Monday, May 27, 2019

Lee Meriwether: For a Beautiful Leading Lady on Her Birthday

The titles that have been bestowed upon the lovely and talented Lee Ann Meriwether in her lifetime are numerous. As she celebrates her birthday today, I have been in reflection for many days as to how and why I will always remember this date as “hers” on my calendar. Here she is pictured receiving her crown from Miss America 1954, Evelyn Ay, in what was reportedly the very first live broadcast of the crowning ceremony on TV. The first title I ever learned she’d won was Miss America 1955.

And, I remember exactly where I was when I learned this fact. I was 9 years old and transfixed in front of the television watching an episode of “The Time Tunnel.” This show featured a scientific team, led by Robert Colbert as Dr. Doug Phillips, and teen idol/actor James Darren as Dr. Anthony Newman. They had a machine that involved setting all the target coordinates for time travel and the plot involved a question, the journey, the action, the mystery of whether or not they could return back to present day, and the heroics to get home. It was an early Irwin Allen production of merit.

When I informed my mother that Dr. McGregor was actually Lee Meriwether, as I was an avid credit watcher at a young age, my mother one-upped me and said, “Actually honey, that’s Lee Ann Meriwether, and she’s our Miss America from 1955.” I said, “She’s very intelligent, playing a doctor in a laboratory!” Mom’s reply was, Yes, dear, and she’s a real lady, you can just see it in how she carries herself.” I nodded and watched for that, too. That wouldn’t be the last time we spoke of her.

In the opening of ABC’s “The Time Tunnel,” you saw a colorful montage and ultimate title logo (in a perfect font) with theme music that set the stage for Irwin Allen’s journey. It was amusing to learn that a (very) young Johnny Williams, had written that, and that he’d also go on to write the theme from “Lost in Space.” His career, best known today as John Williams, continues to span six decades of unforgettable scores.

Fast forward a little bit in 1966. During an episode of “Batman” I recall exclaiming joyfully, “She’s Catwoman!! Lee Meriwether is Catwoman!!! And Batman is in trouble now!” Yes, I was only 10 years old, but I knew to look for my favorite actors across episode TV even then. As Batman progressed in its full TV and movie journey, I’d also see Julie Newman and Eartha Kitt portraying Catwoman. All were good, at being bad girls, but my favorite was already Lee. Another note to self: Bad girls certainly were glamorous. I'd remember that, too.

I gave some serious thought to being a crime fighter, having been influenced earlier by Dame Diana Rigg as the inimitable Mrs. Peel on “The Avengers.” It was going to be hard to be naughty like Catwoman when all my instincts were to be a crimefighter like Mrs. Peel.

You'll remember there are three actresses who portrayed Catwoman, Julie Newman, Lee Meriwether, and Eartha Kitt (pictured). After enjoying her portrayal of such a diverse character change, I realized that I, too, could shift gears anytime I wanted to, and I found myself less interested in science and more interested in the behind-the-scenes of TV productions. My credit watching grew even more intense as I was determined to master the minutia of who did what on what shows, studying how certain talents crossed over between shows, loyal to one network or another, and I almost thought that would be my future career, again behind the scenes. Options...there were always career options; that was my takeway from seeing Dr. Ann McGregor to Catwoman from the same lovely actress.

During high school and college, TV time was tighter but I always made time for “Barnaby Jones,” where I found her again as “Betty Jones,” co-star to Buddy Ebsen and a very capable detective’s assistant who played perfectly with Ebsen’s “Barnaby” character. Betty was behind the scenes of some of Barnaby's breakthroughs and thanks to some brilliant acting, I learned that you could say more with looks and reactions than with two pages of dialogue filling up a script. I filed that fact in the back of my mind for future reference.

I was lucky enough to have her there for eight seasons. Through her role, the role of assistant to a forensic detective with his own in-office laboratory looked just fine as a career choice from this side of the screen! She always looked so capable, and it felt like it went far beyond acting talent. It would be clear later that her projection of confidence invoked confidence in me. Message sent and received. I'd use this fact a few decades later when having to address a room full of scientists on the topic of quantum mechanics. My pre-talk preparation included reminding myself that "Look like you believe in what you're saying, even if you don't!" Thanks to "Betty" with a dash of Susan Lucci's "Erica" thrown in for good measure, I made it through quantum mechanics. I should have sent her a thank-you note...but...

