Meredith's Lakewood memories are mostly unhappy

Former Lakewoodite Burgess Meredith, who many feel is one of the most accomplished actors of our century, has had a full life and is still living it -- but now in Malibu, Calif. He turned 88 on Nov. 16.

Because Meredith spent merely a few years in Lakewood, and those only as a child, his memories of our city are sparse. Furthermore, he confesses to their being "vaguely sad."

During his brief stay here, he attended third- and fourth-grade classes (1916-18) at Madison Elementary School, 16601 Madison Ave., and lived at nearby 1545 Westwood Ave.

"We recently drove to his one-time home -- a single, two-story frame residence of turn-of-the-century vintage -- and talked to present owner and sole occupant Ralph E. Barendt.

"When I came in 1974, I heard that Burgess Meredith once lived here," said Barendt, a 71-year-old retiree and widower.

Beyond that, he knows of nothing that would connect the Meredith family to the site.

"Of course, there were the Marshalls who lived here before me, but they are dead," he said as an afterthought.

Our actor subject came to Lakewood from Cleveland's East Side where he was born the youngest of three children to physician father William George Meredith and mother Ida Beth (nee Burgess) Meredith.

Dr. Meredith, a native of Toronto, was of Welsh extraction. Ida was born in Fitchville, Ohio, in Huron County. Her family was originally from North Ireland.

The main reason for Meredith's sad memories of Lakewood, as explained in an autobiography published last year, were his parents' marital quarrels at the time. He said his father was frustrated and drank heavily, and his mother was in constant despair.

"All my life, to this day, the memory of my childhood remains grim and incoherent," he wrote. "If I close my eyes and think back, I see little except violence and fear."

Meredith remembers taking part in a few plays as a grade schooler here. However, it was his choir-singing soprano voice as a child in Lakewood that hinted of a performing future.

In Lakewood he was pushed, more or less, into singing, in spite of early asthma problems that kept him from school much of the time.

When a nationwide audition, held by the Paulist Choristers Boy Choir of New York, came to town, Meredith participated and was one of the winners.

He was sent to New York City but never did join the Catholic choir there. Instead, shortly before that was to happen, his maternal grandfather, retired Rev. Oliver Burgess, intervened.

The Rev. Burgess, who was credited with being one of the founders of the first Methodist church in Cleveland, suggested that before affiliating with the Catholic group, his grandson try out for a Protestant group while in New York.

So, through the help of Meredith's sister Virginia, new arrangements were made for an audition at the Protestant Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In this, too, the young singer succeeded.

Thus, as a sub-teen, Meredith joined the St. John Choir in NYC, with the church providing schooling, board and lodging.

At this point, Meredith's Lakewood connection ended. While he was supposed to return home during vacation times, there was really no place for him to return. He recalled that his father had retreated to Canada and his mother was living as best as she could, sometimes with an aunt, sometimes with friends.

In the early 1920s, when Meredith was no longer a plausible soprano, he enrolled in the Hoosac Preparatory School at Hoosick Falls, N.Y., after which he entered Amherst College.

But despite a college scholarship, lack of money soon became a problem.

He quit school and got a job as a reporter on the Stamford Advocate in Connecticut. When that didn't work out, he teamed up with his brother George in operating a haberdashery at Fairmount Boulevard and Cedar Road in Cleveland Heights.

It wasn't long before their business flopped and Burgess returned to Amherst; however, not before doing a temporary stint of about two weeks of cub reporting for Cleveland's The Plain Dealer.

Subsequently, disillusioned as a student, he left Amherst a second time, Nevertheless, nearly a decade later, after his success as an actor, the college bestowed upon him an honorary masters degree in art.

In the late 1920s, Meredith drifted back to New York, where he had various fill-in jobs, among them selling vacuum cleaners, clerking at Macy's, and working as a runner on Wall Street.

Also, he made two trips to South America as an ordinary seaman on an ocean liner, after which he was fired by the ship's captain for disobeying orders.

"I was no good at anything except the stage," Meredith once told a reporter.

His springboard to Broadway was when he was admitted in 1929 to Eva Le Gallien's Civic Repertory Co. in NYC as an apprentice without pay. He scored his first big impression in the early 1930s when he received the role of Red Barry in Little Ol' Boy, the Albert Bein play of reform school life.

His first theatrical appearance in Cleveland was a three-day engagement at the Hanna Theater in 1936 as the male lead in Maxwell Anderson's Winterset.

Meredith served during World War II and attained a captaincy in the Air Force. He was wed four times. His first wife was attractive Helen Derby, whose father was president of American Cyanamide. That marriage lasted from 1933-35.

Photo source: Life Magazine 1943

In 1936, he tied the nuptial knot with actress Margaret Perry. They were divorced in 1938. His third wife was screen star Paulette Goddard, from 1944-48. Before Meredith, she was the spouse of comedian Charlie Chaplin.

In 1950, Meredith married his present wife, the lovely former Swedish ballerina Kaja Sundsten, who is considerably his junior. They have two children -- son Jonathon, a musician, and daughter Tala, a painter.

Meredith has chalked up scores of impressive roles on stage, screen, TV and radio. He also has a host of citations for his standout accomplishments as a director through the years.

He is noted for his enthusiastic, eccentric portrayals that have spanned decades.

In 1939, he starred in the movie Of Mice and Men, taken from John Steinbeck's famous novel. In 1944, he appeared as Ernie Pyle in The Story of G.I. Joe, which General Dwight D. Eisenhower called "the best war film I have ever seen."

In 1966, Meredith played The Penguin in the motion picture Batman. Starting in 1976, he was Sylvester Stallone's fight manager in the Rocky film series.

More recently he has co-starred with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the movie Grumpy Old Men and its sequel, Grumpier Old Men.

This article by Dan Chabek appeared in the Lakewood Sun Post December 7, 1995. Reprinted with permission.

[Note: Burgess Meredith died September 10, 1997. He was 89.]

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