A First Date at the Opera Leads to a Lifetime of Love for Tom Taffel and Bill Repp

A First Date at the Opera Leads to a Lifetime of Love for Tom Taffel and Bill Repp

The night Bill Repp first clapped eyes on Tom Taffel, he was sporting a huge 19-inch incision on his leg, held together with steel sutures. Repp couldn’t help but notice the strips of adhesive tape, the fresh stitches. What was this man doing out of bed, much less spending a night on the town in 1970s San Francisco?

“I thought to myself, ‘You really shouldn’t be here,’” Repp recalls. So he invited the injured stranger over. Very quickly, they found they had something in common: the theater.

Forty-nine years later, Repp and Taffel are still talking theater—and they’ve become two of the most recognizable faces at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House because of it.

With bowties, quick smiles, and endless stories about celebrity sightings and opera history, the couple is a two-man welcoming squad, guiding newcomers and diehards alike into the theater.

For nearly two decades, until his retirement in 2017, Taffel served as the manager of the Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Intermezzo Lounge, a reception space located on the opera house’s second floor.

And below, on the street level, Repp has manned the incoming crowds as an usher, concierge, and taxi coordinator. He has been on staff since 1986, though he and Taffel started volunteering long before that.

But it was love that brought them into the Opera House together for the first time on October 14, 1972. Celebrated opera singer Shirley Verrett was on stage that night in the title role of Aida. Taffel still remembers the custom “Aida suit” Repp had tailored just for the occasion: beige with a blue button-down shirt, accented with a pair of brown wingtip shoes.

“I was the cat’s meow,” Repp says with a laugh.

They climbed “up to heaven” that night, only able to afford seats in the highest rows of the upper balcony. Awash in the sound of the music, they fell for each other. They also fell for the art form itself. Less than a month later, Shirley Verrett was back on stage in L’Africaine—and Repp and Taffel were back in the audience, a couple.

Aida was their first date. But ask Repp and Taffel how they met, and you’ll get a volley of laughter. It’s a love story straight out of the San Francisco history books.

Thirty-two days. That’s how long Tom Taffel remembers being stuck in San Francisco’s Letterman Army Medical Center, suffering from a torn meniscus.

The knee injury was so severe, he needed surgery. But everything, he says, kept going wrong. The days passed. And Taffel felt cooped up. One day, he was chatting with a nurse who asked him if he’d ever visited a bathhouse, living in San Francisco and all. Taffel was curious: “What’s a bathhouse?”

In the 1970s, a time when much of the United States was still governed by sodomy laws—laws that criminalized homosexual acts—bathhouses were saunas where LGBTQ+ individuals could meet, mingle, find sex, and build community.

It was not, however, a place for a recently released hospital patient with a healing wound. But Taffel was due to fly to the East Coast the next day. Now was his one chance to visit.

Once inside the bathhouse, there was a man who caught Taffel’s eye. But just as quickly, Taffel lost sight of him. “About an hour after constantly looking for him, I just thought, ‘Okay, I'm gonna call it quits. I'm going to go home,’” Taffel recalls.

“And just at that moment, we physically actually bumped into each other.” That’s how he would meet Bill Repp.

Repp had a dancer’s build, with the legs to show for it, and a mop of the most glorious red hair Taffel had ever seen. Repp was so self-conscious about it he even tried to warn Taffel before they saw each other in the street light.

“I said to him: ‘I have a confession to make.’ He said, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘I have red hair.’” Repp didn’t want the handsome stranger to be shocked. He is still quick to clarify: “And no freckles!”

The two men got to talking, and they started notice they had similar tastes, similar experiences. They had even gone to see the same Broadway musical, Coco, a few weeks apart. Repp managed to catch it with its original star, Katharine Hepburn, while Taffel caught it with Hepburn’s replacement, Danielle Darrieux. They swapped notes about the performances, sparks flying between them.

Before leaving Repp at his house the next morning, Taffel made sure to note his home address as well as his phone number. No sooner than he was on his flight, Taffel started to write Repp a postcard. He wanted to know more about this dancer he met on his night out in San Francisco—the man who would one day become his partner.

Bill Repp was born in Baltimore, Maryland, an athletic kid with a knack for dancing. He could sprint, he could skate, he could play softball, but his passion was on the dance floor. And in a stroke of luck, a new television show called The Buddy Deane Show was taking off in Baltimore.

Shot locally, it featured local teens testing out the latest dance moves, while pop stars gave interviews and lip-synced to their latest singles. A who’s who of 1950s and ‘60s celebrities came on the show: Buddy Holly, Chubby Checker, Ray Charles, Annette Funicello, Connie Francis, and more.

The teen boys grooved slicked-back hair and sports coats. The girls bopped in bouffant hair and knee-length skirts. They were advertised as the nicest kids in town—and Repp was determined to be one of them.

“I prided myself as a pretty good dancer,” Repp says. At the audition, he showed off his best moves: He did the jitterbug, he did the merengue, he did a slow dance, he did the shag. And sure enough, he was asked to join The Committee, The Buddy Deane Show’s regular stable of dancers.

