Lee Melville, the founding editor of LA STAGE Times and its predecessor, the print magazine LA STAGE, has died. Terence McFarland, the CEO of LA STAGE Alliance which publishes LA STAGE Times, issued this statement last night:
“I am deeply saddened by Lee Melville’s passing. He was the most extraordinary advocate Los Angeles theater has known. The entire community owes a debt of gratitude to Lee and his work on our behalf. I will miss most his post-show lean-in, followed by “What did you think?” with that smirk of his mischievous eyes. Thank you, Lee, for a life well spent in the theater. You will be truly missed.”
Others who would like to submit memories of Lee Melville, for possible publication in a tribute article next week, should email their stories and remarks to LA STAGE Times editor-in-chief Deborah Behrens at email@example.com. Details of a public memorial tribute will be published here when available.
Here is an article by Steve Julian about Melville that appeared in LA STAGE Times two years ago:
Playwrights’ Arena Award Renamed in Honor of Lee Melville
When Lee Melville smiles, his eyes beat him to it.
The editor-in-chief of this publication, LA STAGE Times, smiles frequently as he reminisces over his 50-year career in theater: actor, stage manager, producer, critic, editor. His outstanding contributions to theater, principally in Los Angeles, prompted Playwrights’ Arena artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera this year to rename the company’s prestigious award after Melville.
“It’s a real honor,” says Melville, in one of two cozy lobby chairs at LA STAGE Alliance, not 20 feet from his office that awaits renovation from a seeming storage room to something habitable. “In 2005 I was honored with the Playwrights’ Arena Award along with Emily Kuroda and Diane Rodriguez. Jon usually honors three or four people a year.”
We sit close, too, to Terence McFarland’s office. McFarland enjoyed a 12-year stint in the New York fashion and publishing business before completing both his bachelor’s of fine arts and MFA at CalArts. In 2003 he became LA STAGE Alliance’s executive director and shared the Playwrights’ Arena Award last year with Ben Guillory and Madeline Puzo.
McFarland calls Melville “a huge resource for me since I was brand new to this community. Lee is our living archive of Los Angeles theater knowledge — fact, innuendo and scandal!”
Sit with Melville or chat with him at one of the dozens of shows he sees each year, and you find he freely shares facts and sage insights; innuendo and scandal remain parked inside his vest.
It was at last year’s production of Velina Hasu Houston’s Calligraphy at Los Angeles Theatre Center that Rivera and Melville found themselves chatting at intermission. “Jon told me the next awards ceremony was going to be in the Tom Bradley Theatre at LATC. They’d always done it at a club in West Hollywood, so it was going to be a whole different [and grander] thing. And as he was telling me about the change, like a run-on sentence, he says, ‘And the board has decided we’re going to call it the Lee Melville Award.’ I said, ‘What?’”
His eyes widen as if the shocking news had been delivered for the first time.
“I was very touched,” he remembers. “I think back to Polly Warfield and others like Margaret Harford, both of whom have awards named after them by the LADCC [Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle]. When Polly was honored with an award [named after her], I was glad because Polly was special, a very dear friend, a critic from whom I learned a lot.”
Reached by telephone, Rivera says, “For years I felt we really needed to change it from the Playwrights’ Arena Award to being named after someone with longevity here in Los Angeles. The natural reaction is to look for someone who’s dead. But I thought, why name it after someone who’s gone when there are people still living and still creating the work and who’ve been around many, many years?”
The name that kept coming back to him was Lee Melville. “There is nobody else more fitting because he’s actually doing it; he’s never slowed down. When I told him about it last year at Calligraphy I thought he was going to burst into tears. He said, ‘Jon, next year is my fiftieth year in the business.’ I thought, well, that’s perfect: we’ll have a double celebration.”
On May 10, the first Lee Melville Awards will be presented to playwright/director Luis Alfaro, Cultural Affairs executive director Olga Garay, and artistic director Katharine Noon and producing director Mark Seldis of Ghost Road Theatre Company for “Outstanding Contribution to the Los Angeles Theater Community.”
