Amy Bowers - TV Talk

The Laughing Place

A human being will always cling to a scrap of hope. When the doctors at Los Angeles County Harbor General Hospital told Sue's daughter, "your mother isn't going to leave here," hope was all we had. Sue Villegas suffered from a blood disease called TTP, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, that caused her blood platelet count to drop to levels that can't support life.

The medical team tried a Hail Mary regimen of steroids and plasmapheresis, in which a machine took Sue's sick blood out of one arm, replaced it with fresh frozen plasma from a donor, and gave it back to her in the other arm.

Plasmapheresis made Sue feel freezing cold, no matter how many blankets she had over her. The steroids accelerated a cancer that grew rapidly while we waited to see whether Sue would live.
The donated blood products gave her HIV.

Sue was a visionary, a media producer, a citizen of the world, and a Mom. She laughed in the face of adversity.

I met Sue in 1979 when she and colleague Barbara Bryan became aware that Theta Cable, the local cable company in Santa Monica, California, provided Public Access time for anyone with a program.

Sue and Barb jumped in with a weekly half-hour talk show called "Journal" a forum on all sorts of topics from our female perspective. Barbara was the host, Sue was the producer, and I was recruited as the studio director.

Sue had met me earlier that year when I delivered a movie screen she borrowed from Focal Point Films, a documentary film cooperative. When she learned that I'd been a floor director at a TV station, she decided that was close enough, and the hotseat in the control room was mine.

"Journal" was a three-camera studio show. We borrowed furniture and potted plants in exchange for air credit, then got rid of the plants as soon as Santa Monica artist Suzanne Temp started making sets for us.

Suzanne, a visual genius, liked to simplify concepts to their core. When we did a program on teenage runaways in Hollywood called "Children of the Night," Suzanne painted wonderful mylar panels for the set, while she steadfastly called the show "Gutter Girls."

No matter, there was no politically correct, only what was right, and no arguing when Sue Villegas was the producer. If things got stressful, Sue's laughter was the cure. I was always amazed and delighted when we solved our problems without "panicking early and often" as some producers do in the patriarchy of Big Time Television.

Sue had produced TV commercials in the Philippines, and knew what stress was. Stress was not missing a roll cue, and stress was not blowing valuable studio time while we looked for our audio carts.

Guests didn't show up? The theme music was lost? A camera went down? Sue knew that we were performing community television, not brain surgery.

Stress was standing in her hallway in the Philippines, as she had done during street riots, her sidearm drawn, while her children slept. Stress was protecting your children's lives; the rest was fun and filled with Sue's laughter.

Standby open on vtr A, standby camera 3, ready music, what do you mean we can't find our music? Why is Sue laughing, standby Barbara, we have no music.

After Sue's miraculous recovery from TTP, she endured cancer treatment. at Cedars-Sinai, the Hospital to the Stars. There she had a beautiful room and free surgery because of the unusual nature of her cancer. After this, she traveled in France, came home, enrolled in college writing courses, and went Sundays for brunch with our girl group at the Dandelion Cafe in Venice, CA.

When the cancer recurred five years later, Sue's blood tested positive for HIV. Sue declined chemo, telling us that she needed to build up her immune system. Her physical condition was good for a while, but eventually she got sick, probably from cancer. Later, Sue was placed in a hospice in Hollywood. It was a small bungalow with roses in the garden and a friendly staff. I stopped there evenings on my way home from ABC News, to sit and read to Sue. Usually, I read Native American "coyote" stories. Sue, whose heritage included Native American, Philippine, and Maryland Protestant, slept through some of the stories, laughed at the others.

"I'm going to the Laughing Place," she told me.

When it was time, her three kids were with her. Gorgeous Linda, ambitious Doug, and thoughtful young Michelle, who was still in school.

Sue's funeral, like some of her other productions, was imperfect. We boarded a charter boat, with a Neptune
Society captain, from which Sue's children were to "scatter" her ashes in Santa Monica Bay.

The day was gray and choppy, and as we motored through the three-foot swell and "confused sea" conditions, some of the mourners became seasick. We did the service -- Doug reading a psalm, the ashes tossed into the
sea, the captain circling so we could throw flowers on the remains, further stressing those already green, and insuring that we would all notice the ashes not sinking, but staying in a horrible slick on the gray Pacific.

"Bye Mommy," said Michelle Villegas-Smith, Sue's teenaged baby. We drank champagne and motored back to Marina Del Ray.

An hour later, we eased our pain with a bowl of Thai soup, laughing our heads off as we imagined how funny Sue would have found the awful comedy of her burial at sea.

...Time's up, ready dissolve camera 3, show her a wrap, kill her mic, dissolve 3, roll credits, is that spelled wrong? ... music up full, yup it is wrong...what in the world was that?? help!!... standby fade to black, standby to lose music in 5, 4, 3, 2, fade black, we're out of here.

I hear someone laughing.

Amy Bowers

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