January 10, 1978
TV’s put-on country-music
queen is singing it for real
By Carl Arrington
When Loretta Haggers, that sweet-talkin’ pillar of optimism and ambition, leaves Fernwood, Ohio, in a few months, who knows how they’ll mark the occasion in Norman Lear’s TV hamlet? Perhaps in her honor they’ll dim the lights at the Capri Lounge or observe a moment’s silence in the bowling alley.
“There comes a time in each person’s life when she must move on,” drawls 30-year-old Mary Kay Place, who’s been playing Loretta on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and its successor, “Forever Fernwood,” for the past three years.
No tears, please. Mary Kay is simply leaving to pursue the very country-music career Loretta’s always dreamed of. Her recently released album, Aimin’ to Please, is rocketing up the charts faster than the speed of gossip in Fernwood, proving finally that this irrepressible actress, scriptwriter, and singer-songwriter is one of Hollywood’s hottest new properties.
While Loretta may have given Mary Kay the needed boost to stardom, she is now quite capable of making it on her own. And Aimin’ to Please, unlike her first album, Tonite! At the Capri Lounge Loretta Haggers, is designed to free Mary Kay from her television persona. It’s risky, she admits, “but I can only take my chances. I won’t be disappointed if Aimin’ sells less than the first album, because I’ll be establishing myself as Mary Kay Place.”
Indeed, her own sexy image is emerging as Loretta’s bouffant hairdo and God-fearing naiveté slip into the shadows. While record buyers are ogling the cover of Aimin’ (Mary Kay as a voluptuous cowgirl inspired by Dolly Parton), record critics throughout the country are finding some tasty country rock between the sleeves.
“Mary Kay Place isn’t some made-for-TV star being manipulated into a giant novelty on the coattails of ‘Mary Hartman’s’ off-the-wall success,” Record World’s Samuel Graham says. “This is a singer who, while not yet having the performing maturity and confidence of an Emmylou Harris, may soon be easily mentioned in the same breath.”
But Mary Kay’s climb from an Oklahoma coed to a rising Hollywood star is a made-for-TV saga in itself. In 1969, after majoring in radio and television production at the University of Tulsa, where her father was a professor of art, she moved to California. Although a succession of office jobs with CBS, comedians Tim Conway and David Steinberg and producer Norman Lear provided invaluable insight into the workings of show business, it took her satirical song, “If Communism Comes Knockin’ at Your Door, Don’t Answer It,” to actually get her on the inside. One afternoon a couple of “Maude” writers overheard Mary Kay and her friend Patty Weaver singing in the office. When Mary Kay told them the name of the song, they rocked with laughter and begged the women to sing it for Lear. Lear, it’s said, nearly toppled from his chair. When he asked them to perform it on an episode of “All in the Family,” they were happy to do an encore.
Mary Kay’s scriptwriting career was on its way, and she entered the field full time with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “Maude,” and “M*A*S*H,” for which she and Linda Bloodworth won an Emmy [sic-They were nominated only-CW].
She didn’t give much thought to acting, however, until Lear approached her about doing the part of Cathy, the sexually active teenager. But after reading the script, Mary Kay knew that the role of Loretta Haggers, a starry-eyed, small-town housewife with an undying ambition to become a Nashville star, was for her. “I liked Loretta because she was a compilation of my mother, my grandmothers, and the other people I grew up with,” Mary Kay explains. “The character was certainly no put-down, because she’s a part of my family.”
In fact, some speculate that Mary Kay’s affectionate treatment of the role may be the reason Loretta’s popularity rose while other “Hartman” characters remained static.
But with her music and movie careers blossoming (she costarred with Robert DeNiro and Liza Minnelli in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York). Mary Kay will say goodbye to her friends in Fernwood. The final break with Loretta will come in February, when, with the last “Fernwood” taping out of the way, she’ll assemble a band and go on tour. Although for years she harbored ambitions much like Loretta’s (“I’ve always sung – in my car, bedroom, bathroom”), she admits that performing is somewhat terrifying. But, typically, she says, “I’ll do it because it’s something I’ve got to do.”
What spare time Mary Kay has these days (she’ll appear in several ABC movies and script a number of the network’s projects) she spends quietly in her new Los Angeles home with a canine friend named Wanda Nell McCandless or with steady beau Bill Norton, a screenwriter who lists among his credits Sam Peckinpah’s forthcoming trucker flick Convoy.
Although Mary Kay says she’s the marrying kind, she insists she’s far to busy to give marriage the kind of concentration it requires. For now, she’ll follow that vinyl trail that leads to Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, a choice Loretta Haggers would admire.