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
Estelle read Bella, somewhat bossily, wearing a hat that Abzug had actually given to her.
The sound of kids singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” bled through the wall when Estelle finally approached the podium to speak: “I’d like to thank all my best friends who are here — where are they? Oh, they went to the ladies’ room.”
We all waited for them to return.
“Theater has been a river running through my life,” Estelle continued. “I was 10 years old in a Bronx tenement when I got some kids to create a play. I played the lead, the parents wanted to see what we were doing. I said if you want to watch, you have to throw money!
“I came out here as a newlywed in 1943, with my husband of 10 months. We were very excited about coming to sunny California, and it was raining. We went through all the difficulties that were apparent here. I worked side by side with Bette Davis, John Garfield, but through the years I have always felt you have to give to the community, even though you have no idea of what you want for yourself.”
“Of course, nobody’s heard of her,” Ivy told me softly. “I mean, in the larger scale of things, 50 years of doing theater in the Valley — who gets famous for that? There was this girl from Theatersports and Theater West, Ellen Idelson died from breast cancer in her 40s. Six hundred people came to her funeral, everyone who got up to speak said the same thing, with tears: ‘She was my best friend.’ She left a mark theatrically, creatively, despite the fact there was no PR, no great accolades. It’s interesting that a drop in a bucket can make such a sound.”
Dennis had gotten up to peruse the photo exhibit of his play, when Estelle sidled into the seat beside me, talking about her work with Women in Theater, the Los Angeles Theater Alliance, the Valley Theater League, the Los Angeles League of Professional Theaters, of her devotion to causes for women, children and seniors (the “neglected” people). She also praised the beneficence of city councilmen who had funded her theater and its work in the schools with “discretionary funds” (that no longer exist).
“I have to ask you,” I said, remembering Estelle as Beckett’s Winnie, sinking so cheerily into the sands of time. “Around 1977, I brought a play to you, at this tiny theater in the attic of an Armenian church on Vine Street. You were rehearsing Happy Days. Do you remember?”
Estelle stared at me with clear, cogent eyes. “No,” she said. “I don’t think it was me. I’ve never done Happy Days. When we were in Hollywood, we were on Santa Monica, in that theater that became the Complex . . .”
“The Richmond Shepard Studio?” I said.
“Yes, I think we were there, on Santa Monica, not on Vine.”
It was a startling plot twist to find myself at the birthday party of somebody I’d never met, and whose work I’d never seen. But if we hadmet in 1977, would it have been so different? What is theater if not the invention of memory?
On the parquet floor in front of us, Justine directed her Vision Acting Workshop — grown actors playing kids, Justine portraying Estelle directing them in one of her school projects.
“Estelle,” Justine snapped, interrupting our conversation. “We’re doing this for you. You really should pay attention.” Slightly chastened, Estelle turned toward them, resting her chin on one hand. Ivy smiled slightly. Justine resumed directing her actors.
“She’s doing it all wrong,” Estelle whispered to me. “She doesn’t describe it right to them. You don’t shout at children if you want results. You show them how to adjust.”
“She never let anything get her down,” said Ivy as the group surrounded Estelle in the middle of the room with a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
“When she didn’t succeed the way she wanted to in any given production or workshop or whatever, she simply went on to another,” Ivy continued. “She was always willing to create a vehicle for herself when there wasn’t a chance, when she didn’t get any work.”
Estelle should have played Winnie, I figured. It’s still not too late. She isWinnie.
As the remaining smattering of people collected raffle prizes, Estelle supervised the cleanup ritual, telling people what to take, and where to move.