Mary Kay Has Finally Found Her Place
The distinction between Loretta Haggers and Mary Kay Place is in the lyrics. “Loretta writes bad lyrics,” Mary Kay explains.
By R. Meltzer
The executive offices of Tandem Productions, those swell Hollywood folks who bring us “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” over the old cathode box, are located at the end of one of the labyrinthine corridors at KTTV’s Channel 11 building at 5752 Sunset Boulevard—but that’s not the tipoff. Drive around the block and you discover the joint is bounded on the south by Fernwood Avenue: yes that’s where they got the town’s name from for the show!
Escorted around backdrops of fake nature scenes to the dressing room of the show’s gift to country music, Mary Kay Place, I find the person better known to millions of viewers as Loretta Haggers at work on a mushroom salad she’s just bought from the studio snackmobile. First thing I notice after her radiant smile is the fact that the perfectly sculpted head of long blond thatch she sports on T.V. is all her own, reshuffled into another pattern for the moment but still hers just the same. No wig for Mary Kay! This first flash of unabashed reality hits me like a ray of—well—country sunshine, by golly, an impression her subsequent conversation will in no way diminish.
Laying down her clear plastic fork for awhile so that the sound of her chomping carrots won’t interfere with the audibility of the words flowing into my cassette machine, Mary Kay begins our interview. She tells of her childhood in Tulsa, the summers spent with relatives in the Texas locales of Rule and Port Arthur (“It’s a good thing I spent so much time in Texas, an Oklahoma accent is much thicker”), and her journey west upon graduation from the University of Tulsa where she majored in radio-television production/drama, some eventual connection or other with televised showbiz on her mind… “I came out here in June of 1969, in a little Volkswagen that finally got towed away. I decided to attempt the production end of things. It was a very calculated way to get in on the inside and learn about all the different aspects, ‘cause I really wasn’t sure what area I was most interested in. So, I got this job at CBS as a clerk-typist, then I got a job there as receptionist, and the second day I met Tim Conway who asked me if I would be his secretary. So I went to work for him as secretary on his show, and I got to do a little bit of acting.
“Then I worked on a children’s show at a local station in L.A., I got to play a dog and wear this costume. I got to take this little sauna bath every time. Oh, it was terrible, it was called “A Card Game with the Banana Splits,” it was a very short-lived show. It was an ecology-oriented game show for kids. I tried to get in these little educational, little motivational type things, but the show was so cheap, it was awful. Fortunately that was canceled—it was about a 13-hour work day—it was just a bad joke. But the fact that I became a dog made me the most money I’d ever made because of the actor’s scale at the time. I think I made something like $30 a week as associate producer, but by playing the dog I made $200 a week, which after taxes was $130. I felt rich, rich.”
After that she went to work for comedian David Steinberg and did another little bit of acting on a “Candid Camera”-type show in which her job was to go up to complete strangers and elicit responses from them on certain burning questions of the day. “I liked the idea of accosting total strangers,” she says with a giggle. Following that gig was more work for Steinberg on his show of the time and, ultimately, the formation of a writing partnership with a friend of hers who was teaching English in Watts, the result of which has been scripts for episodes of such top-rated series as “Maude,” “Rhoda,” “Phyllis,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and “M*A*S*H.”
“I had this incredible amount of fear about my ability when we were writing for “M*A*S*H.” I mean, I hadn’t been in the war; I didn’t know what the army was like; I hadn’t been in Korea ever in my life; I wasn’t a doctor. It was a male-oriented show, surface-wise, then later I realized that meant nothing, we could write it just as easily as any guy. But initially I was so insecure about it—I panicked. Then we got nominated for an Emmy for our first “M*A*S*H” script, which completely blew our minds!”
From there she and her tag team partner went on to develop pilots for Warner Brothers Television and Norman Lear’s TAT Communications Company, but finally Ms. Place came to the conclusion that writing was not by itself enough of a showbiz buzz. “Writing is just so lonely, in this little room all by yourself…and acting was just such fun by comparison. Then one day I said, ‘Wow.’ They said, ‘Are you interested in reading for the part of Mary’s sister Cathy?’ So I said great, what a terrific thing, two days a week of that and three days of writing. Then, instead, I saw there was this other part, Loretta, I reckoned I’d been doing Loretta since I was five. I’d been doing the sorority version of Loretta, the cheerleader version of Loretta, I’d been doing every conceivable sweet, latter-day, hostile, mean, and calculating version of Loretta…”
By Mary Kay’s own admission, much of Loretta’s dialogue on “Mary Hartman” has been spiked with the country clichés her mother back in Oklahoma has used all her life. “I know they’re all bad, but I love them—the cornier they are the more I love them. All these thousands of things—and I always write ‘em down immediately.”
