Remembering OSF's Catherine E. Coulson

Mar 2, 2016

The 2016 season of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is dedicated to her memory.

  For the opening night of Guys and Dolls last year, Catherine Coulson, who played the Salvation Army General, wanted to present her fellow cast members with an affectionate souvenir. Ever resourceful, she reached the secretary at the local Salvation Army office, who managed to locate a bag of wooden coins with the Salvation Army logo on them. At one time, they were awarded to donors who put money in the red pot at Christmas. Catherine was thrilled, but it happened to be the day after a chemo treatment, and she was feeling drained.

“I’ll come get them as soon as I can,” she promised.

“I’ll bring them to you,” the secretary said. “I live in Ashland, and you sound like you might be a little under the weather.”

“I do have a touch of cancer,” Catherine replied. “That would be very kind.”

When Robert Schenkkan wrote From the Waters of Babylon for her and Armando Duran in 2006, a large Cuban family checked in at our B and B, eager to see the play and thrilled to meet the star.

Catherine, in turn, was eager to come to breakfast with them and hear their reactions to the play. In it, she falls in love with her Cuban gardener, who’d been a university professor before fleeing his homeland. He teaches Catherine’s character much more than gardening.

“So how does the gardener’s story relate to your own stories?” Catherine asked in a stage voice that filled the room.

“It definitely has the ring of truth to it,” Gus answered immediately. “Our parents were both from educated families and came here with nothing but us seven kids. Our papa had to go from being a business owner to working in a vacuum cleaner factory.”

“But the story of unexpected love is a universal one,” Cristina observed. “The gardener didn’t have to be a Cuban; he could have been any nationality or race, any twenty-three year old. Love is unexpected some times and causes magical things to happen.”

Catherine Elizabeth Coulson was a third-generation actor. Both her mother and grandmother had appeared on the stage in Hungary in a grand theatre she visited a few years before she died. But if there was definitely theatre in her DNA, universal love is what ran in her veins.

Off-stage, she paid loving attention to the details of other people’s lives. If there was a celebration, flowers landed at the door. If a thank you or a sympathy note was needed, it was handwritten (illegibly) and mailed. Her dressing room served as the Coulson Counseling Center, or, as it says on the door to this moment, Coulson’s Office. Few members of the company were out of her reach. Most were under her care, as were their children and parents and neighbors and friends.

Christopher Liam Moore eulogized Catherine at her memorial service, which was a memorial because Catherine was outraged at the idea that her death would be celebrated. He recounted his first meeting with her, a rainy day when he was pushing his toddler around in a stroller.

“You must be Chris,” she said. “Here’s some information I know you’re going to need.” She handed him a long handwritten list of What to do with a toddler in Ashland on a good day, and a second one entitled Rainy Day!

Catherine and I could never really remember the day we discovered we were lost sisters. One day I was rushed to the hospital, and she got there before my husband and the doctor. Imagine the nurse’s surprise when she offered to help with the IV. “I’ve played a lot of nurses and I’ve gotten pretty good at it,” she said.

As open as Catherine was, her age was a fact she guarded fiercely, as a must for actors who wanted to keep getting work. Her position once landed her in Passport Control Detention prior to an international flight. Officials wanted to know why she’d seen fit to alter her passport age, a felony offense. She tried to explain how it was to be an actor, particularly a woman actor, and insisted she’d meant no harm. As the office crowded with more and more deputies intent on arresting her, she covertly slipped an alcohol wipe over the offending alteration, and proudly showed the results. Release!

Catherine’s concern for others did not change at the end of her life. She worried about us who would be left behind. Her daughter Zoey would be deprived of having a mother when she was a bride. Her friends would be sad, and it saddened her, that she should cause this woe. David Lynch’s new Twin Peaks would not have its usual Log Lady (an iconic role she played in the Eighties).

Imagine the surprise of the answering service at Litwiller Simonsen Funeral Home when they found this log of a call Catherine made to the office 48 hours before she died.

CEC: Good evening, this is Catherine Coulson. That’s C-O-U-L-S-O-N, and the Catherine’s with a C and an -ine. I don’t know if you’ve been contacted yet by someone else, but I wanted to alert you to a pick-up I’ll need in the next day or so. I’ve never died before so I’m not exactly sure how long it will take.

LS: Oh, Ms. Coulson, I’m so sorry to hear this.

CEC: I do appreciate your compassion, but we all have to die sometime.

LS: Would you like the funeral director to call you back?

CEC: That won’t be necessary. Is there any other information you’d need from me? My social security number? My address? Even my age?

Deedie Runkel is an Ashland writer and co-owner of Anne Hathaway’s B&B and Garden Suites.