The nurses and staff at the local hospice where Al Shea spent the final days of his remarkable life must have known that they were taking care of someone special. The calls from Carol Channing and Kaye Ballard (arranged by friend and WYES colleague Beth Utterback) might have tipped them off. If not, the visitor whose Rolls-Royce pulled up in the parking lot might have. It was Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint, who said he grew up watching Shea's reviews on the beloved WDSU-TV Midday show. Add that to the steady stream of visitors and friends from the worlds of television, theater, music and entertainment and it's clear how very special his life and career were.
When the longtime entertainment critic, actor, writer and radio and TV broadcaster died of cancer Aug. 20 at age 80, theater writer David Cuthbert, himself a 40-year veteran of the local press, marveled at Shea's longevity and staying power in so many different media. It's one reason Shea was honored this past March with Gambit's Big Easy Lifetime Achievement Award.
His career included more than 40 years as a critic, on air and in print, including a decade or so as Gambit's theater writer, penning the weekly "Proscenium" column in the 1980s. He wrote on a wide range of subjects and for practically every publication in town during his career.
"No one loved New Orleans theater more than Al Shea," says Gambit publisher Margo DuBos. "He brought an energy and childlike enthusiasm to his articles and television commentaries. I am so happy he received the Big Easy Lifetime Achievement Award this past spring honoring his many years covering theater in New Orleans."
Before his days as a critic, Shea was a member of New Orleans' favorite TV family in the golden age of New Orleans television as part of the cast of Midday, and also spent as a Channel 6 children's show host, portraying "Deputy Oops" and Mr. Bingle sidekick "Pete the Penguin," two favorite characters from the heyday of local kidvid. Behind the scenes, he was an equally gifted TV producer and writer, producing Bob and Jan Carr's chat show Second Cup and working with former program director Jerry Romig to create The Great MacNutt, the kids show for which Wayne Mack will forever be remembered. He had a wide range of job duties, but no different than any of the other local TV pioneers, Shea recalled in a 2003 interview.
"At the time, we didn't know anything else, so we weren't afraid of the red light on the camera. You know, now you're just kind of afraid of the red light, but then you had to just do it."
Terry Flettrich Rohe, the WDSU icon who helped give Shea his start in local broadcasting, remembers him from an even earlier role, as a child actor on a WWL radio program she hosted in the 1940s, called "Buddy's Book Corner."
"I adored Al," Rohe said tearfully from her home in Maine. "Even at an early age, and then later when we worked together on Midday, Al was fun, he was enthusiastic and thorough, and you know as we get older, we become even more so."
Shea's theater and movie reviews on WDSU gave him a place in local TV history as one of the first on-air critics in the city and the nation. It's a job he held until the end, appearing weekly on WYES-TV's Steppin' Out, the arts and entertainment roundtable for which host/producer Peggy Scott Laborde recruited him as a regular panelist when the show launched in 1986.
Like others in the local theater community, Barbara Motley's business benefited from many of Shea's Steppin' Out reviews. Motley, the proprietor of Le Chat Noir, remembers Shea as an enthusiastic supporter of all things local when it came to theater.
"Al was a great audience member, especially since he got more of the inside jokes in some of our shows than most people would," she remembers. "He also was a constant help to the performers on stage because he connected to them, which I think was a result of his own acting and performing experience."
Shea's early theatrical career featured performances at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, Gallery Circle and Tulane University, including a wide range of dramatic roles (The Crucible and Mr. Roberts), musicals (The Boy Friend and Bye Bye Birdie) and even children's shows (Puss in Boots). Friends say his own interest in performing and the arts no doubt helped inform his later work as a critic and writer. And while he was an enthusiastic supporter of quality productions and performances, he didn't hold back if there was a performance or play that could have been stronger.
"Al bent over backwards to be fair, but if he didn't like something, he didn't like it and said so," remembers Cuthbert. "I used to love to see him come out of a play and roll his eyes heavenward or mock-stagger as if something had hit him. But even with the worst community theater efforts, he always found something to like — an actor, the set, the lights, the music. And he always gave one more 'clap' than he had to."
In addition to his love for the theater, Shea was also an unabashed movie buff, a trait that served him well on Midday, as WDSU would send him to Hollywood on press junkets for big-screen premieres and events, and he would bring home the story for the small-screen audience. His scrapbooks are filled with photos of him interviewing dozens of A-listers: Clint Eastwood, Burgess Meredith, Leslie Caron, Karl Malden, Ella Fitzgerald, Robert Redford, Sean Connery and John Wayne.
Scott Shea, one of Al's three children from his marriage to local actress Janet Shea, remembers how a magazine writer once described his father's work: "He's interviewed everyone from Liz Taylor to Tiny Tim."
"One of the first years he went to L.A., which was about 1968, he came home with a bunch of autographed photos," Scott says. "The next time, I asked him to get me more." The Shea children, including Scott's brother Shannon and sister Jennifer, sometimes got to accompany their father on his Hollywood trips. Scott treasures a classic photo of his siblings and father posing with James Bond star Roger Moore: "Only now, looking back, do I realize how lucky I was to have a dad with a job like that."
And so many in New Orleans are lucky to have crossed paths with Al Shea during his life.
"He crowded a lot of performing, writing, critiquing, and living into his time with us," Cuthbert says.
A special Steppin' Out tribute to Al Shea will air Friday at 6:30 p.m. on WYES-TV Channel 12, with an encore Sept. 2 at 8:30 p.m. A funeral service will be held Saturday, Aug. 29 at St. Louis Cathedral, with visitation from 12:30 p.m. until 2 p.m. and a Mass celebrated at 2 p.m. His family asks that contributions be made to the Al Shea Memorial Scholarship Fund through Tulane University. Contributions may be made through any Chase bank branch.
— Dominic Massa is the executive producer for special projects at WWL-TV and the author of the book New Orleans Television (Arcadia Publishing).