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My Life in Lights
Growing up at Hollywood High
Photo Illustration by Mark Hooper
Every opera house has a phantom, every theater its ghost. The drama students at Hollywood High School have, for as many years as anyone can recall, shared their auditorium with Olivia. While crossing the stage in a Christmas processional, the story goes, Olivia burned to death when the candle she carried lit her papier-mache dress. Her spirit ascended into the catwalk above the stage, where henceforth it would help or hinder whoever was struggling to raise a curtain or drop a scrim. It would send beams of light across darkened balconies. It dwelled in the orchestra pit, where students would hear clanging cymbals even when no instruments were present. It would hover over actresses until they shrieked. Olivia wasn’t a nasty ghost, but she was a needy one. The auditorium could embrace you, she suggested. It could also never let you go.
OVERTURE: It Only Takes a Moment
I entered Hollywood High School when I was six years old. My classroom was the dressing rooms and the stage, with its scuffed boards and dusty curtains. My classroom stretched to the makeup room on stage left, to the light booth that I reached by scurrying up a metal ladder, and to the docks that stored the lumber and flats as tall as skyscrapers. My classmates were not first graders reading Dick and Jane books but 16-year-olds rehearsing lines and exchanging insults and talking about Taxi Driver.
My dad was directing Hello, Dolly! that spring. It was going to be a huge show, maybe the biggest Hollywood High had ever produced, with sets that revolved and dancing waiters and my mom’s fancy costumes and a full orchestra. My parents didn’t have time to shuttle me to North Hollywood where we lived, so they asked my elementary school teacher if they could pull me out of school. She agreed, and Mom picked up my homework, which I did backstage with the big kids when I wasn’t being sent on missions (like delivering a note demanding the return of Charlie’s stolen gold tennis shoes, no questions asked, or being goaded into approaching Rodney and yelling, “You’re a bitch!” and then laughing with all the big kids as his jaw dropped).
The big kids were the students of my dad, whose name was Jerry Melton. He was the head of the drama department. Mr. Melton (as everyone called him, and don’t you forget it) was of medium build, with thinning hair and a beard and mustache verging on salt-and-pepper. He was 43 and wore groovy patterned polyester shirts with leather jackets and zip-up ankle boots. He was from Texas, which may be where he picked up the sayings that he bellowed in a deep and theatrical voice. Among his favorites were “Sit down before you fall down!” and “Well, I’ll be Jesus Christ on a chromium crutch!” Sometimes he punctuated his sentences with “and if you don’t like it, you can go to Arby’s!” (a career at the fast-food restaurant across the street was, in his estimation, synonymous with a failed life). He sometimes stood at the back of the balcony and, with cupped hands, screamed “Prooooooooojeeeeect!” at the students who, he swore, were whispering onstage.
Every morning, while Dad taught drama classes, Mom and I walked downstairs to the cafeteria to buy milk and warm coffee cake. The smell of the baking worked its way through the open windows into the dressing room and filled the space until it was replaced later in the day by the scent of sour pancake makeup and the big kids eating fries and burping Tab. Those kids were my heroes. They dressed in flared jeans and tight T-shirts and in halter tops and high-heeled espadrilles. Because of my status as Mr. Melton’s little girl, I had the equivalent of an all-access pass to the Oscars, allowing me to roam freely from dressing room to dressing room (there is no modesty in the theater, Dad said, and I’d already seen it all).
I also roamed with the kids and with my older brothers, Greg and Steve, and sister, Katie, outside of school. Hollywood in 1976 was skuzzy, crazy, and charged, and I soaked it up. We slid down the rails in front of the auditorium to Highland Avenue, which we ran across as if we were being chased by wild dogs to get roast beef sandwiches and pink lemonade with extra ice for my dad at Arby’s. We walked to Hollywood Boulevard (“the boulevard”) and bought LifeSavers lollipops and midget cans of 7-Up at Lee Drugs. Sometimes we visited the big kids who worked as ushers and popcorn vendors at the Chinese or Paramount or Egyptian theater, and they sneaked us in. Even on weekend nights when there weren’t any rehearsals or shows, Hollywood was home. My family piled into our station wagon and parked on the boulevard to watch the hippies and the weirdos. Steve and I sat in the seat that faced out back and stared at the Hare Krishna whirling in robes and shaking tambourines. We saw boys dressed like girls talking to drivers who pulled up to the curb. We wondered where the skinny kids were going who looked angry—or maybe scared—as they walked by in filthy clothes and stringy hair.
