directing and designing many shows (My Fair Lady, Bye Bye Birdie) as well as creating some spectacular Mardi Gras floats.
Known for his great sense of humor and his impeccable comic timing, Mr. Gorgal was a familiar figure wherever he lived, cigarette in hand, walking the dogs he always adopted. He spent the last few years acting as host at Las Sabilas, a guesthouse for travelers in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he was popular throughout the working class neighborhood where he lived.
"His comic timing was legendary and he used his cigarette as prop like some of the great movie stars of the past," Smith said.
In addition to Smith, Mr. Gorgal is survived by his brother, Allan (Judy) Gorgal of Moline, Illinois; a nephew, and nieces.
Donations in his honor may be sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center (www.splcenter.org).
A memorial celebration will take place in the Haight Ashbury on Sunday, January 29 at 3 p.m. Contact David Smith at email@example.com for information.