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.

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