News of former LA STAGE Times editor-in-chief Lee Melville‘s death last week, at the age of 74, left the LA theater community reeling over the loss of a cherished colleague, mentor and friend who was a tireless advocate of our local stages and its artists.
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, and can be made here.
The LA STAGE Alliance used social media and email over the holiday weekend to solicit personal memories and thoughts. Here are some of the tributes collected over the past week:
Suzi Dietz, producer
No one knew more about LA Theater, nor supported it more passionately, nor respected and nurtured its artists more enthusiastically than Lee Melville. He came from a school of criticism that placed the critic within the community rather than pitted against it. So we read his reviews with open minds and open hearts…eager to learn from what he had to say about our work. He wrote with intelligence, compassion, and an innate wisdom about what makes theater successful. He encouraged us to take risks, and when we failed, he admonished us to pick ourselves up and try again. He was a towering figure in our community, the likes of which will probably never be seen again. Rest in peace, dear friend. We are forever in your debt.
Tom Ormeny and Maria Gobetti, Victory Theatre
It is painful knowing Lee has left us. He was so generous and thoughtful — a critic who was educated, wise and always without harshness. In the last few years we got to know him personally, sharing some dinners and wonderful conversations. We loved and respected him as a true man of the theater who made LA theater better by his participation. Sweet dreams, Lee.
Trent Steelman, Colony Theatre
Lee Melville did not just love theater, he loved piano bars! On occasion, he would join me, along with Mary Jo Catlett, Toni Sawyer, and Jane Kean, as we listened to the extraordinary talent of the many wonderful singers who spend their nights singing in dark, hole-in-the-wall bars. Lee would sit, watching intently, with his magical Cheshire grin. Each time, we would close the bar, and he would say “when are we coming back?” The very next day, I would get a substantial email from him, thanking me for the evening, and providing analysis of the performers we saw in great detail. I will miss those evenings with him, miss seeing him at opening nights, and mostly miss his thoughtful, well-written, and encouraging emails. Our Granddaddy of Theater is gone, but his legacy will live with us as long as there is theater in Los Angeles.
David Elzer, Demand PR
I am still so teary about our loss, but several thoughts come to mind, which exemplify why I adored this man so. Not only was he so good to me in so many ways — that’s the way he just was to others as well. When the final issue of LA STAGE magazine wasn’t funded enough to go to print, Lee put in his own money (and wrangled a few of us as well to help out) to make sure that all the time and effort that went into it was seen through and seen by all. And the happiness he felt when he was able to bring Bo’s play to the stage, plus the smile whenever you saw him walk into a theater. I could go on and on. So much to miss.
Brian Kite, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
It never seemed right if Lee wasn’t there. His head sticking up slightly above the crowd in the lobby. His deep warm voice telling you what he thought. His sincere praise when you succeeded and his smile when you missed the mark. Royalty in our world. The loss is hard to hold.
Paula Holt, producer
Lee was such an integral part of Los Angeles theater, a sturdy center pole for the LA theater community. He celebrated its excellence with great enthusiasm, and honored even its failed efforts with kindness in his criticism. A tall presence, but self-effacing and gracious, Lee Melville was a gentleman, a gentle man … a man of grace and wit, a man who understood loyalties. I will miss his smile, his knowing wink when he wrote something perhaps more generous than deserved… I will miss his presence, his commentaries, on and off the record. With fond memories that stretch back almost 30 years….
Sara Painter, writer
Lee Melville took me under his wing at LA STAGE Magazine back in 2002. I was young and new to the LA theater scene. For many years he helped me as my editor, my mentor and, my friend. Lee and I had many adventures in LA. We used to play poker at Mary Jo Catlett’s house. He took me with him to see plays and musicals, and I teased him when he fell asleep occasionally during a production. We used to meet for coffee in Burbank and talk about story ideas, life, and the theater. He’d get the greatest twinkle in his eye when he retold details about the last best show he’d seen. He noticed everything about a production — the set, the costumes, the people in the audience. He managed to successfully do what no one else could do in Hollywood — talk about theater! He loved the art form and cared so deeply. I thank him for his contribution to me, in my life, and to the world, especially the Los Angeles theater community. I will miss you, my friend.
Susan Claassen, performer
I am so saddened by the loss of a true gentleman, Lee Melville. When I premiered my play A Conversation With Edith Head at the El Portal, Lee made me feel so welcome in the LA theater community. We immediately connected and he touched my heart. When I received my Ovation nomination, I think Lee was as excited as I was. Although our meetings were brief, he influenced me in such profound ways. In a world of knock-offs, Lee was a true original.
Jon Lawrence Rivera, Playwrights’ Arena
I have known Lee Melville since I started doing theater in this town in 1984. He and I didn’t become friendly until we sat on the Ovation Awards Committee when Lars Hansen was leading LA STAGE. It was during my seven years on that committee that I got to really know Lee. And I found him passionately supportive of LA artists. Plus, he was a walking history book of Los Angeles theater. He knew everyone! My fondest memory of Lee was right after the opening night performance of Last Five Years at East West Players. He had recently lost his partner, Bo. He came to me, holding his tears back and said, “your production really affected me.” We hung on to each other for a bit longer as he finally released his tears and then he said…”thank you.” It was the sweetest and purest time we’ve ever spent.
Luis Alfaro, playwright
A few years ago I was invited to speak at a Grantsmakers in the Arts conference, and Lee pulled me aside to interview me. He said, “I have a lot of questions, but I guess I am just wondering, what’s in your heart?” He just had a lovely way of being in the world. Another time we were taking the elevator up at the Getty Villa to see a performance and he introduced me to his friend saying, “This is one of those people that make the things that make me most happy.” What a lovely spirit. It was always a pleasure to see him at opening nights with his pad and pen. Rest in peace, sweet man.
Diane Lefer, writer
The first time I met Lee, I was new in town. Pamela Dunlap introduced us — where else? — at a show. He, Bo, Pamela and I sat around afterwards, eating pizza and talking about the production and what it’s like to make theater in LA. Years later, when I helped launch a small theater company, Lee was there with encouragement and advice. When I wrote for LA STAGE, he was the smart, supportive, and marvelously unflappable editor-in-chief. But from my earliest days here, Lee made me feel not only welcome but part of something wonderful. The last time I saw him was over coffee several months ago. We compared notes on recent shows we’d both admired, but mostly we reminisced about Zoe and Desi — his dog, my cat, both of them loved and lost. We promised to get together again. I deeply regret we did not.
Julie Briggs, LA Stage Alliance
I was honored to take sweet Zoe home for an overnight, when Lee was ill awhile back. She’d never met me, but had no problem climbing into the back seat of my car, and heading off on an adventure. Once home, she calmly scoped out my entire apartment, then headed for the bedroom, jumped on the bed and went to sleep. She looked so dear and confused when I finally came to bed hours later, and she briefly realized she had no idea where she was. No matter. Right back to sleep for Queen Zoe! Happily, Lee came home the next day, and she got to return to her number one fella. Darling doggie. Darling man. Both so very, very loved.
Joe Stern, Matrix Theatre Company
I came back to LA in 1974, did some theater around town and then bought the Matrix in 1977. From the beginning, Lee and I were simpatico. He was great to me. I did an interview with Terry Fisher in which I took on the Taper and the big guys for not supporting LA theater, and it was a huge deal. I think it might have endeared me to him. I don’t know. In all these years, I’ve taken to calling him the Godfather whenever I run into him at the theater. He always enjoyed that. The last time I saw him he was a little angry with me. We did this play Neighbors two years ago, a very interesting and incendiary piece. It’s written that the actors do not take a curtain call at the end. The playwright’s objective was that he didn’t want to let the audience off the hook and say hey, it’s just a play. Afterward, Lee was very angry with me in the lobby. He was incensed because he’s a very traditional man. He seemed to really like the show but it almost spoiled the whole thing for him. I kind of admired him for it because he was such a lover of the theater. I always had an incredible fondness for him.
Trena Pitchford, former LA Stage Alliance staff member
I had the honor of sharing an office with Lee during my tenure at LA STAGE Alliance. He was a mentor and a friend. I cherish his laughter and his passion for theater. I loved listening to his thought-provoking insights told with that all-knowing twinkle in his eyes. He is, was and will remain a pillar of Los Angeles theater.
Jay McAdams and Debbie DeVine, 24th Street Theatre
Lee always greeted me with a hug, not a handshake, and I expect that was his way with everyone. He was a great human. Lee was at 24th Street Theatre just a few weeks ago to see Walking the Tightrope. That would prove to be the last time we would ever be able to hug Lee. Today, while teaching a class of middle school students at the theater, Deb told these kids about Lee. She told them how much he meant to her. She used Lee to teach these kids about friendship and humanity. She created an exercise where they had to talk their friend down from the ledge. These kids, who never got to hug Lee, know about him now.
Ron Sossi, Odyssey Theatre
Lee was indeed one of a dying breed in LA theater. I was privileged to know him for about 40 years and always found him a consummate gentleman, a man of taste and one with a superb understanding of what it takes to do work in this city. He was at the Odyssey only about two weeks ago, betraying no signs of what was to come. He loved the theater and those of us who knew him loved him. And, for certain he will be sorely missed.
