Sally Struthers says that touring with a travelling show is a great way to see the country.
The 66-year-old actress stars as busybody matchmaker Dolly Levi in the 50th anniversary revival tour of "Hello, Dolly!" At the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre tonight, she'll belt out standards like "Just Leave Everything to Me," "Before the Parade Passes By" and the famous title song.
Struthers remains best known for her portrayal of sweet, naive Gloria Stivic on the critically-acclaimed CBS sitcom "All in the Family," which ran from 1971 to 1979. Another generation got to know her from her recurring role as the batty Babette on WB's comedy-drama "Gilmore Girls."
Though those characters are polar opposites, the thing they have in common with each other, and with Dolly Levi, is heart, Struthers said. She loves playing good-hearted roles.
She admires Levi - pronounced like Levi's Jeans, by the way - because she's a strong-willed, independent, self-made woman in 1890s New York. It's a role best played by an older actress, Struthers said, adding that she means no disrespect to Barbra Streisand, who was in her late 20s when she played Levi in the Oscar-winning 1969 film.
Before joining the touring company, Struthers played Levi in five different regional productions of "Hello, Dolly!" If thinking of Struthers as a singer catches you by surprise, well, she noted that she's been singing since she was a child and sang on many television appearances, such as The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. She said she doesn't claim to have a beautiful voice, but she's loud and boisterous and can belt with the best of them.
Riding on a "rock star bus," as she called it, with a travelling troupe means that she and the rest of the cast have become great friends, and it shows in how tight the shows have become.
The musical "Hello, Dolly!" is adapted from "The Matchmaker," by Thornton Wilder, who wrote the iconic American play "Our Town." The musical preserves Wilder's dialogue. Struthers said it's an honor to give voice to Wilder's words.
After years playing Gloria in "All in the Family," one of the most popular television shows of the 1970s, her fans often treat her like a family member, greeting her with hugs. Struthers said she doesn't mind because hugs are wonderful gifts.
"I come from a family of Scandinavian huggers," she said.
When she's greeted by a mother and daughter, it's not uncommon for the mom to tell her "I loved you as Gloria" and the daughter to respond, "No, she's Babette."
She doesn't mind that so many people still recognize her as Gloria, despite the many other roles she's played, because the fame she gained from "All in the Family" has opened so many doors. She said she's had dinners with presidents and kings, and has gotten to see many parts of the world because of that role. She added wryly that she believed it also played a part in getting her cast as Dolly.
Her co-star in "All in the Family," Jean Stapleton, died in May at age 90. Stapleton played Struthers' on-screen mother, Edith. Carroll O'Connor, who played Gloria's father, Archie, died in 2001. Her voice choked with emotion, Struthers said that in real life Stapleton and O'Connor were parental figures to her, and now that Stapleton has passed away, she feels like an orphan.
Struthers shared a funny story about Stapleton having a real- life "Edith" moment - though the actress usually was nothing like her ditzy character. One day on the set, Stapleton became outraged while reading the newspaper classifieds. When Struthers asked what was wrong, Stapleton read her an ad from a car wash that asked for "Polish men." Struthers read the ad and discovered it sought polish men, as in "polishing your car."
Struthers said it's hard for her to pick a favorite among all the other roles she's played, but she's particularly fond of a Broadway production of "The Odd Couple" with women cast as leads. She played a female version of obsessive-compulsive fussbudget Felix Unger - now named Florence - opposite Rita Moreno.
Struthers is just about as well-known for her appearances as a spokeswoman for charities like the Christian Children's Fund - known now as ChildFund - as she is for her acting. She said she's proud that she's been able to help that organization assist millions of children.
Occasionally, her appearances in charity commercials have turned her into a target for satire, which she acknowledged with a laugh.
"At least they're still talking about me."
"Hello, Dolly!" starring Sally Struthers
When: Tonight, 7:30
Where: Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre, Roanoke Civic Center, Roanoke
How much: "Hello, Dolly!," $37-$57. Includes $2 handling fee.
Info: 853-5483; roanoke.jamtheatricals.com; roanokeciviccenter.com.
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