Bayou City native reflects on his childhood and his remarkable 2011 wedding.
By Don Maines
It might take some doing to top Diana Ross singing at his wedding, but the Ensemble Theatre will give it their best shot Saturday, Aug. 19, when favorite son Reginald Van Lee is honored at the group’s annual fundraising gala.
“There is nothing like being recognized at home and by friends,” says the openly gay patron of the arts, who grew up in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood. “Also, any theater recognition is a special honor.”
Van Lee will be hailed as 2017’s “Global Citizen of the Year” at the lavish “Live it! Love it! Celebrate” black-tie gala at Hilton Americas-Houston, 1600 Lamar St.
His fellow honorees will include Emmy Award-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson (lifetime achievement), Tony Award-winning star Renée Elise Goldsberry (actress of the year), thespian Nkrumah Gatling (rising star), and principal ballerina Lauren Anderson (president’s award).
Van Lee, 59, began his love affair with the arts in seventh-grade speech and drama classes.
“I stayed with it, and my interest evolved into debate,” says the 1975 graduate of Evan E. Worthing High School. “You would have known me as one of the nerdy, smart, conservative kids. I won the Houston Science Fair two different times.”
From an episode of Star Trek on TV, Van Lee learned about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and he fulfilled his dream of enrolling there and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science.
After a brief stint working for Exxon in Houston, he went back to school to complete his master’s degree in business administration at the Harvard Business School. He then joined Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting firm, according to his website, www.reggievanlee.com.
“While working at Booz Allen, Mr. Van Lee discovered a desire to find his journey to purpose and do everything he could to support the arts and other aspects of communities he loved, and in which he believed,” his biography continues. “Reggie is committed to helping the parents, teachers, mentors, and advocates who serve our nation’s youth.”
As a regular theater-goer, Van Lee admits, “I’m a little bit of a Broadway snob, but the Ensemble does very good productions. They don’t come off as a community theater or second-tier.”
In the fashion capital of Milan, Italy, Van Lee met his husband, Corey McCathern, who had moved there from his hometown of Paducah, Kentucky, to model.
McCathern currently runs Corey’s Soul Kitchen, a restaurant in Milan that features his grandmother’s recipes.
“We see each other every month,” says Van Lee, as McCathern sat across the dining table this week at their home in Wharton, 60 miles southwest of Houston and the inspiration for most of the plays written by its favorite son, the late Horton Foote.
The 20,000-square-foot compound, designed by architect John Sullivan of Sullivan, Henry, Oggero and Associates in Spring Valley Village, and decorated by Philip Sheffield of Sheffield Design Group, was constructed on land that Van Lee’s great-grandmother purchased in 1899.
It is home to Van Lee’s tight-knit family.
Some of them were among the 750 guests at his 2011 wedding to McCathern at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
“It was over the top,” admits Van Lee. “The wedding singer was Diana Ross.”
Van Lee says he’s friends with Diana Ross’ daughter, Rhonda Ross. At the wedding, Ross sang “I’m Coming Out,” “The Boss,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “I Will Survive.”
At the close of the nuptials, he says, “My husband announced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Diana Ross.’ People thought it was an impersonator. Then they lost their minds. All of these high-brow, sophisticated people became like teenagers again.”