Toni Sawyer, actress and Ovation Committee member
“We know not through our intellect but through our experience” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty. And my experience of Lee is how he made me feel. Appreciated, respected, loved and, yes, frustrated. We often traveled together to New York, Washington DC, Las Vegas and the Stratford Festival, Canada. On these trips we connected on a deep level. I was so happy for those moments, as it was difficult sometimes for him to share his innermost feelings. We laughed, cried and held hands. Thank you, Lee. for having been an important part of my life.
Albie Selznick, actor
Lee was a mentor and a friend…he came to every incarnation of the Mums and more recently Smoke and Mirrors and gave me such helpful advice along the way. He encouraged me always, and to see his smiling face in the audience was such a sign of comfort. I will really miss him.
David Hunt Stafford, Theatre 40
The Los Angeles theater community has suffered a tremendous loss in this passing of our friend and colleague Lee Melville.
He was a giant among us –
a kind man,
a wonderful man,
a brilliant man,
a lovely man,
a gentle man
a bright spirit,
a beautiful man,
a caring man,
who cared for every one of us,
cared very deeply about what we all do,
cared throughout his entire life,
about this art form,
that he and we all love,
He will be missed
he will be remembered
He was a treasure and the empty space created by this loss can never be filled.
Gerry Sternbach, musical director
Lamenting the passing of Lee Melville — who many of us will always associate with what is “right” about theater in Los Angeles. He was an advocate, a fair and supportive man, with humor and always a kind word. I will remember him encouraging me when I was starting out in Equity Waiver theater in this City of Angels, as a kid musical director — to when I was one of the “go-to” guys in this city…. still bumping along. He will be missed.
Simon Levy, Fountain Theatre
My heart is broken. He was a sweet soul with crinkly eyes and an impish grin, our living repository of LA. theater history, a gentleman critic and good friend who believed that art and artists were essential to society. I know his heart was broken by all that happened to him these last few years. I wish he had reached out to us, to his community, to all of us that love him, so that he knew how essential he was. I will miss you, Lee. Sleep well, my friend.
Judi Davidson, Davidson/Choy
I hope that Lee knew how much he meant to all of us — he was a great friend of the theater and a very good friend to me.
Nancy Hereford, Center Theatre Group
I always marveled at the amount of theater that Lee saw in a week. I used to tease him that he was going to grow mold, but he just laughed — being inside a darkened theater with some bit of magic unfolding in front of him was all the light and sustenance that he needed. He was a man in love with the theater, and for more than 50 years he shared that love with Los Angeles. It was infectious. And it is what LA needed. We are going to miss you, Lee.
DOMA Theatre Company
The Los Angeles theater community has suffered a great loss with the passing of Lee Melville. Lee was always very loving and supportive of DOMA, especially when he came as an Ovation voter to Jekyll and Hyde and Xanadu. Not only did Lee have great things to say about both productions but he always exhibited such humility. It was as if he understood the challenges faced in putting up a 99-seat musical. All of us with DOMA Theatre Company very much appreciate his support and will miss Lee very much.
Ken Werther, Ken Werther Publicity
The thing I will always remember most about Lee was his unabashed joy at seeing a small theater show that really got his attention, thrilled him, turned loose the rabid theater lover, supporter, enthusiast Lee was. He would call me on the phone, start by making sure no one else could hear us, and then ask, “Okay, what are we going to do to get this show into a bigger house?” He was loving, trustworthy, and a loyal friend. If I admitted to him that a show for which I’d had high hopes didn’t land quite right, it remained our secret. Throughout 32 years of working in the LA theater community, my friendship with Lee was singular. In moments of distress, he was always there to remind me to have fun, and that it was, after all, only a play.
Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin, New American Theatre (formerly Circus Theatricals)
Lee was a gentleman. Although we did not know him well, we looked forward to spending time with him when he attended our productions. He had extremely twinkly eyes. RIP Lee. You were a true believer in theater, and you paid attention.
Michael Sterling, Michael Sterling and Associates
In recognition of Lee Melville: One of the truly great champions of Los Angeles theater. Always the gentleman and consummate professional. Thank you, Lee…thank you for so many lovely memories and so many kind words over the years. You will never be forgotten. You will forever live on in the hearts of all of us who had the pleasure of knowing you. Good night, sir.
Gary Grossman, Skylight Theatre Company
The LA theater community has lost its true champion. Lee, what you have given to me and hundreds like me over the years can’t be measured. We will never see the likes of you again. I am better because of you. We all are. Rest now.
Patty Onagan, Pasadena Playhouse
Lee had the great gift of making every production, small or large, shine when he was editor-in-chief of LA Stage. I will always be grateful to him for his generosity and support of all the shows that I’ve worked on in Los Angeles. I will miss seeing him and his warm smile. We are all blessed to have Lee shine down on us.
Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger, producers
As we look back and recall Lee Melville, we are reminded of his call for excellence by simply stating, “Do your best work.” Or of his commitment and absolute support of the people who created and did the work of the stage, be it the actors or directors, or the light board operators or the producers. He was the man in our corner, our cutman. He’d wipe the blood and tell us to do it again. Once, we saw him fast asleep at one of our shows, and even then he commented how pleasant it was to be in our audience. Whenever we saw his tall, smiling face in the lobby, or overheard his polite conversation, or shook his hand, it felt special. His visits to our shows were special, his comments were special and his vision was special because he always shared his passion, his commitment and his love of LA theater.
Tom Provenzano, CSUSB professor, writer, critic
We lost a wonderful friend this week. Every time I help a student or one of my adopted kids it’s paying it forward from him. Rest gentle, Lee Melville.
Lucy Pollak, Lucy Pollak Public Relations
I am deeply saddened by Lee’s passing. He was such a lovely man, always supportive, responsive, such an integral part of the theater community. I had the utmost respect for him as an editor, first of Drama-Logue, then of LA STAGE —but I was most impressed by what he did with the LA STAGE website. At the time, the idea of going online with a magazine was still new, and I had little faith — I was sure it marked the end. Instead, he turned it into a vibrant and important site that the theater community has grown to depend on.
Michael Sander, friend
Lee and I were dear friends since 1965, when we worked together on a children’s show in New York — he as stage manager, I as an actor. I worked for him when he was producing at Brier Hill. During the Drama-Logue years, I was the New York correspondent under his editorship. Although we saw each other infrequently in recent years, each conversation and reunion was joyous. Like all participants in LA theater, of which he was an ardent supporter, he will always be in my heart.
Judith Borne, Borne Identities
It makes me so sad that this sweetheart of a guy is gone. I enjoyed hearing what he had to say about the latest shows he’d seen. Although most Ovation voters make their reservations through the producers, he would always make his Ovation reservations for the shows I was promoting through me, usually bringing others out to see theater and managing the email threads until they all agreed on a date! After changing the plan a few times, I would sometimes confirm the reservation for the wrong performance and Lee, ever so gently, would politely kick my ass until I got everyone in to the performance that they could see together. He was such a fearless advocate for bringing Ovation members to the theater! He was his own social media phenomena WAY before Twitter! I was always struck by how polite he was, even when speaking of productions he hated! One year I worked on the Ovation awards with him, watching him get things done the way he wanted them done…the way he got folks to bust their butts for him. Never with an iron hand, but with his sweet persuasion. What a treat to the arts, dear Lee!
Raquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners
Lee was a beautiful soul with an unbelievable love for theater! His passion and kindness will be missed sorely. He has been so generous to me for over 10 years while I’ve been producing here in LA and I’ll never forget his kindness. RIP Lee!
Nancy Adler, Women in Theatre
I first met Lee in the early ’80s when he could always be counted on attend our Women in Theatre meetings and sit on our panels — he was so supportive of our fledgling organization. I always saw Lee when I worked on the Ovation Award Ceremonies. In pre-production meetings and day of show, he would always make a point of giving me a hug along with his praise, which meant so much to me. He lives in my memory as the tall, kind, gentle sage of the L.A. theater scene.
Travis Michael Holder, actor/critic
Oddly, when I think of Lee, I think of a play reading we did for a producer a few years ago, with Lee and Bo sitting in the first row, asleep soon into act two. The next day, the producer said he’d decided not to present it because “Lee Melville said the second act didn’t make sense.” Lee was rather notorious for dozing during performances, but hey — he never missed a one. I realized that opening in a play in a few days will mark the first time in 20 years Lee hasn’t been there lending his steadfast, unwavering support. It’ll be hard to imagine him not there, something that makes me wish I were more spiritual so I can say he’ll be looking down at us. I can’t go that far, but still, I somehow can sense his presence, something that’s always afforded a warm and comforting feeling.
Les Spindle, writer/critic
Lee Melville’s deadpan wit was one of his most endearing qualities. You could always count on him to raise an eyebrow and come up with a wry comment when it was least expected. When I attended the opening of The Deep Throat Sex Scandal at the Zephyr Theatre in February, after I took my seat, Lee came up to me and said, “You’re sitting in the wrong seat.” I was a bit perplexed but looked again at the sheet of paper that had been taped to the chair with my name on it. I told him that it was my designated seat. He replied, “Well, I’ve been told, if you really want a good view of the ‘drama’ in this play, sit over there.” He pointed to the center area, close to the stage. I’m not going to admit whether I followed his advice, but I did cross my mind to sing that ditty from Golden Girls – thank you for being a friend.
John Gallogly, Theatre West
Thomas Wolfe wrote:
and by the wind grieved,
come back again.”
We can only hope he will.
**All Ovation photos by Ryan Miller.