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The Lady With All The Answers
In 2005 playwright David Rambo, with privileged access to Ann Landers' archives and the cooperation of her daughter Margo Howard, who provided memories, insights, and details of her mother's life, wrote a play called The Lady With All The Answers. Now onstage at the Pasadena Playhouse, with the elegant Mimi Kennedy in the title role, the play provides a s delicious evening with one of the journalistic icons of the last half of the 20th century.
Set in the luxurious study of Ann Landers' 14-room high-ceilinged apartment in Chicago, exquisitely designed and furnished by Gary Wissmann, the play revolves around the night in June 1975 when Landers composed the letter to her readers announcing her divorce after 36 years of what she had considered a perfect marriage. Fidgety over the task at hand, but still buoyant in the face of devastation, Landers paces the room and talks to the audience. She reads from some of her classic letters, rambles on about her writing habits (she read her correspondence in the bathtub, immersed in bubbles), and polls the audience on which direction they mount their toilet paper rolls—-a subject which garnered some 15,000 letters in response to a casual opinion she had expressed in her column.
Landers talks lovingly of her husband, Jules Lederer, a man with a 9th grade education who sold "kitchen stuff" door to door and rose to become the gazillionaire founder and owner of the Budget Rent-a-Car company. As the story goes, she and her twin sister were engaged and planning a double wedding when they went shopping for their bridal veils. The salesman for the veils was Lederer, and it was "love at first sight" for both of them. Three months later the weddings took place as planned, with three rabbis officiating and a different groom from the one she had started with.
After several years of meandering around the country, the Lederers settled in Chicago and Eppie, looking around for something interesting to occupy her time, fell into a job that had just opened up after the original "Ann Landers" had died. She took over the column in 1955 and saw it grow in popularity until it was syndicated in some 1200 newspapers across the country. She was slightly overwhelmed by the volume of mail but answered every letter that had a return address. A helping hand from her sister was happily accepted . As Landers wryly puts it "Popo was a quick study," and a year later began an advice column of her own under the name Abigail Van Buren.
Landers soft-pedals the feud that caused the sisters to avoid each other for years. Even though Landers' celebrity brought her into contact and friendships with the movers and shakers of her time, her sister's Dear Abby column was acclaimed as the "most popular, and widely syndicated column in the world."
Landers chose to have her column discontinued after her death and ironically, discontinued her column the same year her sister died (2002). However, the 91-year-old Abby's colum has continued under the aegis of her daughter, Jeanne Phillips.
But Landers, too, is still alive—-at least onstage. Mimi Kennedy's portrayal of her, under Brendon Fox's smooth direction, is warm, funny and human. Kennedy beautifully illustrates one of Landers' most outstanding characteristics: her obvious love for her work. She too quite apparently loves the work, and you will, too!
©Copyright 2008, Elyse Sommer.
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