It was 1984, and Tom Viola was having dinner at an Upper West Side restaurant with seven theatre friends. "We were talking about this thing that was happening, AIDS, and we were all figuring how it wasn't necessarily going to affect us," Viola recalls. "It was somebody else. Well, of those eight people at the table, four are dead, and two, including myself, are HIV-positive."
Today, Viola is executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which in the last 15 years has raised and distributed over $80 million for critically needed services for people with AIDS, HIV or HIV-related illnesses. The beneficiaries are many, including The Actors' Fund of America's AIDS Initiative and Women's Health Initiative, as well as over 400 AIDS and family service organizations across the country.
A native of Pittsburgh, Viola studied musical theatre and came to New York in 1976 to be an actor. "For five years that's what I did in regional theatre, dinner theatre and a couple things in town that were no big deal," he recalls in his 13th-floor corner office overlooking Times Square. "Then I worked as assistant to a literary agent, and that led to some writing, and I began freelancing as a writer, doing mostly entertainment stories. Without really deciding to, I had stopped acting."
In 1987, through a friend, he started what was to be an eight-week gig at Actors' Equity. "I was essentially a pen for hire, rewriting pamphlets and a staff manual. But it turned into a full-time job."
He became assistant to Colleen Dewhurst, Equity's president at the time, and also worked with her on her autobiography, which he finished after she died in 1991. "She was instrumental in founding Equity Fights AIDS and was involved with Broadway Cares. She made both a priority at the union." The two groups merged in 1992 to become a new not-for-profit fund-raising organization. "I consider myself blessed that so much of what I love to do and seem to have some talent for came together at BC/EFA. It's a perfect fit. I love working in this neighborhood. It's an extraordinary community, and what we've done together over the last 15 years is nothing less than historic."
Money is raised in many ways: through direct appeals to theatregoers, auctions of theatre memorabilia and annual special events such as the Gypsy of the Year and Easter Bonnet competitions, the Broadway Flea Market and Broadway Bares.
When he first started, he says, "there was a stunning sense of loss in the theatre, with so many people sick and dying. Although the need for services is still there, the dynamic has changed. But a powerful and unique fund-raising engine has been created. And we have been able to expand our support to include many additional kinds of social services at a time when fund-raising has never been more difficult for all providers."
Viola is particularly proud of BC/EFA's collaboration with The Actors' Fund, where he is a member of the board. "I saw how much The Actors' Fund meant to Colleen. I hope my work is something she would be proud of."