May 23, 2013

Lee Melville, R.I.P.

One of the subtexts of the recent news that Backstage would discontinue theater reviews altogether is that it was never inevitable that an actors' trade paper would review theater. Clearly Backstage's corporate overlords had looked at the metrics and at their readership—basically, beginning actors—and asked the common-sense question, Why are we covering all this theater?

This anomaly could be particularly glaring in film- and TV-dominated Los Angeles, where the local theater scene gets about as much respect as head lice. But when I started up Back Stage West in 1994, it was simply understood: We would write about film and TV casting opportunities...and write theater reviews and features. I never thought to wonder why, even if, in later years, my publishers certainly seemed to wonder why I, as editor, had become so singularly focused on L.A. theater, founding an awards show to honor it and even crossing the footlights on occasion.

The reason Back Stage West was on the theater beat, of course, was because Drama-Logue had paved the way, and we were competing with them. Drama-Logue, a scrappy mom-and-pop casting paper, founded in 1972, had grown up along with the rise of the "Equity Waiver" theater movement in L.A., and though I don't know the exact date that Lee Melville began as Drama-Logue's editor in chief, by all accounts it was he who made covering that burgeoning theater scene a priority and a mission for Bill Bordy's little paper. In 1977 he founded the (in)famously generous Drama-Logue Awards and headed a stable of critics that covered the scene with a thoroughness unmatched by any other publication.

I didn't know about this pre-history when I started at Back Stage West, as Lee was no longer editor of Drama-Logue by then. But by the time we founded our own awards to compete with Drama-Logue's, and soon after bought out Drama-Logue, the lore had reached my hearing (the late, great critic Polly Warfield, one of Lee's close associates, who came to write for Back Stage West after the merger, certainly had something to do with that). I can't claim in any real sense that Lee passed a torch to me; when we did eventually meet, he was gracious and pleasant and advisory, and after I left Back Stage West, he had me write a fair amount for the magazine LA Stage, which he had founded. But the environment in which it was simply taken for granted that L.A.'s actors' trades would cover the local theater scene with thoroughness and respect, and with the great honor of honest criticism—in short, the critical environment that largely shaped me and my sensibilities, and gave me a career—was to a large extent Lee's creation. So, though we didn't know each other well, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the late Mr. Melville.

For a more personal recollection, I turn playwright Luis Alfaro, who offered these lovely recollections on Facebook:
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 and it was always a pleasure to see him at opening nights with his pad and pen. Rest in peace, sweet man.


buzz. said...

Lee was a wonderful person and a tremendous supporter of theatre in Los Angeles. My deepest sympathies go out to those who had the great pleasure to have known him.

Sara Painter said...

Lee was a wonderful person and a tremendous supporter of theatre in Los Angeles. My deepest sympathies go out to those who had the great pleasure to have known him.

Anonymous said...

How very sad. Lee was one of the best editors I have had in a long career. I was dance critic and a feature writer for Hollywood DramaLogue for ten years and Lee was the editor who hired me. R.I.P. old buddy.

Martin A. David