Lee spent a good portion of her career (my graduate school days) acting in movies with occasional guest spots on TV shows. Lee didn’t know this but she was an early role model for me, one I recalled as I was busy carving out my graduate studies in physical chemistry, stuck in the library or the lab most of the time doing research. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. On Father’s Day 2016, I was fortunate to attend Kiki Ebsen’s cabaret version of her theatre show “To Dad with Love,” where Lee Meriwether and her daughter Lesley Aletter were special guests.

Following the show I waited in a (long) line of people waiting to speak with Kiki and Lee, and said to Lee, “Thank you so much for being such a beautiful role model. I went to grad school in science because you made it look beautiful and fun!” She was so gracious, noting “Over the years, I’ve had so many women (and men) come up to me today and say that her year as Dr. Ann McGregor had made such an impact on them, that they, too, earned PhD degrees.” Some were working at NASA and others in chemical laboratories. It was predictable and yet adorable, how she was so modest and humble about inspiring the youth of the day to strive for advanced degrees.

Now, Lee had made it look delightful and even glamorous to be in a lab with a clipboard while wearing makeup. Reality was that my white lab coat had a “Mr. Bill” character over the back saying, “Oh Nooooo!” because I taught chemistry and empathized with my students about the work it was going to bring. I did strive to be like Lee but my lab coat had a few hard-earned ink stains and a few mementos of various reagents.

Life went on and one day in 1996 while playing back the “Beta” recording of “All My Children,” there Lee was again! A complete surprise, I was delighted to see her taking on the role of “Ruth Martin,” one that had been identified so closely with actress Mary Fickett, who inaugurated that role from the beginning of the show on January 5, 1970. That day matched the month and year I’d begun watching Agnes Nixon’s best daytime TV creation and I was one of the regulars who followed the show whenever time and videotape permitted.

Lee’s entrĂ©e to this show was opposite actor Ray MacDonnell as Dr. Joe Martin, and to switch out “Ruth Martin” was rather groundbreaking for the show. Frankly, Lee was the only actress who could immediately become known for and “as” a role that had been the mainstay identity of Mary Fickett for 26 years! For the next two years, she held audiences’ favor until Mary Fickett decided to unretire and returned to the show in 1998. Mary stayed two more years and then retired again and Lee returned once again in 2002. Even today, she’s beloved by the acting ensemble of “All My Children” as “one of Pine Valley’s originals.” Equal acceptance and adoration for both actresses highlights her abilities.

Lee’s popularity as actress and voice talent moved forward into the 21st century as she took on the role of “Miss Hastings” with James Garner in “The Ultimate Gift,” a film that’s shown regularly on the Hallmark Channel. She also starred in the sequels, “The Ultimate Life” and “The Ultimate Legacy.” She had an abundant tv career with guest appearances on episodic TV including five roles in 2018 alone.

Because she played in one episode of “Star Trek,” and multiple times in “Batman” and “The Time Tunnel,” Lee spent the past several years traveling as a special guest at Comic Con events, to the delight of everyone there. She patiently posed for photos, answered multiple questions multiple times, and is as gracious today as she was when first greeting the public as Miss America.

Her life and home and away from home, however, has been one of first loves, the team at Theatre West. In recent years during her involvement, her dearest friend, the late Linda L. Rand, was often her sidekick in all good things and joyous occasions. On Feb. 10, 2018, a sold-out audience enjoyed a star-studded tribute to her in “Love Letters to Lee Meriwether,” coinciding with the 55th anniversary of Theatre West. Both James Darren and Robert Colbert were there from “The Time Tunnel,” Betty Garrett’s sons, Garrett Parks and Andrew Parks, represented their mother and father (Larry Parks) in saluting her, as did Kiki Ebsen, representing her father, Buddy Ebsen, in paying tribute and sharing fond memories, as did so many others.

Lee’s involvement in Theatre West spans many decades as both board member and actress. Her stage involvement is of long-standing. Her one-woman rendition of the show “The Women of Spoon River” was highly acclaimed. In April 2000, she starred in Doug Haverty’s play, “Come Baby, Cradle and All,” the world premiere at Theatre West; at age 78 she starred in William Blinn’s play, “A Short Stay at Carranor,” and in the Los Angeles Times, she referenced the longevity and bright career of her former co-star, Buddy Ebsen: “He really worked at being at the top of his game. You had to keep up with him. I adored him. I think he had feelings for me too.”

