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Actor Jon Bernthal Pays Moving Tribute to Saratogian Josh Chambers at Memorial Service

Late last month, Bernthal, among a number of others, eulogized his Skidmore classmate and mentor, who died this past February.

One of Saratoga's greatest artists-in-residence, Josh Chambers, died back in February at the age of 45.

Back in February, Saratoga Springs lost a true legend in Josh Chambers. A Greenwich native and Skidmore College graduate, Chambers made a name for himself around Saratoga in the 1990s as both a musician—his Skidmore band Throwdown Bouquet was a mainstay at local venues like Caffè Lena—and playwright and director (he staged a number of plays at the Saratoga folk venue, too).

It was through his acting and theatrical troupe, Fovea Floods, that Chambers met fellow Skidmore student Jon Bernthal, who would end up dropping out of the college but eventually go on to find fame and fortune as a member of the pilot cast of AMC’s The Walking Dead and later, as superhero The Punisher on a pair of Netflix series, and in blockbuster movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street and Baby Driver.

At a memorial service for Chambers that took place on May 29 in Greenwich, Bernthal gave a moving tribute to his fallen friend. “The first time I ever really saw Josh—really saw Josh—was at rehearsal for The Scarlet Letter, directed by [late Skidmore theater professor] Alma Becker,” said Bernthal, fighting back tears. “I saw Josh, and I knew he was, like, this theater guy, and he was part of this club that I think I really wanted to be a part of, and I didn’t really feel like I belonged.” Bernthal said that seeing Chambers in his element “was the first time my mind was really blown in the theater.” He believed Chambers was a “genius” and that he wanted to do what he was doing for the rest of his life.

“He’s the purest artist that I’ve ever known,” said Bernthal.

Chambers was just 45 when he passed away, following a brain hemorrhage and three-week coma.

***

I didn’t know Josh personally but I knew his music well, having grown up on Throwdown Bouquet’s album Gym Class Hero, which was released circa 1998, my senior year of high school—his senior year of college—and I caught the band live at Caffè Lena a few times. Like most musicians in the Saratoga High School orbit, I had a band that mostly played Ramones and Misfits covers, but I was also trying to write my own material at the time, too. I remember particularly liking Chambers’ song “So Refined,” which includes the lyric, “I watched her dress at half-past noon/robbed her neck of her perfume.” I remember thinking, man, I’ll never be smart enough to write a lyric that poetic. (There were a lot more where that came from.)

Two summers ago, Chambers showed up, unannounced, at the Saratoga Living offices, guitar in hand, to tell me how much he’d enjoyed a story I’d written about local band The Figgs and to just shoot the breeze. (It turns out that he was a big fan of The Figgs, too, and as it turns out, at the time of Chambers’ death, he was working on an album that featured, among other players, Figgs drummer Pete Hayes.) I was more than a little starstruck, having been a fan of Chambers’ work for so long, and I remember saying I hoped he’d record more songs as Throwdown Bouquet someday. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, there is a lot more material here.) That was the first and sadly, the last time I ever talked to him.

A classmate of mine at Saratoga Springs High School, Jim Huntley, on the other hand, was close to Chambers growing up and was in contact with him a number of times in recent years. “To call Josh a friend of mine, would not be quite accurate,” Huntley wrote in an essay he put together the day after he learned of Chambers’ passing. “Being five years apart, he was always the big brother, larger-than-life figure and mentor to me.” Huntley met Chambers in karate class when he was seven (their parents were friends) and grew up together, but then grew apart. But they reconnected when Huntley was in high school and having a rough go of it. “[He] encouraged me to channel my energy into my music and introduced me to the theater,” wrote Huntley, who was named “most musical” our senior year of high school (Huntley’s band, The Luddites, had some momentum on the local indie scene our shared senior year). “Though I lacked the raw talent required in music and theater…Josh always found a way to help uplift me both in theater and music. The first production I was involved in was Edmund by David Mamet, directed by Josh…at Caffè Lena.” Speaking of Josh as a theater director, Huntley added: “His focus and obvious passion was a sight to behold and remains an inspiration to me this day, his complete absorption with his creations, with his art.”

With several months having passed since Chamber’s death, I asked Huntley to sum up his feelings about his late friend:

“Josh Chambers was like Neal Cassidy, Jack Kerouac, Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Picasso, Charles Bukowski, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Axl Rose, Hunter S. Thompson, a shaman and the Buddha, all rolled up into one beautiful person. At the same time, he was no derivative artist; he was always authentically and the original, Joshua E. Chambers.

“Josh could charm the pants off a bronze statue. I admired him greatly for this as a young man. He set a high bar for this skill, for the rest of us strive for.