The show was opening in a few days. Dad was finishing the colossal Dolly set. It had about 20 wheels underneath it but was so heavy that the wheels kept breaking with horrible popping sounds. To replace them, the crew rolled parts of the set off the stage’s edge, and the strongest kids stood underneath in the orchestra pit to support it. Dad was putting a shine on every musical number, too. When the kids were underplaying “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” he stormed down the aisle, jabbed his fingers to the heavens, and yelled, “Excitement reigns supreme!” The school had designated this “Dolly Week.” There were newspaper articles about the show and the talented girl who was so convincing as Dolly Levi, the great matchmaker of Yonkers.
April Millo lived in an apartment above Franklin Avenue. Kids said you could hear her dad, who had been an opera singer, belting out songs from the basement when you walked by. April had a voice that carried all the way to Hollywood Boulevard. Like the other kids in the show, she seemed old to me, at least 40. She allowed me to tag along backstage. Dad said she already carried herself like a diva. She and the other kids in the show, like Mike Sloane and Bruce Wexler and April Ortiz, were also so good that the local entertainment reporter for ABC, Regis Philbin, taped a segment about the production.
Philbin’s report ran on the six o’clock news the night the show opened. By 7:30 there were lines that went down the stairs and to the boulevard. The kids, zipping up their costumes backstage, asked, “How’s the house?” and I could tell them it was sold out. Hello, Dolly! played to full audiences the three nights of its run. When April Millo sang “Before the Parade Passes By” at the end of Act One, people wept. By the final performance, on Saturday night, the judges from the mayor’s office selected it the outstanding educational theatrical production in Southern California, and they presented awards to the actors during a standing ovation. My dad was as happy as I have ever seen him. The audience screamed and whooped, and I felt lost in the electricity of it all.
I knew a lot for a six-year-old. I knew that to wish for someone to “break a leg” was a good thing. I knew that it was not okay to peek through the curtains at the audience. I knew that I should say “Bravo” and not yell “Yay!” when clapping at the end of a show. I knew that wings had nothing to do with angels but were the areas offstage where I could stand, hidden from the audience, and watch April Ortiz and Bruce sing “It Only Takes a Moment” and have no idea what they were singing about but know that it sounded beautiful.
Because I was six, I did not know that some of the kids in Dolly had secrets. Like stage mothers who pushed too hard or parents whose own acting careers were fading. I did not know about the fathers who were drunks and the brothers who were drug addicts and the mothers who came home with strangers at 3 a.m. Some of the kids already lived on their own because they had been thrown out, some got stoned before rehearsals, and others were gay and hadn’t yet admitted it to themselves. I did not know about the backstage jealousies or the pregnancies or the broken hearts (like Claudia who was in love with Bruce who was in love with Grace who was in love with Charlie, and so on). I did not know that for some kids, seeing their name on the Dolly cast list was the first good thing that had happened to them; that for others, this moment was to be the one they would summon 30 years from now when they needed to feel absolute joy.
ACT ONE: The Education Of Mr. Melton
My dad related to his students because he was one of them. Hollywood was always going to be his salvation, too. He had family secrets of his own. When my dad was six months old, he and his mother returned from a trip to hear that their house in O’Brien, Texas, had burned down and his father had been found dead inside. Two of his mother’s brothers had been drinking with his father and got in a row; they were tried for murder but found innocent. My grandmother left town and opened a boardinghouse in Abilene, where my dad spent his Saturdays at the magnificent Paramount Theater fantasizing about being a movie star. That goal was so much further away for him as a teenager performing Shakespeare at Abilene High than it was for the students he would direct at Hollywood High.
My dad arrived in Hollywood in 1957, appearing in small theaters and going on movie auditions. Cocky, with dark hair and blue eyes, he liked to wear his shirts with the three top buttons undone. He met my mom, Ruthe Powell, a brunet with a size 25 waist and legs from here to Pacoima, backstage during a production of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending. They married in 1958. My dad would say that he gave up acting because he wanted to support a family and knew he couldn’t with an unsteady paycheck. There was truth to that, but the real reason was that he hated rejection, which was about all Hollywood had offered him. He knew he was good—he’d been the star at Abilene High—and his ego couldn’t handle being told otherwise.
