Dilettante: There's something about Sally

Posted Wednesday, September 21, 2011 in Culture

Dilettante: There's something about Sally

Sally Struthers and cast performing in 'Legally Blonde', which recently closed at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

by Jan Brennan

OGUNQUIT -- Over the past nine years, this town has embraced actress Sally Struthers. Literally.

“I think I’ve been hugged by every person in this town!,” Struthers said during a chat in her dressing room at the Ogunquit Playhouse earlier this month. “I have a quota every day for how many hugs I want to get -- and I always go over that quota! I’m over-indulged,” she said, laughing.

Cheryl Farley, the Ogunquit Playhouse's director of marketing, confirmed that. “When we’re out on the street, I find myself wanting to protect her -- everyone is always touching her, hugging her, holding her hand ...”

Struthers, a tiny dynamo of energy, has that effect on people -- in this town, at least. She's like some kind of love magnet. Trying to explain the public’s reaction, Farley said: “Love is an energy, and when you put it out there, people can feel it, and they respond.”

“But I’m getting it slamming at me before I even have a chance to give it back!,” Struthers exclaimed.

For years I had heard about the love affair between Struthers and the town. You can’t read a local theater review without the adjectives “audience favorite” or “Ogunquit’s beloved” in front of her name. Though I’d long been fascinated by the phenomenon, I didn’t get a chance to witness it myself until I went to the Playhouse in August to review “Legally Blonde, the Musical.” When Struthers, playing the role of the lead character’s hairdresser and friend, made her first appearance on stage with the less-than-sparkling line “Hey there,” the audience broke into wild applause, hoots and whistles. The show had to briefly stop until the audience calmed down.

“It’s humbling,” she said when I asked her how it feels to get such a reaction.

And in her own humble way, she tried to explain it away.

“People feel they know me, because I’ve been in four or five TV series. I’m in that little box in their living rooms, in their bedrooms -- it’s like I’m a part of their family; we’re all related.”

Thanks to her long career, it’s true that just about everybody in America feels they know her. Older folks remember her well from her years playing Gloria, Archie Bunker’s liberal daughter on the groundbreaking show “All in the Family” in the 1970s. “Even now, when I walk down the street in New York, guys yell out ‘Hey, little girl’ at me,” she said, referring to the way her TV father commonly addressed her. The younger generation knows her from her recent roles on “Gilmore Girls” and “Still Standing.” The years in between were filled with just about every type of stage and screen work: Broadway musicals, cartoon voice-overs, movies, TV game shows, regional theater and, perhaps most memorably, her public-service ads and international travel for children’s charities.

But the Ogunquit Playhouse hires lots of other well-known stars, and they don’t get the love from townspeople that Struthers does. Why is that?

"Oh, it’s just that I’ve been coming here for so long, nine years in a row now,” she said modestly. “Maybe they see that as an affirmation that they’re living in the right place.”
 
Ogunquit, whose name in Indian means “beautiful place by the sea,” has miles of pristine beach, dramatic ocean views from its cliffside Marginal Way walking trail, a picturesque downtown and award-winning restaurants. “I think the people living here already know they’re in the right place,” I argued. Nor is her frequent presence the answer: Audiences loved her from the first time she appeared at the Playhouse, when she co-starred as Louise Seger in “Always ... Patsy Cline” in 2003. In fact, she was such a hit that the theater made the unusual move of repeating the play -- with her reprising her role -- the very next year.
 
So how else to explain Ogunquit’s embrace of Struthers? “Well, I’m very friendly,” she admitted. “I learn everyone’s names.”
 
Ah, now we‘re getting somewhere.
 
"She made it a point to learn everyone's name," said Andrew Glant-Linden, choreographer of "Fiddler on the Roof" at the Playhouse in 2008. "In a ridiculously short rehearsal period -- five days -- she not only learned her lines, songs, blocking and choreography, but when she was offstage she would often grab me, point to an actor and say, 'Now her name is ...'  or 'That's ...?'  Only two other stars that I've worked with did that: Julie Harris and Sally Kellerman."
People do appreciate the effort. Even the employee managing the parking lot mentioned it; “She learns everyone’s name!,” he told me.
 
“Sometimes I make ‘em wear name tags!” Struthers said. If the cast is very large, she’ll buy stick-on tags and ask everyone to write their name and wear one. “By the second day, I know all their names,” she explained.
 
And her friendliness doesn’t stop there. “She never refuses to meet someone who wants to see her at ‘side stage’ following a show. She’s always willing to sign an autograph. She’s been part of many fund-raisers in Ogunquit, lending her name and support for a worthy cause,” said Gordon Lewis, who with his wife, Donna, owns Ogunquit’s popular Clay Hill Farm restaurant. For years, Struthers has stayed with the couple when she is in town, and calls it her second home.
 
On a more personal level, “she is the true definition of a friend,“ Lewis said. “Sally stays in constant contact with her friends all over the world. She laughs with them, cries with them, advises them, and calls them on their birthday -- she did on mine this year.”
 
Lewis also noted what the Playhouse staff calls “the Sally factor”: the bump-up in ticket sales whenever she is in a show, as many people come just to see her. The director may cringe, but the audience loves it when she breaks the “fourth wall” and interacts with the audience in the middle of a scene. The night I was at “Legally Blonde,” she interrupted her own curtain call to lead the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to Becky Gulsvig, the show’s star. It was a sweet moment, briefly making the audience feel united with the cast as we all sang together. It exemplified another comment Lewis made: “Whether on stage, in a restaurant, on the street or in your living room, Sally’s presence allows you to better enjoy the moment.”
 
It is a unique gift, and one that the people of Ogunquit clearly enjoy. Doing up to eight plays a year in regional theaters all around the country, Struthers works in many places, but she says there’s no other theater that she’s worked at nine years in a row, as she has at the Playhouse, nor any other town she’s bonded with to the extent she has here.

With Ogunquit being such a small town, it’s easy for people to notice her when she is out and about. When I asked what is her favorite restaurant, she quickly rattled off seven. “Clay Hill, Bintliff’s, M.C. Perkins Cove, Five-O, the Front Porch, Katie’s -- and I love Cafe Amore for breakfast!” she said without thinking. During what little free time she has in between performing eight shows a week, she doesn’t go to the beach (“I can’t stand water! I’ve had a house with a pool for thirteen years now, and I’ve never been in it once!"), but she does like to walk around town and pop in to the shops. “She just blends right in, as much as a celebrity of her status can, never demanding special attention,” said Colleen Osselaer, owner of two stores Struthers frequents, Harbor Candy Shop and H&M Crumpets, a toiletries and gift shop.

Anyone who hasn’t yet encountered this force of nature will most likely have another chance to next summer. I asked the 64-year-old if she has any plans to retire. “No!,” she exclaimed, looking horrified at the thought. “I’d lose my house! I have to keep working to make my mortgage payments!” She’s hoping the Ogunquit Playhouse will have her back next year. She likes the symmetry of the numbers: “The Playhouse will be celebrating its 80th anniversary, and it would be my 10th year here, and I’ll be 65 years old.”  

Considering the “Sally factor,” it’s a safe bet that the theater will welcome her again with open arms. And hugs will ensue.

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