Bernice Baeza was sticky, meaning you only had to meet her for a few minutes, like I did, and she’d stick in your mind for long time.
At least that’s how she was for me. I photographed Bernice in April 2011 outside the Lark Theater in Larkspur for Marin Magazine. The magazine was writing about her successful resurrection of the moribund movie-house into a thriving community center that not only showed first-run and classic movies, but filled its seats with Oscar parties, simulcasts of opera and London theater and a long list of other events. When we met, she had just undertaken a similar project with a shuttered movie theater in Novato.
Bernice died on July 21, of lung cancer, the paper said. Nothing could have surprised me more. Was she sick when I made this photograph? She certainly didn’t seem so — although a disease as relentlessly deadly as lung cancer surely had to have been at work in the background then.
My first impression of her on the April evening was how un-Marin she was. The way she stood, solid and occupying her ground. The way she spoke, gently but directly. The way she dressed, dark even on this warm Spring night. All said New York, not Marin.
We chatted as I fussed with the lights and waited for the sky to darken so I could get the colorful neon of the Lark just right in the background, and I learned she was indeed a New Yorker. I told her a story about incident in my misspent youth when I rolled a car on the thruway near her birthplace of Nyack. She smiled knowingly and I thought we had a bond.
But maybe not. Maybe that’s just how she made everyone feel, welcome and worthy. Whatever it was, she stuck. I wish I had known her better. (Her family is maintaining her Facebook page.)