While Melville may be one to hold his tongue with innuendo and scandal, history shows him capable of writing scathing reviews. “I was harsh. I know I was,” he says. “I stopped reviewing in 1989 and, over 20 years later, people still come up to me and say I gave them a horrible review. Sometimes they even quote it!”
Even friends were not immune. “One friend, who I reviewed pretty harshly, didn’t say anything until the show closed at South Coast Rep. We were having lunch one day and I asked her why she’d never said what she thought of my review.” He chuckles. “She said, ‘I didn’t agree with it, of course, but you have to do your job and I have to do mine.’ She let it go at that. I wish everybody could do that.”
He laments, “Reviewing is a thankless job. The trouble with reviewing is if you’re going to be honest then you’re going to have to be somewhat brutal. You try to finesse it the best you can, but…”
Finessing can be an elusive skill. “I took a great lesson from Polly. People felt she was too easy, always finding something good to say. She would come back from a performance and tell me she really didn’t like it. Then I’d read her review in print and I’d think, ‘You didn’t like it? Sounds pretty good to me!’ It was a lesson to keep in mind.”
A critic’s obligation, Melville believes, is to the reader. “You must inform the audience of what the play or musical is and evaluate its production. A review’s purpose is not to bring something down or give it an artificial lift. I don’t necessarily love theater but I do respect it. Love is blind.”
If Melville’s complete personal history were being honored, it would stretch back nearer 70 years than 50. But the Playwrights’ Arena, appropriately, does not take into account tap dance awards won at four years of age or performances before Kiwanis and Lions clubs at eight, when the family moved from Provo, Utah to Los Angeles.
By the time Melville got to high school, he was a tap-dancing king, thanks, in part, to the wooden staircase his father built for him as a child. “But I couldn’t do any other kind of dance,” he remembers. “I ran for student body president in my senior year but lost by six votes to the baseball jock. To tell you the truth, I was glad I wasn’t student body president because otherwise I couldn’t have been editor of the yearbook.”
Politics was out; theater and journalism were in. “I got into the senior play as the male lead in Stage Door. That bit me,” he recalls, reinvigorating his love of performing.
Melville matriculated to UCLA, went to work for NBC in Burbank as a page and joined the Freeway Circuit, a theater company run by Corey Allen that toured synagogues and civic centers.
“Corey was the actor who played opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause,“ Melville says. “On the chicken run, he was the guy who got his sleeve caught and went over the cliff, so Corey became kind of an idol among young actors.”
In 1961, when Melville joined the Freeway Circuit, the 101/110 four-level interchange was 12 years old and the region was abandoning a mass transit system in favor of one that favored motorists. There had been calls for new freeways that could shuttle commuters from urban area to urban area without being funneled through downtown Los Angeles. The company took advantage of the public outcry and development of new highways in choosing its name and developing its mission.
“We did a play called Only in America by Lawrence and Lee about Harry Golden. Herschel Bernardi played the role of a Jewish journalist in South Carolina. I was the assistant stage manager and had a small role. It was my first chance to work with professional actors. And when the show moved to the Ivar [in Hollywood] I got paid. That’s why I consider 1961 my first professional year in theater.”
Melville continued on as a page at NBC until 1962 when he took a summer stock job in picturesque Carmel Valley, along the Pacific Coast. “Everyone had been talking throughout the summer about going to New York, the mecca. I got the bug and wanted to go there also to study with Sandy Meisner because he was such a legend.”
By January 1963 Melville had successfully auditioned and relocated to New York City. He studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy where Meisner taught. “I took all the courses I could the first year. By the second year, because of finances and being a bit bored with other aspects of the school, I studied only with Sandy. When I finished, I figured I was ready to go out and be an actor.”
