Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lee Melville Obituary - LA Theatre Loses a Longtime Theatre Champion

Lee Melville. Photo by Michael Lamont, courtesy of LA Stage Times

Lee Melville, founding editor of LA STAGE Times and its predecessor, the print magazine LA STAGE, and for 12 years the editor-in-chief of the now-defunct trade publication Drama-Logue has died. He was 74. A memorial event will be held Monday, June 24 at the Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank 91502. The reception will begin at 6 pm, with the program slated to start at 7:30.  Reservations are required. Click Here for the reservation link.

His professional life in and around the theatre, mostly in Los Angeles, spanned more than 50 years as an actor, stage manager, producer, critic, writer, mentor and editor. His many and varied contributions to L.A. theatre earned the respect of the theatre community and were officially recognized in 2011 when an award established by The Playwrights’ Arena (of which he was one of three recipients in 2005) was renamed in his honor the Lee Melville Award.

Born in Salt Lake city, UT, in 1939, Melville had a precocious tap-dancing career starting at age four. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1947 where he continued tap-dancing, adding acting as a career goal when he got the lead in his high school senior play. “That bit me,” he told an interviewer. At the same time, he also became editor of the high school year book which triggered a lifelong love of journalism.

After school, Melville became a page at NBC and joined the Freeway Circuit, a theatre company run by actor/teacher Corey Allen that toured synagogues and civic centers. “We did a play called Only in America by Lawrence and Lee,” he said. “Herschel Bernardi played the role of a Jewish journalist in South Carolina. I was the assistant stage manager and had a small role…When the show moved to the Ivar [in Hollywood] I got paid. That’s why I consider 1961 my first professional year in theatre.”

But a move to New York soon after to study with the famed Sandy Meisner and try his luck as an actor proved discouraging, and when Melville was offered a job as assistant stage manager at Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis, he took it. By the time he turned 30, Melville gave up acting, acknowledging that he hated the audition process and admired actors who could sail right through it.

After successfully co-producing a children’s Christmas play in New York and even forming a theatre company, the Brier Hill Playhouse, in Pennsylvania, he returned to Los Angeles in 1972 and rediscovered his love of writing.

A free-lancing career for various theatre publications ended when Bill Bordy, owner of the trade publication Drama-Logue, tapped Melville to become its editor. Melville began a 12-year tenure that saw Drama Logue soar in stature and influence, particularly after he established the popular annual Drama-Logue theatre awards.

When Bordy sold Drama-Logue to Backstage in 1998, Melville took a sabbatical of a few years to handle a family business. But he couldn’t stay away for long. Lars Hansen, a friend and the director of Theatre LA, a new service organization for Los Angeles theatres now known as LA STAGE Alliance, asked Melville to help him start a print publication in 2001. The print magazine, called simply LA STAGE, was published in print for nine years, switching to a digital format in 2009 after the economy tanked. It  acquired the new name of LA STAGE Times and Melville continued as editor-in-chief until Spring 2011, but stepped away after his health had taken a couple of direct hits when his partner of 20 years, Bo White, passed away and, in the same week, Melville lost his home to foreclosure.

Melville leaves a significant legacy in the Los Angeles theatre community as a man with great institutional knowledge and affection and admiration for artists. This respect was widely reciprocated. Many of these artists found in him not only a sensitive and knowledgeable advocate, especially in his later years, but a friend, supporter and mentor as well.

About the seemingly endless debate over whether Los Angeles is or is not a theatre town, he said this: “Who the hell cares? We have wonderful theatre groups here of every size and shape… I defy anybody to say they haven’t had wonderful experiences in the theatre [in Los Angeles].”

Obituary courtesy of Sylvie Drake.

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