By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In a black month for L.A. Weekly’s Queens of the Angels, Back Stage West senior critic Polly Warfield (the original honoree and for whom this newspaper’s annual award for accomplishment in the theater was first created) was the second Queen to die within a two-week span, succumbing on October 2, at age 89, to complications after a car accident on August 14. This year’s Queen of the Angels, Pamela Gordon, died September 21.
A gentle-natured anomaly, Polly was a beloved drama critic known for never uttering (or printing) a discouraging word. Lee Melville — her decades-long associate at Back Stage West and its predecessor, Drama-Logue— says he gave Polly his reviews to edit and she would temper them and “make me think twice.”
“People might have thought a lot got by her, but she knew when a show wasn’t working,” Melville says. “She just believed that you can’t dismiss the heart put into any production, regardless of how poorly conceived it may be.”
Polly’s two daughters, Jocelyn Lane (a TV editor from Houston) and Carola Clasen (a Long Beach schoolteacher) came by the Weeklyto drop off photos of their mother the day after she died. Sitting in adjacent chairs in the claustrophobic theater office, each clutched a paper cup with hot tea as they recounted Polly’s life — sometimes giggling, sometimes comforting the other when eyes welled with tears.
“One of the blessings that she didn’t die immediately after the accident was we had time to deal with it happening and let her go,” Carola explained. “Jossy and I have had this wonderful experience, staying in the house that we knew as children, dressing up in her clothes again and singing show tunes. Not many people knew her hobby was clothes. I saw her every Sunday, and we’d go shopping and have lunch.”
“There are three bedrooms in that house,” Jocelyn added, “all packed with clothes — some with tags still on. She was much more fashionable than either of us.”
Polly was born and reared on a Brownsville, Nebraska farm, which she hated. Jocelyn says her mom claimed to have read every book in the public library, and when she’d read them all, she’d sit in an apple tree and read the dictionary. As her vocabulary grew, Polly’s father criticized her for putting on airs; however, Jocelyn explains, “she just loved words, she loved the language.”
In 1926, 12-year-old Polly came to California with her father (her mother had died when she was 4) and soon settled in with an aunt in Gardena — in the same house where Polly’s daughters grew up. In junior high school, Polly received an award for a play she’d written and spent her prize money on elocution lessons.
After attending Gardena High School and graduating from Los Angeles City College, Polly got a thankless job with the gas company. To her aunt’s dismay, and after a brief, unsuccessful marriage, Polly took a pay cut to work an administrative job at KNX radio in 1943, where she met her second husband, Patrick Warfield.
Polly worked her way up to junior news editor, and the radio station eventually broadcast a 15-minute sunrise show featuring Polly (under the pseudonym Katherine Carr) and Chet Huntley. Carola says that Polly was the first female on the radio west of the Rockies, before she relocated to New York to produce a radio show for Eleanor Roosevelt.
Later, in San Francisco, Polly helped her husband run a Chinese restaurant on a ferry boat and worked for the San Francisco Chronicle (before resigning to rear her daughters). Her eventual divorce brought her back to Gardena, answering phones for the Gardena Valley News.
“Mom’s life was a series of crash landings and new starts,” Carola points out.
Though Polly won multiple journalism awards in Gardena, she was let go after the paper was sold, because, Jocelyn says, the new owners didn’t believe that women should be journalists. In the ’70s, Polly freelanced with the L.A. Free Press, The Easy Reader and The Daily Breeze, eventually settling in at Drama-Logue, where both daughters say she finally found a home. In 2000, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle started bestowing an annual award named after her.
No theater critic in the city was ever so adored or appreciated by the artists she wrote about. She is survived by her daughters and three grandsons. A celebratory service is scheduled for November 17, 8 p.m., at North Hollywood’s El Portal Theater.
News of character actress Pamela Gordon’s death spread through the local theater community like a series of seismic jolts — shocking because most people had no clue she was ill and distressing because Pamela seemed like such a permanent fixture in and around the L.A. stage. If you went to any number of plays, chances were quite good you’d find Pamela — if not on the boards, then in the house, or lobby, or, most likely, in the alley smoking with her tribe. She was an elfin figure who spoke in a husky baritone. She had two laughs: the first, something between a cackle and a wheeze; the second, a roar of appreciation that sounded like a deep, smoky bellow emanating from a source somewhere deep behind her collarbone. As Evidence Room producer Bart DeLorenzo pointed out in his beautiful tribute at her funeral, that second laugh was so ostentatious, a quizzical observer might be wondering if anything could be thatfunny.