BACK STAGE WEST
March 11, 1999
How often does a theatre critic become a local treasure? Once in a lifetime--if that lifetime is Polly Warfield's.
by Rob Kendt
At next week's L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards ceremony, veteran theatre critic Polly Warfield will receive a special Lifetime Achievement Award for her theatre criticism. Those familiar with Warfield's three-decade career as a local theatre maven know how well she deserves the award.
What few probably realize, however, is how richly Polly has spent that lifetime thus far, and how far she's come--from a small Nebraska farm where at times the only things she could find to read were a dictionary and Sears catalogue, to a college drama major that had her starring as Kate in Taming of the Shrew, to a radio career in the employ of such personages as Chet Huntley and Eleanor Roosevelt, and finally to a print journalism career, which has included several editorships and innumerable nights out on the town.
"I've always wanted to be where the action is," Warfield told me in a recent interview. "Not as a doer, but as a viewer, a commentator--which, after all, is what a critic is, isn't it?"
In most cases, yes. In Warfield's case, there's been a lot of doing behind the viewing.
Born Theola Beech in 1914, young Polly lost her mother when she was just four. As her twentysomething father was ill equipped for single parenthood, Warfield credits the "strong Norwegian-American women" in her family, especially her Auntie Carr and Aunt Ida, with raising her and her young sister.
Young Polly was already a restless spirit then, not only voraciously reading everything she could find but writing in a journal, even penning a novel before she was 10. And when Auntie Carr moved to sunny Gardena, Calif., Polly itched to join her, and eventually did. There she found her teachers at Gardena High School encouraging; she landed leads in school plays, and continued writing, even winning a local writing contest by authoring an operetta on the theme of thrift (In Care of the Good Ship Thrift, set to the tune of "Funiculi, Funicula," for which she took home $25 from the contest's sponsor).
But it wasn't until Polly--thanks to her aunt's "scrimping and saving"--reached L.A. Junior College (now L.A. City College) that she really arrived.
"I didn't know life could be so wonderful," gushed Warfield, with undimmed enthusiasm for this crucial turning point in her life. "That was instant heaven. I majored in journalism. What I really wanted to do was be in the drama department, but I was too shy. Eventually I got up the nerve to switch to drama my second year."
Thus followed years that seem to excite the warmest memories for Polly: when she was getting leads in the plays (the aforementioned Taming of the Shrew being a highlight) and spending her every waking hour around and in a drama department, then headed by the legendary Jerry Blunt, which would a few years later matriculate such young thesps as Alexis Smith and Donna Reed. This is also where Polly met Harry Carr, a "handsome would-be actor" whom she married.
But the marriage, and the "instant heaven," didn't last long. After graduation she took a job as a cashier clerk for the Southern California Gas Co. and hated it--until a colleague there "had the nerve to break away and take a job as a script typist at KNX CBS," an L.A. news radio station. Polly followed soon after, starting at a salary of $15 a week, and was once again "where the action is."
"Orson Welles would come in with scripts," she recalled, "and at Christmas would give all the typists the most exquisite cologne."
When World War II broke out, Polly joined the ranks of American women who got their first career break in jobs that enlisted men left behind. For her part, the job was "tearing wire copy" and taking it to the news desk, but Polly quickly moved her way up to writing news and even reading it (in a graveyard timeslot, and with the pseudonym "Kathleen Carr").
"I'll never forget how thrilled I was when the head of the news bureau said to me, "I consider you one of my best newsmen,'" Polly recalled.
While Polly's work at KNX may have transcended her gender, the latter didn't go unnoticed. When, in 1949, Polly got a job writing for Eleanor Roosevelt's radio show, which would necessitate a move to New York, she had been dating a young intern named Pat Warfield, an East Coast native eager to return.
"Well, then, I guess we'd better get married," Polly told Pat, who was younger than she. A most sensible proposal.
Her stint with the Roosevelts--Eleanor and daughter Anna--introduced Polly to a world of East Coast luminaries and high rollers, but she missed California. She remembers a New Year's holiday spent at Hyde Park with Roosevelts as a particular high point, but remarkably saw few Broadway shows (Private Lives with Tallulah Bankhead was one). Though Mrs. Roosevelt, Polly said, was "queenly, remote, gracious," Polly found the job of "writer" to be superfluous with one so skilled at extemporaneous speaking.
The Warfields soon moved back to the West Coast, compromising on San Francisco (Polly wanted to come back to L.A., but Pat wanted some place more urban). A letter of introduction from Mrs. Roosevelt got her a job as a scribe for The Chronicle right off the bat, but soon enough she and Pat decided to have children, and she quit her day job to raise them. But Pat, evidently something of a dreamer, had other plans: Without consulting Polly, he bought an old Bay Area ferry boat, quit his ad copywriting job, and worked night and day to turn it into a floating restaurant in Oakland's Jack London Square. It folded in a year, and the marriage folded not long after.
"It's been time after time of starting over again from the beginning," said Polly in retrospect, and this time was no exception. With two daughters, Carola and Jocelyn, in tow, she moved back to Gardena and got a job at The Gardena Valley News, advancing in a period of years from a "lowly clerical job" to become the community paper's editor.
