Sally Struthers, as she says, grew up as a strictly West Coast girl. As such, she didn’t see her first Broadway show until she was in her 20s. That show, somewhat ironically, was Annie, and it was love at first sight.
“Dorothy Loudon [as Miss Hannigan] made me laugh so hard I wet myself,” Struthers recalls. “I said, ‘That woman is good, she should win the Tony.’”
Struthers also told herself: “Sally, if you get to live long enough, you’ve got to play this role.”
In time, both thought balloons became reality.
Loudon did indeed win a 1977 Tony for her work as the libidinous, mean-tempered and slightly addled Miss Hannigan, matron of New York’s Municipal Orphanage, Girls Annex.
Struthers first strapped on the Easy Street attitude of Miss Hannigan in 1998 with Annie’s 20th anniversary national tour. She’s played the hard-knock matron from coast to coast ever since.
“It’s been joyous, absolutely joyous, to be doing that musical onstage eight times a week for audiences across the country,” she says with a bounce in her voice, reminiscent of her earliest signature role, Gloria Bunker Stivic on “All in the Family.”
She was 24 or so when she won the first of two Emmy Awards (1972 and 1979) for her work on that groundbreaking 1970s sitcom. It was during this high-water time that some well-meaning soul told her it was too bad she’d “grasped the brass ring” so early in her career, meaning she had nowhere to go but down.
“Not so fast,” Struthers may have been thinking.
The performer, described during her “All in the Family” days as “cute as a button and with a petite, porcelain prettiness and vulnerability that endeared her to the American public,” knew she had much more to show the world.
She had begun her career onstage, slipping down the coast from her hometown of Portland, Ore., to attend the highly respected Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts (Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman also are alumni). Her first professional job was understudying Margaret O’Brien as newlywed Corie Bratter in Neil Simon’s now-iconic Barefoot in the Park.
She was doing regional theater regularly when TV called her, first to dance on a Herb Alpert special, then to cut up on “The Tim Conway Comedy Hour” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” The latter, with its satire of racism, the president and the Vietnam War, would become a touchstone for a generation.
“All in the Family,” which debuted in 1971 and ran for seven seasons, did indeed make Struthers a hot property, but it didn’t allow for stage work. “I didn’t have time,” she says. “The flavor of the moment then was that if you were on hiatus, you were shooting a movie of the week.”
That had changed by 2000, when Struthers began a second seven-year TV run in the charming, offbeat “Gilmore Girls.” Her character: a well-meaning but fervent busybody named Babette Dell, whom Struthers modeled after friend Ruth Gordon. On every hiatus from that show, Struthers chose to do a play or musical.
She’s played Florence (the neat-freak Felix character) in a gender-bent Odd Couple, Dolly in Hello, Dolly!, Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, the principal in Grease and has had key roles in The Full Monty, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Nunsense, Love Letters, Cinderella, Chicago, Legally Blonde and Always … Patsy Cline. Her next year is already fully booked
Struthers also provided voices for such animated series as “The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show,” “TaleSpin” and “Dinosaurs.” But somehow she always comes back to Miss Hannigan.
It could be because Annie, while based loosely on the Harold Gray comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” (1894-1968), is a tightly written musical gem that has seemed relevant ever since its Broadway debut. The strip attracted adult readers with political commentary that targeted (among other things) organized labor, the New Deal and communism.
The musical, in turn, lampoons President Herbert Hoover and his failed promise to put a chicken in every pot, but its creators also saw the show as a balm for early ’70s audiences. Richard Nixon was in the White House, American soldiers were still in Vietnam and the country was in an economic morass. Lyricist Martin Charnin, in particular, saw the character of Annie, with her optimism and indomitable spirit, as a metaphor for courage, morality, innocence and optimism in the face of that decade’s cynicism and pessimism.
In fact Annie seems to have a knack for popping up whenever current events dictate. In 2011 we have American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and face economic challenges that our nation’s leaders can’t seem to solve.
Besides that, the show just works. “It’s funny,” says Struthers, “and heartfelt.”
Her Miss Hannigan is shaped in part by her young daughter, Samantha’s, reaction to the 1982 movie featuring Carol Burnett as the miserable matron. Samantha was 3, and as soon as Miss Hannigan made her entrance, Samantha began wailing uncontrollably: “I want to home! I want to go home!”
“I saw how much it scared her,” Struthers says.
As a result, she plays Hannigan as a woman who has spent so many years only in the company of children that she has become a child herself.
“It seems to work,” she says. “I don’t scare anybody, and I get the laughs.”
Annie plays the Fox Theatre Jan. 14-22.
Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer who has worked as resources manager at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre.