Marsha Hunt, Actor, Activist and Survivor

In today's volatile political and social climate, actors and celebrities are often as well known for their causes as for their movies and plays. Angelina JolieOprah WinfreyYoko Ono, and Alyssa Milano, to name just a few, are known for numerous foundations and humanitarian causes, for speaking up and out, and for making huge financial donations. It seems as if this is a new development, due to the omnipresent information that fills our screens regarding the famous. However, if you travel a little further back in time you find Jane Fonda fighting the Vietnam war, and prior to that, Audrey Hepburn leaving acting to focus on humanitarian work for UNICEF. The intersection of arts and activism is not new, and it doesn't always have clear cut benefits for those who engage in it. Especially in certain eras, morals and integrity stood in direct opposition to fortune and popularity. Many who stood up for the former ended up fading in the latter. For those who aspire to use public platforms to create and facilitate change, Marsha Hunt is a person to both honor and emulate.

Marsha Hunt is a retired actress and activist. She is 101 years old and still lives in her beautiful home in the San Fernando Valley. She has led an amazing life, both as an incredibly gifted and intelligent performer and as a forward thinking activist championing both individual rights and institutional evolution. Everyone should know her name, her unique voice and be aware of her legacy. This article serves simply as an introduction to her incredible life and work. It is impossible to condense all that she has created and stood for into one piece. I've included numerous links and additional information at the end of this post.

Ms. Hunt was born in Chicago in 1917. She did it all. While training as an actor, she began to work as a model, becoming one of the industry's highest paid by 1935. Although she wanted to do theater, she moved to Los Angeles in 1934 at the age of 17 and was initially signed by Paramount, where she starred in several films. Even at this tender age, she started to assert her rights. She refused to do pin up photos (known as “cheesecake” and “leg art”) and did not take part in the social party scene. She was starting even then, to find her own voice and to stand up for her values. Although she showed promise, Paramount released her from her contract after a few years. She freelanced for a while before ending up at MGM, where she stayed on contract through 1945. Notable films include Pride and Prejudice and Blossoms in the Dust. She also starred in the only wartime film to acknowledge the Holocaust, None Shall Escape (1944). While she did not become an A list star, she worked constantly as a supporting actor in quality films. During the war she also sang on USO tours and developed a career in radio. She appeared in over 50 films in her career, over the course of several decades.

Ms. Hunt's film career came to an abrupt halt when she was caught up in the Communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era. Ms. Hunt was and continues to be outspoken, with a liberal belief system that she guards fiercely. Ms. Hunt, along with her second husband, screenwriter Robert Presnell Jr., were so disturbed by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that they joined the Committee for the First Amendment which was formed in 1947 and made up of many A list actors and Hollywood players. The group went to Washington to protest the hearings and produced Hollywood Fights Back, a star-studded radio program which was co-written by her husband.

Like many other notable actors and screenwriters who dared to stand up to the government and studio system, Ms. Hunt's career came to a complete stop in Hollywood. She was asked to denounce her activities if she wanted to find more work and she steadfastly refused. In 1950, Hunt was named as a potential Communist or Communist sympathizer (along with 151 other actors, writers and directors) in the anti-Communist publication Red Channels. Though she would continue to work through her 90s, the blacklist effectively stopped her ascent in major motion pictures.

Not one to sit still however, Ms. Hunt simply knocked on other doors, returning to her first love; theater. She made her Broadway debut in Joy To The World, in March of 1948. She continued to go between theater, working both on Broadway and in Los Angeles, television and radio for the rest of her career. She starred in the first live televised Shakespeare play, playing Viola in Twelfth Night. In 1950 she appeared on the cover of Life Magazine as the star of the Broadway play, The Devil's Disciple. In 1987 she even appeared in an episode of Star Trek! In addition to opening up time for theater, the blacklist also opened up her time for activism. This was not a new avenue for her to travel. She had worked throughout the war years at the Hollywood Canteen dancing and socializing with service men, especially on Saturday nights, when no one else wanted to. But, after the blacklist, the world opened up to her. As she stated in an interview with Film Talk in response to the question:

"How did you get involved in all the charity work you did for so many years?"
When I had so much free time because I wasn't allowed to act, I discovered the outside world. I went around the world with my husband and I came back as, what I called, a planet patriot. I fell in love with the planet, not just my country, but all of us. I learned about the United Nations which was right here in this country and I spent twenty-five years working as a volunteer on behalf of the UN, I worked on the Year of the Child, international cooperation, and made a documentary film during World Refugee Year with fourteen stars appearing in it to tell the stories of different refugees. There were still twenty-five million people floating around the world, stateless, with no travel papers, no identity papers, no work permits – fifteen years after World War II ended. The United Nations was trying to get the governments to open their borders and let their fair share of refugees in, so I made this film to acquaint Americans with it. It was very rewarding.

