Way We Were: Lee Beger

Way We Were: Lee Beger
Lee Beger directed The Laramie Project for The 5 & Dime.

Lee Beger, Ph.D., is convinced she got her creative genes from her father.

Directing is in her blood, history shows. When her mother, Pearl Lee Lowery from Georgia met her father, Arthur Stewart from Alabama, they had both recently moved to Jacksonville.

Pearl worked for a linen company. Arthur had been moved to Jacksonville by Sears Roebuck & Company to help open a new store.

Lee’s parents

Lee’s parents

Arthur’s role was to design the storefront windows. Then, Sears asked him to move again, this time to the company’s headquarters in Chicago, which Pearl and he didn’t want to do. On top of that, the company tried to make him design the windows the way their other stores were designed. The other Sears stores were in the north and designed to catch the attention of people walking by. Arthur told the company that people in his hometown didn’t walk through downtown; they drove.

So, he designed the window the way he knew would be more effective for people driving past in cars; he put a big pile of batteries in the window with a large sign advertising them. The company disagreed, and Arthur decided to strike out on his own.

“I guess I hadn’t thought about how much I’m like my father,” Lee said. “I like directing because I can control what will make a play work best, just like my father knew what made a store window most effective.”

Pearl and Arthur opened Stewart’s Five and Dime store on Florida Avenue on the east side of downtown Jacksonville and not far from the current location of TIAA Bank Field. At first, they kept their full-time jobs. Lee’s grandmother opened the store and ran it until Lee’s parents could arrive after work. They eventually worked full-time managing 14 or 15 stores scattered around Jacksonville, including stores in Springfield, the Westside, and San Marco among other locations. Gradually, in later years, they sold all of the stores.

Lee’s parents first lived on Jean Court in Springfield. In 1943, they bought a house on the river, south of Miramar in an area called Hollywood Park, when Lee was still a babe in arms. Lee remembers a photo of her grandfather holding her in the backyard of the house and looking out on the river.

She thinks the house was designed by Harold Saxelbye and its original address was, simply, Foot of Ardsley Road. “I remember when the post office made us change the address to 4600 Mundy Drive,” Lee said.

The house sat high on a bluff. In fact, her father told her that he picked it out because it was the highest point between San Marco and what is now called Mandarin.

“I loved the big oak trees, all of the plants and the old Florida feel of the property,” Lee remembered.  She has planted her current backyard to be very natural as well, because it is very comforting to her.

Lee Beger posing in the backyard of her childhood home in San Jose

Lee Beger posing in the backyard of her childhood home in San Jose

“My fondest memories of my homeplace were of the river and the sunsets over the river. We had a staircase that went up to a landing and then turned to go up to the second floor. There was a window on the landing where I could look out over the river.”

Lee was not supposed to play on the river, but she remembers that didn’t stop her. “I would skid down the bluff to where my father had put white sand and a bulkhead. Off to the side were trees that went over the water and made a great hideout.”

She also remembers that she was a pretty wild teenager. “We had a long circular driveway with gateposts at the street. I regularly bounced the car off the posts trying to make the sharp turn into our driveway,” she recalled.

The person who bought the house after they lived there tore it down and leveled the property so that there is no longer a bluff. At the time the house was being sold, Lee talked to her sister, Connie Stewart Green, who now lives in Neptune Beach, about whether they should buy the house because of its historical value, but a real estate agent convinced them that they would have a hard time selling it eventually.

Lee attended Hendricks Avenue Elementary School and graduated from Landon High School. She started college at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn., but when she had a waterskiing accident during the summer, she couldn’t go back to school in the fall because she needed surgeries. She went to Jacksonville University instead and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theater.

After teaching for two years at newly-opened Wolfson High School, she left Jacksonville to earn her master’s degree in theater at Southern Illinois University. After that, she didn’t want to return to Jacksonville. “I wanted to see the world and have adventures,” Lee said.

She was offered a teaching job at the University of Montana, and while there, met Richard Beger. Lee insisted that he meet her parents, so they returned to Jacksonville and married. They lived in Jacksonville for about a year, while Lee worked retail and Richard worked as a mechanic to earn enough money to get a start as a married couple and return to Montana. Even though they divorced after 10 years, he is still her best friend, Lee said.

