When Annie Potts first rented a home in Toluca Lake four years ago, she fell in love with the neighborhood. Like many residents, she initially chose the location for its proximity to the studios — in her case, Warner Bros., where she’d be playing the role of “Meemaw” on Young Sheldon — but it wasn’t long before the walkable streets and small-town charm cast their spell. The show became a hit, she moved to a rental on the lake and “that was it for me,” Potts says. “I’m a Southern chick, and down there, living on the lake is the ultimate. I have a pontoon boat and I go out there with my dogs, and I can fish, and I don’t even know I’m in California. After a year on Toluca Lake, I knew I’ll never leave unless it’s feet-first.”
As soon as a lakeside property came up for sale, Potts jumped at the chance and began transforming her new house into a home. “I am a renovator,” she confesses. “My wakeup call is usually workmen coming at 7 a.m., and that’s been true for about 45 years. I love it; it’s very satisfying.” While it seems fitting that the actor whose best-known characters are icons of idiosyncratic style — like Janine Melnitz from Ghostbusters, Mary Jo Shively from Designing Women and Iona from Pretty in Pink — would have an eye for design in real life, Potts’ personal aesthetic is all about creating something that’s functional as well as beautiful. “I grew up in a home where I recall my mother actually handing me a baby bottle and a coaster, because she didn’t want any circles made on the table,” she explains. “When I grew up, I thought, I am never going to live in a house where anybody, toddler or grownup, has to fret about doing any damage. If they want to put their feet up or their glass down, they should be able to do it. Anybody should be able to come into the house and make themselves comfortable and just hang out a while.”
Then, the pandemic struck. Home was still a refuge — more so than ever — but entertaining guests was out, TV production halted and a sense of emergency pervaded even the simplest parts of life. Like so many of us, Potts was grasping for actions she could take to keep her loved ones safe. “The first call of panic went out: ‘You’ve got to wear a mask.’ But there weren’t masks available, because they needed them for the hospitals,” she recalls. “Don’t you remember how shocking that was? ‘Wait a minute, the doctors and nurses don’t have PPE?’ So my first instinct was that I felt that I needed masks for my family and friends. I couldn’t get masks on Amazon, but I could get a sewing machine. So I thought, ‘I’m a Southern girl, I grew up on a farm — well, I’ll make ’em!’”
Potts had learned how to sew in theater school. “You had to learn to be a stagehand, do lights and costumes and everything,” she remembers. “I spent a lot of time in the costume shop. You had to be able to look at a painting or a drawing of a costume from the 1500s or whatever period the play you’re doing is set in, and be able to reproduce that. You had to know how to make your own patterns, and I used that skill to figure out my mask design.” With fellow DIYers rushing to do the same and supply chains disrupted, fabric was hard to come by at first, so “in the beginning I was literally turning my tea towels and shirts I didn’t want into masks,” Potts says.
After outfitting her family and friends and getting her hands on more supplies, she found herself in a groove and kept going. “I was sewing 10 hours a day,” the self-described workaholic says. “It kept me busy and off the streets, which I needed.” She realized it was also a great way to help others in need, starting with White Pony Express, a nonprofit she’s supported for years that operates one of the largest food rescue programs in California. “Of course, with everybody losing their jobs and the economy falling apart, people were desperate to have food, and they needed additional funds to support all that,” Potts says. “I said, ‘Well, how about I make you some masks, and you can sell those?’” Her handmade reversible cotton masks (each accompanied by an autographed handwritten note) went for as much as $500 to $600 each in the subsequent auction, raising a total of more than $13,500 for the charity. She also donated masks to other groups that needed them, including Native American homeless youth in Arizona, a nursing home in San Bernardino and the Anguilla Food Bank. “And because Toluca Lake is a little village, the wonderful Paulanna Cuccinello, who owns Pergolina, started selling them there, and all the profits went to charity,” she adds.
The mask-making operation continued to grow. “I have never been busier in my life!” Potts laughs. “I found somebody on Nextdoor to help me sew, because I couldn’t make them fast enough for what the need was. Then I found another friend in the neighborhood who’s an artist, and she asked, ‘Can I help you cut patterns?’ I said, ‘Yes, and I’ll teach you to sew!’ So she’s been my great partner in this, and she’s pretty much taken over the production of it now that I’m back on set.”
Just like in her home décor, Potts’ goal is to make her masks both beautiful and functional, using materials that provide plenty of protection while being fun and expressive, from a Ruth Bader Ginsburg motif to custom fabrics based on the flower paintings of her partner in crafting, Paige Peter. It was the goal of creating a beautiful mask — a rarity in the early days of the pandemic — that inspired Potts to distribute some of her handiwork to yet another group of recipients: California’s female legislators, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, then-Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Maxine Waters. “I thought, we’re going to be at this for a while,” she explains. “I want to encourage people to wear masks, I want our lawmakers to look good and I want to give thanks to them.” She was thrilled when a friend spotted a news photo of Pelosi wearing one of Potts’ masks a few months later. “I’m sure everybody in public life has been gifted with quite a few, but she has worn two or three of mine,” Potts marvels. “Isn’t that amazing?”
Her drive to help others goes beyond sewing. With encouragement from Dr. Carol Weyland Conner, founder of White Pony Express and an educational nonprofit called Following Francis, Potts and her husband, director/producer Jim Hayman, along with writer/producer friends Andrew Schneider and Diane Frolov, have launched All Are One, a fund that distributes cash directly to people in desperate need. The initiative encourages donors to “be the stimulus” by passing their government stimulus payments or other surplus funds along to provide financial relief where it can do the greatest good. The first gifts were distributed in March to 25 families identified by LAUSD counselors as some of the neediest in the district. “We had the great joy of meeting them and giving a gift of cash wrapped up in a beautiful box; we didn’t tell them what it might be, and we said, ‘Don’t open it until you’re home,’” Potts explains. “We were able to give to one family of five who were living in a car. They’d had COVID, the kids are trying to learn remotely, the parents have lost their jobs. The circumstances would just bring you to your knees.” The fund is now working with a network of friends and partners, including Following Francis, to collect and distribute additional gifts in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. — encouraging those who have plenty to “spread the joy around a little bit,” as Potts puts it. “Because we really all are one. If one of us is sick, we’re all sick. If one of us is living in poverty or living in a car, we all are, and until we really get that, I don’t know how we’re going to get ourselves out of the hole we’re in. What else could be the purpose of everything that’s happened this past year?”
In addition to the opportunity to help people, the other silver lining Potts is grateful for is the close-knit Toluca Lake community that sustained her as she sheltered at home. “There’s a small, beautiful private park on the lake, and I go and sit there with my dogs, and the neighbors will come down with their dogs, and we often bring cocktails down and sit in the park, 6 feet apart, all masked up,” she says. “Like a lot of people during this time, I’ve gotten to know my neighbors better. And to be in the heart of Los Angeles and be able to sit and look at the water, it’s been wonderful.”
Now overjoyed to be back to work filming Young Sheldon and fully vaccinated, Potts is still making the occasional mask upon request but feels cautiously optimistic about the road ahead. She’s looking forward to socializing in small groups at home with vaccinated friends; the release of Ghostbusters: Afterlife (delayed for more than a year due to the pandemic and currently scheduled for November), in which she reprises her role from the original films; and most importantly, the arrival of her first grandchild in July. And of course, she’s anticipating the return of beloved neighborhood traditions like Halloween. “Hopefully this year we’ll be able to do a big one,” she declares. “And maybe it won’t be medical masks we’ll need, but just some happy cartoon character masks. That could really be something to celebrate.”