January 26th, 1978
The Real Mary Kay Place
By Chet Flippo
“Mary Kay” I beg, “at least let me get you some coffee. It’s bad enough that I can’t even wake up at 11:30 to make an appointment with a big star like you. And now you’re forced to do the interview with me watching you being made up, with your eyelashes caught in a curling iron and all.”
“Some coffee would be nice,” says Mary Kay Place, sounding only about half like her famous alter ego, Loretta Haggers from “Mary Hartman.”
Planted in a barber chair at NBC Studios with a makeup artist and hair stylist swirling around her, she’s getting ready for a rehearsal as the guest host of “Saturday Night Live.”
“And I’m sorry,” I add, “about the quality of the flowers I brought you. I was gonna get tulips, but…”
“Tulips in December,” she snorts. “I know better than that.”
That’s Loretta Haggers, but as Mary Kay Place is the first to admit, there’s a lot of Mary Kay Place in Loretta. And vice versa. Norman Lear may have “created” country singer Loretta Haggers, but Mary Kay really discovered her, and along the way became a legitimate country singer herself. Now, with two albums behind her (Aimin’ to Please being the newest), as well as roles in New York, New York and Bound for Glory, she seems intent on juggling both careers.
“Well, Mary Kay,” I ask, expecting the worst, “what took you from a placid life in Tulsa to Hollywood and stardom?”
Turns out she’s serious. “The last year of college (University of Tulsa) I worked three jobs, saving my money to go to L.A. I’d just got a ’60 Volkswagen – which was soon to be involved in a five-car collision and go to car heaven – and I just packed all my earthly belongings and got in that car and asked my father which way is the Turner Turnpike.” She laughs a nice, unaffected Oklahoma laugh.
“I once had a midwestern accent,” the makeup artist says with an edge of jealousy.
Mary Kay continues: “I didn’t even know how to get on the turnpike. My father said, “Well, we have some doubts that you’re going to make it to L.A.’”
She not only made it, but she got toeholds in various doors, as a receptionist, as Tim Conway’s secretary and then – when she was Norman Lear’s secretary – she got on “All in the Family” to sing her own composition, “If Communism Comes Knocking at Your Door, Don’t Answer It.”
When it came time to cast “Mary Hartman,” Mary Kay was offered a chance to read for the part of Cathy. “I took that home and when I saw the part of Loretta, I said wait a minute. That’s me. People at home just flipped out because they had seen me do various versions of that character for years. They could not believe I was getting money to do that.”
Since Loretta was singing such country songs as “Baby Boy,” Mary Kay began getting record offers. “I kept saying no because I had no way of knowing it wasn’t going to be ‘gypsies, tramps and thieves’ or something. Ahem. You know, novelty, rip-off songs.
“Then I met up with (producer) Brian Ahern – I’d always been a big Emmylou Harris fan – and I started actually considering the possibility, because I’ve always love to sing. I love country because it is so emotional. I mean, it is so...raw. You don’t have to hide behind these poetics – it’s just blood and guts right out there.”
“Well,” I say, eyeing her in the mirror as the hair stylist finishes the quick curls or whatever they are, “the albums are good country and you’ve got Emmylou on there and all the best L.A. musicians and Willie Nelson, but what does Nashville think?”
“Oh,” – and this is pure Mary Kay Place – “they gave me the key to the city. They knew I was not doing a satire on Loretta; this girl is a real person. She was such a nice lady.”
“And now,” I finish, “that you’re leaving Loretta for other TV deals and a country tour of your own, did it bother you that you might be accused of ripping off Loretta?”
“Sure. I was apprehensive about that. I was apprehensive about singing at all. I was scared shitless.”
With a final half Mary Kay, half Loretta laugh and a quick look in the mirror at her hair, she strides off for rehearsal. My last glimpse is of my poor flower sticking out of her purse.