Actress, Writer Lee Gale Gruen Takes Her ‘Reinventing Yourself In Your Senior Years’ Message Personally, And Shares It
Posted: Tuesday, June 30, 2015 – 7:52 PM
Father’s Day may have been last month, but the remembrance will always have special meaning for 42-year resident Lee Gale Gruen.
At 60, she retired after a 37-year career as a probation officer. That was 13 years ago, and now Gruen is an actress, author, blogger, busy public speaker, firm believer in continuing education and an inspiration for others.
Looking for something to fill her retirement days, on a whim she started taking an acting class for seniors at Emeritus College in Santa Monica. On the first day of the Scene Study class, with horrible stage fright and wanting to sneak out, she was called on to do a monologue from Death of a Salesman. “You might as well start at the top,” she says now, recalling her fear.
But she became so engrossed in Linda Loman’s story that she forgot she was in a room full of people and did the whole scene. At the end, when class members clapped, she was hooked. “It was so exciting. I had no idea I had that ability.”
A few weeks later her mother died and she invited her grieving, 85-year-old father to class with her. He found it therapeutic and was “outgoing and the life of the party,” Gruen recalls. “And it helped get me out of my depression.”
Sitting in the back of the room, her father was eventually called on to improvise with other students. “He started getting into it,” recalls Gruen. “He started saying, ‘So what time are you picking me up for class?’” So they went every week for the next three years, and Gruen began writing sketches—usually about an irascible old man and his daughter pulling her hair out at his antics—the duo performed twice a year in class showcases. “The class loved us,” remembers Gruen. “They’d never had a father and daughter in class.”
Her book, Adventures with Dad: A Father & Daughter’s Journey Through a Senior Acting Class, tells of their bonding through the experience. She also recounts the humorous skits they enacted; and all six scenes are included in the book, along with background on the motivation, writing and rehearsal process and gathering the outlandish props.
The class inspired Gruen to get head shots and try the business. Answering an ad in Backstage West, she landed a commercial where she had to roller-skate. In another, she wore a latex body suit to add 250 pounds to her frame to portray and overweight, out-of-condition “before.”
Transitioning into professional acting, she has appeared in TV, film and theater, and sometimes portrays patients at UCLA Medical School for student training. She was one of six exercisers/dancers in the 2011 Jane Fonda’s Prime Time Firm & Burn workout DVD, and was also the oldest contestant in a Miss Fitness pageant.
When a Buddy Powell acting for commercials workshop was featured on a Huell Howser program, she was one of the interviewees.
She now has a theatrical agent as well as commercial representation for her print jobs where she’s been a hair, eyes and hand model.
Her father fell and broke his hip at the nursing home, in the middle of rehearsals for what turned out to be their final scenes. “He couldn’t walk and was in a wheelchair; the audience didn’t know,” Gruen says.
So as her fledgling, second career was heading uphill, her dad’s health started going downhill. She recounted each of her acting experiences sitting at his bedside at the nursing home where he spent his final years. “He was bragging about me to the staff and he had my headshot on the wall of his room,” recalls Gruen. “He was very proud.”
She realized tales of an older daughter and her aging father would make a good story; but the idea of writing a book seemed ridiculous. “I’m not a writer so I put it away.”
After wrestling with herself for eight years, she woke up one morning with the book half written in her head. It first it was on the back of Post-It notes, “even the sticky part.” It was also a cathartic experience writing about the difficult parts of growing up with her father “and repairing painful stuff.”
She finished it in 2013—her father read the last part of the book about her becoming an actress in his final days—and then she had to find a publisher. So she learned about genres publishers were interested in and query letters. She’s even taken on much of the book’s promotion and marketing.
Not content to rest, she took a screenplay writing class and has finished the first draft of a screenplay based on her book. The main character’s arc takes her from getting up on stage to learning to stand up to her father and be in the spotlight too. “It’s about me becoming an actor and writer and my growth and his growth too. A daughter can get some of the attention and he can be proud of her.”
Her blog, “Reinventing Myself in My Retirement,” (LeeGaleGruen.wordpress.com) where one of the recent topics is “If You Don’t Age Gracefully, Think of the Alternatives—Yikes!”—is designed to help baby boomers, seniors, and those soon to retire, find joy, excitement, and satisfaction in life after retirement. Which is what I did.”
The blog has led to another career as a senior advocate public speaker. She addresses the Mira Costa College LIFE (Learning Is For Everyone) in September and is set for the UCLA Women’s Faculty Club next April.
Her next writing project, inspired by her blog, will be a book on senior wellness. She finds in her presentations “that so many don’t know what to do; they’re depressed and alone, feeling isolated and invisible. The job and kids are gone and they say, ‘now what do I do?.’ They’re not prepared. You need a reason to get up, get dressed, get out of bed and embrace life. I tell them there’s lots of life left to live.”
From the countless options, she recommends focusing on activities that will yield physical and mental results. She advocates volunteering—she is a tour guide at the La Brea Tar Pits and the Virginia Robinson Gardens—taking classes, joining hobby clubs or societies like those for rose growing or genealogy, and “grabbing the opportunity to try something you never knew you could do.”
At her computer, “all the time,” she wants seniors to be connected. Of course she took computer classes for a year and built her own website. Gruen says, “Go to your kids, grandkids, the kids next door or the library and learn about the Internet and come into the modern world.”