Sally Struthers says the iconic role of matchmaker Dolly Levi is actress-proof in Hello, Dolly!, having been played by stars as diverse as Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Pearl Bailey, Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Phyllis Diller, and now, her.
“As long as you can act and as long as you can sing passably, and hopefully if you can be funny, it’s actress-proof,” she said.
Struthers, a two-time Emmy winner best known for her role as Gloria in the groundbreaking 1970s comedy All in the Family, is playing Dolly live onstage for the sixth time in a national tour that will show at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall today and Friday.
She’s performed the role five times before in regional theater, but this is her first time doing the show on tour.
Speaking by phone from her Los Angeles home near the end of a monthlong holiday break, Struthers said she was looking forward to the tour regrouping Monday in Saginaw, Mich.
The actress got to spend quality time with her ill dog, Bob, as well as celebrate Christmas with her daughter, Sam Rader, and her fiancé in Oregon.
“I got some good rest and now I’m ready and rarin’ to go,” the 66-year-old said.
Struthers said she enjoys touring by bus with the Hello, Dolly! cast and musicians. The seven-month Dolly tour, which ends in April, is short compared to the 18 months she was out for the 20th anniversary tour of Annie and the three years she toured with the musical Grease.
“It’s really a wonderful way to see America,” Struthers said of traveling by bus. “When you fly, you miss everything, and when you’re on a bus, you get to see the cities and towns.”
“We have some extraordinary theaters across this country — really old ones that have been refurbished and are beautiful.”
Struthers has loved working constantly for more than 40 years since achieving fame as Gloria in her early 20s.
“I’m always doing voiceovers and cartoons and theater and musicals and TV series. I never stop working and I know how lucky I am,” said the actress, who most recently played Babette Dell on Gilmore Girls and the manipulative Louise on Still Standing.
“When I was very young, I had this hit television series, All in the Family, and it made me a household name, and I think that has held me in good stead, especially for theater. Because producers want people who are gonna sell tickets. I think that really set me up for life. I think as long as I want to work, somebody somewhere is gonna hire me.”
Struthers did eight seasons of Norman Lear’s All in the Family from 1971 to 1978, starting when she was just 23.
“We knew we were having fun doing it but none of us had any crystal ball that was telling us the phenomenon it was going to be,” Struthers said of co-stars Rob Reiner (Mike), Jean Stapleton (Edith) and Carroll O’Connor (Archie). “It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me that this was not just groundbreaking but life-changing for all of us.”
The actress said she’s glad she was able to ease into fame without being tormented by the paparazzi, as young stars are today.
“Each year I’ve gotten older, the more in awe I am of that brass ring that was in my hand that I didn’t even grab for. It just arrived,” Struthers said of the golden All in the Family experience.
Struthers, who enjoys both comic and serious acting, said she has loved to make people laugh since she was a toddler. Her mother, Margaret, always made the quirky comment to people that “Sally was born with funny.”
“My music is laughter,” Struthers said. “The sound of the human voice laughing, to me, is the best sound in the world.
“My gravestone is gonna say ‘Here lies a happy clown.’ ”
All in the Family examined weighty 1970s issues of race, war, politics and gender inequality through the lens of comedy. Looking back at Gloria, Struthers knows a woman in her young 20s would never be written as such a naïve character today.
“She [Gloria] was perfectly written for that time when the women’s movement was starting and this enlightening was happening for young people, and protesting the Vietnam War. [Gloria was] a girl that was very much her father’s and mother’s daughter but very much in love with [husband] Michael Stivic and wanted to learn from him and wanted to stay loyal to her parents.
“I feel good about how I played it and how it was written and how it stands the test of time. The whole show stands the test of time. You could just redub new politicians’ names into Mike and Archie’s mouth and let them have the argument, [and] it’s still the same argument.”
Hello, Dolly!, which premiered almost exactly 50 years ago on Broadway and has had three Broadway revivals, has stood the test of time, too. Struthers first saw the show in the 1970s in Los Angeles, with Pearl Bailey playing the title role in all African-American company.
Winner of 10 Tony Awards in 1964, the musical has a well-written story much like Annie, Struthers said: “If you remove the music and just heard the dialogue and listen to the play, it’s a very touching, interesting, fun play. And then Jerry Herman’s music on top of it is major icing on the cake.”
The musical’s story is based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, whose words remain alive, Struthers said. Every night, she especially loves performing the monologues where Dolly talks to her dead husband, Ephraim.
The musical that made Channing famous 50 years ago and starred Barbra Streisand in the 1969 movie continues to draw enthusiastic audiences, and it’s not because of high-tech bells and whistles.
“This is a very simple, sweet, innocent show from 1897, the year we’re portraying,” Struthers said. “If you give them [audience members] an honest delivery of the beautiful words and songs, and if everyone onstage is giving 100 percent, they’re gonna love it.”
She praised the tour’s wonderful cast and gorgeous costumes. The show’s big set pieces don’t fit into every venue on tour, though, so sometimes only parts of the hay and feed store or restaurant make it onstage.
The actors must adapt to certain set pieces not being there at times. But Struthers’ grand staircase, flanked by Dolly’s adoring waiters, is always present for the showstopper title song.
“I did it two years ago in Jacksonville, Fla., and my grand staircase was four steps! It was pathetic! I kept going up and down ’em,” Struthers said of her experience at Alhambra Dinner Theatre.
Struthers has seen her share of mishaps playing this iconic role six times. When she did Hello, Dolly! in Minneapolis, a whole wall of the milliner’s shop fell down.
“The sets just fell over flat,” said Struthers, who ended up ad-libbing lines about character Irene Molloy not paying her rent.
Bizarre happenings big and small are part of what make live theater so special each night, she said.
“It’s hard economic times for everybody, yet a lot of people understand the magic of the theater and will save their money, and instead of going to a couple movies in a month … they’ll buy a theater ticket instead.”
“If they get the magic when they’re there, if they understand that it’s trapeze artists flying without a net, then they’ll become future theatergoers, and that’s what we need to keep the arts alive,” Struthers said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or email@example.com.