DawnWatch: Gretchen Wyler obituaries 5/28 – 5/30/07

May 31st, 2007 3:02 pm by Kelly Garbato

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: DawnWatch – news [at] dawnwatch.com
Date: May 30, 2007 2:11 PM
Subject: DawnWatch: Gretchen Wyler obituaries 5/28 – 5/30/07

The Wednesday, May 30 New York Times and London Independent both have obituaries honoring the incomparable Gretchen Wyler, founder of the Genesis Awards (see http://tinyurl.com/2db48s) and beloved mentor to many of us. The Los Angeles Times obit ran on Monday. I will paste the beautiful Independent write-up in full below, and also the Los Angeles Times obituary, which focused the most on her animal protection work. And I will provide a link to the New York Times piece, which includes a delightful photo.

Here is the Independent piece:

The Independent (London)
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

GRETCHEN WYLER; Overnight star on Broadway

Tom Vallance

The musical star Gretchen Wyler achieved overnight success in 1955 when she was promoted from understudy to featured player shortly before the Cole Porter musical Silk Stockings opened on Broadway, going on to stop the show. She subsequently played star parts in other musicals, but generally as a replacement for performers such as Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, who first created the roles. “I don’t really admit to this,” she said, “but other people say, ‘Poor Gretchen, it never really happened.'”

The daughter of a petroleum engineer, she was born Gretchen Patricia Winneche in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1932, and had her first dancing lesson at the age of three. She made her theatrical début in 1950 as part of the ballet ensemble with the St Louis Municipal Opera company. Later the same year she moved to New York where she was cast in the chorus of Frank Loesser’s Where’s Charley?, a musical version of Charley’s Aunt starring Ray Bolger. “I was the baby in that show,” she said, and I loved Ray Bolger – I used to stand in the wings every night and watch him. He even gave me my name. He said if I was going to stay in the theatre – and I was – I needed to have a name for the marquee. “What do you think about Gretchen Wyler?” I couldn’t believe it. The great Ray Bolger giving me a name.

Wyler’s major break came in 1955 when she agreed to understudy the understudy in the featured role of Janice Dayton, swimming star of the movies, in Silk Stockings. Yvonne Adair, cast in the role, had been plagued by illness, and her understudy had been deemed unsuitable for the role. The show had a problematic tryout tour, and when Adair fell ill again in Detroit, just 10 days before the Broadway opening, her understudy was in New York auditioning for another show, so Wyler went on.

The Porter biographer George Eels wrote,

“None of the actresses who had played the film star had got the expected laughs. The number, ‘Josephine’, intended as a raucous parody of the striptease, was turning out to be a protracted yawn.

“On February 3rd, Miss Adair’s throat trouble forced her out of the show for the second act. Then and there, the cliché that has served as the plot for thousands of Grade-B films was reenacted. The 156lb, unprepossessing little chorus girl stepped into a featured role and stopped the show with a number that had been marked for oblivion. Lines that had never evoked a snicker brought roars. Miss Wyler not only made a name for herself, but literally saved the show.”

After the Broadway opening, the critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times,

“Gretchen Wyler is hilarious. She is sleek in build, hairdo and costumes. She is bursting with vitality. She does not sing a song so much as she fires it point blank at the audience.”

After nearly a year in Silk Stockings, Wyler accepted an offer to take over the leading role of temptress Lola in Damn Yankees.

“I had been trained as a dancer, and I was a very good dancer, so when Bob Fosse asked me to replace the great Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees, I agreed, because I wanted to be seen as a dancer. I lost my manager over it. He said, ‘You can’t replace somebody because you are very hot right now.’ As a result I’ve spent almost an entire career replacing people. It was okay. I got to do some great shows.”

After playing Lola to acclaim from critics, Wyler replaced another of Broadway’s legendary stars, Chita Rivera, in Bye Bye Birdie, and London audiences saw her in 1968 when she replaced Juliet Prowse at the Prince of Wales Theatre in Sweet Charity.