So instead he taught, first at a junior high, then in 1968 at Hollywood, which was renowned for having the country’s best drama program. What had started as a small schoolhouse for farm kids in 1903 soon became a star factory. Fay Wray, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Jason Robards Jr., Gloria Grahame, James Garner, Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Barbara Hershey—each had spent time on campus. You could be doing algebra one minute, plucked for a screen test the next. The school’s most famous “graduate,” Judy Turner, attended class for only six weeks in 1936 before being spotted on a stool playing hooky at the Top Hat Cafe, catty-corner to the school, and being reborn as Lana. More than any other public high school in Los Angeles—more than University High or Roosevelt or archrival Fairfax—Hollywood High had a mystique.
Dad may have given up on becoming a working actor, but at Hollywood High he developed the persona of a star. The students were awestruck by him. They were also terrified. It was the keys that told them Mr. Melton was coming. He wore about 30 of them on two belt loops—in the rare moments when the keys weren’t there (that is, when he was asleep), the two loops sagged from the recollected weight. The keys would jangle, bouncing to and fro, as he barreled down the aisle, then up the stairs to the stage, then through the hallway to the dressing room, where a sophomore who had missed his cue was cowering. Mr. Melton taught his students never to walk onto a stage without a motivation and never to cross one without a purpose, and he applied those principles to his own conduct. You could hear him coming, and you knew there was nowhere to hide or no excuse to be accepted. The keys that opened every door in the auditorium, every cabinet, the keys that gave Mr. Melton the power to unlock secrets or to keep others protected, the keys that were cut especially for you to open your potential—their clanking got louder and louder, Mr. Melton’s approaching steps more forceful, and then—pow!—the dressing room door would burst open. There in its frame he stood, arms akimbo, chest puffed out. “Mr. Melton, I couldn’t change my clothes fast enough,” the sophomore would stammer. “I couldn’t get out there in time!”
“I don’t care if you come out there in your jockstrap,” Mr. Melton would shout for the auditorium to hear. “You are going to make your cue!” He would turn his back, the door would close, and the keys would mercifully fade away.
The auditorium was his stage, and a big one. Hollywood High had the largest theater of any school in the district; with 1,944 seats, it surpassed Grauman’s Chinese two blocks away. Mr. Melton’s students dominated so many festivals, competing against 70 high schools across Southern California, that they were finally asked to stop coming (or at least that’s what he told them). A panel that included the actor Ed Asner awarded Dad’s 1972 staging of Tom Paine first prize, lauding it as “Spectacular!” and “A great theatrical experience!” and the “most exciting thing I ever saw.”
It was his drama teacher in Abilene who had inspired him, and he had every intention of passing on what he had learned. Theater is life, kids, and you have no idea how lucky you are to be a part of something so much larger than yourself. Let’s give them shows that leave them speechless. Let’s give them beautiful costumes, a spectacle they’ll never forget. Let’s give them sets with levels and staircases and trapdoors that would look at home on Broadway. Drama students should learn how to be, not how to act. The door to success is labeled PUSH, SO press on.
INTERMISSION: The First Family of Theater
I once entered my room to go to sleep and discovered one of Dad’s students in my bed with my cat. What are you doing here? I asked. I got here first, she told me. So I grabbed a thin comforter from the hall closet and found a place on the floor in our freezing back room, lying down among other students like refugees on a train platform in Leningrad.
My parents ran an open house. Our two-bedroom, one-bath for a family of six would periodically expand to accommodate 20 kids on a production night. For as tough-as-nails as Dad could be with his students in the auditorium, he was indulgent toward them outside of it. “If I can get them to one class a day,” he would say, “then I know I can make a difference.” Dad drove students to and from school. There was hardly an evening when students weren’t sitting around the living room eating my mom’s taco salad or macaroni and cheese. They came over to pare down scenes for Shakespeare festivals, using my dad’s 400-year-old folios as a cross-reference. We hosted cast parties where students would throw one another into the pool fully clothed and set new records for the number of bodies that could fit into our Jacuzzi (it stands at 27). We invited them to watch the Academy Awards. My parents smothered them in cookies and strong adjectives, as one of them said, and the students reciprocated. When Mom and Dad traveled to England for the first time, they gave them a bon voyage party, and several showed up at LAX to see them off. They sang and performed magic tricks at my birthday parties. They wrote my parents hundreds if not thousands of confessional letters and cheery postcards, updating them on their lives after graduation. “I hope someday I’ll he able to get that theatre for you that you deserve so much,” reads one letter. “Maybe someday all our dreams will come true, and if mine don’t—I’ll still have the beautiful years spent with you and play production to fall back on.”
