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Lee Melville, champion of Los Angeles theater, dies at 74

Updated Wed., May 29, 2:08pm.

Lee Melville, a fierce champion of theater in Los Angeles, has died. He was 74 years old.

In his more than 50-year career in the theater, Melville played multiple roles -- actor, stage manager, producer and critic, among them. He made the biggest waves, however, as founding editor of LA Stage Times and its predecessor, the magazine LA Stage.

His death was announced on the LA Stage Alliance website. Melville died on May 21 at the Holloway Motel in West Hollywood, CA. He took his own life, according to Scott Barton, a spokesperson for the estate. He had been living most recently in West Hollywood.

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Terence McFarland, chief executive of LA Stage Alliance, worked with Melville for more than eight years and called him “a huge advocate for the entire theater community.”

“When he founded the LA Stage magazine it was about giving a platform and a voice to the L.A. theatrical community — every player, from producers to actors to designers," McFarland said. "He wanted to shed a light on all the amazing work happening in L.A. that often would be overlooked.”

In his official statement, McFarland said: “I will miss most his post-show lean-in, followed by 'What did you think?' with that smirk of his mischievous eyes.”

In an LA Stage Times article about his career, Melville admitted that as a theater critic he was particularly harsh. “I know I was,” he said. “I stopped reviewing in 1989 and, over 20 years later, people still come up to me and say I gave them a horrible review. Sometimes they even quote it!”

His honesty, however, was squarely in service of the reader and theater-going public, he explained. “A review’s purpose is not to bring something down or give it an artificial lift. I don’t necessarily love theater but I do respect it. Love is blind.”

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So respected was Melville’s voice in the Los Angeles theater community that in 2011 the Playwrights' Arena renamed its prestigious annual award — which in 2005 honored Melville — after him. The first recipients of the Lee Melville Awards for Outstanding Contribution to the Los Angeles Theater Community were playwright/director Luis Alfaro; Cultural Affairs executive director Olga Garay; and artistic director Katharine Noon and producing director Mark Seldis of Ghost Road Theatre Company.

“We’d been looking for a while to rename the award, and Lee was always at the top of our list,” said Jon Lawrence Rivera, the company’s artistic director. “His selfless celebration of L.A. theater really exemplified that award. The board unanimously voted on naming it after him.”

Rivera said he last saw Melville earlier this month at the Playwrights' Arena production of “The Anatomy of Gazellas.” “I was surprised to see him because his health was failing, but he was in such a great mood. He was always so happy in the theater,” Rivera said.

Live theater had always been an integral part of Melville’s life. Born Levoy Melville in Salt Lake City on April 20, 1939, he won tap dancing awards at 4; in high school, after the family relocated to Los Angeles, he performed in school plays, landing the male lead in his senior production of “Stage Door.”

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After graduating from UCLA he worked as a page at NBC in Burbank and he worked with local theater groups such as the Freeway Circuit, which performed at synagogues and civic centers. He later tried to break into acting in New York, where he also studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. But upon turning 30 he decided to focus his theatrical talents behind the scenes. 

For 12 years, Melville helmed the now-defunct publication Drama-Logue. During his tenure as editor the publication grew from mainly casting notes to full theater reviews and features, and establishing the annual Drama-Logue theater awards. A 1982 Los Angeles Times article about Drama-Logue described the atmosphere in its editorial offices in a crowded, Glendale bungalow, as a “haphazard mayhem.” “It’s a happy family situation where we all enjoy each others’ company,” Melville said.

Melville left as editor in 1989 to help run a family wedding-planning business near Victorville. But printer's ink coursed through his veins. He eventually returned to arts journalism in 2001, starting up the monthly magazine LA Stage with friend and colleague Lars Hansen.

He stepped down in spring 2011 due to unspecified health issues.

Melville’s favorite productions, according the LA Stage Times, included John Godber's “Bouncers” at the Tiffany in 1987 and Oliver Mayer’s “Blade to the Heat,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum in 1996 -- both directed by Ron Link, as well as three Lanford Wilson plays presented by Center Theatre Group -- “Fifth of July,” “Tally’s Folly” and “Burn This” --  and Susan Dietz’s production of “Cloud Nine” at the Canon Theatre in 1983. 

His greatest love, however, was his partner of 20 years, the late actor and writer Bo White. In 2006, Melville copresented White’s play “Manner of Trust,” with the Playwrights' Arena, at the Underground Theatre in Hollywood.

But theater was a close second in Melville's heart.

“They ask me how I can go to theater four or five times a week,” Melville told LA Stage Times. “I just look at them and ask how they can watch television four or five nights a week. Everyone has their own church at which they worship. Mine happens to be theater.”

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