Ruta Lee’s star on Palm Springs Walk of Stars may shine ever so brightly but in conversation, the woman is a bona fide super nova.
Funny, honest, giving, and empathic, the actress-humanitarian-longtime local resident is also downright candid.
About Palm Springs, where Lee has been a homeowner for decades now in the coveted Las Palmas neighborhood, she says: “It’s a magical place. The sun, if nothing else, bakes everything clean. Even the garbage is good in Palm Springs.”
About show business today versus 40 to 50 years ago, Lee is quick to point out that Hollywood today could benefit from “more of the old-fashioned way of being a star. What happened to ‘I have to give back because I’ve been blessed?’ We all grew up with that. Did that disappear with Vaudeville? There’s not that lovely mystique anymore. There are a plethora of people surrounding stars. You have to go through the publicist, the hairdresser, the masseuse, the gardener — everybody — to get to a star. A humble generosity is simply not in the vocabulary anymore.”
Well, it is in Lee’s.
That’s one of the reasons why she is being honored with the Jeannette Rockefeller Humanitarian Award at the 26th Annual Evening Under the Stars AAP (AIDS Assistance Program) – Food Samaritans Palm Springs gala on May 4 at the O’Donnell Golf Club.
Rockefeller was the founding president of AAP – Food Samaritans, which was established in 1991. The revered non-profit organization provides nutritional support for low-income people living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses. The award recognizes individuals who have contributed their “energy, commitment, and influence to raise awareness and funding for important issues including HIV/AIDS.”
Other honorees include Glenn Johnson and Michael Melancon for the Gloria Greene Inspiration Award, and Ron deHarte of Greater Palm Springs Pride for the Herb Lazenby Community Service Award.
But Lee, a staunch supporter of APP—Food Samaritans for decades, boasts other humanitarian efforts. There’s her longtime leadership role in The Thalians, an inspired charitable organization committed to good mental health — from pediatric to geriatric. Elsewhere, she has served as commissioner on the Los Angeles Board of Environmental Quality and she was recently honored as a “Woman of Achievement” by Northwood University, to note a few.
Being a celebrated actress — stage, television, and screen — certainly holds a great deal of allure, too, and Lee’s show business queue is filled with milestones. She went from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre usherette to playing the youngest bride in MGM’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Notable turns in Funny Face, Witness for the Prosecution, and Sergeant’s Three (as Frank Sinatra’s leading lady) stand out and with more than 2,000 television show appearances — from Perry Mason and Twilight Zone to Love Boat and Roseanne — Lee is instantly recognizable.
She shares more with Palm Springs Life.
Let’s talk about your life path.
I grew up with the credo that if something good came your way, you had to pay some of it back in some way. I think I’ve been doing that ever since I was 3 years old. It’s part of my life and my genetics.
Did your parents instill that in you?
I don’t remember them instilling that within me but I do remember them always extending a hand to help family, a neighbor, a stranger. That came to me without being drummed in. it was just there. And then, of course, I joined up with the Thalians when I was very young and just getting into show business. One of my mentors in the organization, somebody who became one of my best friends, was Debbie Reynolds, who was also of the same credo — that you had to do helpful things along the way.
The Thalians are well regarded for their dedication to mental health causes.
Good mental health from pediatric through geriatric. We built the first clinic in Cedars-Sinai and people would come to me in a restaurant or at an event, and say, “Ruta Lee, you have no idea how my kid’s life changed because of The Thalians — because you got them off drugs.” Or, “You have no idea how being in the clinic for a while got my mother out of depression.” To receive that kind of thank you — that’s the best Academy Award.
“There are a plethora of people surrounding stars. You have to go through the publicist, the hairdresser, the masseuse, the gardener — everybody — to get to a star. A humble generosity is simply not in the vocabulary anymore.”
– Ruta Lee
The subject of mental health is being discussed more.
More now, yes. It was the hidden disease. Nobody wanted to talk about it in family and community. In the beginning [of The Thalians], a doctor who worked with emotionally disturbed children explained that an emotionally disturbed child was like a rotting apple in a barrel. It will destroy the whole barrel if you let it go. That’s what we started with — emotionally disturbed children. Then, 18 years later, when we built the clinic, we took it from children all the way to geriatric cases. We Thalians, being Hollywood-bred, shined that klieg light onto that dark pit known as mental illness and tried to bring it into the light of healing.
That must have taken a great deal of work.
I’m very proud of that, what were originally called “a silly bunch of pot-smoking, sex-minded ‘assholes’ that had nothing to contribute,” did this —that they built this and that people in allied fields supported the idea. Whether they were attorneys or agents or managers or publishers. They joined us and we did so well. Now, we’ve switched our focus to include the plight of the returning veteran — those people who have fallen through the cracks. The people who have given the best that America has to give. We have joined up with Operation Mend at UCLA and they take care of the broken bodies — the disappearing faces, the arms. We take care of the broken heart, soul, and spirit.
So what are your thoughts on the AAP honor?
I wasn’t kidding when I said, just to be mentioned in the same breath as Jeannette Rockefeller is wonderful. I know that in order to have an award named for you is about as lovely as it can get. Hell — that’s the Nobel Peace Prize as far as I’m concerned. And to have it presented to me for work I’ve done outside of our community makes it international and wonderful.
It’s leaving an impact, yes?
I’m grateful to everybody who gives a damn about the AIDS’ programs and God knows, miracles have been wrought by lovely, wonderful, noise-making, fund-raising people who weren’t afraid to get on the back of a truck in their feathers and Cuban heels and make noises about AIDS and what had to be done. I have so much admiration for all the people involved with AAP. And of course I have to note [AAP Executive Director] Mark Anton. He’s the noisemaker, the bell ringer. That’s the reason why our AIDS Assistance Program is so damn good in Palm Springs. Because … it’s not a matter of sitting back and writing out a check for some distant kind of thing. This is a situation where, if you have a mind to, you can do a hands-on job. And you’re helping people right there in our own community who you can see, hear, and visit. I think that’s very essential.
The 26th Annual Evening Under the Stars AAP – Food Samaritans Palm Spring gala will be held at 5:30 p.m. May 4 at O’Donnell Golf Club, 301 N. Belardo Road in Palm Springs. The event features a performance by ABBA show band ARRIVAL From Sweden. For more information, call 760-325-8481 or visit aapfoodsamaritans.org. Learn more about Ruta Lee at rutalee.com.