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Queens of the Angels

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 Weekly to 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 that funny.

She came here from Pittsburgh, a vivacious young beauty, in 1961 to make her living as an actress, which she did only much later, after rearing two children. She rarely spoke about her family, and spoke even less about her TV and film work (which included appearances on Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, ER, The West Wing, The King of Queens, Frasier and The Dogwalker). Being a member of the Actors Studio, she did speak about the theater, and poetry, and literature, and painters, and, again, the theater — often raking local productions and performances over the coals, though her fury was an expression not of bile but of passion and engagement.

Her primary commitment in the theater was to the development of new plays, spending boot-camp summers with the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, later with the Wilton Project, Theater of NOTE and Evidence Room. She was, in fact, a kind of embodiment of the L.A. theater community, of its earnest intensity and perennial insecurity (dwelling in Hollywood’s shadow) over being constantly disparaged or, worse, overlooked.

Beneath that voice, beneath her delicate, balletic gestures and her capriciousness in rehearsals, beneath even the depths of her talent, there rumbled a hunger for attention that resides in any diva — along with a transparent longing for the next role. (There’s a rumor that the reason she kept her cancer diagnosis secret was that she feared revealing her impending death would be a terrible career move.)

In April, when she accepted the Queen of the Angels award, almost nobody but her fully realized that this appearance would be among her final curtain calls. And Pamela turned it into a doozy. She quipped that the award was her “crowning achievement — besides the children, of course” and launched into a speech that included a tipsy meander across the stage of the Los Angeles Theater Center, arms akimbo. There might have been a pirouette and something like kissing the floor, a return to the podium, another speech, chin to the upper balcony, eyes blazing in the spotlights with an impish, toothy grin that unleashed all her glee, as though she were 5 again, back at the Pittsburgh community theater where she first performed; she seized the moment by the throat, and held on and held on and held on — until her husband, standing patiently in front of the stage, tenderly escorted her back into the shadows.

All her life, Pamela held on. She never cut and ran, back to Pittsburgh, or anywhere else, when things got tough — and they did. She regarded the theater here not as a hobby or a pastime, but as a profession and a calling. And when actors start behaving like that, the theater becomes the center of something rather than an apology for something else. When she’s talked about now, as she is in all corners of the city, the word “legend” keeps cropping up. Evidence Room is naming its lobby after her, and there echoes of her laughter will be heard for years.

Go to evidenceroom.com for details on a memorial service being planned for late October.

CTG Names New Head

The Mark Taper Forum announced Monday that Michael Ritchie, currently the producer of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, will be taking over for Gordon Davidson as artistic director of the Center Theater Group, overseeing the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson Theater and the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. Ritchie’s tenure begins January 1, 2005.

—S.L.M.

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