1/24: Sally Go ‘Round the ‘Gonquin

SallyStruthersThe one and only Sally Struthers comes to Manasquan’s Algonquin Arts Theatre for a two-weekend stand in ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE, the musical show that opens Friday, January 25.

For a generation of TV-suckled tweens coming of awkward age at the turn of That 70s Decade, the character played by Sally Struthers for 30 minutes a week on CBS was a touchstone. A bright and bubbly girl-next-door growing up before our eyes, on the cusp of a new era of truly modern womanhood. An only child, venturing out into a fast-changing new social order, in a way that often created conflict with the rather prehistoric worldview of the father whose roof she lived under.

We’re talking of course about the teenaged Pebbles Flintstone, the vitaminized va-va-voom given voice by Ms. Struthers in the Saturday morning standby The Pebbles & Bamm Bamm Show. On weeknights when the little ones were put to bed, however, Sally Struthers could be seen AND heard as Gloria, daughter to Archie and Edith Bunker (and wife of Mike “Meathead” Stivic) in producer Norman Lear’s rulebook-ripping sitcom All in the Family.

It’s a role that won the Portland, Oregon native a pair of Emmys; a role that she’d reprise on the short-lived spinoff series Gloria — and a role that placed the twentysomething comic actress, dancer and voice artist on the front lines of some of the hardest-fought (and in many cases, still unresolved) cultural battles of the American century.

Sally Struthers would make a few memorable impressions on the big screen (notably a couple of sexy, strumpety, sideboob/ topless turns in Five Easy Pieces and The Getaway), but it was on the color-console Quasar that she ruled supreme; with some high-profile TV movies (A Gun in the House, The Great Houdinis), more distinctive voice work (Dinosaurs, Tom & Jerry Kids), and even more regular parts on series from 9 to 5 to Still Standing to The Gilmore Girls.

During commercial breaks, her spokesperson work for International Correspondence Schools and (especially) for the Christian Children’s Fund made her a broad target for parody and/or pillory by everyone from In Living Color to Grey’s Anatomy — and South Park, whose caricatures of her on the “Starvin’ Marvin” episodes were the most brutal since, well, pretty much every other celebrity who’s ever been name-checked on the show.

Sally Struthers had another milieu, however — the theatrical stage, a potentially scary and challenging place that’s kicked the ass of many an overreaching tube star (we’re looking at you, Jeremy Piven). It’s there that she originated the role of “Florence Ungar” in the original Broadway run of Neil Simon’s female Odd Couple; that she co-starred in major revivals of Annie and Grease; that she crisscrossed the continent on big-time national tours, and found a particular specialty with a little show by the name of Always, Patsy Cline.

The two-character comedy-drama with music is the vehicle that brings Sally Struthers to the Upper Wet Side of NJ, when she comes to Manasquan’s venerable Algonquin ARTS Theatre for a two-weekend stand that kicks off Friday night, January 25, and continues through February 3. And no, she won’t be playing Patsy Cline.

In the script by playwright Ted Swindley, our gal Sal appears as Louise Seger, a real-life Texas hausfrau who befriended the iconic country-pop star in the two years before the singer’s life was cut short in a 1963 plane crash. Working with ace producer Owen Bradley, the big-voiced songbird perfected a space-age, cocktail-party Nashville sound that brought an “uptown” vibe to such epic vignettes of heartbreak and devotion as “Sweet Dreams,” “I Go to Pieces,” “She’s Got You” and “Crazy.”

All these signature hits and more — from Hank Williams (“Your Cheatin’ Heart”) to Cole Porter (“True Love”) — will be performed with the accompaniment of a live band by Broadway veteran (and, we kid you not, the voice of Amazon’s Kindle Fire) Carter Calvert. The versatile vocalist and voice artist will be called upon to channel the boisterous public figure who called herself “The Cline,” while giving a glimpse of the tragedy-beset woman whose loneliness in the midst of acclaim drew her to a long-running correspondence with the somewhat wacky pen-pal uberfan from Houston.

UpperWETside spoke to Sally Struthers, as she prepared to approach her 1000th performance in Always, Patsy Cline — and who’s gone on record as having “found a way to make Louise over the top…I don’t know if it works for everyone, but it works for me.”

