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Still acting up for the 'best' drama teacher

Ex-Fairfax High students salute Marilyn Moody with a big birthday bash.

December 03, 2007|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Students at Fairfax High School can be forgiven if they don't know the name of drama teacher Marilyn Moody. She last taught at the school in the 1970s, more than a decade before any of today's students were born.

But good teachers cast long shadows, and Moody's former students -- the ones who took drama classes at Fairfax from 1959 to 1971 -- remember her as if it were yesterday.

Which, for many of them, it was.

Some 160 Fairfax alumni turned out Sunday to pay tribute to Moody, a teacher whom many credit with shaping their adult lives. They came from as far as Switzerland, New York and Michigan, and, for a few hours packed with love, nostalgia and musical comedy, were again eager students trying to please the best teacher they ever had.

To the tune of "Anything Goes," they sang:

"She'd make us each the best, cause she'd teach the best,

Made our plays the best, and our days the best.

We learned skills to make our resumes the best,

In that building on old Melrose. . . . "

"She changed my life forever," said Celia Celnik Taite, an actress and acting teacher who was one of the organizers of Sunday's event. "She was the most unbelievable inspiration -- my teacher, my coach, my guide."

Taite (Class of '73) and Judy Rich (Class of '60) came up with the idea for the tribute when they realized a few months ago that Moody was about to turn 80. What began as a plan for a fairly small surprise birthday party quickly snowballed as word spread among Moody's former students, many of whom have stayed in touch.

By the time Sunday rolled around, it was a full-fledged production.

The party itself was no longer a surprise -- as the event grew, that idea no longer seemed prudent. But Moody, long retired and living in Woodland Hills, still seemed bowled over.

"As Mike Myers would say, I'm verklempt," she told the brunch crowd at the Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. As the accolades flowed, she waved her hands frantically in embarrassment.

Most people can recall a favorite teacher, someone who excited them about learning and perhaps inspired them enough to set the course of their lives and careers. But by all yardsticks, Moody appears to have been especially gifted, and the outpouring Sunday reflected the lifelong passions she incited in her students.

"It's interesting how one teacher can change not just all these people's lives, but the face of show business," observed Cynthia Szigeti (Class of '67), who went on to become a successful actress and improvisational acting teacher, whose own students have included Conan O'Brien and Lisa Kudrow.

Many of those at Sunday's event have had successful entertainment careers, not only as actors but as dancers, musicians, set designers, producers and, in several cases, drama teachers -- the gamut of show business jobs.

Anita Mann, a dancer and dance producer, said that throughout her career, she has "heard Mrs. Moody in my ears every day."

Russ Titelman, a 1962 Fairfax graduate who went on to become a successful musician, songwriter and Grammy-winning record producer, wrote in a tribute to Moody that she "was the guardian of the door that opened onto a universe of infinite possibilities."

"Plus," he added Sunday, "she was so funny and so tough. . . . We were constantly living in fear of the wrath of Moody, and at the same time, you knew she loved you."

Her former students were almost uniformly consistent about what made Moody a great teacher: She set expectations higher than many thought they could achieve, then pushed them to realize those goals. She demanded and instilled discipline in her students -- and sometimes scared the daylights out of them. In ways large and small, she showed that she cared deeply about each of them and understood their abilities and idiosyncrasies -- sometimes better than they did. She bristled with passion, energy and unbridled, irreverent fun.

Sometimes, she just bristled.

Her students all remember what she called them. It was always their last name, only their last name, usually delivered with several exclamation points, as in, "Bernstein!!!!" or "Burke!!!!!!" Students, for the most part, called her Moody, and still do.

"Hi, Moody, it's Bob Steinberg, '64," one of them announced from the stage of the banquet hall Sunday. Without explanation, he added: "Here's something you never thought would happen. Here's that $5 I owed you from 1964. I want you to know that changed my life for that night." She laughed.

For her part, Moody was self-deprecating about her role in students' lives. Asked the secret of her success, she said, "They were such eager students. I loved every one of them." She added: "Whether they had private problems at home or they just wanted to be part of a group, they needed drama, and I think I fulfilled that."

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