If you’re old enough to have seen The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, an amiable sitcom that rocked the airwaves from 1959 to 1963, then you remember Zelda Gilroy. The central character of this series based on Max Shulman’s satiric stories is Dobie Gillis, a romantically-inclined teenage boy who is putty in the hands of any girl who’s “creamy,” to crib from the language of the show’s theme song. Dobie (played with innocent zest by Dwayne Hickman) is particularly drawn to voluptuous airheads, like Tuesday Weld’s Thalia Menninger. But, alas, dim Dobie himself proves irresistible to the class brainiac, feisty little Zelda. She shows her love by crinkling her nose at Dobie (he always reflexively crinkles back, then recoils in horror), and by volunteering to do his homework.
Zelda was memorably played by Sheila James, whose real name is Sheila Kuehl. Today she’s convinced that she snagged the role of Zelda because she was even shorter than series creator Max Shulman. When Dobie Gillis became a hit, Shulman did her another favor: persuading her to continue with her studies at UCLA, despite the demands of her showbiz career. Eventually she became UCLA’s Associate Dean of Students and then, at age 34, entered Harvard Law School. Presumably her acting experience came in handy: she was only the second woman in the school’s history to be named the winner of its Moot Court competition. (I presume she used no nose crinkles to win over the judges.) Then it was back to California, where she launched a career in the state legislature.
I tend to be suspicious of actors who go into politics, but Sheila Kuehl is the real deal. She has served honorably in both California houses, accepted many committee posts, championed important social legislation, and earned a reputation for working well with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. She’s also my neighbor, making her home not far from me in the great little city of Santa Monica. Now that she’s termed out of the state legislature, Sheila is running to be one of Los Angeles County’s five supervisors. The district covers an enormous area, and she needs to woo a million voters. Which is why I attended an unusual fundraiser on the Sunset Strip.
“Zelda for Supervisor” was the evening’s theme, and we were all encouraged to dress in our Fifties best. This being Hollywood, speeches were made by some showbiz names: actor-environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. and funnyman Bruce Vilanch, who couldn’t resist a Sarah Palin (“Caribou Barbie”) gibe. But the star of the evening was Zelda Gilroy, whom Kuehl herself described with typical enthusiasm as a role model for ambitious young women because she never took No for an answer. Several Dobie Gillis episodes were aired, including one in which Zelda—making her usual passionate pitch for Dobie’s love—proposes to become his campaign manager and get him elected to Congress. Ah, yes. The fabulous 1950s, when no one realized that Zelda herself would have made a much better candidate.
Much like Sheila Kuehl, who freely admits that her character shared many of her own personality traits. Persistence, for one thing, and a willingness to get creative if it will help her reach her goal. Far from shunning her TV past, Sheila glories in it, especially when it extends the reach of her campaign. Shilling for contributions, she announced, “I’ll call you ‘poopsie’ for twenty bucks.” Or, for $100, you can get a nose crinkle.