Sally collageClockwise from top left: hippie-era hottie Sally Struthers with TV dad Carroll O’Connor on ALL IN THE FAMILY; as Babette on GILMORE GIRLS; on Broadway with Rita Moreno in THE ODD COUPLE; with Jack Nicholson in FIVE EASY PIECES…and in the center, the Sally-voiced teen Pebbles with Bamm Bamm.

upperWETside: Well, it goes without saying that you made your first big splash in the popular consciousness by playing an iconic character who was every budding adolescent’s fantasy in the early 1970s — namely, Pebbles. I’m gonna take this opportunity to wonder why you felt the need to moonlight, or Saturday morn-light in this case, at a time when you were co-starring in the most talked-about TV show of its age? Even when ALL IN THE FAMILY was established on the schedule, I was still seeing you appearing as the third hippie chick from the left, on episodes of IRONSIDE or whatever…

SALLY STRUTHERS: I have constantly worked on stage, in movies and other TV shows, even when I had a series going on. Doing a show like Gilmore Girls was great for me in that it allowed me plenty of opportunity to take on whatever else that I felt like doing. Even when I was doing All in the Family every week, I’d spend my hiatus and my vacations going off and working. You have to bear in mind that in the very early days of All in the Family, I wasn’t too confident that it was going to last.

Now before all that, you had done your time on the TV variety show circuit; serving as a regular on the Smothers Brothers Show, and the short lived Tim Conway Show…

I was The Tim Conway Dancer! And I was fired from the show by the network suits, because, get this, they said I made the show look ‘cheap!’ And the producer of the show went back to the suits and said, uh, you DO realize that’s the point of the humor, don’t you? Like, other variety shows have all their June Taylor Dancers, and the idea here is that our show has a lower budget; limited resources, but we’re out there plugging away, trying harder…you guys DO know what a joke is, right?

Well, as tragic as it was, it turned out to be a godsend for me, because if I didn’t lose that job I would never have been free to read for All in the Family, which by that point had been through two earlier pilots, with two other women playing Gloria.

What can I say about the suits; it was a pre-ironic age for sure. Before we get to your current projects, I do want to mention a TV movie that you did, that made a big impression on me. It was a survival story, set in the snowy mountains, and I cannot think of the title offhand since I don’t have your IMDB in front of me…

My what?

Your, uh, IMDB page. You know, Internet Movie DataBase? Got all your credits in chrono order?

You are assuming, like some other people have, that I’ve got a computer, when in fact no one has as little to do with computers as I.

No, I don’t know what that thing is you just mentioned, but I can tell you that the name of the movie was Hey, I’m Alive!, and that I had a blast working on it, frolicking around in the snow with Eddie Asner. Winter is my favorite time of year, which is why I get so down when I’m in LA. When I’m hot, I’m cranky.

So then where do you make your primary home these days?

In LA! I’ve lived here for many years — LA is a joke, and look, if I didn’t have to come here I wouldn’t. But my daughter lives here, and it’s the only way that I ever get to see her. Other than that, I am not attuned to the Southern California lifestyle. I don’t tan, swim, play golf, play tennis, ride around with the top down — I’d rather stay inside with the shades drawn. Everyone’s always trying to get me to do things — wanna go biking? swimming? golfing? No, no and no. Anybody for tennis? No…nobody for tennis.

Well then, you will love it here on the Jersey Shore…it’s bitter cold lately; grim and still all blown to smithereens in the wake of Sandy.  

Wait, I didn’t know I was going to be working on the Jersey Shore…when they tell you that you’re going to be about an hour from New York City, you just figure that it’s due west. Well, the people there have been in my thoughts lately. In lieu of Christmas presents this year, I made a donation in my friends’ names to Hurricane Sandy charities. I hope they appreciate it!

We’ve been fixing the place up in anticipation of your arrival for months now, and we’ll be rolling out the slightly damp, mildewy red carpet in hopes that you’ll spread a little Sally Struthers sunshine.

That would be fantastic, and when you roll it out I will probably be vacuuming it, because I am obsessive-compulsive.

One would think that would be all you needed to build the character of Florence Ungar in THE ODD COUPLE, which is a show that really looked to have been a blast for you and Rita Moreno to do.

It was, really, and it was so good of Neil Simon’s brother Danny to talk him into rewriting the show for a female cast. But you know, I had MUCH more fun working with my good friend Brenda Vaccaro right after that — it was a role that just suited her perfectly.

You have shared the stage and screen with some fascinating people in your career…Jack Nicholson and Steve McQueen, Ed Asner and Dennis Weaver and all the gang from the Norman Lear shows. And how was Burgess Meredith to work with in the GLORIA series? Since he played a doctor, was there a little something of your dad to be found there? 

Well, no, Burgess was this tiny, twinkly-eyed man, and my dad was a large, heavyset, English-Irish, gregarious guy. Plus my dad was a medical doctor, and the character on Gloria was a vet! I loved Burgess; he was such a smart, loving, generous human being. I had so much fun, and I learned so much from him.

