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Jerry D. Melton, 69; Directed Hollywood High Drama Dept.

July 19, 2002|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerry D. Melton, the award-winning director of the theater department at Hollywood High School from 1968 to 1992, and the man who brought national acclaim to the school's program, died Thursday of liver cancer. Melton, 69, was at home in North Hollywood, surrounded by family and friends--many of them former students--when he succumbed to the illness, diagnosed only about two weeks ago.

Melton's years at the school were marked by a string of dramatic and musical productions that were hailed by critics as near-professional, among them "Hello Dolly," "Cabaret" and "Macbeth." His relationships with students were remarkable; many of them remembered him years after graduation as a transformational force in their lives--a combination of mentor, father and friend.

When news of his illness spread, a small group of former students quickly put together a testimonial they had planned for 2003. A few hundred people attended the event Tuesday, among them Carolyn De Mirjian, a counselor at the school who worked with Melton for 10 years. "He was not only the strongest influence at Hollywood High, he was the drama department at Hollywood High. His philosophy was, 'Unless you're going to give it your all, don't bother.' I think, because he expected that of himself, and showed the students through his example, they tended to rise to his expectations."

During the Tuesday ceremony, one of the school's auditoriums was named for Melton, and a theater scholarship in his name was announced. (See story on page E1, which went to press Thursday afternoon before Melton's death.)

Melton was born in 1933 in O'Brien, Texas, a farm town north of Abilene. He received a bachelor of arts degree from North Texas University, then served in the Army--all the while pursuing an interest in acting and the entertainment industry. His older brother, Orbin, had become a vice president of the Walt Disney Co., and in the late 1950s, Melton joined him in Los Angeles, determined to become an actor and director.

He met his wife, Ruthe, while working backstage at the now-defunct Players' Ring Gallery theater in the West Hollywood area.

Melton took graduate courses in theater at UCLA, and his original play, "Pepys & Company," was performed during the university's summer program. Melton began teaching for the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1963, and began his long association with Hollywood High five years later. The school played an important role in the lives of many family members. During his tenure there, Ruthe Melton coordinated the costumes for the class productions. She had graduated from the school; her own parents had met there as students. Three of the Meltons' four children--Gregory, Kathleen and Mary--studied theater at the school and two went into the film industry. Gregory, a film production designer, met his wife, Giovanna, a costume designer, at the school. Steven is a property master. Mary is a senior editor at Los Angeles magazine. Kathleen died of AIDS in 1996 at 35.

In 1981, Melton helped to develop the curriculum for the L.A. Unified School District's Performing Arts Magnet Program, and then became director and coordinator of the newly established performing arts magnet Hollywood High, which has an enrollment of more than 300.

When Melton retired from the school 10 years ago, he didn't stop working. He became an artistic director at the Stella Adler Theatre Academy, did some acting and voice-over work and continued his longtime study of the history of Hawaii, a place he and his wife had visited more than 35 times.

Melton is survived by his wife Ruthe; sons Steven and Gregory; daughter Mary; and five grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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