Sally Struthers has been an award-winning actress since the boys in her sixth-grade class presented her with a handmade plaque that said so.
More than 50 years after her soaring success in the school play, Struthers has a résumé that features a long list of TV and film roles, but she says nothing is quite like the stage.
I love the response. When you’re doing comedy in a vacuum, you never really know you’re landing it, Struthers says by phone after checking into her hotel in Toledo.
When you do it onstage for a live audience, you can tell immediately whether it’s working. That’s very gratifying.
Generations of TV audiences know Struthers as Gloria Bunker, the blonde buffer between her hippie husband, Michael, and her forever grumpy, conservative father, Archie Bunker, on All in the Family.
Lately, Struthers has been dazzling stage audiences nationwide as Dolly Levi for the 50th anniversary tour of Hello, Dolly! The production will be at Embassy Theatre on Sunday.
For film and TV, you can be saved by retakes. They appreciate it if you know your lines and don’t miss your mark, but if you do, you get to do it until you do it right. You have a net below you at all times, Struthers says.
With stage, you are the trapeze artist with no net – there’s no one there to save you but yourself. You’re shot out of a cannon and keep that arc going to the end of the performance. It’s exhilarating, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
Hello Dolly! is a 1964 musical featuring music and lyrics by the renowned Jerry Herman. The stage show is based on Thornton Wilder’s 1955 four-act play, The Matchmaker.
Dolly is a widowed matchmaker who decides to restart her life as she meddles with other matches in Yonkers, N.Y.
The highly successful musical won 10 Tony Awards in its first year on Broadway, including best actress in a musical for Carol Channing – considered by many as the paramount Dolly Levi.
Although the show is a Broadway favorite, Struthers says it hasn’t been on a national tour for 20 years since Channing was in the lead role.
Struthers previously played the role of Dolly on five occasions for professional theaters; she says it’s an honor to receive the blessing from Jerry Herman himself to take the lead role on tour.
It’s the perfect musical. It’s got great dialogue, she says. It’s fun for the cast, it’s fun for the audience.
It’s a tour de force for an actress of a certain age, she says. When you get older, this business tends to be more slanted toward men. It’s an honor for an actress anywhere from 45 to 90 years old who wants to play Hello, Dolly!’ to be given this lead role. And all of these monologues, songs and beautiful costumes – you can’t turn it down.
Struthers has had a string of stage successes, including the Broadway production of Grease; the 20th anniversary tour of Annie, in which she played the coveted Miss Hannigan; and another Jerry Herman musical, Mame.
Her role as Agnes Gooch in the Los Angeles production of the latter won her a Los Angeles Ovation Award as best featured actress in a musical.
I bring my sense of humor. I’m a clown like Lucille Ball was a clown, Struthers says.
I’m a physical comedian, and I’m known to carry a tune. I’m not known as the world’s best singer, but I’m not a bad singer. I’ve been this way since I was 2 years old, so I knew that all of my comedy that has to come out of Dolly would be my slant, my take, on how to make her my own.
Well into her 60s, Struthers says she was apprehensive about being on a seven-month tour. The tour stops in larger cities for two to three days, but between those venues are one-night-only shows. She wondered whether she would be able to keep up with the tight schedule.
I had to think about it a lot. I’m not a spring chicken anymore, she says. I’m 66 years old. It’s harder when you’re older, living every day on a bus, checking in and out of hotels and taking your stuff in and out of theaters. It’s exhausting for someone in their 20s.
A month into the tour, Struthers says she continues to feel great. Every night, the audience has responded in a roar of applause.
With the show garnering positive reviews, her only wish for upcoming audiences is that they leave the theater as satisfied as she does.
I want people to drive away from the theater on their way home humming the tunes, and in the subsequent weeks, months and years, I want them to say to each other, Remember the night we went to go see Hello, Dolly!? Wasn’t that a great night?’ I just want it to be this wonderful memory that they have.