Barbara Murray and Ben Liptiz

Benefit Buddies

APM's Barbara Murray Finds Lifelong Friend In Actor Ben Lipitz

By Andrea Poteet

In his eight years performing as Pumbaa in the stage production of Disney's "The Lion King," Ben Lipitz has always taken time to give back, putting on over three dozen benefits for charities at stops along the show's tour.

But when it came time to plan one for AIDS Partnership Michigan he drew on a longstanding friendship to help him create something special.

Lipitz is putting on a production of Claudia Sheer's hit Broadway play "Dirty Blonde" in honor of the retirement of his longtime friend, APM Executive Director Barbara Murray.

The two met five years ago when Lipitz, a coordinator for theater fundraising organization Broadway Cares, produced "Spirit of Hitsville," a Motown review benefit for APM. He said he and Murray hit it off and began a friendship based on their mutual desire to help wherever they could.

"Building this one-night concert, we just hit it off," Lipitz said. "I think we have a lot of similarities in that we're working toward anything that's going to find a pathway to curing HIV and taking care of everyone along the way."

After the benefit was over, Lipitz and Murray stayed in touch, based on their shared desires to help wherever possible: Murray continuing her more than 40 years of non-profit administration work at APM and Lipitz for Broadway Cares, producing benefits for a variety of charities.

"We just recognized something in each other," Lipitz said. "I like to think I'm this way, but I know Barb is always working to answer the question (of), 'What more can I do to make it better?' That's what we responded to in each other - and that's why we've become great working colleagues."

Though the two speak occasionally while Murray, who is set to retire in March after more than 20 years at APM, is finishing up her duties and Lipitz is touring as Simba's warthog pal in "The Lion King," Lipitz said he is touched by a memento that Murray has in her office.

During an auction at the end of the Motown benefit, Murray bid on a decorative kite. After learning that her opponent in the auction wanted to give the kite to her granddaughter, Murray stopped bidding and the kite went home to the little girl. A few days later, Murray received a package at her office: a similar kite, a gift from Lipitz.

The kite hangs in her office today.

"That's the kind of guy Ben is," Murray said. "I love it!"

Lipitz said he is touched that Murray has the memento on display.

"It proudly hangs in her office as a daily reminder that there are total strangers that are willing to step up and make a difference," he said.

Lipitz said when he saw "The Lion King" was coming back to Detroit, currently at the Detroit Opera House, he jumped at the chance to team up with Murray again in support of Broadway Cares and APM.

"In combination with her retirement party, we wanted to do something a little bit different, rather than just a regular singing cabaret," he said. "We wanted to do something a little more personal and a little more substantive."

He said he chose "Dirty Blonde," the story of two obsessive Mae West fans who forge an unusual relationship after meeting at the icon's grave, because it is one of his favorite plays and carries a powerful message.

"APM is a huge support organization within the LGBT community and I think the story of learning to develop a power out of being true to who you are is something that is a really positive message that can be shared not just within the LGBT community but with everyone - that power and love can come from acceptance," he said.

Lipitz said he has been drawn to charity work his entire life but started trying to give back in earnest when he joined the cast of "The Lion King" and had an opportunity to work with Broadway Cares. HIV, he said, is a cause especially close to his heart.

"I'm 48 years old," Lipitz said. "I remember firsthand how devastating AIDS and HIV was in the '80s. I lost dear friends and it has an impact and you can't lessen that impact just because we've moved further away from the time when an HIV status was a death sentence. "

In addition to honoring Murray's retirement, Lipitz said he's also excited to perform one of his favorite plays with some of his other closest friends during the benefit, slated for March 4 at the Gem Theatre in Detroit. He'll be producing and acting alongside Michigan-based actress Colleen Flynn, whom he has known for more than 25 years, and his "Lion King" co-star Mark David Kaplan, who plays Zazu in the show.

"It's exhilarating and exciting to be working with dear friends for a good cause," Lipitz said.

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