Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Whitney Houston and Zina Bethune: Two Who Died Too Soon

No doubt about it: the sudden death of Whitney Houston was a sad moment for Hollywood and the world. Yet as much as I lament over a great talent gone to waste, I can’t help feeling frustrated that Houston’s tragedy seemed to be mostly of her own making. From all I hear, she lived large, loved deeply but not too wisely, and was caught up in the self-obsession so common to show biz royalty. In Hollywood circles, of course, that hardly made her unique.

On February 11, 2012, Whitney Houston was found dead in the bath tub of her suite at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Less than twenty-four hours later, just after midnight on February 12, sixty-six-year-old Zina Bethune died on Forest Lawn Drive in L.A.’s rustic Griffith Park.

Zina who? I remembered her name from an old CBS TV series called The Nurses. This was the era when Vince Edwards starred as an intense young doctor on Ben Casey and Richard Chamberlain found fame as an intense young intern who butts heads with the medical establishment on Doctor Kildare. Both doctor series got their start in 1961, and The Nurses -- an obvious attempt to play up the female aspects of hospital drama -- first aired one year later. Bethune, a youthful veteran of the New York City Ballet, was cast as an intense student nurse who (yes, of course) butts heads with the medical establishment. After the first season, The Nurses changed its name to The Doctors and the Nurses, so that men could be around to help solve the women’s problems. To be honest, I don’t think I ever saw the show.

But I did see Zina Bethune playing the nice-girl part in Who’s That Knocking at My Door, the ambitious but muddled love-and-sex story that helped launch Martin Scorsese on his long career. The film contains a flashback to a brutal rape, and I found myself blaming the scene’s cinematic stiffness on Bethune’s limitations as an actress. Hard to say, but there’s no question that hers was not a terribly impressive career.

It was what she did after Hollywood that intrigues me now. After the roles stopped coming, she remained in Southern California, married, and devoted herself to a life in the arts. In 1980 she founded and served as choreographer for Bethune Theatredanse, a nonprofit multimedia company that has toured internationally, even performing at the White House. Another of her ventures was Infinite Dreams, a dance and theatre outreach program for children with disabilities. More than 8,000 physically, emotionally, and cognitively disabled youngsters have been welcomed into classes held throughout Southern California. Bethune, who as a young girl battled scoliosis and other ailments, tells the world on the organization’s website: “We don’t ask how much can you move, we simply say . . . come dance with us.”

Bethune’s work earned her numerous commendations. But she never ceased caring about those who were smaller and more helpless than herself. On February 12, she stopped her car on a dark stretch of road to tend to an injured possum. Sadly, she was struck by a car traveling in the opposite direction, and then by a second vehicle that dragged her 600 feet. Neither driver stuck around, so neither was present when she died of massive head injuries. On March 8 those who loved her gathered in a local theatre for a memorial service. It was not nationally televised.


  1. Wow. I was not at all familiar with Zina Bethune - but I was shocked and deeply saddened to read of her horrific demise. Do you know if they ever figured out who had hit her - and made them answer for their actions?

  2. I haven't heard any follow-up on this tragic case. But of course tracking down a hit-and-run driver is not an easy matter.

  3. I do remember Bethune, if nothing else, for her odd name. I absolutely agree. Some people get all the fame and glory, even if undeserved ( Michael Jackson, Brittney Spears, and tyhe other little drug seeking bimbo whose name escapes me despite the fact that she and my son where child co-actors; while someone who did something remarkable, not JUST acting, passes away unnoticed!)

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting,Veriuska. I hope you visit Beverly in Movieland again soon!