Speaking with … Valerie Harper

VALERIE hARPER

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
September 6, 2002

Before she helped Mary Tyler Moore turn the world on with her smile, Valerie Harper was a pretty New York dancer trying her hand at comedy at Chicago’s Second City.”Making a crowd laugh is one of the most difficult things to do, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable,” says Harper, 62, phoning from her Boston hotel. “I learned early on that you can only force a laugh so much. You have to really mean it.”

Currently starring in the touring company of the Tony-nominated comedy “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”–which opens in Chicago on Tuesday at the Shubert Theatre–Harper portrays Marjorie, an upper-middle-class New Yorker who suffers a mid-life crisis.

“These kinds of roles are few and far between. Thank God Charles Busch wrote this script. All the roles are very important, but Charles made the guys’ roles as supporting the women’s roles. That’s so rare and a bit of a change for theatergoers.”

After tackling the role for 11 months on Broadway, Harper has been on the road with the touring company since last June and will continue in the play through April.

“I’ve had a wonderful time performing in all the various cities. I really wanted to get out and see the country again, especially after Sept. 11. It has really been heartening to see everyone support each other.”

A lifelong women’s rights activist, Harper is an avid supporter of women empowering themselves.

“For the last 25 years, I’ve been very involved in trying to end global hunger,” she says. “A lot of this rests with women. I believe the No. 1 intervention to save babies’ lives is educating young girls. Look at societies where education is withheld from girls. It’s mind-numbing. You educate these young girls and you’ll help end hunger. It’s not simple but it’s a step in the right direction.”

HERE’S WHAT ELSE HARPER HAD TO SAY:

Chicago connection: I love Chicago. I met my ex-husband, Dick Schaal, who I’m still very good friends with, at Second City. We went all over the place–Crete, Oak Park and of course all over Chicago.

Favorite Chicago personality: Can I say Dick Schaal? (Laughs.)

Difference between audiences in different cities: They laugh at different times. The Boston crowd liked all the literary references. In San Francisco, we used to get screams when we mentioned a certain bar they were familiar with. The Broadway crowd … responded to Rudy Giuliani’s pleas for everyone to support Broadway.

On the back burner: I’m thinking of resting a little bit, but my husband [Tony Cacciotti] has all these other things. There are some [television] pilots waiting to be shot and there’s another play I’ve been asked to read. The other thing Tony and I have been working on is a game show for kids to help them with math and science.

Ain’t that a shame: People will not admit if they can’t read, but they think it’s cute if they can’t balance their checkbooks.

Favorite Web site: The Hunger Project at www.thp.org. It’s an amazing organization.

This play’s selling point: It’s a really wonderful, funny script with three great central roles for women. That’s a rarity.

Pre-show ritual: I have a wonderful husband who’s forcing me to take naps before each show. It’s his way of protecting each evening’s performance.

Favorite thing to do in Chicago during your time off here: Going sightseeing. It’s always so beautiful every time I come to visit.

The last word on Chicago: Great!

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