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For Best Teacher in a Supporting Role

Film industry stalwarts salute ailing Hollywood High mentor

July 19, 2002|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mr. Melton did it again. The former head of the performing arts program at Hollywood High School wasn't even on the premises this week when his aging ex-students--remembering all he'd ever taught them--won multiple standing ovations at an event they dedicated to him.

They emoted, they projected, they hit their marks. It was high drama, unscripted and pure. It proved what many of us have forgotten and some of us never had the chance to learn: that one excellent teacher can exert a lifelong, life-altering effect on many hundreds of students' lives.

From 1968 until 1992, Jerry D. Melton--his ex-students still call him Mr. Melton--influenced generations of kids who somehow wandered into his classes and found their futures there.

Hundreds of set and lighting designers, writers, directors, actors, hair and makeup artists--all learned the ethics and essence of their future professions under Melton's tutelage. In plays and musicals--from "Hello, Dolly!" to "Cabaret" and "Macbeth"--Melton established a tradition of excellence that made Hollywood High's the most renowned public school theater program in the country for years. His productions swept up plenty of awards. For example, Melton and his kids took first place 16 times out of 20 in the city's annual Shakespeare festivals.

Many of those Melton taught have stayed in touch with him and with each other. Some still pay regular visits to the North Hollywood house where Melton and his wife, Ruthe, used to hold cast parties, pool parties, casual dinners and act as surrogate parents for those students whose home lives were less than ideal.

About two weeks ago, Melton was diagnosed with liver cancer, and his condition worsened steadily. When some former students heard about it, they hastily put together a mini-version of the major Melton event they had planned to hold in 2003, as part of the school's centennial celebration. Knowing that he might not survive that long, they shaped a ceremony to show just how much he has meant in their lives. Melton was too ill to attend.

At the ceremony, his daughter, Mary, cut the ribbon to officially rename the school auditorium, which will now be known as the Jerry D. Melton Theatre.

The former students also inaugurated two scholarships to be awarded in his name. The Jerry D. Melton Theatre Arts Scholarships will bestow $5,000 annually on each of two Hollywood High School students who will be selected on the basis of talent rather than on academic ability. That is the way he wants it, his daughter said.

The theater was filled with a few hundred people who'd received last-minute e-mails or phone calls informing them of the spur-of-the-moment event. Honorary Hollywood Mayor Johnny Grant and actors Mickey Rooney, Sally Kellerman and Martin Landau were among those who showed up to honor the man they said they'd heard about for years, although they'd never been students of his.

Mostly, the audience consisted of former Melton students such as writer-director Frank Darabont, class of '77, who went on to make such films as "The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile" and "The Majestic." About Melton, Darabont said: "He's an unsung hero who provided inspiration and motivation--and was a father to many of us in many ways. It feels like I spent most of my high school time in this auditorium. I had two classes a day here for three years. One was stagecraft--period 5--where we would build sets, make costumes, paint signs. Period 6 was theatrical drama class, where we would rehearse the productions, often long into the evening."

Darabont and others recalled that Melton would often drive them home, take them out for a dinner break, drive them to what was then the school district's TV station, where students could participate in a news show that aired for half an hour once a week. "Back in the good old days, when schools were actually funded, he made sure we got all the experiences available to us," Darabont said. "We would write the show, anchor it, go out and get the stories. It was another wonderful thing Jerry Melton did."

And it wasn't just budding actors or directors who were inspired by Melton, he added. "Sure, there were people like the actor Laurence Fishburne. And James Schamus, the writer-producer who went on to make 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' But there were also those who became expert hair, makeup, set, costume and lighting designers. So many of us went on from his classes to find our own niche. And it all started here, with him."

Three of the four Melton children, Greg, Kathleen and Mary, were theater students at Hollywood High. Greg is a film production designer; Steven is a film property master, Kathleen died at age 35 of AIDS. Daughter Mary is a senior editor at Los Angeles magazine.

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