Monday, September 10, 2012

A living local treasure gets her due

A small group of admirers paid tribute to Gladys Lavitan Sunday at Theatre Charlotte, after the matinee of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." I know this because I was the MC of this celebration, which began with accolades and ended with roses.

When I came to Charlotte in 1980, I was in time to enjoy Lavitan's work near the end of her extraordinary career. (She'll turn 96 this week.) As a middle schooler, she had taken part in the first endeavor by the Charlotte Drama League on June 1, 1928: a reading of Sutton Vane's "Outward Bound" at Carnegie Free Library. The League became Little Theatre of Charlotte, then Theatre Charlotte, now the oldest continuously operating theater in North Carolina. She officially bid farewell to the stage there in 2007, with another reading of "Outward Bound."

Lavitan was actually present at the creation of two theaters: She met Dorothy Masterson as that grande dame was starting the Golden Circle Theatre at the Mint Museum of Art and worked for her. (And with her: The two taught elocution lessons for children and adults through that group.) At the same time, she had a radio gig at WAYS-AM in the 1940s and '50s; she interviewed celebrities, reviewed books and talked about local topics on her "Woman's World" show.

Sunday's tribute found her onstage, basking in the recitation of her deeds and the recollections of fans, fellow thespians and friends. Veteran actors and directors remembered her dedication, her professionalism, her quick mind and flexible presence onstage. People not easily moved to tears let them flow. One man recalled that his father had called Lavitan "Charlotte's answer to Helen Hayes."

I learned doing research that her favorite roles included "On Golden Pond," "Anastasia" and "The Lion in Winter," indomitable matriarchs all. But she could do comedy as well as drama, and the twinkle in her eye Sunday showed that her sense of humor has not been quenched. We too seldom honor folks this way while they're still around to hear us, and it was a pleasure to watch her realize the pleasure she'd given to so many others.

Photo: Gladys Lavitan, in a 2009 file photo with caregiver Rebecca Littlejohn.


JoAnn Grose said...

another good job, l.t. i was thinking exactly the same this a.m. -- why do we always wait until the funerals to tell people we're crazy about them? xo, joa

Mickey Aberman said...

It was fun to read this article.

Gladys Lavitan had (actually likely still has) a magnetic presence and a voice that I truly imagine is what God would sound like. She could read a phone book and hold the attention of a room.

I remember when my children's elementary school had a "Celebrity Reading Day." A number of well-known local politicians, athletes, and TV personalities were there, each reading in a classroom. One classroom had Gladys; and before they started I heard another parent bemoan that her child wasn't getting one of the big names.

This 4 foot 10 inch, 85 year old woman started reading from Harry Potter, and as the principal, asst. principal and organizing Moms stopped to stick their heads in the room, they just froze, and a mass of all the passersby accumulated in the doorway. The 5th graders were entranced. When Gladys stopped reading and started talking to them about how her acting career began while a she was a student at Alexander Graham middle school, and answering questions about acting technique, dealing with stage-fright and funny stories of things that went wrong on stage, nobody wanted her to stop.

Gladys Lavitan might be the most talented actor to grace a stage in Charlotte, which is no slight on a lot of incredible actors. Its a bit sad to me that my children won't have seen her in her prime.

Thanks for the piece. Its nice to see somebody you admire get attention. I think a longer story on Gladys Lavitan's background would be worthwhile too.