Florida Friebus 1926 (1909-1988)

Florida Friebus 1926

Florida Friebus 1926

Florida Friebus was a stage and TV actress and writer best known for her role as the mother of Dobie Gillis in The Dobie Gillis Show. Dana Hall was both a school and a home to Florida. When she was eight years old, her father, actor Theodore Friebus, died suddenly. Her mother Clementine, who had studied at Dana for one year in 1907, had no means of support. She realized that her talents as a mother and homemaker might be of some use and applied for a position as a housemother at the Dana Hall Schools. Helen Temple Cooke, a great fan of the theater and an admirer of Theodore Friebus, was delighted to have Clementine as a housemother at Tenacre and to have Florida study at Tenacre.

Florida quickly took part in dramatic presentations. Her first acting part was that of the little boy who rode the Yule Log in the Christmas Pageant. In 1921, she participated in the very first celebration of the Christmas Pageant, now called Revels, playing the part of the lame boy who discovers he is healed after accompanying St. Francis to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Florida remembers two teachers who were a big influence on her life, Mabel Hill and Mabel Jenkins. Mabel Hill was a history teacher at both Tenacre and Dana Hall. She grew up in Concord and had often been to the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Miss Hill took her students to Concord to show them Emerson’s house and other homes where Paul Revere had knocked, and she then had them fight a mock Battle of Lexington on the very field where the original battle took place. Mabel Jenkins taught English at Dana Hall. Like Miss Hill, she was very interested in our country’s heritage and taught the girls about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and that in the United States one is free to think, say, and do what ever one wishes as long as one doesn’t interfere with the right of others to do the same. Florida remarked that her background at Dana Hall in political history, music, art, drama, languages, and literature served as, “…nourishment for my life as a actress, which I felt and still feel was well-grounded at Dana Hall.”

In the summer after she graduated, when she was sixteen, Florida studied acting at the Theatre Guild School in New York. Her first role was in Triple Crossed, which ran for six weeks on Broadway. She is well known for her 1932 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, written with Eva Le Gallienne and in which she played the role of the Cheshire Cat. Florida also originated the role of Lilly in Tea and Sympathy, which ran on Broadway during the 1950s.

In 1949, Florida was elected to the Council of the Actors’ Equity Association. It was at this time that a group of writers, directors, and actors, the so-called “Hollywood Ten,” were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and asked if they were now or had ever been Communists. They took the stand and refused to answer the question, claiming their Fifth Amendment rights. These artists and many more were blacklisted and the entire film and theater industries were in upheaval. Florida was nominated to be the Chair of the Anti-Blacklist Committee, an appointment which at first she did not want to accept. She had worked hard to achieve recognition as an actress and did not want to risk her career. However, she did accept the position, saying, “What I am most grateful for in the world is that I was born in a free country, which is based on specific principles. Perhaps this is my opportunity to do a small thing to pass them on.” Three weeks later she was placed on the blacklist. At Dana Hall’s 1983 graduation, Florida remarked that she was “…happy and grateful that I had been able to serve those American principles that I learned at school [Dana], which, through hell and the rocket’s red glare, so work, though tortuously, for the ultimate good.”

Florida continued acting as the mother on The Dobie Gillis Show, Mrs. Bakerman on The Bob Newhart Show, on stage in Mornings at Seven, and as Miss Marple in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced. She was proud of her children’s television show Look and Listen and was nominated for an Emmy award for “Most Outstanding Female Personality” by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for Look and Listen.

Bibliography

The Christmas Party [Revels file]. Wellesley, MA: Dana Hall Archives.
Florida Friebus, photograph. Dana Hall Archives, Wellesley, MA.
Friebus, Florida. “Making a Moral Decision.” Graduation Speech. Wellesley, MA: Dana Hall School, 3 June 1983.
Friebus, Florida. “Have You Had Experience.” The Dana Hall Association Quarterly. Jan. 1936: 1.
Wellesley Townsman. 2 June 1983.
Originally published as Person of the Week,  December 12, 2005

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