Melville auditioned throughout New York City and found it particularly intimidating and discouraging. A friend offered him an assistant stage manager job at Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis. “That’s where I got my Equity card and played little roles. So eventually, armed with my card, I went back to New York, went on the rounds of auditions and still didn’t get anywhere.”
He did, however, get stage managing offers. “I pretty soon figured out I better stick to the production end rather than acting. But it took me until I was almost 30 before I called it quits as an actor.”
Melville views stage managing as a life saver. He worked in regional and summer theaters, still missing New York but thankful to be employed in his chosen vocation. Along the way, he and a partner formed American Children’s Theatre, a company that performed at the old RKO 86th Street movie theater in New York City. “We got a grant from Con Edison to do Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We bused in disadvantaged children from all five boroughs for two shows a day, all week long. I used the same script Corey had used in Los Angeles; in fact, I got him to fly in and direct the first year. We got Mayor John Lindsay and James Earl Jones to alternate as narrators and Orson Bean played Scrooge. Orson and I still joke about it to this day.”
Melville calls producing the children’s show one of his biggest thrills. “When that huge curtain opened and the kids squealed, I knew I wanted to be a producer.”
Other productions followed, including a version of Peter and the Wolf that Jacques d’Amboise of the American Ballet Theatre created, and Toby Tyler, a children’s show taken from James Otis’ book Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks at the Circus. Melville wrote the adaptation and toured it throughout Manhattan parks under a grant from Chef Boyardee. They towed a trailer whose side could drop down to serve as a stage.
In his late 20s, Melville formed the Brier Hill Playhouse near Uniontown, PA with two partners, which they ran for four years. He remained in Pennsylvania during the winter and managed the Twin Coaches Dinner Theatre. Brier Hill’s last production before folding was Gypsy. Melville played Herbie; it was his final appearance on stage. “It was fun but after opening night, which was a hoot, I turned to the actress playing Rose and said, “˜You mean we have to do this for two more weeks?’ That’s when I knew my desire to act was over.”
Instead of returning to New York in 1972, Melville rejoined his parents in Los Angeles where he rediscovered his penchant for writing. He penned freelance pieces for various theatrical publications.
“Bill Bordy, the owner of [now defunct] Drama-Logue, asked me if I would like to become the editor. His editor was going to New York. That began my 12-year tenure as editor-in-chief of Drama-Logue. In 1977 I started the Drama-Logue Awards by compiling a list of what I considered the outstanding shows I’d reviewed that year.”
It was a popular idea and inspired other Drama-Logue reviewers to create their own lists. The winners were published in the paper. “We got a huge reaction, of course,” Melville remembers. “One person even came to the office and handed me a carnation because he was so touched.”
Bordy decided the response deserved an actual ceremony, which inaugurated the following year and included the winners of the first awards. “We gave them certificates and it just built and built until it was too many awards. Three and a half hours of people getting up and accepting awards? But Bill didn’t want us to narrow it down.”
Melville moved the paper from reviewing only Equity-waiver shows to productions in larger venues such as Center Theatre Group’s. “Some years we had actors such as Jon Voight, Julie Harris, Gregory Harrison, Gena Rowlands and Ed Harris coming to the ceremony to receive their awards. We had a great time.”
Bordy told Melville in 1989 he wanted to produce films. Melville offered to buy Drama-Logue from him. “But we couldn’t come to any kind of a deal. He later sold it to BackStage.”
It was time for a change and Melville left town, heading to the high desert where his family operated a wedding business for Angelenos who couldn’t wait until they reached Las Vegas to tie the knot. Ten years of that was enough, he says, and the business was sold. During those years he still drove to LA every week to see plays. Melville moved to Valley Village where he purchased a townhouse. “One of the first calls I got,” he remembers, “was from Lars Hansen who was the director of what was then the precursor to LA STAGE Alliance.
Larsen and Melville were cronies from his Drama-Logue days. “Lars wanted to start a print publication but only if I would do it. I told him I would, as long as it wasn’t a casting newspaper like Drama-Logue and on a monthly, not weekly, basis. He said that would be perfect.”
