August 16, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Proving that she is still going strong after fifty-seven years, the actress Anita Gillette is currently traipsing the boards on West 43rd Street doing what she does best: eight shows a week. An honest-to-God “Broadway Baby,” who made her official debut in 1960 as a replacement in the role of Thelma, one of Madam Rose’s Hollywood Blondes in the original company of Gypsy, she is a shining example of a working actor who has been steadily at it for nearly sixty years. Her performance as “Bee” in Bruce Norris’s A Parallelogram (running through Sunday at the Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre) is one of her very best. Seemingly untouched by time, the natural musicality of her voice remains clarion clear and her comedic timing as pitch perfect as ever. She is a marvel — even if today didn’t mark her 81st birthday.
I’m somewhat predisposed to admiring her talents, mainly due to my having the pleasure of calling her a friend. But long before that privilege, I adored her in many of the significant roles she has played. Among my personal favorites are her hilarious portrayal of Tiny Fey’s mom in 30 Rock and as Vincent Gardenia’s somewhat dimwitted girlfriend in Moonstruck. But where I first fell in love with her was in the theatre, a calling she has never abandoned, as she is one of those actors who still calls the theatre her home. A native of Baltimore, the former Anita Luebben came to New York in her early twenties when her fiancé Dr. Ronald Gillette interviewed for a job in Brooklyn. Always interested in singing, but never determined to make it a career, she went to an open call on a lark, only to find herself being offered a part in a stock production in Beverly, Massachusetts. She took the job “in order to get it out of my system,” as she once told an interviewer, but upon marrying Dr. Gillette (and shortly thereafter moving to New York where he got a staff position), she got a job at Sloan Kettering Hospital as a medical stenographer. Her life on the musical stage appeared to be over even before it began.
But the theatre in Beverly tracked her down (through her mother) which led to a summer stock season once again being offered. In consultation with her husband, she took the gig, this time at the Paper Mill Playhouse in nearby New Jersey, and the closer proximity led to an agent discovering her, then TV commercial work, then onto the part in Gypsy, and most auspiciously, a role in an Off-Broadway revue titled Russell Patterson’s Sketchbook. For that performance, she won the Theatre World Award as one of the most promising newcomers of the 1960 season. The photo below reveals the fine company she was in, perhaps a record for the esteemed Theatre World organization, what with so many in this group becoming future Emmy, Oscar and Tony Award nominees (and winners).
Gillette’s youthful vitality, matched to a remarkable singing voice in the form of a perfectly petite ingenue, had her quickly became a go-to girl for many Broadway shows. She was cast by Gower Champion in the musical Carnival, also understudying and eventually replacing its star Anna Maria Alberghetti as Lili. She then appeared with Ray Bolger in the musical All American; played the daughter of Robert Ryan and Nanette Fabray in Irving Berlin’s final Broadway musical Mr. President, starred opposite Jerry Orbach’s Sky Masterson as Miss Sarah in a City Center limited engagement of Guys and Dolls, had a leading role in the notorious one-performance musical Kelly, and was prominently featured in Woody Allen’s first Broadway play, Don’t Drink the Water. This list would also have included the Barbara Cook musical The Gay Life, except that she was written out of her role somewhere between Detroit and Toronto. And these only mark the first six years of her career!
Her natural intelligence and quick wit made her a staple on many TV game shows, most of them shot in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, such as What’s My Line?, To Tell the Truth, and I’ve Got a Secret, making her what used to be called “a household name.” This led to a number of TV series, the most infamous being Me and the Chimp, which had her doing many scenes with the esteemed monkey actor, Buttons.
But you go where the work goes. And it has taken Gillette from the highs of creating the role of Jennie Malone in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, receiving a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play, to the lows of playing opposite a leading man who was none too pleased with the show in which they were co-starring. Recalling the 1970 musical Jimmy with theatre critic and historian Peter Filichia, she said that “Frank Gorshin was insecure, and there were nights where Julie Wilson and I would take our bows and make this grand gesture that said, ‘Here’s our star,’ and he wouldn’t come out.”
Even if the show was the worse stinker to ever hit town, I doubt anything would stand in the way of Anita Gillette taking a bow at the curtain call. Not only due to her professionalism that would never allow such behavior, but because she loves what she does. You can see it when she appears in her cabaret act, for which she won a coveted MAC Award in 2010, given to honor achievements in cabaret, comedy and jazz in the New York area. The joy of performing and giving to an audience is captivating, never more apparent than when she is paired with her friend and fellow thespian, Penny Fuller. Their act, “Sin Twisters,” is a delight that I have seen numerous times. With compatible resumes, launched roughly at the same time, each have shared many an audition waiting room experience, and both played Sally Bowles during the original run of Cabaret. For a glimpse of Anita in the role, here is a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969:
A Parallelogram at Second Stage finishes its limited run on Sunday evening. If you are in the neighborhood and can possibly make it, take the time to see what she is able to achieve in multiple characterizations alongside a company of such other terrific actors as Celia Keenan-Bolger, Stephen Kunken and Juan Castano. As always, Anita Gillette will not disappoint. And if you don’t recognize her, it’s because … well, she’s an actress!
Happy Birthday, sweet Anita!
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-SeatsHistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8–4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book