Miriam Birch ’57 is the three-time Emmy-nominated writer and producer of many award-winning National Geographic Society television specials, among other productions. Her films have received many Emmys as well as the Peabody and DuPont Columbia awards. Miriam’s legacy gift to the UC Santa Barbara Department of Theater & Dance will help aspiring performers follow in her charmed footsteps.
Miriam began her writing career while performing as a mermaid on Bill Burrud Productions’ travel series “Islands in the Sun.” When Burrud asked Miriam to write her own mermaid monologues, it led to writing documentaries, and she worked her way up to become the company’s creative director.
At UC Santa Barbara, Miriam’s favorite role was Lizzie in “The Rainmaker,” which was presented at the Lobero Theater. Dr. Theodore Hatlen, for whom the campus Hatlen Theatre is named, directed Miriam as Lady MacBeth. While Miriam was honing her dramatic art on campus, she spent summers as a Hollywood showgirl.
“Working as a showgirl had two big advantages,” said Miriam. “One: it paid a lot better than the other girls’ summer vacation jobs. Two: it was glamorous, professional work with a live audience.”
After graduation, Miriam sang her way around the world as a soloist on cruise ships and performed in musicals. Her favorite role in professional musicals was Nancy in “Oliver.”
In addition to acting, Miriam studied writing under author and UC Santa Barbara Professor Marvin Mudrick, who encouraged her to keep a journal and started the campus literary magazine “Spectrum.” A short story of Miriam’s was published in the premiere issue and ten years later in “The Best of Spectrum.” The journals that Dr. Mudrick inspired became the framework of Miriam’s upcoming memoir, “Fancy Footwork: From Hollywood Showgirl to National Geographic Producer.”
Miriam would combine her love of performance and the written word throughout her long career in television. In 1978, she wrote the first of 11 National Geographic television specials. Miriam became the first woman assigned full responsibility to both produce and write the specials, in which she directed many notable actors in voiceover narration, including Christopher Plummer and Theodore Bikel.
Miriam’s bequest will provide financial aid through scholarships for undergraduates and merit-based fellowships for graduate students studying theater.
“My success grew out of my acting and writing, much of which took place at UC Santa Barbara,” said Miriam. “I want to make it possible for people who need the help to go to school.”
“Miriam is a great role model for aspiring performers, not only through her illustrious career but also in her commitment to giving back,” said Irwin Appel, department chair. “Her generous bequest will support creative self-expression, critical thinking and excellence in the exciting work of undergraduate and graduate students in both theater and dance. Thanks to Miriam’s magnanimous financial support, students will be freer to pursue careers as actors, dancers, directors, choreographers, designers, scholars and writers.”
“I had a scholarship at UC Santa Barbara for three out of the four years,” said Miriam. “I needed it and was happy to have the support. I always thought that if I was able to, I’d like to do the same thing.”