In February, 2018, coincident with the event “Love Letters to Lee,” Theatre West members paid tribute to her talents, as seen in this beautiful YouTube salute:

This is just a sampling of the heartfelt thoughts and memories of theatre colleagues—playwrights, actors, producers and directors. In December 2015, Lee was invited by Cabarabia producer Clifford Bell to participate in his and Tiffany Bailey’s showcase, “Season’s Greetings from the Corner of Jazz and Cabaret.” Lee’s medley had a funny story that she shared, and unsurprisingly it involved Theatre West. Enjoy it here:

As she celebrates her 84th birthday today, Lee is fortunate to have two her loving daughters, Lesley Aletter and Kyle Aletter, as the best gifts in her life she can count among the likely multiple accolades via social media, phone calls, and good old-fashioned greeting cards she received today. Her birthday was listed first in newspapers across the country today, as just one small example of how faithfully she is remembered by those she will never know or meet in person.

Last summer, Lee was out on the town with her daughter Lesley and dear friend, the late Linda Rand, to hear Kiki Ebsen sing jazz at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. Sharing this picture because no matter where she is, you will always see Lee smiling, from the inside out.

L to R: Lesley Aletter, Linda L. Rand, Kiki Ebsen, and Lee Meriwether [Photo: Steve Wallace]

In this way she reminds us that projecting joy is a great way to feel that joy. Lee continues to be an advocate for live theatre, one “home base” that she loves so much. For just this one writer, I will always appreciate the example of beauty, grace, style, class, intelligence, strength of character, devotion to family, and the ability to take whatever life throws at you and never look dismayed or perturbed as “life happens.” She’s been a role model to so many for so long.

Today, she stands as an example of elegance as a gently aging star in our present-day galaxy. Hollywood needs to return to that day and time where people took time to prepare thoroughly for the roles we play in life. It was best in a day and time in life where we were kind and gracious to others, mentoring those behind us, while paying tribute to those who paved the way for us. Perhaps we can return to that kind of life once again. There’s always hope.

Love, light, laughter, and bouquets of pink roses to Lee. Happy birthday and many, many more.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Marking a Memorable Day and Remembering a Loved One

It was a beautiful sunny afternoon as I was leaving Callaway-Jones, headed into the back parking lot last Thursday, when I spotted something you don’t see every day here. A rooster and a hen were strutting down a nearby driveway, headed home after a visit to one of the neighbors’ lawns to search for who knows what. I just stared at them, amused, thinking that they didn’t think anything about what I was thinking. They were on a mission of their own and heading home afterwards. Country living in the middle of a city. I guess that’s what you call mixed-use development.

My eyes then moved right as I saw a delivery truck backed up and ready to offload. The truck’s logo bore the name of a well-known casket manufacturer of whom I’d been aware for close to 15 years now, today being 14 years to the day of my mother’s passing. The year before her death, my best friend and I had driven to two manufacturers’ sites in Texas, while I was studying the pricing, quality, and elements of exactly the kind of casket I wanted for Mom’s burial. As a good nerd, research is always comforting. Understand the unknown and it can’t flummox you later.

When you think about these topics early, it takes much of the emotion, grief, and trauma out of the equation. I wanted time to think about what I’d like, what I could afford, and what was available. As an only child, all decisions were up to me. Don’t feel sorry for me, because I had no one telling me I was “doing it wrong,” ha.

By the time my research and review of caskets was done, I knew the top manufacturers’ names, the model names of many caskets, the difference between various metal gauges, and other terms that don’t come up often in daily conversation. And I knew the pricing. When it came time to select Mom’s casket, I was well prepared and trusted Cody and his grandfather, Raymond, to make sure the casket of my choice would arrive on time. They did, precisely. It was exactly what I wanted for Mom, and it was beautiful. And then I forgot about all that, for 14 years in fact.

As some of you know, I now work for Callaway-Jones as their Certified Life Celebrant and Life Tribute Writer, so you think I’d be thinking a lot about caskets, but in fact I don’t. I think about life after death, about celebrating the life that meant so much to those they left behind, and on constructing services that provide healing and celebration of the best times of their lives. But Thursday afternoon was different.

