For Best Teacher in a Supporting Role

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mr. Melton did it again. The former head of the performing arts program at Hollywood High School wasn't even on the premises this week when his aging ex-students--remembering all he'd ever taught them--won multiple standing ovations at an event they dedicated to him.

They emoted, they projected, they hit their marks. It was high drama, unscripted and pure. It proved what many of us have forgotten and some of us never had the chance to learn: that one excellent teacher can exert a lifelong, life-altering effect on many hundreds of students' lives.

From 1968 until 1992, Jerry D. Melton--his ex-students still call him Mr. Melton--influenced generations of kids who somehow wandered into his classes and found their futures there.

Hundreds of set and lighting designers, writers, directors, actors, hair and makeup artists--all learned the ethics and essence of their future professions under Melton's tutelage. In plays and musicals--from "Hello, Dolly!" to "Cabaret" and "Macbeth"--Melton established a tradition of excellence that made Hollywood High's the most renowned public school theater program in the country for years. His productions swept up plenty of awards. For example, Melton and his kids took first place 16 times out of 20 in the city's annual Shakespeare festivals.

Many of those Melton taught have stayed in touch with him and with each other. Some still pay regular visits to the North Hollywood house where Melton and his wife, Ruthe, used to hold cast parties, pool parties, casual dinners and act as surrogate parents for those students whose home lives were less than ideal.

About two weeks ago, Melton was diagnosed with liver cancer, and his condition worsened steadily. When some former students heard about it, they hastily put together a mini-version of the major Melton event they had planned to hold in 2003, as part of the school's centennial celebration. Knowing that he might not survive that long, they shaped a ceremony to show just how much he has meant in their lives. Melton was too ill to attend.

At the ceremony, his daughter, Mary, cut the ribbon to officially rename the school auditorium, which will now be known as the Jerry D. Melton Theatre.

The former students also inaugurated two scholarships to be awarded in his name. The Jerry D. Melton Theatre Arts Scholarships will bestow $5,000 annually on each of two Hollywood High School students who will be selected on the basis of talent rather than on academic ability. That is the way he wants it, his daughter said.

The theater was filled with a few hundred people who'd received last-minute e-mails or phone calls informing them of the spur-of-the-moment event. Honorary Hollywood Mayor Johnny Grant and actors Mickey Rooney, Sally Kellerman and Martin Landau were among those who showed up to honor the man they said they'd heard about for years, although they'd never been students of his.

Mostly, the audience consisted of former Melton students such as writer-director Frank Darabont, class of '77, who went on to make such films as "The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile" and "The Majestic." About Melton, Darabont said: "He's an unsung hero who provided inspiration and motivation--and was a father to many of us in many ways. It feels like I spent most of my high school time in this auditorium. I had two classes a day here for three years. One was stagecraft--period 5--where we would build sets, make costumes, paint signs. Period 6 was theatrical drama class, where we would rehearse the productions, often long into the evening."

Darabont and others recalled that Melton would often drive them home, take them out for a dinner break, drive them to what was then the school district's TV station, where students could participate in a news show that aired for half an hour once a week. "Back in the good old days, when schools were actually funded, he made sure we got all the experiences available to us," Darabont said. "We would write the show, anchor it, go out and get the stories. It was another wonderful thing Jerry Melton did."

And it wasn't just budding actors or directors who were inspired by Melton, he added. "Sure, there were people like the actor Laurence Fishburne. And James Schamus, the writer-producer who went on to make 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' But there were also those who became expert hair, makeup, set, costume and lighting designers. So many of us went on from his classes to find our own niche. And it all started here, with him."

Three of the four Melton children, Greg, Kathleen and Mary, were theater students at Hollywood High. Greg is a film production designer; Steven is a film property master, Kathleen died at age 35 of AIDS. Daughter Mary is a senior editor at Los Angeles magazine.

Michael Sloane, screenwriter of the Jim Carrey film "The Majestic" and member of the close-knit group that put together Tuesday afternoon's event, recalled that "we were all little hormonal adolescents, with absolutely no focus or discipline," when they happened upon Jerry Melton's class. "It was only later, when we became adults, that we realized how much he'd taught us and how he helped us to achieve in life."

To this day, a group of them meets for breakfast every weekend at a place called Highland Grounds, just about a mile from the high school. "We hang out--we've been friends all our lives. In fact, 14 of us from Mr. Melton's class were credited members of the cast and crew on 'The Majestic,' " Sloane says.

In addition to Sloane, and Darabont, who directed, and Gregory Melton (Jerry's son), who was production designer, the film's costume designer, two hairstylists, a production executive, one actress, the on-set decorator, the locations and assistant locations managers and the transportation coordinator had all been in Mr. Melton's classes between 1973 and 1979. "None of us got the job because we were friends--it was because we were all the best at what we do."

From a personal standpoint, Sloane says, "after my mom passed away in 1982, Jerry and Ruthe Melton pretty much adopted me. They became my family."

John Grant, 42, class of '78, is a lighting designer and location manager who said he attributes "most of what I learned, most of what I am, to him. I still go to his house, along with other former students. We're like a big, close-knit, extended family." Grant said he had never in his life seen "such a heartfelt groundswell of love, such a sense of urgency," as the one that erupted among Melton's disciples when they heard of his illness.

Writer-producer Schamus, class of '75, recalled that he was one of many kids Melton used to drive home to ensure that they were safe. "And it's important to credit him for being the independent scholar that he is. He is an intellectual not fooled by the veneer of academia; he respects learning for itself. A percentage of his students had bad home situations and little academic incentive from their families--but he taught them to understand and perform Shakespeare with the best. He collects original and early editions of Samuel Pepys' diaries; he's an avid collector of antiquarian books."

Schamus, in town for work on his upcoming film "The Hulk," is now based in New York, where he is on the faculty at the Columbia University film program.

Other former students of Melton's include actors Robert Carradine, Diana Canova, Charlene Tilton and Elyssa Davalos. Melton's leading lady for the school's 1976 production of "Hello, Dolly" was Aprile Millo, who is now a soprano with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

A small group of current Hollywood High performing arts students were in the audience. After the event, Solomon White, 18, class of 2003, said the ceremony brought him to tears. " I cried because I never knew that one person could make so many other people happy, that one person could give so many people so much."

The event planners had tables of refreshments for guests to enjoy after the event. Included were cakes decorated with what they called Meltonisms--sayings of their former teacher, which they still quote to each other. One cake was inscribed with a favorite: "The door to success is labeled 'push.' "

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