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Obituaries

Elinor Nathan; Radio Actress, Education and Social Activist

June 19, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the time she was 4, she wanted to be an actress.

At 22 she leaped, with an hour's notice to memorize the whole script, from lowly bridesmaid into the high heels and veil of an ailing Dorothy Gish to star in "The Bride the Sun Shines On" on Broadway.

A year later she became one of the earliest female voices on that newfangled medium called radio. And on Christmas night 1935, she signed on as Ruby, the wife of Amos on the indelible "Amos 'n' Andy" for a 20-year run.

But Elinor Harriet Hirschfield Nathan had yet other careers ahead: wife, mother, education activist and patron of the arts.

Nathan, a former president of the Beverly Hills Board of Education and veteran trustee of Pitzer College, died June 10 in Beverly Hills. She was 89.

Duluth, Minn., may have seemed an odd starting point for such far-ranging serial careers. But little Elinor, born to a doctor father and teacher mother, was given voice and elocution lessons almost as soon as she could talk. At age 17 she was hired by the manager of a stock company who had seen her in a high school play, and she was off to begin her coast-to-coast adventures by performing in Lexington, Ky.

Shortening the name was the first problem for the young actress. Elinor Harriet Hirschfield became Elinor Harriot, a stage name that stuck through her radio days.

As the Depression deepened, actor Don Ameche, whom Elinor had met during her single year at the University of Wisconsin, helped interest her in radio.

Based in Chicago, where radio flourished, in 1933, she had three daily shows of her own--"Backstage Wife," "Bachelor's Children" and "The Couple Next Door"--and performed on several other shows and announced for program sponsors Old Dutch Cleanser and Munsingwear underwear.

Then came "Amos 'n' Andy." By the time she moved to Los Angeles with the show in 1937, Elinor Harriot was voicing four women: not only Ruby, but also the baby, the 6-year-old girl and Mrs. Kingfish.

Although she remained Ruby until "Amos 'n' Andy" left the air in 1955, the actress retired from other radio work to marry insurance executive Frank Nathan and rear their two daughters, Judy and Nancy.

With little girls in school, the mother worked her way through the chairs of the Parent-Teachers Assn. and in 1963 ran for the first of two four-year terms on the Beverly Hills Board of Education. She was elected board president two of those years.

During her tenure on the board, Nathan helped abolish dress codes for students and erase racial barriers for both students and teachers in the Beverly Hills schools.

She also helped found the Friends of the Beverly Hills Library and campaigned for passage of a bond issue to create the library.

In 1971, Nathan was appointed to the board of Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges. After 25 years as a trustee, she was named a trustee for life. And in 1995, the woman who had abandoned college for acting after only one year received an honorary degree from Pitzer for her long service.

At that time, the college thanked her for "intelligent counsel, unflagging support and continuing contributions to the cause of higher education." Officials called her "a splendid example of what Pitzer College as an institution aspired to be" and praised her for knowing "how to read the 'subtext' under the skin of human beings, a text which holds another's often hidden desires, hopes and dreams."

Fellow board members, including Eli Broad, had also put her to work on another project: creating and helping to raise funds for Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.

After the museum was built, Nathan became one of its most indefatigable volunteers.

Among her other community activities were working for the Service League, Helping Hand, the Community Relations Conference of Southern California and the Urban Coalition.

Nathan is survived by her husband of 62 years, Frank; two daughters, Judy Pasquinelli and Nancy Gettelman; five grandchildren and one great-grandson.

A memorial service is scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd.

The family has asked that any memorial contributions be made to the Nathan Family Scholarship Fund at Pitzer College, 1050 Mills Ave., Claremont, CA 90011.

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