In 1959, she made a record, Wild-Wyler-Wildest, on which she gave a raunchy rendition of the Damn Yankees number “What Lola Wants”, plus other numbers such as “Find Me a Primitive Man” and “Put the Blame on Mame”. Wyler regularly performed on television, toured with her own nightclub act, and frequently returned to the theatre for repertory performances of such shows as Redhead, Call Me Madam and Mame.

Her film career was sparse – she made her screen début as a prostitute in The Devil’s Brigade (1968) and had a memorable role as Goldie Hawn’s “Aunt Kissy” in Private Benjamin (1980). For the last 40 years, much of Wyler’s time and energy was channelled into her fierce campaigning for animal rights. In 1968 she founded a shelter for animals, the Ark Trust, which presents annual awards for animal protection. Earlier this year, the first Gretchen Wyler Award was given to Sir Paul McCartney, for a lifetime of activism for animals.

Wyler last performed as an actress in 1997, when she gave an amusing performance in the television series Friends as a mean widow trying to avoid paying Monica and Phoebe for the catering at her husband’s funeral. The same year she concluded her stage career where she began – at the St Louis Municipal Opera – playing Dolly Levi in the musical Hello Dolly! “I think,” she said, “it’s about time to sleep late, see movies and read TV Guide.”

Gretchen Patricia Winneche (Gretchen Wyler), actress, dancer and singer: born Bartlesville, Oklahoma 16 February 1932; married 1956 Shepard Coleman (marriage dissolved 1968); died Camarillo, California 27 May 2007.

(End of Independent Obituary)

The following appeared in the Monday, May 28, Los Angeles Times:

Gretchen Wyler, 75; Broadway actress became animal activist
By Claire Noland, Times Staff Writer
May 28, 2007

Gretchen Wyler, an actress who left a successful Broadway musical career to dedicate her efforts to protecting animals and eventually became an outspoken critic of the Los Angeles Zoo, has died. She was 75.

Wyler died Sunday at her home in Camarillo after a long battle with breast cancer, her friend and fellow activist Catherine Doyle said.

Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, praised her commitment as an animal rights advocate.

“She was a person of remarkable vigor and vision,” Pacelle said Sunday. “And it’s the loss of a major figure in the modern animal protection movement.”

A singer, dancer and actress in such Broadway hits as “Guys and Dolls,” “Silk Stockings,” “Damn Yankees” and “Bye Bye Birdie,” Wyler found a new passion in the late 1960s after visiting a dog pound near her home in Warwick, N.Y.

Appalled by the filthy, inhumane conditions she saw there, Wyler decided to take action: She quit eating meat, gave away her fur coats and opened a new animal shelter. She kept acting, but most of her time was spent educating the public about animal rights.

“Her idea,” Pacelle said, “was never to preach to the choir but to broaden the message and try to reach mainstream America.”

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals made her its first female board member in 1971 (though she was later dropped in a dispute with the board). She sat on the board of directors for the Fund for Animals and was vice chairwoman until 1991, when she founded the animal rights group the Ark Trust. In 2002 the Ark Trust merged with the Humane Society of the United States, and she served as vice president of the organization’s Hollywood office until retiring last year.

Wyler also created the Genesis Awards, which since 1986 have recognized the media and entertainment industries for incorporating animal protection themes into their work. The films “Fast Food Nation,” “Happy Feet” and “Charlotte’s Web” were among the honorees at this year’s event, which featured actor James Cromwell and comedian Bill Maher.

Working tirelessly on myriad animal rights issues, Wyler aimed to shut down horse-slaughtering factories, end the use of steel-jaw leg hole traps, prohibit the use of animal testing in research and development, and improve the treatment of animals in zoos and circuses — anything that reflected her motto: “Animals should have the right to run if they have legs, swim if they have fins and fly if they have wings.”