Lee’s art of creating in Jacksonville was also an act of nature. “I came back to Jacksonville because my mother had died and my father asked me to return to take care of him,” Lee said. “I told him he needed to ‘sweeten the pot’ to get me to come.” So, he bought her a small house on Mango Place and refinished the floors for her. He lived another 10 years until he was 96 years old.

After she met Cathy Smith, who lived next door to her, they realized that neither had a home large enough for two people. “I happened to go to a small meeting on Peachtree Circle East in Lakewood. I knew the house was for sale. When the owner offered to show me the deck and backyard, I immediately asked, ‘How much do you want for this house?’”

Cathy Smith and Lee Beger

Cathy Smith and Lee Beger

It was just a dirt yard with a big oak tree, but it reminded her of her home on the bluff at the river, and she knew she could landscape it to look like old Florida. “It has been such a wonderful neighborhood with families who stay and look out after each other,” Lee said.

The house was Cathy’s and her home for more than 30 years until Cathy’s death in 2016. Lee still lives there with her dog, Sugar, and lots of photos and mementos from their personal and professional lives and their travels together.

Cathy was born in Georgia. She had only been in Jacksonville a couple of years when Lee and she met. In addition to her work as an event planner in the travel industry, Cathy was the stage manager for the first Shakespeare at the Met that Lee directed in Metropolitan Park and, after that, all of the shows that Lee directed for six years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Lee was hired to be house manager for The Florida Theatre when it reopened as a performing arts center in the early ‘80s. She had completed her coursework at Florida State University for a doctorate in theater. All that remained was defending her dissertation.

“Working at The Florida Theatre gave me the chance to be part of something bigger than myself that opened new possibilities, Lee said. “The Florida Theatre taught me a lot about theater operation, how to organize and work with people and how to run a theater as a business.”

Even though she loved her time at The Florida Theatre, “the best advice I ever received was from someone who told me to leave The Florida Theatre job and get a job teaching theater in a new art school that was opening, and finish my dissertation,” Lee said.

That new art school was Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, which had been renovated into a magnet high school in 1985. Two years later, Lee was asked to start the theater program at the school, an opportunity for her to teach the arts, as well as direct.

“I always taught them as if they were going to be professionals even though statistics say that maybe only 30 percent of them would go into the arts,” Lee said. “That’s the only way to teach. Don’t teach to the middle; teach to the ultimate. Then, students are prepared to do anything. They can make their own path.”

1989-90 Folio Awards for Excellence in Theatre: Brad Trowbridge (Best Actor), Pam Jackson (Best Lighting Design), Michael Higgins, Lee Beger (New Director) and Richard Sikes (Best Supporting Actor)

1989-90 Folio Awards for Excellence in Theatre: Brad Trowbridge (Best Actor), Pam Jackson (Best Lighting Design), Michael Higgins, Lee Beger (New Director) and Richard Sikes (Best Supporting Actor)

Lee taught at Douglas Anderson for 28 years before retiring in June 2015. She saw the program grow from two faculty into seven and 50 students to more than 200 students. A number of her students have made names for themselves in the acting world. One of her legacies is Liz Pearce, who is a member of the cast of off-Broadway’s “Sweeney Todd.” Another is Daniel Torres who is in the current Broadway cast of “Beautiful.” And, Nick Sacks is an understudy in the Broadway play “Dear Evan Hansen.”

“I thought teaching at Douglas Anderson would just be something I would do for a short time until I could go back north. But I fell in love with it.”

Lee enjoyed building DA’s theater program from nothing, under the guidance of then principal Jackie Cornelius. “I miss it. I was able to direct two shows a year. Within reason I could choose what I wanted to direct.”

In addition to her many years of directing students at Douglas Anderson, Lee directed “Pippin” at Theatre Jacksonville, a series of plays in the late ‘80s for Jacksonville Actors Theatre at Grand Boulevard Mall, Shakespeare at the Met, and a couple of new scripts by Ian Mairs at Theatre Jacksonville. Since retiring, she has directed “August, Osage County” and co-directed “Into the Woods,” both at Players-by-the-Sea.

Lee recently finished directing “The Laramie Project” for The 5 & Dime, a theatre company in downtown Jacksonville. “I directed the play years ago at DA, but I had to tone its content down for students to perform,” Lee said. “Still, the fact that I could do it at all is a testament to what that school is.”

“It is so great to do the play with adult actors for an adult audience, as it should be done,” she admitted. “Cathy would be so happy that I’m directing it.”

By Karen J. Rieley
Resident Community News

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