In addition to world wide charity work, Ms. Hunt made a huge difference right in the San Fernando Valley, opening the first homeless shelter for women and children. This is especially poignant because her own baby did not survive. During the turmoil of the McCarthy era, she gave birth to a baby girl, born prematurely, who later passed away. This was a true heartbreak for her and she did not have any other children.

Ms. Hunt's creative spirit is expressed in numerous ways. In 1993 she published The Way We Wore ... a beautiful coffee table book detailing fashion of the 1930s and 1940s. All of the photos are of her, in glorious outfit after glorious outfit. Many are studio shots used as publicity for her 50 movies, some are fashion shots for the designers. Each photo is explained and detailed by Ms. Hunt in her own charming manner. I actually met Ms. Hunt when I was directing and costuming a play set in the 1940s. She lent us clothes, making sure that each piece was truly representative of who would wear it. Her knowledge of fashion rivals many who made it their life's work. Her generosity of spirit was on display even in such limited contact.

One of the most charming surprises, but one that goes to the heart of Ms. Hunt's belief system is the song that she wrote about love and marriage equality for same-sex couples, titled Here's To All Who Love. She wrote it at age 95, and it has become an anthem at marriage ceremonies. She wrote it as a gift and it is has been received as one.

There is a documentary by Roger Memos about Marsha Hunt. It had a short run in 2015 but in order to recut it for streaming services, Mr. Memos is raising funds. The documentary was filmed in collaboration with Ms. Hunt and features countless interviews, clips and insight. It is a labor of love and an amazing project. If you would like to read more about the documentary you can check out the Facebook page. If you would like to donate to the GoFund account to help with the sound mix, closed captioning, the film's website and the film trailer, please click here.

In preparation for this article, I sent Ms. Hunt some questions to answer via email. Rather than edit them, I will share them with you as is.

Marsha being surprised by the crew of her documentary for her 75th anniversary. She is in her late 90s in this photograph.

What similarities do you see in the political climate today and during the 1940s and 1950s? Are there differences that you feel are more or less dangerous? 
At 101 years of age I am not as well informed as I once was. But of course I favor, as always, the most peaceful, most even handed solution to problems.

I don't know if you would remember, but we have actually met! You were extremely generous in helping me costume a play that I directed, set in the 1940s. I came over and you lent us clothing and gave me a copy of your book, which I treasure. How do you feel that fashion (or the lack of it) affects women's power and collective voice? I have been watching the new congress and all of the new younger and female members of the House in their bright clothes and fashion forward choices. Does this, in your opinion empower or diminish them?
I think there is an effect but it's hard to define. I think how well, how effectively, a woman legislator dresses can tell us something about her IQ, the effective, the becoming, the appropriate, which then empowers them. I don't think “fashion” diminishes unless it's extreme - then it can be negative, but I think that's pretty rare. I guess women in government dress without “headlines'. If they were fashion plates it would be distracting from their effectiveness in what they are there to do. It would become the wrong topic.

What do you want to tell women and actors who find that their activism is more important to them than their acting careers? Do you think it is worth it, if being known for your politics is hurting your castability. Do you think that is a truism, or simply a fear?
When you take positions you lose some people just as you gain others. On matters of importance to me, it is worth it.

What role do you think that the unions should play in helping actors become activists? Should the union be neutral or an active partner? (NB: Ms. Hunt was active in SAG prior to the blacklist and served on the board)

The union is there to protect and help the actor so when one's union takes a position the individual is spared blame or credit for it. At that extent we are protected by our unions.

Do you see any positive aspects to social media as it it used today? Do you see it as a danger (do you not care about it at all??)
The internet/social media is a way of “getting it out there” but then nothing remains private including opinions.

What changes would you like to see, both in the nation and in the entertainment/film industry, in regards to women specifically.
The changes in the entertainment/film industry ideally would be that it that it be an open opportunity to write, direct, produce whether a woman or a man.