Her passionate views sometimes ruffled the feathers of Los Angeles Zoo officials, whom she criticized from her position on the L.A. Zoo directors advisory committee.

“Her heart’s in the right place, but she doesn’t really know the animals’ biology,” Manuel Mollinedo, who was zoo director from 1995 to 2002, said last year. “She tends to look at animals more from an emotional perspective.”

She had come a long way from Oklahoma City, where she was born Gretchen Patricia Wienecke on Feb. 16, 1932. A dancer, she made her professional debut in St. Louis in 1950 in a ballet ensemble.

When she landed a spot in the chorus of “Where’s Charley?” in 1951, she met Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” who encouraged her to change her last name to Wyler.

She performed in eight Broadway productions, including “Sly Fox” with George C. Scott.

She moved to Los Angeles along with a traveling production of that show in 1979 and never left, adding TV, stage and minor film roles to her increasingly busy animal activism.

One of Wyler’s last crusades was on behalf of Ruby, the L.A. Zoo’s female African elephant. Wyler was an outspoken critic of the zoo’s decision four years ago to move Ruby to Knoxville, Tenn. She was one of the first voices in the city to claim that Ruby’s move was inhumane because female elephants are social creatures in the wild and the move would sever Ruby’s longtime connection with one of the zoo’s other female elephants, Gita.

Ruby was returned to the L.A. Zoo in 2004, and Wyler took up lobbying the zoo to move her to an elephant sanctuary.

Two weeks ago, nearly a year after Gita died, the zoo moved Ruby to a sanctuary in San Andreas, Calif. Wyler “lived to know that Ruby was being moved to a sanctuary,” said Sue Blackmore of the Humane Society’s Hollywood office.

Wyler, who was divorced with no children, is survived by a sister, Peggy Hanson of Pacific Palisades, and a brother, Lou Wienecke of Granbary, Texas. Services are pending.

(End of Los Angeles Times obituary.)

Today’s New York Times obituary is on line at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/30/theater/30wyler.html.

It includes a lovely photo of Gretchen with Stanley Simmons in “Silk Stockings” (1955).

Gretchen’s animal advocacy focus was on the media. I know she would be thrilled if her obituaries inspired letters to the editor about the importance of her work and animal protection as a whole.

The Independent takes letters at letters [at] independent.co.uk.

The Los Angeles Times takes letters at letters [at] latimes.com.

And the New York Times takes letters at letters [at] nytimes.com.

In addition to the pieces cited above, you’ll find links to 127 obituaries for Gretchen, perhaps including one in your paper, at http://news.google.com/news?hl=en&ned=us&ie=UTF-8&ncl=1116755530.

Many smaller papers publish a high proportion of letters they receive, so if Gretchen was honored in yours, please take the opportunity to put a good word in for the animals.

Always include your full name, address, and daytime phone number when sending a letter to the editor. Shorter letters are more likely to be published.

Yours and the animals’,
Karen Dawn

(DawnWatch is an animal advocacy media watch that looks at animal issues in the media and facilitates one-click responses to the relevant media outlets. You can learn more about it, and sign up for alerts at http://www.DawnWatch.com. You may forward or reprint DawnWatch alerts if you do so unedited — leave DawnWatch in the title and include this parenthesized tag line. If somebody forwards DawnWatch alerts to you, which you enjoy, please help the list grow by signing up. It is free.)

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One Response to “DawnWatch: Gretchen Wyler obituaries 5/28 – 5/30/07”

  1. Henriette Wymar Says:


    About 25 years ago I interviewed Gretchen Wyler for a college (PCC) magazine. It turned out to be a good feature (with photos) about her and her advocacy for animals and she loved it. I dropped off a bunch of copies for her and she wrote me a very nice letter to tell me how much she liked it. At the time I was struck by her honesty, sincerety, and lack of airs–she was very unassuming and friendly and took all the time needed to explain her work–truly a lovely human being and I am very sad to read that she is gone.

    Henriette Wymar

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