I thought of all the students as my siblings and never asked questions about where they came from or why they weren’t spending time with their own families. I only knew a few parents—Mike’s mom, who would come with bagels Christmas morning, and Sharon Brown’s parents, who were frequent dinner guests. In fact, the student who Dad always called his best dramatic actress—Elyssa Davalos, from the class of ’75—was so close to us that when she recently showed me a photograph of her own mother for the first time, I stared at it in disbelief. I had always thought my mom was hers.
Back then I was a pip-squeak and didn’t mind the chaos, but my brothers and sister were teenagers. Steve and Katie had mixed feelings about a house full of kids their age who were competing for our parents’ attention. My brother Greg walked out of the kitchen with a bowl of ice cream one night, and my dad later scolded him: “You can’t eat ice cream in front of people unless there is enough for everyone.” So he couldn’t eat dessert in his own house?
My mom had a more difficult time blurring the line between work and family. The job consumed my dad—he had a heart attack a few years into his tenure. But Mom was reluctant to allow Hollywood High to consume her as well, because for her the school wasn’t all glory and lights. Her own parents had met there in 1928, when her father was president of the student body. Her mother, who became pregnant the next year, gave up the baby to her own mother to raise. My mom’s father died of a heart attack at 23.
My great-grandmother was egotistical and driven and convinced to the day she died at 81 that every man she encountered was hitting on her. She had left Chicago and moved to Hollywood in 1918 to become a star, supporting herself for the next 50 years as an actress in such movies as Bowery at Midnight and Desire Under the Elms and on TV shows like Dragnet. She was cruel and intensely jealous; she didn’t allow Mom to date unless she herself had a boyfriend. “I’m not going to have you be a whore,” she would tell her, “like your mother.” Mom enrolled at Hollywood High in 1946 and was a dancer in a school production of H.M.S. Pinafore. But she remembered the show, and her entire high school experience, as joyless. For her, walking into Hollywood High every day with my dad so many years later must have been like walking straight into her unhappy past. Did Dad ever understand the extent of the pain that Hollywood High stirred in her?
A devoted wife, whatever her misgivings she became Dad’s costumer and confidant. Mrs. Melton, or Mrs. M.—or even just “M”—made glittery vests and glued appliques to top hats. She hand stitched every S-H-A-R-K and J-E-T onto every West Side Story jacket. She stood in the audience during dress rehearsals to ensure that no two yellow skirts twirled in the same vicinity during a dance. The kids adored her and were comforted by her, going to her to cry if something was rotten at home or if Dad had been too hard on them.
Mom kept detailed albums for each one of Dad’s shows and underlined his name in red pen wherever it appeared. The alumni scrapbooks and files she kept rival those documenting my own childhood. The newspaper clipping about April Millo’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984—she had rechristened herself Aprile Millo—is there, as are the raves of her performance as Aida opposite Placido Domingo in 1989 and every mention of her as one of the finest Verdi sopranos in the world. Ads for movies and TV shows starring any of Dad’s more well-known alumni—from Diana Canova to Charlene Tilton to Laurence Fishburne—are there (as are photos of Larry in a bathing suit with several cute girls in my parents’ bathtub). The program for Zoot Suit at the Taper, the first professional play designed by Tom Walsh, a protege of Dad’s, is there. So, too, are the articles marking the endeavors of the writer-director Frank Darabont, who had played the headwaiter in Dolly and slept many nights on our couch, from reviews of The Shawshank Redemption to magazine cover stories in which Frank thanks Mr. Melton for his inspiration. My dad lived vicariously through his students. As they triumphed, he triumphed, too.
ACT TWO: My Father and Myself
The moment always came when, on the way to school, we reached the Highland exit off the 101. The musical number—it could be “Buenos Aires” from Evita or “Too Darn Hot” from Kiss Me, Kate—would reach a crescendo as we glided down the hill past the Hollywood Bowl. Dad would pump up the volume in his Celica, pound his hands on the steering wheel, and cry, “Mary, listen to that!” I’d look up from my geometry book. “That’s theater!”