Sweet Adversity Documentary:
Review

Book website:
The Way We Wore

Links to additional articles:
NPR: Actress Marsha Hunt, 100, Has Matters Of Principle
Movie Maker: Marsha Hunt at 100: The Actress Recalls the Blacklist, Film Noir and Being Cast in Gone With The Wind
IMDB bio
British Film Institute: Marsha Hunt: American girl, Un-American woman, upstanding centenarian
LA Times: Actress Marsha Hunt survived the blacklist without apologizing for her activism
Film Talk: Marsha Hunt: “MGM let me play absolutely everything, the studio gave me such joy”
Huffington Post: Marsha Hunt Pens ‘Here's To All Who Love' Gay Rights Anthem

Video:
Marsha discusses her career and the Hollywood Blacklist


Female Fusion Spotlight on Debbie Devine

Female Fusion -- At the intersection of art and action

A column highlighting and exploring the careers of women creating art and changing the world, one community at a time.

Debbie Devine
Artistic Director of 24th Street Theatre, Director of Drama at the Colburn School and a director for artistic programing at the LA Philharmonic

Debbie Devine

Debbie Devine Directing Hansel and Gretel, Bluegrass with Caleb Foote (Hansel) Angela Giarratana (Gretel)

Debbie Devine has a great laugh. Deep throated, full and infectious, it invites you to actively take part in the conversation. When you do, what a joy ride you will experience! The discussion ricochets between theater, music, education, and human rights - illuminating all of the places where they intersect in a gorgeous kaleidoscope of life and one woman's astonishing career.

debbie-devine-headshot-1

Debbie Devine. Photo courtesy of 24th Street Theatre

Ms. Devine is a director, an educator, a writer and an advocate. She moves seamlessly from one to the other, often occupying several spaces at once. She is the founder and artistic director of 24th Street Theatre, whose mission statement reads, “To engage, educate, and provoke our diverse community with excellent theatre and arts education.” 24th Street Theatre creates gorgeous work that is family inclusive, but in no way simplified or generic. The work is multi-layered, innovative in its content and vision and without fail intensely moving. The list of awards and accolades is much longer than this column can accommodate. In addition to what would be, for most people, more than full time job, she is the Chair of Drama for the Colburn School (both dance and music) and an artistic director for the LA Philharmonic, where she creates content and programs that bring the music and process of creating music to life for young audiences.

When I asked Ms. Devine how she found her calling she recounted that, like many people in the theater community, she was a painfully shy kid, someone absolutely unable to communicate. Her mother was concerned and as a last resort put her in a summer theater program. It worked. She found her life's passion, saying that “it was such an incredible experience for me to understand how the voice is used...how making believe and then actually being able to believe what is make believe can change lives.” She began working professionally as an actress while still in high school and started her teaching career while still quite young.

It was as a high school drama teacher that she found her path. She was working in a school for deeply troubled kids when Jack Black walked into her room. Ms. Devine's relationship with this incredible actor, singer, musician and comedian is well documented. He has, as in this LA Times quote, often credited her with saving him. “I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't met Deb Devine, who inspired me and for the first time gave me a reason to really love going to school. [She] opened my mind and soul to an exciting world of literature and communication.... All of a sudden I knew all these new things.” She was able to get past his rough exterior and helped him uncover the brilliance that was hidden inside. They have stayed close over the years, even sharing a Rose Bowl float in 2015 in honor of their joint initiative, Thank A Million Teachers, which does just that.

It is easy to go down the celebrity worm hole and focus on this ongoing and charming partnership, but Ms. Devine has saved, and I don't use that word lightly, many many people over the years. After she broke through with Mr. Black she said, “I started to look around and I realized that this is happening with all of these kids and I started to realize that this art form [theater], it's magic.” In 1997 she founded 24th Street Theatre with her partner Jay McAdams. It has grown into an internationally recognized organization dedicated to blending professional productions presented by world-class artists with quality arts education. In addition to these critically acclaimed shows, many of which debut here in LA and then tour nationally and internationally, there are arts education programs, community outreach programs and continuing arts education and professional development programs for school teachers.

