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Wednesday, 05 September 2007 00:00

Notes from a waitress: Former star of ‘Alice’ comes to WCU for cabaret-style, one-woman show

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By Michael Beadle

Once upon a sitcom, Linda Lavin was America’s hardest-working waitress. Remember “Alice” — a household name in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s?

What you may not know about this Golden Globe and Tony Award-winning actress is her gift as a singer. Since her stage debut at age 5, Lavin earned her chops singing in New York City nightclubs. She even sang the theme song to “Alice.” In fact, her no-nonsense character, Alice Hyatt, had big dreams of being a singer.

On Saturday, Sept. 8, at Western Carolina University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center, Lavin will showcase her lovable humor and musical charm in “Songs and Confessions of a One-Time Waitress” — a mix of memorable tunes and stories that spotlight her personal life and career. The one-woman show, which she wrote, features a three-member band that includes her husband, Steve Bakunas, on the drums.

“I’ve been touring it for three years,” she explained in a recent interview from her home in Wilmington, N.C.

Lavin came to the Tar Heel coast 11 years ago to film “Secrets from the Rose Garden” with Mary Tyler Moore and fell in love with the seaport city, so she moved and later married her third husband, Bakunas, two years ago. The two just opened a new 50-seat theatre and plan to teach theatre classes and have a three-play season using local actors. Still working hard as ever, Lavin also created the Linda Lavin Foundation to set up an arts school for girls in Wilmington.

“I’ve had a wonderful career and a wonderful life,” Lavin said, well rested after a five-week family vacation through Ireland, Italy and the French Alps. “I’ve been very lucky.”

On stage as a child, she was no stranger to the microphone. Her mother, a soprano singer who performed in concerts and on radio and television, wanted Linda to be a concert pianist.

Instead, she graduated from William and Mary College with a theatre degree and went looking for acting and singing jobs in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. She earned a Tony nomination in 1969 while starring in “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” but it was her role as Alice that gave her national acclaim.

The show featured Alice, a single-parent mother of a young boy, working at a greasy-spoon diner in Phoenix with a gruff, short-order chef named Mel (Vic Tayback), a sassy Southern waitress named Flo (Polly Holliday), and a dingy waitress named Vera (Beth Howland). The show ran for nine seasons from 1976 to 1985 and won eight Golden Globe Awards including two for Lavin for best actress in a musical/comedy. While some may still recall the oft-quoted quip from Flo — “You can kiss my grits!” — many fans identified with Alice as the pink-dressed waitress trying to pay the bills and raise a son.

“I discovered,” Lavin once confided, “that the character of Alice represented 80 percent of the working women in this country — the blue collar and the pink collar women. Hundreds of women have come up to me and said, ‘It was because of watching ‘Alice’ that I could get through another day with the baby in a high chair. I knew if she could do it, I could do it. I could go back to school. I could get off welfare. I could change my life.”

Lavin still takes great pride in knowing she could serve as a role model for hard-working women, and with her latest show, she gets to take fans on a personal journey of her own. Her career had its ups — including a 1987 Tony Award for “Broadway Bound” and several other acting awards — as well as its downs — two marriages to actors that ended in divorce.

So how did she take her sitcom stardom to Broadway and later into roles on TV shows like “The Sopranos,” “The O.C.” and “Law and Order” instead of being a one-hit wonder?

“I have enormous energy and always have,” she said.

This latest show coming to WCU has been touring for three years and has been all over the country — from 1,500-seat theatres to 120-seat venues, from a three-week “condo circuit” in Florida to the bright lights of New York City, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Kitty Hawk and Wilmington.

The cabaret-style format of singing famous tunes from George Gershwin and Cole Porter to Steely Dan and contemporary hits mixes in a conversational, down-to-earth monologue.

“It gives the audience a sense of who the person is,” Lavin explains. “I think it’s the essence of good cabaret.”

Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show on Sept. 8 are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors over the age of 60 and WCU faculty and staff, $15 for individuals in groups of 15 or more, and $5 for students ages 5 years old and up. “Songs and Confessions of a One-Time Waitress” is the opening performance in the Fine and Performing Arts Center’s “Galaxy of Stars” series for 2007-08. For more information about upcoming shows or to reserve tickets, call 828.227.2479, go online to http://fapac.wcu.edu/box_office.html#subscription, or stop by the box office.

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