Sometimes I wonder if my own love for musicals was innate or if it was pummeled into me. After Dolly, Dad made the spring musical a tradition. I marked my childhood by those shows. I was 7 when he put on his production of Cabaret, which John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composer and the lyricist, told Dad was one of the best they’d seen. I was 9 when Dad caused a stir by casting Sharon Brown, who was black, as Marne. I was 11 when he scrambled to replace the lead actress in West Side Story days before the opening because her father walked into a rehearsal and didn’t like seeing his blond daughter singing a duet with an African American boy. I didn’t get braces in fifth grade. I got them the year he staged Wonderful Town.
Dad and I attended shows together at the Ahmanson and the Taper, leaving if the production didn’t meet our standards to grab a meal at the Itchey Foote on Temple. Every time I drive by the long-shuttered restaurant I think of On the Twentieth Century or of lunching there during the break for the eight-hour Nicholas Nickleby. I had gotten my hair cut stylishly short that weekend, and Dad was peeved—ladies were supposed to have long hair. I always had to dress up to show my respect for the theater. The first time my future husband and I attended a play together, he was bemused by my overly fussy outfit.
Dad felt he had compromised his acting career to support a family, but it was his family that was often compromised to support him. We would arrive for weekend or holiday rehearsals at 8 a.m.—Memorial Day always fell right before the spring musical, so you could kiss that one good-bye—and immediately set to unlocking doors and bringing up stage lights. Growing out of my mascot phase, I became one more body to put to work. I learned how to perform sound checks and how to not kill myself balancing a curtain with counterweights. I could distinguish a Phillips screwdriver from a jigsaw and a one-by-three from a two-by-four. My sister taught me how to run a dimmer board and how to change the gel on a Fresnel spotlight. I still get condescending looks from contractors when I question their plans or from hardware store employees when I come in asking for sixpenny nails. I rinsed so many rollers saturated with my dad’s favorite Dunn-Edwards thalo blue paint that I was convinced the tint would mark my palms forever. Mr. Melton’s children could enter his drama program voluntarily; Greg, who was Dad’s stage manager, and Katie, who was his light mistress, did, but Steve, who didn’t want to be under Dad’s thumb, enrolled instead at North Hollywood High. But to be a Melton was compulsory.
I was often enlisted as Dad’s stenographer, sitting at his elbow during dress rehearsals to take production notes that he would spend an hour recapping with the cast and crew. I have a set of notations—67 in all—that Dad dictated during a dress of Man of La Mancha in 1984. Here’s a sampling:
11. Horses—Get your act together.
13. Need bugle for Sancho.
15. Aldonza: Attack lines.
18. Judy was totally lifeless.
37. What’s on Paul’s head?
55. All people on stage for Moorish dance: Get energy!
After each performance, when the costumes were returned and every prop accounted for, when the last postshow hugs and kisses were exchanged and the auditorium was silent again, we would lock up, trudge down the stairs clutching the cash box, and if it was not past midnight, drive to Miceli’s for spaghetti and hot rolls hard as stones.
ACT THREE: A New Direction
By the time I enrolled in the fall of 1984, much had changed at Hollywood High, and in Hollywood. A Thespian Club photo I have from 1976 shows 22 students, only one of whom is not white; a play production photo ten years later looks like “Bring Your Children to Work Day” at the U.N. Hollywood had become predominantly Latino and Armenian, and for many of the students English was a second language, and learning it, not drama, took priority. Dad had to rebuild the theater department, so to draw in more kids his fiefdom became one of the first performing arts magnet schools in the city. My best friends were, like me, not from the neighborhood. They were bused in from South-Central, the West Valley, East Hollywood, and Boyle Heights.
My dad had changed, too. The job had aged him. He was heavyset now and didn’t move as swiftly as he once had. He wore Hawaiian shirts, and his gray hair was cinched in a short ponytail. With the magnet school, he had a dozen teachers to supervise and a lot more paperwork, which he despised. What kept him going were the shows. One afternoon I was rehearsing the Noel Coward one-act Fumed Oak with a young director. We were days away from the performance. Dad came by to visit our rehearsal in the auditorium foyer. Our director asked for his comments, and Dad hammered us. We were underplaying it to deadly boredom, he said. “This is a farce, kids.” He grabbed my script and did something unusual: delivered the lines himself, which he did with gusto. He told me to smack the girl who played my mother over the head. We followed his instructions, and we were relieved. We were released. We had fun. The girl playing my mother was Alex Borstein, a gifted comedian who became a featured player on MadTV. When I recently saw Good Night, and Good Luck, I grinned whenever Alex walked onscreen as Edward R. Murrow’s secretary and thought of that afternoon in the foyer when I had learned to do more than just read lines off a page.