We spoke in depth about the theater's production of Mike Kenny's Walking the Tightrope, which premiered 24th Street in 2012 and went on to win numerous awards, including a best direction award from LA Weekly for Ms. Devine and Best Production from the LA Drama Critics Circle. It is currently touring the country. We spoke of the power and beauty of the piece, which is the tale of a grandfather who is not quite able to bring himself to tell his 5 year-old granddaughter that Grandma is gone and in the process goes about building a beautiful new relationship with her. The play is incredibly moving, in a truly visceral way. Ms. Devine explained the process of approaching the story not as a child's tale but rather as the grandfather's story. The grandfather is suicidal and believes he cannot go on, but in trying to explain his wife's absence to this child, he finds a way to continue. That is really the mission of the theater and the method to building family friendly productions; tell a simple story in a truthful way that has meaning and sophistication.

One of the programs at the theater which speaks directly to the community at this moment in time is called Enter Stage Right. A part of the Field Trip series, it is a 90 minute show about the magic of theater. The show culminates in a scene set in 1870 at a train depot at which a Mexican mother and her child are stopped from getting onto the train by a racist Irishman. Many issues are explored through music and improvisational acting throughout the show. Ultimately you find a relatable dynamic for modern audiences between the mother and child; the child can read and is able to navigate the situation by standing up for their rights. Literacy and standing up to injustice are illustrated in a very familiar way to the 10,000 students a year see this show, as many of these children are in a similar situation with their own parents, serving as translators for them in Los Angeles. Teaching artists go to the children's classes before and after the field trip to share and explore why the Irishman is so cruel, how to speak truth in intimidating circumstances and how history can teach us about the present.

24th Street Theatre occupies an amazing old building in the predominantly Latino neighborhood near USC. The theater is an old carriage house originally built in 1928. This is truly a community space; always open so that people can come in for a tour, a cup of tea or simply companionship. In addition to the Field Trip programs there is an after school program, After ‘Cool which brings teenagers into the fold and helps them develop into ambassadors and translators to help with bilingual programing. There are additional leadership programs and The Teatro del Pueblo series which brings the parents of all of those kids into the theater and has them create a play. This serves to further strengthen ties to the community and increases the number of Spanish speaking audience members exposed to live theater. Finally, there is a professional development program for teachers. They basically get to experience a three hour acting class with both a live musician and film/technical director in order to create stories. Part of this process is curriculum based and connected to the core standards so that they can take what they learn back to their students. The second and arguably more important piece reminds teachers why they became teachers in the first place. The process of creating art reconnects teachers, these teachers who get so caught up in the day to day bureaucracy of the school system, to their hearts and reinvigorates them as they re-enter the classroom. This is a theater that is as much about life as it is art.

How, then, does her work at 24th Street compare to her duties at both the Colburn School and the LA Philharmonic? She works with composers, musicians and conductors, at both venues and with symphonies around the country, teaching workshops on how to communicate about music with people. Many musicians don't naturally talk about their art and Ms. Devine helps them bridge the gap between their solo work and the people that they work with and for. She points out that a musician can practice solo for six or eight hours at a time and never have to speak to another soul! Speaking to other artists, audience, members and donors can take practice and the workshops facilitate that. The second part of her work in these venues, which is similar to her work with 24th Street, involves building, as a director and co-writer, original theatrical pieces which support library cuts of music that the Philharmonic is playing. She directs and co-writes a theatrical story which supports the music. The current piece that she is working on with Joanne Pierce Martin, the head keyboardist at the Philharmonic, is called The Art of the Piano. The piece is about the relationship between the pianist, the piano tuner and the piano. This is one of three pieces this year. She does similar work at Colburn, both coaching musicians and creating stories.

When I asked jokingly asked her about hobbies or outside interests, knowing that she couldn't possibly have time for them, she laughed that awesome laugh and agreed that maybe she needs an outlet, but that she loves what she does and that is everything.

Ms. Devine's current show is Hansel and Gretel, Bluegrass, currently running through December 11 (with a possible extension) at 24th Street Theatre. It has received rave reviews. The LA Times says, “ Masterful staging by 24th Street co-founder Debbie Devine situates the fine performances within a stunning visual tableau. ….The play's message about interdependence may seem simple enough, but this is no kiddie show. The siblings' trials are a rite of passage to adulthood, one with intentional implicit relevance to today's headlines about desperate parents in troubled regions trying to send their children out of harm's way.” It appears to be exactly what is needed in these dangerous and uncharted times.

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