“As in free jazz, modern, classical or abstract painting, Josh’s art and theater could at times be challenging for a casual or unsuspecting audience. He rode the razor’s edge of un-comfortability in his subject matters and his imagery. He horrified and aroused simultaneously. Participants squirmed in their theater seats, their senses were overwhelmed, they lost their bearings in the midst of it all, so there was no use running for the door. When the curtain finally fell and the lights came up, they left changed people, by what they had experienced, while under Josh’s spell.”

***

The Figgs’ Hayes, who was recording with Chambers at the time of his passing, has some wonderful memories of him as well. “Josh was absolutely one of the truest artists I ever knew,” says Hayes. “Art for Arts sake! He never strayed from this ethos. I am very fortunate to have gotten to know Josh quite well over the last couple years of his life…we talked on a weekly (if not, daily) basis since early 2019. I first met him virtually, or became aware of him when he was in high school and would write the Figgs fan mail, always signed ‘Love, Badbear Chambers.’ We’d ask: ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ And sometimes we’d reply to his letters. I finally met him in about 1994 at a Figgs show the night before his audition for a Filene Scholarship at Skidmore, which not surprisingly, he aced.) Our friendship slowly grew over time and became a very important aspect of my life.”

Hayes goes on to write:

Here’s what I have to say about Josh.

He was very complicated.
He was usually misunderstood.
He was indeed a genius.

Josh’s beauty and my love for him were wrapped up in the fact that he was simultaneously the most pretentious and most sincere person I have ever met in my life. I use the word “pretentious,” not in a bad way, if you can understand that. Josh lived for theater; in a way his whole world was pretend…but his sincerity towards life and all art forms transcended everything about him.

When he’d talk to me, here is the breakdown:

One-third of what he’d say, I just couldn’t understand…perhaps it was over my head, perhaps it just didn’t make sense to anyone, including himself.
Another third of what he’d say was some sort of gushing comment about either me, or my band which is in my nature to not believe, so I would try not to listen to this.
The last third of what he said was spot on…genius and cut to core.

He was a true artist and a true friend. I will miss him dearly.

***

Speaking of Chambers’ abilities on stage, Skidmore theater professor Lary Opitz remembers the young, talented acting student well (Chambers being the recipient of the college’s Palamountain Award for Young Alumni Achievement):

“I greatly admired Josh Chambers as a remarkably talented artist. He brought tremendous creative energy to every theater production in which he was involved. It was always a pleasure to observe him working in rehearsal as he invented and revised innovative ideas and worked tirelessly to perfect them. I ran into Josh on Broadway in Saratoga about three years ago having not seen him for some time. He had survived a number of personal trials, and it felt so good to hug him. Naturally, as we parted, he told me he had some exciting ideas for new work and he wanted to get together to discuss them. Unfortunately, that was the last time I saw Josh.

Josh Chambers was a creative force, and he did some remarkable work with the Skidmore theater department, both as a student and as a guest artist. Josh was a member of the Skidmore class of 1998. He came to Skidmore as a Filene Scholar for guitar through the prestigious scholarship program. A music major, he soon found a home in the theater. He served as composer, musical director or co-director on some of our most exciting and challenging productions. In addition to his work with director Alma Becker on Vinegar Tom, The Mad Woman of Chaillot, The Butterfly’s Evil Spell and Dream Play, he created music for The Book of Tink and The Imp of Simplicity, two Skidmore premieres written by famed avant-garde playwright Erik Ehn. During his senior year, he worked closely with a group of students on a production of A Party for Boris. This led to the formation of the first of the many New York City–based theater companies created by Skidmore alumni. Among the group of talented students who founded Fovea Floods were actor Jon Bernthal and Sue Kessler and Jared Klein (both currently faculty members at Skidmore).”

***

Chambers’ friend Jeff Knight, whom he was staying with in Indio, CA, at the time of his death, also remembers him fondly. “I’m sure my experience knowing Josh Chambers is much like other people’s experiences: He changed me for the better on numerous levels,” he says. “Josh’s creative influence on me and my family is immeasurable—it would literally take a book to tell it all. But his creativity was just one facet of Josh. I’ve never known a more giving, loving, thoughtful and selfless person. While it was his massive talent that brought us together, it was the love, kindness and generosity that eventually led to Josh being a brother to me and my wife, and an influence like no other to my children. I could list all the plays and albums Josh created and those accomplishments are more than impressive. But the thing I hope the world takes away from Josh’s life is his humanity. If you were fortunate to know Josh on a deeper level, then you know what I’m talking about. It’s most certainly my privilege to call him my best friend, (literal) blood brother and godfather to my children.”

Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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