An interview with Sally Struthers.
by Gregg Shapiro
When you hear the name Sally Struthers, there are probably a few images that come to mind. The most immediate one is most likely the role that made fledgling actress Struthers famous—that of Gloria Stivic, wife of Mike (Rob Reiner) and daughter of Archie (Carroll O’Connor) and Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) on the groundbreaking ’70s sitcom All in the Family. As one of the voices of reason and compassion in the racist/sexist/homophobic Bunker homestead, Gloria often had a profound effect on both the audience and her father. Her friendship with a gay man in an early episode of the series is just one example.
In recent years, Struthers has divided her time between TV series (Gilmore Girls and Still Standing) and stage work. Currently, Struthers is touring the country in the Jerry Herman-sanctioned lead role of matchmaker Dolly Levi in the award-winning musical Hello, Dolly! I spoke with Struthers in October 2013 about her Dolly, her career, and her life.
Gregg Shapiro: Sally, you have previously played Dolly Levi on stage in other productions of Hello, Dolly! What do you enjoy most about playing the character?
Sally Struthers: Oh, my goodness, Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! is one of the best roles ever written for a woman in the American theater. Dolly Levi gets to be brilliant and sassy and meddling and adorable and sing seven songs and manipulate a man into proposing to her and make other people fall in love and dress in beautiful clothes and have lots of monologues. It’s a challenge to learn, and once you’ve learned it, it’s in there for life. It’s brilliant! The words are brilliant, the lyrics are brilliant. It’s such an entertaining show. There are so many beautiful people on stage dancing and singing “memorable” songs!
You mentioned that Dolly sings seven songs. Do you have a favorite song that you get to sing as Dolly?
I think my favorite one to sing is actually in the second act. It’s “So Long, Dearie.” She’s with Horace Vandergelder. He’s being held at the jail and she’s alone with him. The officers have brought her in to see Horace, who has been arrested. She tells him that he’s pretty much lost everything, and she’s saying so long to him. It’s a very sassy vaudeville kind of song done with a straw hat and a cane. It’s really fun to sing.
You also mentioned that the show has, as you put it, “memorable” songs, which is, of course, due to Jerry Herman. Have you ever had a chance to meet Jerry?
Oh, yes, Jerry is a friend of mine. His number is in my cell phone. He’s the reason I’m doing this. He hasn’t let anyone take this musical out on a national tour since Carol Channing. He hasn’t let it happen. He gave me the go-ahead. We fell in love with each other many years ago when I did Mame. I didn’t play Auntie Mame, I played Agnes Gooch. He came to the show and said, “You’re the funniest woman I’ve ever seen. No one has ever played Agnes Gooch the way you played it.” We have awards in Los Angeles, akin to the Tony Awards, called the Ovation Awards. That year, I won an Ovation Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for Mame. When Jerry Herman said that I could go out with Dolly, I felt like St. Peter had let me into the gates of heaven. That’s quite a nod.
That definitely speaks to your talent. Have you ever met any of the previous Dollys, including Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, or Barbra Streisand?
I’ve met and dined with and hung out with Carol Channing. I saw Pearl Bailey do it, but never met her. Those are the two that I saw play the role.
Are you, like Dolly, a woman who arranges things?
I am! I’m a bit of that myself. There are two couples that I know of, so far, that are married because I introduced them. There are lots of other people [I’ve gotten] together. I also take people into my house to give them a place to live, so my house is always full. I get myself involved in a lot of people’s lives in a way to try and help them.
Oh, my God! It’s so much fun! My sister said to me once, “How can you stand it with all those people in your house? Don’t you need alone time? Don’t you need your own space?” I said, “I have eternity to be alone in the grave. While I’m alive, I want to be around people. I want it to be a party every day.”
Which do you think is more reliable, a matchmaker or an online dating website?
Never having used either and not owning a computer, I can’t tell you—although I have been to weddings of people who met online. I say try both. Nowadays, a human matchmaker will probably cost you quite a bit of money if they’re any good. I don’t know what an online dating service costs, but it’s got to be cheaper than a human being. I just think, get your friends to keep introducing you to people. That doesn’t cost anything. Tell your friends you want to meet someone.
That sounds like good advice. You mentioned your friendship with Jerry, and with all of your theater work, I would imagine that you’ve probably developed a following in the LGBT community. Is that something of which you are aware?
I know in my own personal life that I have as many friends that are LGBT as I do straight. If that translates into fans, as well, who enjoy it when I work, then I’m thrilled. I learned this song in Bible School: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, LGBT and everything else.” Embrace them all, and they will embrace you back. That’s my motto. I don’t understand people that are afraid of other people! Because of their sexual persuasion or the color of their skin—what’s the matter with them? We all breathe the same, we all lay down to sleep, we all chew our food the same. What’s wrong with people? I get so disappointed in people that are narrow-minded. I know they’re probably that way because they were raised by narrow-minded people. You learn bigotry on the knee of your parents. I still get disappointed in this day and age—with all the books and newspapers and television shows and films we have to enlighten people—that people don’t change, they don’t open up.
A 1971 episode of All in the Family, a groundbreaking sitcom in which you co-starred and won a couple of Emmys for portraying the character of Gloria, was one of the first shows in prime time to feature a gay character. At the time, did you have any idea of the significance that episode would have?
I was just a young, naïve kid from Portland, Oregon, who landed this role. I had never heard of these racial slurs, epithets. I would sit in the rehearsal hall on Monday mornings when we read the script dialog for that week. Archie would say these words, and I would say, “What does that mean?” I was told, “That’s what some people use as a derogatory term for a Spanish person or an Italian person or an Irish person or a black person.” I’d say, “Well, I’ve never heard that in my life in Portland, Oregon. I come from a nice Lutheran Norwegian family. We don’t dislike anybody.”
No, I didn’t understand the significance of any of it until I was way past it. I had to be in my 30s, 40s, 50s to look back and see just how groundbreaking that show was, and therefore how fortunate I was to be a small part of it. It’s dumbfounding to me. I still will open a newspaper in any city I’m in and immediately go to the crossword puzzle page, and sometimes it’ll say, “Actress who played Gloria on All in the Family,” and I go, “Oh, my God! I’m in the crossword puzzle.” My daughter, who is 34 years old now, when she was in elementary school, you didn’t look things up on the computer, you had Encyclopedia Britannica, and I bought her a set. One day she was writing a report in her room, and she screamed, “Mom!” I came running and asked her what was the matter, and she said “Look.” She opened it up to T, and under Television there was a picture of the four of us from All in the Family. She said, “You’re in the encyclopedia!” [Laughs] Who knew?
I know that you will be on tour with Dolly for a number of months, but are there other projects that you have in the works that you’d like to mention?
I wrote my own one-woman show, Life Is Short and So Am I, and I’ve been doing that in quite a few places. I won’t be able to do it now until April 2014. But it’s been really fun to do.
What: Hello, Dolly!
When: March 29
Where: Grand 1894 Opera House, Galveston Tickets/info: 800.821.1894 or thegrand.com.
Gregg Shapiro also writes the GrooveOut column in this issue of OutSmart.