It took a while in 2000 to get it off the ground. Melville describes the first issue as a thin 16 pages. “Then Lars left for a position at USC and the magazine survived in print for nine years. But we had to stop publishing in January 2009 because of the economy. [Executive director] Terence McFarland said he didn’t want to stop but we just couldn’t afford to publish. That’s when he suggested we do it as an online blog. I said, “˜What’s a blog?’”
LA STAGE TIMES
Turns out “blog” is a word kept mostly hidden inside his vest, discouraged alongside innuendo and scandal. LA STAGE Times is an arts journalism site, according to program director Doug Clayton. Last October the site was renamed LA STAGE Times, which received over 300,000 page views by over 100,000 unique visitors in 2010, Clayton reports. It currently averages about 1,100 page views a day.
The difference in the site versus blogs, Melville believes, is that most other online theatrical publications are “very limited.” He counters that, however, by acknowledging, “I’m sure each one has a devoted following as we do.”
As editor-in-chief, Melville credits his writers for the site’s success. “First, we don’t do reviews except for [former LA Times reporter] Don Shirley’s ‘commentaries’ as he prefers to call them. We worked hard to get Don who said he would write for us only if he could do a column similar to the one he wrote while at LA City Beat. He sees a lot of theater and is so versed in it so we said, sure, why not?”
Up to that point, Melville says, the focus was solely on supporting member theaters and promoting their shows. “We really didn’t want to write anything negative. That was our policy during our nine years of [print] publication. But now that we’re on a website, we have a lot more flexibility in length and the number of stories we cover.”
Melville also credits other writers for moving LAStageTimes forward. Gary Ballard, Connie Danese, Julio Martinez and Tom Provenzano were among Melville’s cadre of writers at Drama-Logue and continue with him today.
“When we started the magazine, I asked them if they would write for us and they’ve all stayed on with the blog, er, website.” He laughs at yet another reminder that “blog” is no longer fashionable. It is understandable given the first few months he endured as online editor. “Were it not for Janet Thielke, a wonderful intern from USC, I might have remained terrified about computers and websites. I would just edit the stories, send them to her and she published everything online. She spoiled me.” He laments her departure once her internship wrapped up.
In discussing his staff, Melville singles out Deborah Behrens. “She has blossomed not only as a writer but also as my managing editor. She has gained so much knowledge over the years and wrote her first cover story about Megan Mullally in our third issue.”
It is a story Melville relishes. “I called Bart DeLorenzo, who was directing Megan at what was then the Evidence Room, and asked if he could line up an interview. I was afraid if we had gone through her publicist, we would’ve been turned down. Deborah went to Megan’s home, had a wonderful afternoon and came back with a great interview. She has been writing terrific pieces ever since.”
Behrens met Melville through San Francisco director and critic A.J. Esta, who wrote a column for Drama-Logue. “I’d been living in the Bay Area for nearly a decade working in public relations and marketing,” Behrens recalls. “A short play of mine was produced locally and in New York City, plus I’d performed in and written others. When I returned to LA in 1998, Lee acted as entree to the various players in town as well as theatrical historian.”
Behrens agrees with Susan Dietz that Melville “holds the institutional theatrical memory of this town. He dearly loves show business and genuinely respects those who try to earn a living doing it in any capacity at any level. People with well-known careers remain grateful for his help when they were first starting out. That’s why he is so beloved by so many.”
Yet, for Melville, the line between criticism and journalism often is blurred. “Sylvie Drake and Dan Sullivan were both editors and reviewers for The Los Angeles Times. They would go out, Sylvie in particular, interview someone who was opening a play and then go back the next week and review it and maybe not like it. I found doing that difficult. At Drama-Logue, I decided I would just edit the interviews and not actually write them since I was also reviewing.”
Melville prefers critics who are knowledgeable about theater and have experience as an actor, playwright or director. A reviewer, he believes, should not be like one he won’t name from the 1970s and ’80s who famously would review a performance with his own script tucked under his arm, ready to hand it to the director during intermission.