“I was on the show for about three years,” Repp says. At only 16, he was juggling two lives: Once school was over, he would race down to the studio for showtime. “We were on the show six days a week. We didn't tape it. We did it six days a week and it was a way of life.”

The Buddy Deane Show was a big enough phenomenon that it rivaled Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, a nationally syndicated music-and-dance show that could never quite muscle into the Baltimore market so long as Buddy Deane was around. “Every day we competed,” Repp explains.

And with the show’s popularity came fans. Even though The Buddy Deane Show was broadcast in black-and-white, Repp and his brilliant red hair garnered a following.

The show’s fans knew him as Carrot Top, Rusty, Red—and Motor Mouth, because of how he spoke in a rapid clip. It’s a nickname that appears in the hit Broadway musical Hairspray, which features a fictionalized version of The Buddy Deane Show, as depicted by Repp’s friend, filmmaker John Waters.

Taffel still teases Repp about his origins as a “teen idol.” It’s thanks to Repp’s Baltimore roots that Taffel earned his nickname “Taff.” When they met, Repp still boasted a thick Baltimore accent. “Baltimore” was pronounced “Bawlmer.” Dishes were placed in the “zink.” And everybody was called “hon.”

The name “Taffel” was particularly hard to articulate. Early on, it came out sounding more like “Taff-o.” The solution? Repp simply called him “Taff.”

Taffel, meanwhile, hailed from New York City. He grew up hearing opera on Saturday mornings as a child.

“My mother and father used to listen to the Texaco opera broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera with Milton Cross,” Taffel says. His passion for it was instant. “It was just like a duck taking to water.”

But one of the most pivotal figures in his early life was someone he calls his “second father:” veteran newscaster and 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace. Taffel says he remembers Wallace as an affectionate man who instilled him in a strong sense of patriotism.

“He never shook my hand. He always hugged me,” Taffel recalls. “He felt that there was a responsibility to one’s country, and I never forgot that. I never, never forgot that.”

Taffel went to university for photography, but as graduation approached, that sense of duty stayed in the forefront of his mind. The Vietnam War was at its height. Taffel’s draft number was 86. He would be called up soon. But he worried: “I knew I couldn’t kill another man. I knew that wasn’t my route.”

So he decided to present himself at the recruiter’s office, in the hope that they could help him find a role that was “positive and constructive” in the military. He says he ended up being sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he eventually became a cinematography teacher, training the military’s wartime documentarians.

“The military was unquestionably the highlight of my life. When I look back, I wouldn't change a thing. They were the most fulfilling, rewarding, self-actualizing years of my life,” Taffel says.

From there, he went into a career in government surveillance. And his last day in that job was his first night working at the opera, he says with a laugh. “I didn’t get a day of break.”

But once he and Repp found their niche at the opera house, all kinds of new adventures unfolded for the pair. In a recent telephone call, they recalled how celebrities walked in and out of their lives, as they stood as gatekeepers to the world of opera.

For each big name, they share a tantalizing detail. Actor Julie Andrews always looks you directly in the eyes. Opera singer Joan Sutherland was refreshingly down-to-earth. Football coach Bill Walsh just loved talking opera, opera, opera.

Taffel remembers the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg arriving at the opera with the stature of a giant—even though she barely topped five feet. In 2011, she was scheduled to travel from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco for a performance of Turandot when a fire broke out on her airplane. She had to escape by sliding down an emergency chute at Dulles International Airport.

But despite the fire, she still arrived in time for Act II of Turandot. “You looked at this woman and she just radiated such greatness and presence,” Taffel recalls.

When Ginsburg left, Taffel took a ballpoint pen to the back of her chair. He drew three tiny dots—a dot for each part of her name—to remember that she had once sat there.

For Repp, one of his prized memories was going backstage to catch up with soprano Beverly Sills. He was waiting at her dressing room door when a woman placed herself in front of him.

“She was very pushy and she got in front of me,” Repp recalls. “I said, ‘Excuse me. The line is behind me.’”

Suddenly the door swung open. It was Sills. She greeted with Repp with a smile: “Oh, I see you’ve met my mother.”

But for as long as they’ve known each other, Taffel and Repp have been passionate about the opera: meeting as many artists as they can, seeing as many performances as they can schedule.

“For me, it is the most thrilling experience for a short period of time. You are drawn to the stage. You are just anticipating wonderful, glorious singing and you hear it and you just can't believe it. You at times pinch yourself saying, ‘This can't be. What a voice, what a voice,’” Repp explains.

“It's a wonderful escape. There was nothing like it and nothing will ever, ever match up to it.”

But it’s an experience made all the more precious by the time they’ve shared together. The opera house is a landscape of memories for them: Taffel even remembers the exact numbers of the seats they sat in for one very special production of Turandot, with Montserrat Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti.

With the opera house set to reopen, they’re eager to make more memories in that space and help others do the same. It’s a labor of love—in more ways than one.

For Opera Stars Beth Clayton and Patricia Racette, It’s All About the ‘Zing’
He Was Backstage. She Was Front of House. It Was a Match Made in Opera.