Armin Hoffman
Photograph by Tim Courtney Exclusively for A & U

Tales  of  Hoffman

Positive Musical Director Armin Hoffman Passes
His Knowledge To The Next Generation by Dann Dulin

We've got to let kids know that they are not invincible; that they can catch AIDS!  Barebacking is not merely fun—it's also very dangerous," says Armin Hoffman from his beautiful Victorian-era home in San Francisco that he shares with Ron Smith, his lover of twenty years.  Hoffman should know about the disease: he is HIV-positive while Ron is not.  "There are all sorts of ways of having sexual fun without being dangerous.  But I find it frustrating that they're not going to listen to somebody of my generation."  Now his slow-to-build anger takes over: "I'm alive.  Sure.  Leading a wonderful life.  Sure.  But I take sixty pills and two injections every day.  Do they want to do that for the rest of their lives?"

Hoffman, sixty-six, is a retired musical director who started his career at UCLA along witih classmate Carol Burnett.  By the age of twenty-three, he had logged 100,000 miles entertaining troops for the USO, once performing on four different continents in eight days!  He's worked with such luminaries as Shirley Knight, Raquel Welch, Rock Hudson, Jean Stapleton, and Gypsy Rose Lee ("Completely dull and uninteresting offstage, but once she got in front of an audience—which only needed to be three people—she was on!").

Until he retired just over a year ago, he had been on the faculty of the west coast branch of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, training young actors on the proper use of voice, both in acting and singing.  "I was up front in telling my students I was gay and HIV-positive.  I told them, 'I'm not here to make money but because of the thrill I get in seeing young people like you grow.'  And it really had an effect on them, and I became a [relatively] younger "Mr. Chips.'"

Hoffman remembers well the AIDS alert in the early eighties.  "Most of us corrected our behaviors immediately."  Diagnosed in 1989, he believes that he must have contracted HIV at least a decade before.  He relates that when people heard that this disease might be caused by anal sex, a campaign against that took off, and anal gonorrhea dropped by eighty-five percent in San Francisco.  "Unfortunately, they are not campaigning against that now," he says sadly.

He has lived the hell of wasting syndrome and a serious bout with CMV that slightly damaged his left eye.  But he ramains grateful for what eyesight he has remaining.  But after his diagnosis, he confronted a massive fear of permanent incapacitation.  "However, I never, ever thought about this disease killing me—I never thought about death—only about what I could do to stay healthy, to function, to keep going."  He also put trust in his doctor, who wanted to keep him alive until better treatment became available.

Then the reality of it all struck home.  "I thought if I were going to be severly hampered or even die, I had to do things important to me before I couldn't do them any longer."  He felt empowered enough to assemble a one-person show focusing on all the famous women he'd worked with in his life, "The Women in My Life."  Then he pierced together an evening of songs from composer Harry Warren ("You'll Never Know," "Chattanooga Choo Choo").  But performing these shows with their strenuous rehearsal schedule quickly depleted Hoffman's energy.  "I was determined that I was going to do something positive and artistic," he states, finishing his thought with a short, breathy laugh, "but it almost did me in!"

Hoffman is currently on a five-drug cocktail.  He's also tried many herbal remedies, but with limited success.  "The most important thing that's happened to me were the protease inhibitors—that turned things around very fast," he states, honoring his physician, Dr. Michael Scolaro, for his brilliance and genius.  The side effects have been limited to diarrhea.

In 1987, he gruelingly and gruesomely watched his former lover, dancer Don England, slowly deteriorate from AIDS, dying in Hoffman's home.  "It was like picking up a little child,' reflects Hoffman, after England fell one day.  Hoffman says he dealt with his feelings by "becoming almost numb.  And I think there's still a large reservoir of grief that I have sublimated that hasn't really come out."  He attributes psychotherapy in helping him to cope with the grieving process.

"My life would be complete if I could find some way of helping people understand the dangers of the AIDS virus," he emphasizes in his powerful and energetic voice.  "It amazes me when I hear of it, but HIV is still killing people.  The drugs don't work for everybody, or complications [set in]."  He tells of two friends who were doing fine on the cocktail but then—because of drug and alcohol abuse—died.

Several years ago, documentarian Ed Madison made a video about the protease inhibitors, "Is This The Cure?"  ("Of course it's not, but we can live with it now."), consisting of a series of interviews, Hoffman's being one of them.  He tells of how the documentary ends with him stating, "When I found out that I had the virus, I made a commitment to life."  He reemphasizes this for A&U, saying that he wants to be remembered as someone who left the world a little bit better than he found it.  "Although I expect to live to be a hundred," retorts a cocky Hoffman.  "Death annoys me because I'm afraid I'll miss something."

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