Had I not grown up at Hollywood High, I would have no doubt felt awkward that Mr. Melton was my director as well as my dad. But I was so accustomed to seeing him in both roles that it didn’t raze me. (If anything, I feel twinges of guilt thinking about the times I got away with murder, asking Dad for the keys to the Celica and taking off during third period to drive to Westwood for lunch or sneaking to C.C. Brown’s for a sundae.) It’s not that I couldn’t be embarrassed by him. I was mortified when he was sexist, sending “the girls” to clean the costume room, “the boys” to the docks. It upset me when he crossed the picket line during a teachers’ strike and my English teacher, whom I revered, called him out. I winced when a disheveled kid would walk into rehearsal and Dad would say, “Who did your hair—Maytag?”
When my fellow students were mad at him, they didn’t hide it from me. They had seen him reprimand me, too. After school, during a rehearsal for Fiddler on the Roof, I was messing around in the foyer. I thought one of my scenes might be coming up, so I casually walked through one door into the auditorium at the exact moment Dad entered the opposite one. We looked across the seats at each other and smiled. Then I looked onstage and realized that my scene was already in action—without me. I glanced back at Dad, whose expression revealed he saw the same thing. I raced down the aisle, up the side steps, and onto the stage. I got an earful at the end of the scene that continued all the way home.
My parents were overprotective—I couldn’t have a skateboard or ride a bike down the block. But in the auditorium my friends and I were allowed, like our predecessors, to do insanely stupid things. We dangled off the school roof to tie down hand-painted signs on Highland promoting a show. We climbed ladders that were six stories high onto the catwalk, where we would slip into crevices that would lead us to the ante-proscenium above the audience. Up there you had to keep your feet on narrow rafters or risk puncturing the ceiling tiles and falling to the seats below. Pranksters loved switching off the light to leave you in darkness and panic.
The auditorium was regularly rented out for other events, and Dad would hire me and another student to work the shows. I’d make $40 for the night and run the light board for Armenian fiddle concerts, Pakistani pep rallies, gay men’s chorus recitals, and gatherings in which 2,000 Buddhists would chant “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” I’d sometimes be lying down on the disgusting carpet in the light booth, so immersed in my book I’d forgotten to bring up a spot onstage. I’d hear my dad come over the scratchy headset: “Mary, what the hell are you doing up there? No one can see the fiddler downstage.” I’d scramble and pull up the light. “Okay,” he’d say. “And I think it’s about time for an Arby’s run, don’t you?”
FINALE: Singular Sensation
We turned to face the audience. The stage lights onstage went full blast and so did the orchestra, and we broke into the two-step-and-high-kick-finger-snap combination that marks the opening number of A Chorus Line. I had listened to the show countless mornings in the car—I still have the worn cassette on a shelf above my desk. I had seen the musical in London and L.A. and knew it follows 18 dancers as they go through auditions to fill eight spots in a Broadway show. The director prods the dancers to tell stories that have been buried within—why they are who they are, what their hopes are. It is a show about broken dreams and second chances. I was cast as Kristine, the girl whose one song exposes her biggest flaw: She cannot sing (thanks, Dad).
It was grown-up material—Dad modified pieces, replacing “Tits and Ass” with “This and That,” for instance—and even though all of us were teenagers, the stories resonated. Those things I didn’t know as a six-year-old during Hello, Dolly!—I knew them now. I could look around the stage and know that more than one of the boys was gay and not telling his parents. I knew that there were dads who were abusive and rooms who were strung out. In fairness, I also knew of parents who cared. I knew I was in a feud with the guy playing my husband and couldn’t look at him before or after the show (we eventually made up). I knew that one of the girls on the line was pregnant and had told my parents, who refused to let her drop out of the show. “Don’t worry,” they told her. “We’ll make the costume fit.”
In the show, and in our lives, we were all hiding behind masks of one sort or another. It was in A Chorus Line that I first realized how much I loved the anonymity that makeup provided. As soon as I walked out of the stage right dressing room, I was a dancer named Kristine from St. Louis—no one could expect more of me, no one less. I could lose myself in the rhythms of the dance, in the harmonies of the songs. We were an instant but fleeting community—helping one another through a quick costume change, glowing as we sent one another out of the wings to fall into step for the finale, “One,” which I can still soft-shoe on a dime.
