Lee Childress dies at 95; co-founder of theater awards for youths

Lee Childress, who touched the lives of thousands of Southern California high school drama students through a theater awards program she co-founded with her husband, John, more than 40 years ago, has died. She was 95.

Childress, a former publicist, real estate agent and occasional actress, died Sept. 21 at a hospital in Mission Viejo, not far from her home in Laguna Woods, said her daughter Cathe Drino. She had suffered a heart attack, her daughter said.


In 1969, Lee Childress and her husband, who was then a teacher and coach in the Los Angeles Unified School District, were invited by a former student of his to attend a student production of "Flower Drum Song" at Venice High School.

The Childresses were fans of the theater but weren't entirely enthusiastic about the prospect of watching a student musical, their daughter said. But they went anyway and were stunned by the quality of the performance and the energy and talent of the young actors and singers. They returned for several more shows before the production closed.

"My parents knew the value of theater and that it was inclusive, and they loved that," Drino said. "They saw in it the whole big picture of how it could broaden horizons and enrich lives, and how every person is important to the outcome, not just the stars."

Although there were programs at the time to honor young people with strong academic or athletic talent, there was little outside recognition for those involved in high school theater productions.

So the couple, with the encouragement of then-Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, launched the Music and Arts Commendation for Youth awards, which are presented to hundreds of students each spring in an elaborate, performance-laden ceremony. About 30 schools, mostly in Orange County, where the couple moved in 1977, currently participate.

All told, more than 19,000 MACY awards have been given since the program began, along with a number of scholarships for needy students interested in the arts. The Childresses provided almost all of the organization's funding over the years, although schools pay a small registration fee to take part in the awards program, said Carole Zelinger, vice president of the nonprofit's board.

For many years, the couple, along with a small group of theater professionals they recruited, attended dozens of high school performances each year, reviewing the shows and actors they would honor with awards. After her husband's death in 2004, Lee Childress carried on, Zelinger said, still attending shows and meeting and encouraging the young performers.

"She loved talking to the kids, and they hung on every word she said," Zelinger said. A warm and engaging woman, Childress was also known for the hugs she gave each student who waited in a line to greet her.

La Habra High School drama teacher Brian Johnson, who won a MACY best actor award in 2000, said the recognition and the encouragement he received from the Childresses helped inspire him to become a teacher and share his love of theater with his students.

"I'm so appreciative of the sacrifice of time and energy that she and John gave over the years," Johnson said. "That sacrifice and that love immeasurably impacted lives."

Born in Edmonton, Canada, on Feb. 11, 1917, Laurel Lee Pearce moved with her family to Los Angeles as a young girl, her daughter said. She graduated from Los Angeles High School and later attended UCLA.

She and John Childress met on the beach in Santa Monica and married in 1943. They enjoyed theater — taking summer trips to London, where they saw multiple plays — and after his retirement, acted in community theater productions in Orange County, as well as the Pageant of the Masters.

Along with her daughter, Lee Childress is survived by two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.