As I stood there actually seeing the delivery truck back into position, time froze for a few minutes as I just watched something profound happen. I’ve known my friend and work colleague Catherine Ewing-Cates for over 20 years, and I know she’s been a Funeral Director for many years. But most recently I have thought of her as the manager of Restever Cemetery in Bryan, because that’s where I see her often.

But Thursday, Catherine was outside in the parking lot standing quietly until the driver had opened the bay of his truck and she moved forward with the carrier that the casket would be offloaded to. She greeted the driver respectfully and professionally, and there was no idle chatter. Both driver and funeral director offloaded the casket and transferred it onto the carrier with such respectfulness, that it reminded me exactly of the scene I’d seen many times on “NCIS,” when a military serviceperson is flown home to the United States and military personnel await the transfer of the casket. There’s a quiet reverence about that process. And yes, I've been known to shed a tear at the beauty of the ceremony because of what it means.

And Thursday, there was a similar stillness and solitude in that scene. In fact, neither Catherine nor the driver even noticed me watching them. They were doing their jobs so professionally, even when no one was (seemingly) watching. There was a beautiful cover over the casket, for protection during the drive, and yet another layer of secure covering after the cover was removed. Catherine handled that transfer with exactly the same level of respect as she would have, were there someone inside it. That just hit me as profound. It’s the parts of the world we work in that the public doesn’t see that are even more impressive than all the things you do see that cause you to have confidence in us.

Yes, it’s how we make you feel after losing a loved one that you remember most of all, but I really wanted to say that, even though I’ve seen many aspects of afterlife care that most of you have not, I’m really proud of the family team I work with, because I see what you can’t, and don’t, and it is truly as worthy of lifting up. Yet, there’s no standing ovation for honor and grace, although there really should be. At the end of the day, you can know you’ve done your job well, and served your families with total respect and appreciation because of all who see you doing that, but it’s who we are when no one is watching that I think is worth just as much merit.

I just took a few minutes again this afternoon to vote in The Eagle’s Reader’s Choice Awards 2019 contest. You can vote once a day through tomorrow. I’m proud that Callaway-Jones is in the Top 3 as best funeral home and that two of the Top 3 best funeral directors are ours, as well as one of the Top 3 receptionists in the competition. I may be biased because I work there, but I only work there because many years ago, I was their customer first. And my confidence in them has only become stronger with every day I interact with them.

I do so love “country living” in the middle of Bryan, Texas. I’ve got deer in my front yard looking for supper and a rooster and a hen strutting up and down driveways and parking lots out for a walk. It just doesn’t get any better than this. As we begin to prepare for Memorial Day weekend ahead next weekend, we remember and appreciate all the professionals whose work involves paying respects to those we’ve loved and lost. Their memories, and their love, remain with us forever.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Women-Powered Music Panel Offers Solid Advice in Gracious Spirit of Sharing

California’s Laemmle Monica Theatre in Santa Monica hosted the Fifth Annual Artemis Women in Action Film Festival the weekend of April 26–28. The event honored writers, producers, directors, music composers, arrangers and stuntwomen—whose careers have brought them to recognition long deserved. Festival attendees found inspiration from group and individual mentoring, which flowed from panel discussions after various film premieres.

Paul Feig presents The Artemis Women in Action Film Festival was cofounded five years ago by Melanie Wise and Zac Baldwin and is supported by Board of Directors members Sheena Metal and Heidi Mastrogiovanni, financial advisor Malissa Wise, Marketing/PR director Eric Vollweiler, and Iranian correspondent, Maryann Haddadi.

On Saturday afternoon, award-winning journalist Sheryl Aronson led an accomplished group on the Women-Powered Music Panel, sponsored by Bella Composers, featuring three multifaceted speakers who shared passions for music, each having chosen three distinct paths towards achieving their goals. [Photo (R): L to R: Kaylene Peoples, Sheryl Aronson, Kiki Ebsen, and Starr Parodi.]

