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Becki Mecham had a heart so big, her brother says, that at times she seemed to want to fit the whole world inside it.
That's how longtime friends and family describe the legacy of Mecham, a teacher and comedic actor who became a Salt Lake City celebrity in the 1980s for her featured turns as Mother Elthora in "Saturday's Voyeur."
Mecham, 64, died Friday of complications from renal failure. Her life will be celebrated with viewings and a weekend memorial at Salt Lake Acting Company.
Starting in 1979, Mecham spent 30 years teaching special-education classes at Emerson Elementary School, where she mentored other teachers and earned district and state recognition. "She could manage difficult behaviors with her love and her positive reinforcement," says teaching colleague and friend DruClark. "They all wanted it. We all wanted it. She could make you feel like a million bucks. She's the most validating, affirming person I've ever known."
When I was invited to meet Mecham two weeks ago, while she was on hospice care, she greeted me by complimenting my sweater. Her toenails were painted an aquatic shade of turquoise that matched her brightly colored fish-patterned sheets and spoke to the former scuba diver's love of the ocean.
"Everybody feels like they are her very best friends," says niece Lisa Groneman.
And all of those very best friends noted Mecham's big laugh, on display that morning as she recalled theater stories, which prompted her to throw back her head and laugh deeply, followed by a shoulder shimmy.
That's just like her, say Brenda Sue Cowley and Roger Stephenson, who met her on the "Voyeur" stage. Mecham grew up in Holladay and earned bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Utah. She was helping with costumes as a volunteer at the then-fledgling Salt Lake Acting Company when founder Ed Gryska cajoled her to perform in the first "Voyeur."
She demurred at first, out of respect for her Mormon family. Then she said she would act in the broad comedy, but she didn't plan to sing. She had to sing, Gryska told her. "We learned she was a triple threat," Stephenson says. "She could sing and dance and was a comedienne extraordinaire."
Mecham went on to perform in 15 years of "Voyeurs," from 1978 to 1993, juggling late-night rehearsals and performances with her teaching duties until the character was written out of the show.
"You changed this city for the better," Cowley told Mecham, who wore a T-shirt advertising a local high school's production of "West Side Story."
"Louder. Faster. Funnier." That's the backstage advice Mecham offered Cowley during "Voyeur." "She was right," Cowley says, adding: "She taught us it was OK to be loud," and not just onstage.
One of the show's ongoing jokes was the size of her character's beehive wigs, which one year grew during curtain calls like "The Nutcracker's" Christmas tree. One year the wig was so high that it was harnessed to the top of the stage, and Mecham caused alarm to theatergoers in the front rows when the wig fell into their laps as she took her bows.
Mecham's memorable performances turned her into a local celebrity who was often recognized on the street, in restaurants or on a hiking trail. "Becki owned the stage," says Dave Evanoff, who attended "Voyeur" shows for years before he was hired to perform in the show. Her performances were colorful and biting, delivered with a spoonful of sugar. "She made me and my family cry with laughter," he says.
When Evanoff joined the cast in 1993, "it was as if I were working with Carol Burnett," he says. She mothered the entire cast, worrying and watching out for her fellow actors. She offered simple but generous tips, such as "Pause after you say that," or "Wipe a tear away after that line." "Her suggestions always worked," Evanoff says. "They always made things better, funnier or sweeter."
And in one of the scores of "Becki-isms" that her friends like to recount, every night before the cast took the stage, she didn't offer the traditional "Break a leg." Instead it was: "Bite 'em and eat 'em."
"To this day, I still use that when I send a cast onstage," Evanoff says.
She had just as powerful an impact on her students, who included the school's most troubled kids. Every year, she would announce that this year's students seemed unmanageable, and then, within two weeks, she would change her tune, proclaiming this was her best class ever. "Her instincts were impeccable about those kids," Clark recalls.
At restaurants, Stephenson recalls how many times their meals would be happily interrupted by former students who were eager to tell "Miss Mecham" she had changed their lives.
But students weren't the only ones to note her impact. As Clark says: "She was more darn fun then anybody I've ever met."
Remembering Becki Mecham
The actor who created the Mother Elthora character in Salt Lake Acting Company's "Saturday's Voyeur" and longtime special education teacher is survived by her 98-year-old mother, Donna, two nieces, five great-nieces and nephews, and her dachshund, Mayzie. Her life will be remembered at weekend viewings and a memorial.
Viewings • 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, and 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at Larkin Mortuary, 260 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Memorial • Celebration of Life, at noon Saturday, Feb. 18, at Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City