Singing, however, which her role has called for from the beginning, has never been a thing Mary Kay’s had to look elsewhere to gain inspiration for. Emphasizing certain key words with hand claps, she states categorically, “I love to sing. I mean I’ve sung constantly since—I mean my brother and I were always singing in the car, in the shower, in the bedroom, the bathroom, no matter where I was I was always singing.”
I ask her if additional takes have at times been required to get Loretta’s vocals on the show just right. “No, ‘cause Loretta started out not singing too terrifically—the mistakes are part of it. And also sometimes she’s rehearsing so that’d be real anyway. I’ve made Loretta sing better since those early shows, and she’ll get better and better as she goes along because of the fact that I’ve decided it’s really a one-time joke for somebody not to be able to sing, I mean after that what’s the future in it? So I stopped having the voice crack if possible, although I did have trouble the first two weeks of shooting, I had laryngitis real bad. Anyway what should be funny after awhile is the lyrics and her gestures, her attitude in singing and not the singing itself.”
On the subject of possible musical distinctions between her two personas: “Essentially my voice and Loretta’s voice is the same voice. I mean if I did a Mary Kay Place album it would be all one voice, the distinction between Loretta and Mary Kay Place is the lyrics. Loretta writes bad lyrics, hopefully Mary Kay Place—when she has the time—can write good lyrics (the only song on “Mary Hartman” so far that Mary Kay has written in its entirety is Loretta’s hit, “Baby Boy;” other than that she’s also had an anti-Communist parody in the country idiom on “All in the Family”). As Mary Kay Place, I would also not do some of the things performance-wise that Loretta would do. I would consider some of Loretta’s gestures—or faces—a little dramatic. I mean I went to the Palomino Club and watched an amateur night, it’s wonderful, it’s one of my favorite things. And there’s some wonderful gesture that you an get from people who you know have done exactly like I’ve done—they’ve stood in front of the mirror for 20 years, and pretended they were out there doing it, and they do these very stylized things, like they’ll whip the microphone around and catch it. Now as a person, Mary Kay Place would not do that. If I did it I’d be doing it as a joke—I mean the audience would be quite aware that I was doing a little number there, that I didn’t seriously think that was cute. Ultimately, there might be a section where I’d do a Loretta section, but ultimately I’m interested in performing as Mary Kay Place.”
I then ask her how she feels about such current country items as “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” and “Standing Room Only.” “I think these are, in a sense, Loretta Haggers songs, they’re songs that have a wonderful sense of humor about ‘em, they’re multi-level songs like “Mary Hartman” is a multi-level show. There’re some people who look at “Mary Hartman” and just take it at face value. They see nothing strange; they don’t see that we’re doing a satirical number on a person or an event, but it still works.
“Loretta thinks those lyrics are interesting. She thinks they’re smart; she thinks they’re terrific; they’re insightful, they’re beautiful—whatever—she really believes that. When she says, ‘No hair on your head but a lot above your lips,’ in ‘Baby Boy,’ she doesn’t think that’s not funny. It’s true; he does have a big hairy moustache. Not that I wrote as a calculated, bizarre way of saying he has a moustache, not bizarre but in a different way of saying it and hopefully a line that’ll make people laugh or kind of look at each other and smile or whatever. And so I don’t know a lot of these people who write these songs, but I know that people like David Allen Coe or C.W. McCall know exactly what they’re doing, hilarious…
“And then on the other hand, there are people like Kitty Wells, who I love, and who has more Loretta-type songs. I have an album of hers that has ‘That’s a No-No.’ Now that’s a Loretta-type song, but before Loretta came into being, Mary Kay Place loved those lyrics in it.
“I really love serious, progressive country music, like Waylon Jennings’ song about Hank Williams, love that song, love the song. There’s a certain kind of tongue-in-cheek in the writing of that, but at the same time there’s a satirical statement—there’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of comments made in that song. So that’s the best combination of those two worlds as far as I’m concerned, as far as, y’know, having a little irony in the writing but also saying something, making a statement in a country way.”
Okay, Mary Kay, thanks a heap; that’ll do. You can go back to your salad now. Hope this delay hasn’t made it soggy or anything… (As I leave, I kiss her gallantly on the back of the hand, almost without thinking, couldn’t help it: gosh, she’s got a lovely smile!)