Lee Childress, who with her husband John co-founded the coveted Music Arts Commendation for Youth Awards known as MACYs, died on Sept. 21 at Mission Hospital.
She was an inspiration and role model for high school students, visiting at least three musical theater productions throughout Orange County per week. She dispensed encouragement, advice and plenty of hugs to young thespians, which learned early on that vying for a MACY celebrated effort and talent rather than rivalry even if top honors included trips to New York and college scholarships. “All the high schools cheered for each other, bonded by performing, singing and dancing,” said Laguna Beach High School theater director Mark Dressler, whose shows annually reaped armfuls of MACY awards.
Every high school theater director in the county greatly benefitted from the Childress legacy. “Lee was enthusiastic and loving, considering the students her children,” he said.
Childress, a Hollywood actress and her husband, a high school principal and athletic coach, founded the MACY’s in Los Angeles in 1969 after seeing a student production of “Flower Drum Song.” The couple may have gone to the show without high expectations, but by the show’s end they were astounded by the students’ enthusiasm and talent, recalled Ms. Childress in a 2010 interview. While young athletes’ feats won recognition, thespians labored for love of their art but little else, Mr. Childress said.
The couple set out to change all that, using their own resources for the most part to establish awards and scholarships.
After moving to Laguna Beach, the couple concentrated on Orange County schools. Married for 66 years, she carried on after her husband’s death, eventually moving to Laguna Woods.
In Childress’ eyes, everyone on stage was a winner and her judgments, pro or con, remained out of earshot. She would tell them, “You are the show. You are blessed. Here’s to life, here’s to love, here’s to all of you.” In turn, the students treated her like a celebrity.
Every year, MACY judges select student actors who distinguish themselves in bit parts for “bright spot” awards. Major roles can garner “highest achievement” awards and best actor and actress receive passage for a Broadway audition.
Childress first visited Dressler’s LBHS production of “Grease” in 1993 when it was performed on the football field due to renovations underway in the Artists’ Theatre and has returned many times since. LBHS students earned top awards for “Into the Woods,” “Westside Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Urinetown,” “Footloose” and “Anything Goes.” And Noah Plomgren, the lead in several LBHS shows, received a $1,000 MACY scholarship for his role as Tony in “Westside Story,” helping him attend Carnegie Mellon University.
Dressler recalled students’ reaction when they learned Childress was celebrating her birthday in a downtown restaurant. The surprised her with a bouquet of flowers and a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“The kids had so much respect for her. When she walked into a room, she got standing ovations,” Dressler said.
Childress is survived by her daughter Cathe Drino and two granddaughters.
A memorial for Lee Childress will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. at the Geneva Presbyterian Church, 24301 El Toro Road, Laguna Hills.