BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
In Los Angeles recently to escape the cold, I visited with Lauralee Bell Martin, a member of the Chicago dynasty that has possibly reached more people than any other. The actress, producer, fashion designer, mother of two teenagers, and great Chicago booster has used her talent to do something bold and beautiful: borrowing words that have linked the Bell family to viewers in 140 countries.
The Emmy she received for her gripping web series, mI promise, an examination of teenagers texting while driving, testifies to the fact that the family still knows how to get a message across to millions.
With their beginnings in Chicago on WGN radio in 1930, soap operas have dominated daytime television due in large part to the Bell dynasty begun by the late Bill Bell and Lee Phillip Bell, Chicago’s top talk show host from 1952 until 1986, when the family moved to Los Angeles. Today, two of the four remaining soap operas, The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless, have won 12 Emmys and are still family productions.
The Bells’ daughter, Lauralee, and sons, William and Bradley, along with their wives, Maria and Colleen, have taken production, writing, and acting roles in these soaps, with William as head of Bill-Phillip Productions and Bradley as head writer and executive producer. Their mother, Lee, recently won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
As a student at the Latin School of Chicago with her future husband, the photographer Scott Martin, Lauralee spent summers in Los Angeles appearing as Cricket in The Young and The Restless, a role that made her France’s number one daytime drama actress and a cover girl at home. Early on, Teen Magazine named her Favorite Soap Opera Actress thanks to her may fans. Just last year, she received an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Her character has subsequently dropped the nickname, Cricket, and modeling career to become the legal aid lawyer, Christine Blair Romalotti Williams Blair Williams. “You know these soap opera marriages never last!” she laughs.
Lauralee has appeared as a recurring actress on both shows, working just a couple of days a month to make time for her family and other acting and production assignments. Also a fashion designer who once ran a Beverly Hills boutique called On Sunset, Lauralee is a multi-faceted talent. Her web videos on teenage driving and texting are now shown to schools and youth groups across the country to raise awareness.
She appears as the mother in this web series, which she wrote, directed, cast, and produced. In addition to an Emmy, the series has won other public service awards for its crucial message and dramatic telling.
“Having two teenage kids, I know that this age groups practically have phones attached to their arms. Instead of sounding preachy by saying, “Don’t text and drive,” the videos encourage teens to make their own decisions after examining the potential consequences based on the choice you make—that choice might be your last.
“There are 6 short videos, no more than about two minutes each, which show the dangers of texting through the eyes of a 16-year-old with everything hopeful in her life. Adults are as guilty as kids, but these videos show the tragic results for young people and their families.
“My father always said that you can’t kill off young people when you are writing soaps, but these videos do show what can happen. We hope that kids will visit the website and not use phones while driving. All six of the videos can be watched in 20 minutes, a very good length for classroom viewing.”
Her father Bill Bell began his local career as a comedy writer on WBBM TV where he got the attention of Chicago’s Queen of Soaps, Irma Philips. He wrote first for the legendary soaps Guiding Light and As the World Turns, later becoming head writer for The Days of their Lives. He would be at his typewriter at home for 16 hours a day.
In 1972, his writing took a different direction: “Lee and I were confronted with the very distressing reality that young America had lost much of its innocence.” Their answer was The Young and The Restless and The Bold and The Beautiful.
What started as a $75-a-week job grew into a domination of the industry and the opportunity to live in the former Howard Hughes estate in Los Angeles. Among his many legacies is the distinction of having created the largest number of soap opera characters still appearing on air. The Bold and The Beautiful is simulcast in Spanish daily and both shows have a prodigious international fan base.
Bill Bell died in 2007, but Lee Philip Bell at 88 continues to be on the set every morning and answers personally all the fan mail she receives. For both shows.
Having moved with her family in 1986 to California, Lee left Chicago viewers longing for her noontime CBS talk show, probably, along with soap operas, the most popular shows on local television.
“My mother helps with the main story lines, does research, and generally serves as the mom to the whole cast and crew. Children of our original crew are now on staff. My father died in 200, and mom spends time with a wonderful man whom she had met before she went to Northwestern University.
“She has always been Supermom. I never had any idea how much work The Lee Phillip Show entailed. She always took us to Latin School, would then go to Saks to get her makeup done and choose her wardrobe, go live with her show at CBS, then do all her studying for the next day’s show, being back at Latin to pick us up after school. My father was always home because he was writing there. We would all be on her Christmas special, but it was always something she fit in around her family time.
“Every Friday, they would pick us up at school at 2:30, and we would be at our house in Lake Geneva by 4:00—home Sunday night for Campbell’s soup and grilled cheeses. We had a very normal childhood in Chicago. In the summer, we would be in California working on the shows that had always filmed there. I had a walk-on at age nine.
“My mother made such a great sacrifice to give up that show to move to Los Angeles. She loved her Chicago career very much, but family always came first.”
Lee is Lauralee’s role model, and both she and husband, Scott, follow suit in putting their teenagers Christian and Samantha first.
“Scott was my boyfriend at Latin, and I think we were always meant to be together. We are both still very Midwestern, and I think Scott sometimes wonders why we aren’t back in Chicago or its suburbs raising our children.
“As they have gotten older, I am going to more auditions and doing more movies roles. One of the roles I am auditioning for would require two weeks of filming out of town, something I would consider for the first time because now Scott and I spend no more than one to two days away at a time, and I try to do every school pick-up just like my mom did. The kids, however, are telling me to pursue the role!”
Lauralee sat down to answer a couple of questions for Classic Chicago while I was in town.
Now that you are doing more writing for your web productions, what advice do you remember from her father?
My dad gave to me, and all writers, the great advice that no idea is a bad idea. It may not be what you end up using in a script, but it could get you thinking and lead you to another idea that works perfectly. So never be hesitant about sharing a thought because it could lead to the answer you are looking for when writing.
What is it about soaps, do you think, that makes them so popular to this day?
I believe people feel that their ‘other families,’ as they come to think of the characters, will be there for them that day. Some days the fans are disappointed, some days they are thrilled, but they always find comfort in the stories.
And it all comes down that sense connection—be it with the family that you were born into, the ones you come to know throughout life, or the ones you meet on the small screen.