A Tribute to Abe Nathanson

Abe was a friend. One whom I saw far too rarely, what with all his projects and mine.

But whenever we encountered each other our conversations ranged far and wide. From his childhood selling fruit with his father in Pawtucket, to his design training, to his photographs and travels. And often Abe spoke of his family. Abe was inventive and fun and endlessly curious.

When I first encountered Bananagrams, I was delighted to discover it was created in Providence, and even more so to learn it was one of Abe’s genius ideas. So simple, so focused, so fun. . .

Last year, WaterFire was pleased to collaborate with the young inventors, geeks and tinkerers in the community and help create the first Providence Maker Faire with my good friends Kip Bradford and Brian Jepson. The event was simply bursting with all this young energy — creative and inventive, playful and free. It reminded me of the long tradition of creativity here in Providence. I immediately thought of Abe Nathanson. I called Abe about the idea of creating a prize to award to young designers. Would he help jury it and coach them?

And I invited Abe to a simple lunch to discuss it further.

Now Providence is blessed with fine restaurants. But we needed a place that was formal and one that also understood fun. And, this being WaterFire, the restaurant had to be able to create a perfect flambé. (Abe knew nothing of these plans).

We went to Pot au Feu, where we were hosted by the gifted Bob Burke. Over a superb lunch on white linen, Abe and I discussed the metaphysical aspects of play, of games within games, of channeling inspiration, of using games to teach, of creativity as a window through with to view the world, and games as a philosophy of life. He told me of the importance of one finding pleasure in the simplicity and elegance of all things, including his letter tiles. Abe spoke of all new games he had in his head and his thoughts on giving back to the community. And he spoke about Bananagrams and the fun he was having with it.

Suddenly, there was hush across the restaurant. Chairs squeaked and a clear expression of fear spread among the elegant company.

A large, bright yellow, 8’ tall banana had just burst running into the room. Immediately behind the banana was a 7’ tall gorilla, chasing the banana and pounding its chest. The banana was dodging the on-coming gorilla, scattering waiters and knocking chairs about. Dinners were poised to flee.

I was strategically sitting with my back to the door and I was listening closely to Abe who was eagerly telling me about Banagrams. He stopped in mid-sentence. He was suddenly staring at the door. I looked into his wide eyes and could see in the reflection in his glasses the entire pandemonium that was breaking out behind me.

Mary Tinti, Monsieur Robert Ignatius Loyola Burke, Paul “PK” Kochanek
Barnaby Evans and Abraham Nathanson at Pot au Feu

Abe said with child-like wonder and amazed fascination, “A banana just ran into the room!” Cutlery crashing to the floor was a perfect rim shot punctuating his exclamation.

Abe’s entire attention was riveted on the huge banana and the unfolding chase among the restaurant’s guests. His mouth was wide open in utter, bemused surprise. I turned and saw for the first time one of my Board members looking on in wary puzzlement. I often see that expression from my Board of Directors, but now she was trying to pretend to her colleagues that she didn’t even know me.

The chase continued and soon the gorilla had cornered the banana. The banana cowered right behind Abe’s chair. (Well, cowered at least as much as an 8’ banana can be said to cower).

Trapped, the banana handed the gorilla the object of its chase, a smaller 2’ long banana. The gorilla sniffed it closely exploring its entire length. The gorilla was startled to discover that the banana had an inscribed address label on it.

To: Mr. Abe Nathanson. The gorilla reluctantly and slowly handed over the 2’ banana to an astonished Abe.

Under the watchful eye of the gorilla, Abe cautiously peeled open the banana skin to reveal a beribboned scroll. And unrolling the scroll, Abe found or message; all spelled out in Bananagrams tiles.

“Dear Abe,

We are bananas over Bananagrams!

We think it’s time to join forces and creat Banana Flambé!

Imagine a citywide Bananagrams mash-up competition to award the top banana!

We hope you will join us as a WaterFire sponsor!

Sound like fun?


Abe was delighted. The banana (aka Mary Tinti) even sat down to join us for dessert. The gorilla (aka Paul “PK” Kochanek) wandered off to the kitchen sniffing out more bananas. And then Bob Burke arrived to elegantly prepare a magnificent, WaterFire approved, Banana Flambé, served with champagne.

When the flames died down, the piece de resistance of the entire drama was plated and formally presented to Abe. At this point, Abe, the master of all things banana – the man at the very center of this riotous attention, very quietly told me he couldn’t eat bananas – something about too much zinc!

As Executive Director of WaterFire, I have to be prepared for all contingencies. So I rose to the obligations of the occasion – and ate his dessert too! But our conversation continued on with many fun ideas, great plans for the future, and more champagne. And we pledged to see each other more often.

Sadly, we lost Abe this past Sunday. We will certainly all miss him. We were still in conversation on fun collaborations for the future. Abe’s sense of fun and his zest for life will always be with us.

As a tribute to our great, good friend Abraham Nathanson, we will play a song in his honor this Saturday [June 12, 2010] at WaterFire at 10:00pm and again at midnight. Abe’s creativity will always bun bright in our community and in all of our hearts, forever.

– Barnaby Evans

This is the first of many WaterFire stories that Barnaby will be sharing in these pages.

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