Having seen so much theater over the years, however, he often is asked what productions stand the test of time. He refers to what he calls The Golden Years (late-’70s to late-’80s). “There are a few plays I find stay cemented in my mind as being quite phenomenal,” he replies. “Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat at the Mark Taper Forum and Bouncers at the Tiffany, both directed by Ron Link,” are on the list. “Link also directed the wonderful spoof Women Behind Bars which Frank Levy’s Catalina Production Group presented and toured.”
Catalina, he remembers, also was responsible for the production of The Hasty Heart with Gregory Harrison which started at the Cast Theatre, then moved to the Ahmanson and was an HBO movie. “And I must include Ray Stricklyn’s portrayal of Tennessee Williams in Confessions of a Nightingale which I saw several times here, then in New York and Edinburgh.”
Melville also recalls, “three exquisite Lanford Wilson plays presented by Center Theatre Group: Fifth of July, Tally’s Folly and the world premiere of Burn This. And there were excellent productions at the Colony, Odyssey, Theatre Exchange, LA Actors Theatre and Company Theatre.”
He also points to exceptional performances by Karen Kondazian and Ed Harris in Sweet Bird of Youth and Susan Dietz’s version of Cloud Nine at the Canon Theatre. “There are others from that era as well as later on,” he says, “but that’s a start.”
Melville says plans are for online coverage to expand to report on music and dance events in the fall. “Someday we may cover live performance in other states and countries. I’m still trying to find out how much people will read,” he says.
He also would call for an end to the debate over whether Los Angeles is a theater town. “It happens all the time, people arguing over whether LA is a theater town or it’s not a theater town. Who the hell cares? We have wonderful theater groups here of every size and shape. But maybe we have too much theater so the part that really stands out is a smaller percentage than in a city like Chicago.”
Furthermore, he believes the future of Los Angeles theater is directly in the hands of producers and, to a degree, actors and playwrights. His opinion is that commercial producers must create shows on a long-term basis, allowing themselves the flexibility to extend runs past five or six weeks.
“Theaters with subscriptions have to have a season and their shows have limited runs. There isn’t a way to really make money with these limitations. I love it when theaters, like the Colony or the Fountain, have an extra dark week [or weeks] that can be used to extend a hit show. You can’t be so rigid that if you have a hit you can’t keep it going.”
The longer a play runs, Melville believes, the more likely it is to attract out-of-town attention. “It’s good for the whole of theater.” He credits producers like Dietz and “modern-day wonder” David Elzer who took The Marvelous Wonderettes out of a very long run in Los Angeles to New York. “That’s a show that hasn’t breathed its last breath,” Melville notes.
Dietz, who met Melville in the late ’70s, is taking a breather as she awaits her second grandchild this summer. She says, “Lee is like an encyclopedia of LA theater. He’s so intellectually curious of everyone in theater and what we were doing. I find him to be the pillar of Los Angeles theater now.”
After a long hiatus Melville returned briefly to producing in 2006. He co-presented his partner Bo White’s play Manner of Trust at the Underground Theatre in Hollywood in association with Playwrights’ Arena. It received favorable notices and Melville hoped it would rejuvenate White’s spirits enough to continue writing and return to acting. “However, his health took a downward spiral and he died March 31, 2009. Bo was the love of my life for 20 years. In 2000, we adopted a mixed breed puppy from the shelter and Zoe became a great comfort to Bo. Now, 11 years later, she is my constant companion.”
It is the first time his mouth beats his eyes to the smile.
Everyone has their place to be emotionally touched. “I defy anybody to say they haven’t had wonderful experiences in theater.” He chuckles at people who question his ability to see so many productions each year, a number that far exceeds his years in the business. “They ask me how I can go to theater four or five times a week. I just look at them and ask how they can watch television four or five nights a week. Everyone has their own church at which they worship. Mine happens to be theater.”