Russell Starke OAM.

He was one of our own, an early member of the Adelaide Critics Circle and a very fine critic.

He stepped away from the Circle when he was no longer reviewing for the media and, despite entreaties from the other critics who admired his deep knowledge of theatre and his eloquent bonhomie at meetings, he said that he felt that unless one was reviewing, one no longer was qualified to be in the Circle. Ethics, dearies.

Russell’s death has left Circle members reeling. He was 82, but still in the verve of life until leukaemia struck suddenly and swiftly.

Russell Starke was a man of many incarnations. Critic was just one string to his bow. He was a Solomontown boy and, at school in Whyalla, his irrepressible thespian inclinations shone through from early on. He was born to perform.

Russell Starke. Photo: Norm Caddick

Arriving in Adelaide aged 22, he became a window dresser and soon head of display at the charming old Miller Anderson department store. His talents as an actor were swiftly recognised and mid-1960s he was to get his very first rave mainstream review from none other than a member of this Circle. He had portrayed Biff in Death of a Salesman, a performance so spellbinding that, as theatre critic on The News, this writer could barely contain her effusion. “It was a performance one could not forget,” I was to reflect many decades later when the remarkable Russell gave another such performance, this time playing Biff’s father, Willy Loman, in that same timeless Miller play.

Russell’s flair for art and design manifested itself throughout his career. He was very good with costumes and he went on to be a high-profile master bonsai exponent. He could turn his hand to anything.

He also had a high-profile media career not only as a publicist and promotor but also as a radio and television presenter. Many remember his times presenting horror movies on TV.

Horror came to him in 1981 when, crossing Light Square, he was hit by a truck and suffered traumatic injuries from which only true grit and some hard years brought him back to full strength.

But, through his love for art and jewellery and his association with gallery owner Veda Swain, he moved into a whole new incarnation by taking over Greenhill Gallery in 1997.  He ran the gallery until 2013 with A-lister opening nights and rousing hospitality. He hosted the Critics Circle’s Awards ceremonies there on a number of occasions.

Russell was always being urged to get back on the boards as the consummate actor he was. He did so a few more times. But, closer to his heart in latter years, apart from the joys of gardening, there was Shakespeare and sonnets.

Russell Starke with Samela Harris and Betty Salomon.

His last official incarnation was as The Passionate Poet. He produced Shakespeare at Star Theatres and gave poetry performances around the town; to enthusiastic acclaim. He did these performances with his usual heart-and-soul expertise. He was able to evoke the full gamut of emotions from his audiences: from laughter to tears, with sighs and smiles in between.

Meanwhile, off stage, Russell Starke always had that thing called “panache”. He was a stylish, handsome man with exquisite, albeit often flamboyant taste. His clothes were ever strikingly elegant and invariably deliciously tactile. He wore spectacular jewellery and never lost an opportunity to support those who designed and created such artworks.

Kindness and generosity were among his innate characteristics and Adelaide is crowded with charities and individuals who have, in one way or another, been recipients of his magnanimity.

Russell Starke was a rare example of a true “Renaissance man”. He adorned Adelaide with his often extroverted affability. He was never afraid of a good drink or a convivial companion. He knew everything about everyone.

He claimed to have had many associations in this world but, after his marriage to the talented writer and academic Ruth, he was never seen to have a sole partner, just myriad friends and, perchance, frissons.

What gave him the most profound of all pleasures was the fruit of that interesting marriage. His daughters, Petra and Miranda, were truly the light of his life. He was boundlessly proud of them. And then he became a grandfather!

Not that he put “family man” at the forefront of his public persona. He was ever outgoing and interested in everyone around him. He carried his life scars and private world with quiet dignity and was never seen to indulge self-pity or braggadocio.

Or so it seems to this old friend of his.

Coming to write about him, I realise all the things I did not know.

Thus does this tribute barely touch the surface of Russell Starke, OAM, decorated for his generous contribution to the visual arts and young artists.

But, these words echo the sentiments of so very many ­– that our Russell was an exceptionally fun, fearless, cheeky, kind, talented, caring and erudite soul and a valued member of our society. We salute him and, oh yes, we mourn his passing.

Vale Russell Starke.

This tribute was first published on The Barefoot Review and is republished here with the writer’s permission.


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