Colorado Springs lost a colorful actor, musician and music teacher to Howard Kirstel last month.
The man who performed and sang at numerous Pikes Peak area shows and once played guitar in a band with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead died May 23. He was 78 years old. He was predeceased by his wife Gretchen Kirstel in 2014. He is survived by one daughter and stepson.
Many knew him as “Red”, a nickname his curly red hair earned him in San Francisco in the 60s and 70s, where he performed in solo and band sets and befriended with a list of musicians, including Joan Baez and Phil Lesh. And then Garcia, along with future Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, invited him to play guitar in their pre-Grateful Dead band dubbed Mother McCree’s Mississippi Mud-Stomping Marching Band and Tea Society. .
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They played jug music, a mix of blues, ragtime and jazz, for about six months before splitting: “Jug music fell out of favor around 1963, and after that they started doing drugs more, especially LSD, so I have Jerry and some of the other guys set up a crash pad near The Haight, and as far as I know they were just doing drugs and music,” Kirstel told The Gazette in 2011.
He then founded the folk and rock group We Three in the late 60s, while playing in several jazz ensembles and a marching band and playing with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
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Kirstel moved to Springs in 1979 and became heavily involved in the theater community, performing in shows at Colorado College’s Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, where he worked as a theater coach, and other companies.
Stage and film actor Bruce Carter first met Kirstel during a local production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, in which Kirstel played Chief Bromden. He later saw Kirstel play the role of Tevye in the FAC musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“I was struck by her availability,” Carter said, “and her experience with public performances. Her stories were always wonderful to listen to.”
A few years later, Carter began a nine-year period of voice lessons with Kirstel, who also taught piano and guitar: “He was a very warm and caring teacher.”
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“I hope that when my students walk away from me, they’ll leave feeling like the music is fun, they can do it, and they can enjoy it for the rest of their lives,” Kirstel told The Gazette in 2011.
Kathy Paradise will always be remembered for the original music Kirstel composed for Craft Production Resource, a group that stages original short plays by Colorado playwrights.
“He was a sweet guy. He laughed a lot and was a very outgoing and caring guy,” Paradise said. “He always wanted to do his best for the public, whoever it was.”
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