Rob Edelman: Way Before Ellen

Jul 3, 2017

If you are of a certain age, you might remember THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS, the popular hit TV sitcom of the very late 1950s and early 1960s. But Dobie Gillis, the title character played by Dwayne Hickman, and his pal Maynard G. Krebs, the beatnik caricature immortalized by Bob Denver, were not the show’s lone memorable characters. Surely, one of them was Zelda Gilroy, the pony-tailed, comically obsessive high schooler who was forever in love with the otherwise disinterested Dobie, who was completely fixated on beautiful blonde Thalia Meninger, played by Tuesday Weld.   

Zelda is by far the best-known role for the actress who played her. That would be Sheila James, who also appeared in a number of Hollywood features and other TV series. Most memorably, on a 1964 episode of PETTICOAT JUNCTION, she and the three female series regulars lampooned The Beatles by hooking up as a singing female foursome called “The Ladybugs.” But TV or big screen stardom was not destined for Sheila James. Instead, she embraced her given name, which was Sheila James Kuehl, and ended up attending and graduating from Harvard Law School. She eventually served in both the California State Assembly and California State Senate. 

And oh yes, Sheila James Kuehl is gay. She was the first openly gay or lesbian elected to the California legislature. However, back in the day, her sexual preference was no secret. For indeed, her Zelda Gilroy character was so popular that, in 1962, she starred in a pilot for a sitcom, titled ZELDA, but the project was shelved reportedly because of rumors regarding her sexual preference.

Sheila James Kuehl is one of four out-of-the-closet Californians, all of whom are women, who are featured in POLITICAL ANIMALS, a potent, informative, just-released-to-home-entertainment documentary. In addition to Kuehl, they are Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg, and Christine Kehoe. And POLITICAL ANIMALS recounts the efforts of these collectively articulate and outspoken women to pass a range of anti-gay discrimination laws, often taking on opponents who, at their worst, equate homosexuality with bestiality and perversion.

In the film, Kuehl’s DOBIE GILLIS fame is downplayed, with only one brief clip from the show incorporated into the documentary. And there is a purpose to its presence. The point is made that voters liked and related to Kuehl because they liked and related to her Zelda Gilroy character and this, certainly, helped to get her elected.

While watching POLITICAL ANIMALS, I could not help but think about how so many of the anti-discrimination laws that Kuehl, Migden, Goldberg, and Kehoe worked so tirelessly to pass are now in danger of eradication, given our current national political climate. And so one of the observations in the film resonates today. It is a comment that goes way beyond the issues faced by these four courageous, inspiring women. And that is: “It is never hopeless, as long as you resist.”

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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