Every actor that you work with for any length of time gets in your head — and I feel fortunate in that there are very few who are in my head but NOT in my heart. The bad ones that you meet…well, when they’re bad they’re very bad, and you wonder sometimes how certain people can keep getting work out there.

I pride myself in being a team player — Archie Bunker, if he were here today, would call me a bleeding heart. But my heart aches for people who I feel need some extra attention. When I’m at a party, and I see someone sitting off in the corner by themselves, I want to hang out with them.

My husband years ago never understood that about me. He’d actually say things to me like, ‘ever notice that your circle of friends are all losers?’ He’d ask me why I was attracted to losers, sycophants, ugly fat people…

Nice. Your, uh, husband was in the industry? 

He was a psychologist! I know, right? Anyway, I guess I don’t have to tell you what became of that marriage. Now, my daughter, who’s a beautiful and talented woman, has followed in her father’s footsteps, in that she’s working as a clinical psychologist. But she’s also got an artistic streak — she started a singing group, called the Silver Lake Chorus.

About ALWAYS PATSY CLINE, which I caught a couple of years ago in a production that starred Misty Rowe from HEE HAW…I was bowled over to discover that this is a show you’ve performed nearly a thousand times. Where and when did you first take on the role of Louise? Was it at the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine, where you’ve been very active in recent years? And are you involved with that theater on a deeper level, such as sitting on the board?

No, I first did this show in Las Vegas…that was about 2000, 2001. But the Ogunquit Playhouse, which I am NOT on the board of, is just such a wonderful place that I keep coming back. I’m there at least once every year.

This is also another chance for you to work with Carter Calvert, who you teamed up with in Maine…

You HAVE to meet Carter Calvert, who’s playing Patsy Cline. She’s such a wonderful woman; she mesmerizes me, and she’s got chops. Just one of the loveliest people. The first time I heard her sing, I started to cry. I said, you are an angel, and a diva, and…I’m so in awe of her, I just go crazy.

Right there, you sound like the kind of true fan that Louise was with Patsy Cline. I can picture this part to be a great fit for you. Given all the people you’ve worked with and met over the course of your career, is there anyone whose mere presence just instantly transformed you from a professional colleague to a starstruck autograph seeker?

That’s an interesting question to ask, and yeah, you could go very far in the business and still never lose sight of what made you want to become part of it; what drew you to certain people that inspired you. For me, there were a lot of people who are gone now — Katharine Hepburn, just the greatest actress. Gregory Peck, Ruth Gordon. I also admired people like Jane Goodall. Scientists who made cutting-edge finds — I’d get all excited about meeting a scientist or a doctor who was doing important work, finding a cure for disease.

The nature of the celebrity’s relationship with their fans has undergone some real shifts in the past few years…I know you’re not a social media person, but the direct Twitter-account give-and-take between a star and their fans is something that we haven’t seen the likes of since Louise walked up to Patsy Cline and introduced herself. Their pen-pal dialogue existed on a whole ‘nother level, and you could say that it became a genuine friendship because the two women found each other at just exactly the time that they needed a friend…  

That’s exactly right…Patsy Cline did not have the easiest life, and in her case she found something there that she needed to keep her going. Patsy Cline, at least onstage, wasn’t really known to be a lot of laughs, but Carter — and the ‘C’ in Carter stands for Charming — you get her offstage and she’s absolutely hilarious; every fourth sentence she says will have you wetting your pants.

This could be problematic, in light of the fact that the folks at the Algonquin Theatre have you set up to do a Meet the Stars reception on the first Sunday of your run. Another potentially complicating factor is that they’ve also announced a Chili Tasting event for that same occasion.

Oh, I just hope they have at least one kind of beanless chili! I won’t eat beans. They’re like…they feel like little dead mice in your mouth, don’t you think?

Never thought of it quite THAT way…but would you agree that little occupational hazards, little side commitments like that, don’t add up to a hill of beans in this world, when you figure on al the good things that have come out of your time in the business?

It’s true. My life has just been blessing upon blessing. I hope I don’t wake up!

Performances of Always, Patsy Cline at the Algonquin are January 25 and 26, and February 1 and 2 at 8 p.m., as well as January 27 and February 3 at 3 p.m. The January 27 matinee will be followed at 5 p.m. by a special Chili Party reception, during which attendees are invited to sample chili from several area restaurants, and to meet the show’s stars. Take it here for tickets ($28-33), with senior and student discounts in effect, and admission to the January 27 reception priced at an additional $20.