I assumed that everyone was born desiring fame. Why else exist? It wasn’t until my freshman year in college, out of state and far from Hollywood, that I discovered this wasn’t true. I asked a friend what she planned to do with her life. Be a copy editor, she replied. I said, Great, but what are you going to do to be famous? She looked at me quizzically and said, I don’t want to be famous. I was confused, of course, because everyone I had known wanted to be famous. That’s how both sides of my family ended up in Hollywood. I had received my high school diploma while walking across the stage at the Hollywood Bowl—how could I be faulted for presuming that a lifetime of roses and hosannas would follow?
My junior year I transferred to UCLA and enrolled in the theater department. I lasted ten weeks. They wanted us to start at the bottom, to sweep the apron and run a box office, and I thought, Baby, I was born on a stage. I found the school’s Freud Playhouse cold and unwelcoming. I thought the shows were bush league.
Who was I kidding? No theater stood a chance, because no theater would be Hollywood High’s. I’d never replicate it, and I didn’t want to spend a lifetime trying. At UCLA, I was another cog, not Mr. Melton’s daughter. I was also sure I didn’t have what it takes. I feared that I had won “Class Actress” the year I graduated from Hollywood not on my talent but on my popularity. I knew there were legions of my dad’s students who were so much better than I, but who struggled. They slept on our couch, after all.
I soon discovered that I could experience the energy of the stage without being on it. That I could have butterflies in my stomach when listening to an orchestra warm up, even if it wasn’t my cue. That I could see a production of Sweeney Todd, as I did this winter in New York, and feel as moved by it as I had been that spring by A Chorus Line. I stumbled into journalism and found it allowed me to put on a new show every week, or every month, with a family of editors and writers who in their own way hid behind masks, too, only the masks were words, not makeup.
CURTAIN CALL: The Parade Passes By
My dad retired a few years after I graduated. The school bureaucracy had beaten him down, and he wasn’t in great health. Security guards now locked up the auditorium after a show, and one night they shooed us out. We were appalled. My parents still loved their students, but Dad didn’t feel comfortable giving them lifts anymore. His last year, a boy hung himself in the light booth during lunch. He had broken up with his girlfriend, who discovered him when she went up to turn on the lights for fifth-period stage crew class. Dad was horrified—and angry that this sanctified space had been violated.
After his retirement, his closest students stayed in touch with him. A handful always come to family birthday parties and Oscar nights. Elyssa still calls me “Muffin.” When my sister died ten years ago, a large group from the Dolly years showed up at my parents’ house to help clean and cook and mourn. Mike drove us to the funeral home. They’d be there again when six years later, we found out Dad was dying.
Mr. Melton, stretched out on a chaise, held court one afternoon in the backyard. He and his students rehashed stories, and he smiled and nodded and laughed and told them to “go to Arby’s.” I brought over my portable record player one day and cued up Hello, Dolly! My sister-in-law, Gigi, who had appeared in Dolly, was walking by Dad’s room and sat on his bed, too, to listen. We held it together until “Before the Parade Passes By,” then all of us lost it, and I had to turn it off. “Good times, Mary, good times,” Dad said. Toward the end, a couple of students slept overnight in the house with my brothers and me; it was their turn to bring cookies and strong adjectives. We read Dad e-mail from drama classmates in Abilene and from students, like Aprile Millo, who wrote, “I don’t just think of you in the theater, I think of you all the time—every time I see a great piece of theater, a great workspace, a funny moment in life…. Every opera house I have sung in I wish you could have seen, for how exquisite they are. You would love the Met, with nine different stages complete on one stage! … You would create such magic there!”
Dad’s students organized a dedication of a little theater on campus in his name—Dad got his theater after all, though he would have no doubt preferred the auditorium—and a scholarship that would help promising students continue their training. At his memorial I looked across my parents’ pool and saw my mom and my brothers and my husband and my niece and nephews, but I also saw Herr Schulz and Sally Bowles, Tevye and Golde, and Tony and Maria, and through the grief I knew I would always be grateful to be part of something so much larger than myself.
I visited the auditorium a few weeks ago. The drama teacher, Mr. Goldyn, was blocking a scene from The Who’s Tommy in the foyer. Kids were rehearsing a dance number onstage. The light booth is gone, and the tech director, Mr. Sele, showed me the new dimmer board and curtain rigging system. I found a few familiar set pieces in the dock. I asked Mr. Sele and Mr. Goldyn if Olivia was still hanging around. Oh yes, they said, the students know all about her.