Kappa Nu alums honor Larry Belling with young writers' award

Larry Belling as an adult in a recording studio
Larry Belling (left) with actress Kim Novak and other Kappa Nu members

Images: Larry Belling as an adult; Larry Belling (left) with actress Kim Novak and other Kappa Nu members. Photos courtesy of Davina Belling and Kappa Nu.

April 11, 2024

When Nathanael Stephen Payne ’23 was developing Wrestle with Jimmy for UC Berkeley’s “Introduction to Playwriting” class, he had no idea where the project would take him. His answer came several years later, when he crossed the stage at graduation as one of two students to receive the Larry Belling Promising Writers’ Award.

“For the first time, I was receiving some sort of payment for my written work, validated by a long-standing institution like Berkeley,” said Payne. “I’m very fortunate to have been given the recognition at the time I did, on the precipice of heading into the professional world, as both stable finances and self-confidence can be hard to come by.”

Payne was the beneficiary of a crowdsourced effort by family, friends, and former classmates to honor Larry Belling, a beloved figure who held nearly every offstage role in his career, from the box office to backstage, in Las Vegas casinos and Broadway theaters. Each year, the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) presents Belling’s namesake award to one or two undergraduate students.

Belling was a lifelong devotee of the dramatic arts. Growing up, he would ask his parents for theater magazine subscriptions and volunteer for every school production. He sang and played many instruments. To finance his way through college, Larry opened KPFA’s radio station in the early morning and built sets for theatrical productions in Wheeler Hall.

Entering Berkeley in the late 1950s, Belling gravitated toward Kappa Nu, one of several traditionally Jewish fraternities on campus at a time when many Greek organizations barred Jewish students. Though they differed in their academic pursuits, many of Kappa Nu’s members were talented actors, comics, singers, writers, and musicians. One time, the San Francisco Opera recruited fraternity members for a production. 

"There was a saying when I was at Cal: ‘You don't rush Kappa Nu, you audition,’” said Barry Gross ’63.

Kappa Nu alums embrace their fraternity’s outsider status, noting their members’ comparatively humble backgrounds and reminiscing about wild college times. They are particularly proud of their popular Axe Revue performances before the Big Game and a weekend spent chauffeuring film star Kim Novak to promote her film, Vertigo.

Kappa Nu was “a hotbed of creativity,” according to Marc Norman ’62, M.A. ’64, the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind Shakespeare in Love. “Larry thrived in that environment.”

Belling cut a big presence with his small frame. He would thrill Berkeley audiences by emerging from behind his vocal trio’s larger members with his powerful bass voice. That indelible voice and spirit drew many people to Larry over the course of his life, including his wife, Davina Belling. The couple corresponded by phone for over a year before they first met in person.

Life pushed the alums in different directions: to law, medicine, and (as with Larry) the arts. Kappa Nu eventually merged with another Jewish fraternity, its Greek letters fading from the Berkeley campus. Yet, college fraternities tend to form lasting friendships. When the pandemic struck, the alums reconnected through a regular Zoom call that Larry was instrumental in organizing. With his interpersonal skills and production experience, Larry was a natural at bringing people together.

"The fact that so many of his fraternity brothers still stay in touch is a tribute not only to Larry but to the special bond generated by Berkeley and Kappa Nu," said Davina.

After Larry passed away in January 2022, a steady stream of friends wrote to Davina to reminisce about the unique person they were lucky to have known. The close-knit community of artists and Kappa Nu fraternity brothers wanted to do something meaningful to remember their friend. Led by Bruce Schroffel ’60, who continued the Zoom meetings after Larry passed, they settled on an award to help kickstart a talented young writer’s career. 

“We are extremely honored that Larry’s family and friends invited us to help them carry on his legacy,” said SanSan Kwan, the TDPS chair. “This partnership helps launch our talented students into creative careers that entertain, challenge, and inspire audiences.”

The award offers more than bragging rights — it comes with a few thousand dollars. A global network of loved ones from all facets of Larry's life responded from Los Angeles to New York to the United Kingdom. Recognizing the working-class backgrounds of many Kappa Nu fraternity brothers, the alums asked the university to prioritize recipients with financial needs.

“We were all broke when we went to Berkeley,” said Richard Melmon ’62. “We're just trying to help people who are like us.”

Larry’s family blessed the effort.

“Larry recognized that all good theater starts with good writing,” said his brother, Ed. 

Schroffel recalls that of all the roles Larry played in theater, his favorite was being a writer. Larry’s play, Stroke of Luck, had a successful run at the Park Theatre in London, and he co-authored a newly-published children's book — The Lincoln Zoo Rebellion — with fraternity brother Art Twain ’60.

Larry was "a small man who left a very large footprint," said Twain, who grew up in Oakland with Larry. "We're dedicated to keeping those footprints moving through the book and the award."

The department handed out the first Larry Belling Promising Writers’ Awards in May 2023. Joining Payne as an inaugural awardee was Jordan Goodwin ’23, a legal studies alum who minored in theater. Goodwin said she was “shocked” when she won for her essay on the Black Lives Matter movement’s impact on mainstream theater.

“I never thought that I would be recognized for good writing, let alone win an award for it,” said Goodwin. “As a Black woman interested in the role of performative activism, this essay gave me a chance to apply that interest to my passion for theater. It meant the world to me to have my work recognized as both important and intellectually astute.”

Goodwin is using the award to launch her acting career while preparing for law school. She paid for new headshots and access to audition databases and plans to enroll in acting classes. Last fall, Goodwin finished the run of her first non-Berkeley show, Noises Off, at the Pear Theater and is gearing up for rehearsals for In the Next Room at Pacifica Spindrift Players.

Payne used his award to finish paying off his tuition and fund some post-college projects. He is currently expanding Wrestle with Jimmy beyond its one-act structure as he works to break into the Los Angeles theater scene. In February 2024, he returned to campus for a staged reading of his play.

“It was a great experience and a full-circle moment for the play,” said Payne. “I was amazed at how well the students performed the characters and how sharply the two graduate students directed it. I felt a great, genuine sense of pride, not just in my work, but also in the theatrical education that TDPS continues to provide for all those lovely students.” 

To support promising writers in the dramatic arts, contact Rebecca Ricksen at rebe@berkeley.edu