The panel included Kaylene Peoples, Founder of Bella Composers and CEO of KL Publishing; Kiki Ebsen, Composer, Recording/Touring Artist, Actor, Writer,and Producer; and, Starr Parodi, Composer, Recording Artist and President of the Alliance for Women Film Composers. The group was moderated by Aronson, who covers music, entertainment and theatre for national audiences in her Agenda Magazine online blog “Arting Around,” and is a feature writer for their print edition.

What was the audience’s common denominator? All came brimming with talent and hope, but no defined understanding of how to reach their next level. When Kaylene Peoples inaugurated the “women-powered music” panel, she chose wise, experienced professionals to inspire the audience. Peoples, Ebsen, Parodi, and Aronson possess an abundance of talent and the willingness to share advice and encouragement.

Sheryl introduced each panelist and asked them to describe their path to their first career success. Delightful stories were shared, with honesty and humor, immediately putting the audience at ease. Each panelist shared how, while searching for their first open door, the resounding thud of silence confronted them once, twice, or more, so they had to keep going, determining not to quit until they’d achieved their first breaks.

Modest, beautiful, and just a tad shy, Starr Parodi lights up when she speaks of the opportunities she’s found on her musical path. An award-winning composer and recording artist, you might have first seen her in the house band on TV’s “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Given millions of people watched that show, they saw Starr nightly—that’s a great place to start!

Ultimately, Parodi became highly respected for her motion picture and television scores. In 2017, Parodi was invited by the New York Times to conduct “To All the Little Girls,” a work she produced at Lincoln Center, another example of her inspiration to future achievers with dreams. Forbes magazine noted Starr had “reinvented the modern action movie trailer” with her production and arrangement of the “James Bond” movie theme. Starr spoke of the importance of having an agent representing your work, depending on your specialty, and how each artist should evaluate and monitor their own progress rather than turn your career future completely over to someone else.

Kiki Ebsen recognized early in life that she and music would be together forever. As early as high school, Ebsen wrote her own music and played with an established band, then started two of her own bands. Kiki found national acclaim early, winning a national collegiate competition. She and her band made it into final rounds on “Star Search” before elimination. Ebsen didn’t quit after the first loss; she began a solo career and eventually recorded and released her first CD.

A few years later Ebsen was performing internationally on stage (or behind the curtain for the band Chicago) as a sideman on keyboards and vocals for Grammy-winning and platinum-selling artists including Al Jarreau, Tracy Chapman, Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, and Namie Amuro. Her talents resonated with audiences she found early in her travels.

While touring, Ebsen used breaks to write her own songs and perform them in small venues wherever she was, feeding her own soul as an artist while helping major stars shine. Some of her early compositions were autobiographical; others were fueled by her imagination. Panel members agreed that, at first, you might have to keep the “day job,” but you can always pursue your passions during your free time.

Kiki noted how “important it is to have your own unique voice, to follow your heart, and to not take ‘no’ for an answer.” Writing what you know assures your songs are authentic, which may mean tackling some uncomfortable subjects in exercising and exorcising your feelings. Ebsen says, “There’s a lot of pain in this world, but the arts can lift us up and bring us out, and get us to where we want our lives to be.” Seven solo CDs later, Kiki is excited about her next CD of original songs, saying “It’s hard to decide which ones to record now, and which to save for another time.”

Kaylene Peoples is, first at heart, a musician. With each story she told, you could feel her warrior spirit gently confined inside a dignified beauty as she explained how “no” was a word that was not going to sit well with her, much less any suggestion that a path involving the “me, too” world was going to fly. Rather than sitting bitter on the sidelines waiting for the business to change to adapt to her, Kaylene found a path around the norm.

Creating many of her own opportunities as musician and writer, Peoples built on her early music experiences and persevered, and almost like magic, doors kept opening. Ultimately, she became an accomplished musician, songwriter, arranger, composer, and publisher. And she’s not finished. Peoples never forgot the feelings of doubt and the need for affirmation that she had early on her journey. She could only look to herself then, and progressed forward, one step at a time. Heads nodded in the audience affirming that the road was long and hard but worth it.

As the audience posed questions about how you get your music heard and your story told, Kaylene encouraged attendees to "stay the course and not give up." Importantly, she patiently guided one talented audience member who almost missed Peoples’ message while listening to her own internal fears of rejection.

