Jon Von Erb did not take a straight path from San Francisco to Palm Springs—no pun intended.
Von Erb was born in San Francisco into a theatrical family, with two gay parents who had met in New York: His mother was a coloratura soprano with the New York City Opera, and his father was a vaudevillian.
“My mom took me to the Bolshoi Ballet when I was about 3 years old,” Von Erb remembers, “and I got hooked.”
While Von Erb’s brother was an athletic football player, Jon became a dedicated dancer and choreographer. What was it like growing up in a family with a gay mother and a gay father?
“In those days, it was a societal thing,” says Von Erb. “They were both in theater during an era when everyone was a smoker and drinker, and it wasn’t really accepted to be that ‘different.’ Otherwise, it was like any theatrical family. I lived a life growing up kind of like an Army brat: I attended about 21 elementary schools and three junior highs.”
Surprisingly, Von Erb said his father was initially unhappy when Jon came out to him as gay.
“He was an avid fan of my brother, the straight football player,” Von Erb said. “I remember when I was working with a ballet company while I was finishing high school, and my final ballet performance was with a full orchestra doing a classic pas de deux with an impossible lift. When the performance was over, the audience just sat silently. Finally, someone started to clap, and the whole audience exploded with applause. My father came up to me afterward and said, ‘I’m so proud of you, son.’ That was the first time he had ever said that to me.” The memory brings Von Erb to tears.
Von Erb later taught Afro-American jazz dancing that he learned in New York and later added Russian ballet techniques when he wound up in New Orleans—where he met the man who would become his husband, Gary Williams, a speech pathologist.
Jon and Gary then resettled to Alaska. “Gary’s sister had moved there,” says Von Erb, “so we decided to try it.”
Von Erb used his background in dance to get a job teaching ballet in Anchorage, and soon after his arrival there, he was offered an opportunity to work in the arts department at the University of Alaska, where Von Erb completed a degree. He also created a dance company there.
The pair later came to Palm Springs in the same way that so many of us have: “We had friends from all over who had moved here who were always saying, ‘Come on down!’”
They’ve now lived here for the past 4 1/2 years. Jon and Gary married three years ago by their backyard pool in Palm Springs, more than 40 years into their relationship.
“We decided to finally get married for legal and financial reasons, but more important, to make a statement for ourselves,” says Von Erb.
Von Erb now works as a certified massage therapist specializing in medical and therapeutic massage techniques that he describes as “intuitive massage.”
“I deal with things like spinal injuries, sciatica, geriatric difficulties and lymphatic effects after surgery,” he says. “When I’m working with someone, my goal is to make it like a connection of rivers that run throughout the entire body. My role is to help create a healing flow. I experience it as intuitive touch. I allow the body to speak to me.”
I met Von Erb at a poetry reading at the Rancho Mirage Library in the newly opened meeting and presentation space. I was attending because my good friend Valerie-Jean Hume (also an Independent contributor) was performing while the participants, many of whom have been published, read their efforts. Participants ranged from an over-90 hale-and-hearty man to a French-accented charming woman, but one participant particularly intrigued me: Jon Von Erb.
Von Erb’s poetry began in earnest while he was in San Francisco from 1989 to 2012.
“There were so many people (in the San Francisco area) who were going through a lot of change: sick, dying,” he recalls. “I started a practice that I called ‘grief massage.’ Whatever the problem, I’d spend an hour listening and then would take the client downstairs to a darkened space, filled with music and atmosphere, and I spoke to them through massage. I’d move them on a path in a bucolic environment, encouraging them to leave behind something heavy that they’ve been carrying around. I could feel the tension going away. Then we’d go back upstairs, and I’d not only listen, but also make observations.
“After the sessions, I’d compose a poem for them about their situation. At the end of our sessions, they would not only have completed the process; they would also have an anthology of their voyage.”
Von Erb now sends poems to about 300 friends and clients every week. His philosophy is fairly simple. “There’s so much to be thankful for. I feel it’s important to pay back all those people who applauded for me all those many years ago. Every day is a new, exciting, fresh day to start.
“Everything talks to you if you learn to listen. People are all searching for someone who reaches out to them first. I’m a hands-on person.”
Literally and figuratively, the description fits him perfectly.
the moon winked at me
floating above the shadowed
winter skeletons of the sycamore trees.
Her gesture asked me
to scribe a poem in her honor.
In that sparkled moment
as I clutched my pen
her silver shine overtook her intention;
Instead, my heart took my pen
and I wrote from recent memory.
Suddenly shivered by
the lack of your warmth
the moon and I
wrote of my longing for you.
—Jon Von Erb, November 2016
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.