As Loretta Haggers on TV’s
“Mary Hartman” or as herself,
Mary Kay Place is a delight.
By Edwin Miller
Mary Kay Place is branching out. Millions follow her adventures as Loretta Haggers, the perky blond country singer and would-be superstar on the popular TV series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” After making her movie debut in Bound for Glory in a bit part as a bar pickup, she is now being featured in New York, New York, playing a corny big-band vocalist competing with Liza Minnelli for Robert De Niro’s affections. Columbia Records is also preparing a session of her own songs as a follow-up album to her initial set, Loretta Haggers Tonite! at the Capri Lounge (which emphasized the “Mary Hartman” connection). And she’s writing a screenplay, a coming-of-age comedy in the vein of American Graffiti, drawn from her own experience.
At twenty-nine, Mary Kay has a vivid recollection of her high school days back in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she grew up. The memories are salted with humor now – but not then. “Like the Spring Fling dance,” she says. “I was dancing my little heart out, and my date stared at me and said, ‘Boy, you sure are hot, aren’t ya?’ I looked down, and there was a giant perspiration stain on my formal. I was just mortified. Everybody used to say horses sweat, men perspire and women glow. Girls are supposed to be wonderful and dainty, and I was a horse! I ran to the phone to call home, asking my mother to bring me a sweater. She said, ‘Honey, it’s 105 degrees – you’ll die of heat prostration!’”
Mary Kay’s parents are both teachers. Her father is head of the art department at the University of Tulsa; her mother teaches in an elementary school. She has two brothers. “It’s a girl sandwich,” she says. “One’s three years older, the other five years younger, with me in the middle. Being the only girl certainly had its advantages – I sure know how to take care of myself. Everybody was always teasing everybody else, and we had great wrestling matches and tickle fights. In my family if you ever got too big for your britches, you would immediately be sarcasm’d to death!”
In high school, Mary Kay was actively engaged in writing school shows. Ever since she was little she had enjoyed making up plays, writing and singing. “I think I was born talking,” she says. “I was never what you would consider shy. My grandparents would have me sing for their friends. I think that’s why I probably enjoy performing and am the ham I am today. I’ve always been the kind of person who had my finger in a lot of pies. I have a limited attention span. I do best when I can work a little on one project, then another. But I’m disciplined enough to know that I can’t get involved in too many things because I won’t do any of them well.”
At the University of Tulsa, she majored in speech and radio and TV production. The day after she graduated, in 1969, she jumped into a Volkswagen and drove to Los Angeles. She knew she wanted to be part of the entertainment business, although she wasn’t quite sure in what way. She landed a job as a clerk-typist at CBS. “Anything to get my foot in the door,” she remarks. “It would have been ludicrous to pursue acting right off the bat. There are a million people coming to L.A. every day who want to be actresses.”
Mary Kay worked as a secretary in various production areas, eventually became a writer for such shows as “M*A*S*H,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” and “Phyllis.” When producer Norman Lear heard her sing “If Communism Comes Knocking at Your Door, Don’t Answer It” – which she had written on her own just for fun – he urged her to sing it for an episode of “All in the Family.” Then when “Mary Hartman” went into production, Mary Kay was asked to try out for the part of Mary’s sister, Cathy. After reading the first five scripts, she said to herself, “Forget Cathy! I’m either going to be Loretta or nothing!”
“Now friends from home call me and laugh. They can’t believe I’m earning a living playing something they saw me do in junior high school. I’m really not like her at all, but Loretta represents many women I know from my part of the country. Pragmatic women, very positive thinkers, who have been raised with faith in God. They can cope. Tragic things happen to Loretta and her husband Charlie, but she is able to deal with them emotionally. People like Loretta. Everybody wishes they had a nice friend like her. She’s so up, so positive. People who watch the show go, “Gosh! I wish I could be like that,’ or ‘Maybe I should do what Loretta does, just look on the bright side, no matter what, keep plugging away, and things will work out.’”