Everyone in the audience benefited from the panel’s answers; no one was left behind. Sometimes it’s a kind word, a solid idea, or literally it’s a woman of strength and courage reaching an outstretched hand to another like-minded soul with affirmation, “You can do this; you’re almost there” to drive home a victory.

Sheryl Aronson is author of “Passing Myself Down to the Grave: A Woman’s Rise from Darkness” (KL Publishing Group), released last year. Her story chronicles her personal journey from cancer diagnosis to survivor with powerful emotion. Sheryl strongly believes that more women need to be in the spotlight, especially women composers. Aronson’s journalism goal was to be a published author which, at first, seemed beyond reach. How to get your first assignment? She didn’t know, but she persisted until she found outlets to publish her interviews and profiles with artists who inspired and moved her to write about them. She never gave up.

One of Sheryl’s first interviews was prodigy Terri Lyne Carrington before Carrington’s career took off. It just seemed to springboard from there. Aronson emphasized her ability to say “yes” to an assignment, even when initially she lacked the required background. Sheryl quickly learned from an accomplished sound man, Bryan Bell, who gave her a brief master class in sound gear, as he patiently and clearly taught her technical details so she could finish her story.

Panel attendees were enthralled, inspired, excited, and encouraged to continue their journey toward their next accomplishment. With each question the audience was revealed to be an exceptional group of achievers with great potential, as they interacted with the panelists so enthusiastically. One woman had just completed a beautiful CD of healing music, and Kiki pointed out several areas of the healing industry as potential markets. Starr added that the more metadata the woman could tag and furnish in her music compositions submitted to collections and libraries would help. Identifying more potential audiences for her music would move her closer to being picked up when a film or television producer searched for a certain feel or background for their work.

There were some discussions of the impacts of Apple Music, YouTube, individual Web sites and personal social media in impacting and safeguarding an artist’s creative identity. No label deal? Don’t worry. Peoples said, "Not everyone needs a label to succeed when social media is free."

A Midwestern woman posed a question regarding a symphony she’d written. “How could she get PR?” she asked, having never done publicity before. Turns out, with the panel’s encouragement, the audience learned that she was an Artemis award winner with her latest symphony. Kiki noted, “See, you’re an award-winning composer and that title remains with you forever.” The woman was stunned but pleased to hear that said out loud. Even though she had received the distinction, the woman had not yet connected herself as an “award-winning composer.” That’s the beauty of looking at yourself through the eyes of other accomplished artists. They see you as the “best you” possible. When one has attained their own level of excellence, then they can help and serve as a mentor to someone else.

Kaylene, who owns a PR firm, shared, “Everyone needs publicity to get the word out. Whether you have a budget to hire a major firm to create and project your image, or you have to save up to hire a publicist for one project, you need PR.” She also noted, “Many established artists choose PR firms to help reinvent their careers or to rebrand a performer’s image.” For those who have no budget to hire a professional, Peoples recommended searching Amazon for books on PR for beginners.

Another audience member highlighted she had multiple types of music projects and described how she’d created a new name for a duo project, separate from her individual work. Branding, then, was another topic about defining one’s image, keeping elements of information consistent so that, over time, the brand comes to stand for exactly what you want to communicate.

Starr Parodi shared that you can be established in one area, but if there’s another area you want to pursue, you must communicate to others that you’d like to expand what people know you for. Diversity keeps you from being trapped in a single talent area. Parodi’s own career as musician, composer, producer, and arranger appeared to flow smoothly from one area into another, as her interests and options grew. Hearing her share her thoughts, each attendee got the sense that they, too, could flow and grow in their accomplishments.

After the panel ended, Peoples, Parodi, Ebsen, and Aronson offered one-on-one advice and more encouragement to attendees, who clearly didn’t want their time together to end. Kiki noted that the “energy in the room had gone from respectfully quiet to wildly effusive.” It’s always helpful to focus on your dreams inspired by like-minded achievers with a similar mindset and determination to accomplish their goals. Women can champion other women to help preserve their dreams. When you climb the stairs on your pathway to success, when a hand reaches out for you, clasp it tightly in yours and hold on. And when you get where you’re going, reach out your hand to another who needs encouragement. And on it flows.


For more information on the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival, visit

For more on Bella Composers, visit

For the Alliance for Women Film Composers,

Women-Powered Music Panel Members’ Web sites include:,,, and