And here is where Polly's first love, theatre, reenters the narrative: Once she could write her own ticket as editor, she spent as much time as possible at the local theatres, checking out her local South Bay stages as well as making the drive up into Hollywood, and writing it all up in her aptly titled column, "The Passionate Playgoer."
Apparently, her passion for the footlights rubbed some people the wrong way. Polly says she was fired from the editorship after a decade at the paper because the print shop foreman--who had the ear of her boss, the publisher--"thought my theatre reviewing was taking me away from my job. But I didn't neglect it--he just didn't like women in positions of power."
Indeed, she recalls that era of social and political conflict, which raged from Vietnam to U.S. college campuses, bittersweetly at best: "It was that terrible, yeasty period of dissent and hell-raising, when people were just trying to tear everything apart," Polly said. The theatre must have been an escape for her from the toxic politics of the time--even though, of course, around that time there was no shortage of countercultural spirit onstage on the West Coast. Ron Sossi was starting the Odyssey Theatre with productions of Brecht and Genet, and Gordon Davidson was staging things like The Devils and The Trial of Catonsville Nine at the new Mark Taper Forum.
Her dismissal from The Gardena Valley News was, in any case, a blessing in disguise: "Oh, it's a good thing I lost that job," she said. "It would have killed me. I loved it, but it was such hard work."
Polly flailed around a bit at various startup magazines that folded, but, as she recalls, "My big break and lifesaver came when my friend, Bea Bernstein, introduced me to Charles Faber, a distinguished theatre critic at The L.A. Free Press. He hired me as a theatre critic and titular "news editor' there. Then it was bought by Larry Flynt, who ran it until he was shot." (It then became L.A. Weekly under Jay Levin.)
By then at an age when most folks retire, in 1980 Polly Warfield got the job that made her name synonymous with L.A.'s scrappy theatre scene: as theatre critic, and soon theatre editor, of the actor's trade paper Drama-Logue. It would be the job she'd hold the longest, first under editor Lee Melville, then Faye Bordy, and which she continues to hold today at Back Stage West, which bought Drama-Logue in May, 1998.
Indeed, in an asset buyout that was politely called a "merger" at the time, Polly Warfield may have been the most crucial editorial asset Back Stage West acquired from the old Drama-Logue. She is inarguably unique in a field strewn with burnouts and carpers and charlatans--a place where all the "experts" you're likely to meet were educated elsewhere, fell in love with theatre elsewhere, and still read The New York Times more faithfully than the local papers. Polly has seen L.A. theatre grow from orphan to stepchild to the sleeping giant it is today. She wears the mantle so lightly that you may not notice it, but Polly Warfield remains an authority on L.A. theatre before whom we all must bow in deference.
Yes, I've heard the whispered objections--that Polly is overly forgiving in her reviews, and that she too often follows the old rule: If you can't say something nice, compliment the set design.
But that's not really fair. At its best, a Polly Warfield review profoundly gets the playwright and the production, and if we muckraking critics feel she's often too easy on artists, I've also often felt that Polly's praise touches these artists' intentions in a way that's not just flattering but demanding, as well, reminding them of their higher calling, of the reasons they got up on a stage in the first place. In an era of short attention spans and quick-fix, thumbs-up criticism, Polly is among the few critics whose every review seems to remind us all why we're doing or reviewing theatre at all: because we love it.
Besides, she confessed, "I find it almost impossible to hurt someone. And I don't know that it's necessary. I don't like to be too critical because they're too vulnerable," she said of L.A. stage actors. Fine, but we're all dying to know: Has she ever walked out on a play? She replies with a mischievous grin: "Blithe Spirit with Zsa Zsa Gabor." Say no more.
Indeed, as anyone who's chatted with Polly could tell you, she's a lot more outspoken than her reviews might suggest. About L.A. theatre's growth over the years: "It's grown in complexity and diversity, and there's an amazing amount of talent on view--acting, directing, design. What is needed is more playwrights and more good plays. Too many of the plays now are so gloomy, so dark, so depressing."
Not that Polly doesn't appreciate hard-edged or raunchy material. Indeed, I've seen her sit placidly through things that offended even me, and the following week seen the review by Polly, accentuating the positive.
"I'm not prudish," she said with a smile. "But I do hate obscenity just for the sake of obscenity. It's communication pollution."
While it's disconcerting to hear Polly Warfield use the word "hate" in any context, it's just plain disarming to hear her admit flat-out of theatregoing: "Even when it's bad, I love it--there's something about it to enjoy."
In sum, she said, she thinks of her criticism as a "response" to the work she sees. L.A. theatre has had few "responders" as consistent, tireless, sharp, and appreciative as Polly Warfield.
Polly is clearly proud of her work and gratified by the love that flows back her way for it, though she's surprised by the award from the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award ("I didn't know they liked me that much," she said).
But Polly is especially interested that I include in my story a mention of her nearest and dearest: her grandchildren Jesse and Jeremy, who live in a suburb outside Houston, Texas, and Danny, who lives in Long Beach. If she looks a little wistful when I ask her if she wished she'd been an actress herself--of course she does, she admits--any traces of professional regret or pride melt away at the mention of her grandchildren.
It's enough to warm the heart of the coldest critic.