If you’re a horror buff, you probably know actress Zelda Rubinstein as Tangina from “The Poltergeist” series. Others may remember her as a police dispatcher on the CBS show “Picket Fences” (now streamable on Hulu), or fondly as the voice of Skittles from their “Taste the Rainbow” campaign. But Rubinstein, the daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, also deserves to be remembered for her early AIDS activism.
Rubinstein, who was in her 40s when she decided to pursue her vocation as an actress, was there for the first ever AIDS walk in 1985 in Los Angeles, and starting in 1984, three years after the beginning of the crisis, she became the face of the LA Cares AIDS campaign, playing a doting mother encouraging her grown gay “sons” to “play safe.”
Rubinstein’s character in the campaign was more your traditional all-American mother — with a frilly apron and puffy-sleeved pink dress, her face all made up and donning pearl earrings — than what was then the image of the traditional Jewish mom, but she still brought that ideal of doting and accepting, a Jewish mother we aspire to be.
“For more than five years, starting in late 1984, we worked closely together on the front line of AIDS awareness in Los Angeles County and then nationwide; dispensing by every medium available the urgent message to those at highest risk to ‘Play Safely,'” the creator of the campaign, Tyler St Mark, shared on the AIDS Memorial Instagram account.
“Zelda instantly became the face, the voice, the care, the caution, and, above all, the love and compassion that comprised America’s first public AIDS figurehead known as ‘Mother Cares,'” he added.
“I personally witnessed Zelda’s unyielding devotion to our sacred mission; never wavering or accepting any compensation for years of countless, exhaustive appeals and appearances,” St. Mark recalled.
“Mother wants you to play extra carefully, because some of your friends are getting very sick and their mother can’t make them better,” Rubinstein — who stood at just 4’3 but was full of stage presence and charm — said in one of the ads. In another, she reminds her son about when she used to tell him not to play with strangers at the playground, saying, “Well, now you have to be extra careful, because some of those strangers are very sick and they can make you so sick that you can’t go out to play anymore.”
The ad campaign was a perfect mix of charming, caring, funny and full of gravitas, and Rubinstein carried it all on her capable shoulders.
“I lost a friend to AIDS, one of the first public figures that died of AIDS,” Rubinstein recalled in an interview with The Advocate. “I knew it was not the kind of disease that would stay in anybody’s backyard. It would climb the fences, get over the fences into all of our homes.”
Rubinstein’s likeness in these ads made it to billboards and magazines and was seen nationwide. The Pittsburgh native did “pay” a price for her participation in the campaign. For a year after its launch, she didn’t work at all. Yet she continued her fierce activism.
In the comments of the aforementioned Instagram post, many remembered Rubinstein back in the day. “I remember standing off the dance floor at Studio One in WeHo and along came Zelda with an assistant holding a wicker basket loaded with free condoms. She handed me a condom, smiled and said ‘Play Safely!'” wrote one commenter.
“I directed one of her final stage appearances,” recalled theater director Bill Fennelly, referring to the national tour of “The Curse of Sleepy Hollow” with the National Theatre of the Deaf. He also shared that she adopted him “for several Los Angeles Thanksgivings” when he first moved to LA, and that “she was over the moon when I told her my new boyfriend (now my husband) was a nice Jewish boy.”
Rubinstein’s dedication to ending the AIDs crisis never wavered. “I wish you a comfortable walk, not so comfortable that you forget what you’re walking for but comfortable enough to make you keep coming year after year until this virus is totally eradicated,” Rubinstein said at the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Walk, which took place in October of 2009, just a few months before her death in January of 2010.
While Rubinstein wasn’t actually a Jewish mother like her famous character, she did help care for so many during a crisis that killed millions worldwide, and her activism and dedication most certainly saved lives. May her memory be a blessing.