By J. Taylor Basker
On June 22, 1920, Salvador Pius Thomas, aka Tomas, was born in the county of Harrison in Mississippi. On June 22nd he will turn 100 years old. Peter, as we know him in the Westbeth artists community, is a delightful and talented gentleman with a wicked sense of humor that is still sharp. He is an African-American whose achievements have been awesome. He was an opera singer and actor, and has graced our hallways with dignity and pride. He always celebrated his birthday on Gay Pride Day so we could view the fireworks after his party in his close friend Edith Stephen’s river view apartment. Edith, 101 years young, describes Peter as full of joy and jokes, always looking to help his neighbors. After 9/11, when he witnessed the collapse of the towers downtown, he cooked meals for the 6th Precinct for months. His ascent in the professional classical music world was difficult as an African-American, but he persisted and developed a vast and impressive repertoire and reputation.
Schooled in NYC, where he began developing his extraordinary vocal talents, Peter was drafted into the army during WW ll and served under dangerous conditions in North Africa and Europe. To complete his military duties he was sent to upstate NY. The black soldiers, despite risking their lives for their country, had to ride in the back of the bus. After discharge he studied music and acting at Trinity College in London and at the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in Paris. When he returned to New York he attended the Juilliard School and Columbia University Teachers College. As a trained opera, oratorio and concert singer with a rich bass-baritone voice, he performed challenging roles as Scarpia, Amonasro, Papageno, Schicchi, Figaro, and Elijah, oratories of Bach and Handel, and Amahl and the Night Visitors at Alice Tully Hall. He also sang in important premier performances of Moses and Aaron and The Enchanted Pear with the Boston Opera, the Bel Canto Opera, Opera Buffa Company, and New York Lyric Opera.
Peter’s speaking voice was deep and distinguished and his narrations included The Siege of Corinth, Peter and the Wolf, Oedipus Rex, Abe Lincoln (The Little Black Train), the riveting St. Matthew Passion, and Black Cowboys with the Rod Rogers Dance Company. However, he was most known for his performance in Honegger’s King David that he narrated in major venues; he performed it at the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue for over 25 years. George Rose of the Waldorf School wrote that, for weeks “the audience is still shaken by your art.”
Peter appeared as a classic and comic actor in off-Broadway, Shakespeare, summer stock and dinner theater. He was a close friend and collaborator with Clara Burling Roesch who founded the Women’s Symphony with the support of Dimitri Mitropoulos. He was an ardent theosophist, and master healer.
As a Westbeth resident, he was active creating many events with an alternative tenants group he helped found— Westbeth Artists in Residence (WAIR)—which held a large celebration for Black History Month, including performing and visual arts, film and poetry. He helped plan and perform with WAIR’s “30 Years of Global Arts at Westbeth” that included events from dance, hip hop, poetry slams, films, jazz and opera. We produced and appeared in the film Aftermath: 9/11 and New York Artists that examined the profound effect 9/11 had on Westbeth and the NYC art scene.
Two years ago, the day after narrating for my film A History of Jerusalem through Art Peter had a fall and was placed in the Veterans Administration Community Living Center in Queens. He still hopes to return to Westbeth. He has survived discrimination, the Nazis, and homophobia for 100 years. He should also survive being surrounded by COVID-19! (although a recent leak from staff has disclosed 48 unreported deaths at the facility).
And he is still singing.
Jacqui Taylor Basker is an artist and film maker who lives and works at Westbeth Artists Housing in New York City.