Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 18, 2011

Edith Ann and Ernestine stop to visit

It was almost 36 years ago when I last saw a couple of friends I used to see weekly. Last Friday evening, I saw them again and they really haven't aged at all.

Friends isn't really the proper description of how I viewed them. They were characters - fun to observe, but not people I'd really want to be too close to.

Snorting telephone operator Ernestine and smart-alecky 5 -year-old Edith Ann were regulars on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I saw them in person in the spring of 1975 in Kansas State University's Forum Hall when I was working on the K-State Collegian. Both characters sprang from the fertile mind of Lily Tomlin, and I wrote a review of her 1975 performance.

Tomlin's format for last Friday's performance was remarkably similar. She bounced from one subject to another, sometimes pausing to show video clips of how she portrayed characters in the past and then updating them.

But mostly, the show was just Tomlin.

"I have worries racing through my mind," she said as she paced back and forth across the stage at K-State's McCain Auditorium. Dressed in a loose-fitting black top and pants, she stopped occasionally to ponder life's big questions.

Tomlin worries how in touch with reality most TV reality shows are.

She worries about reflective flea collars. "If we can see them at night, so can the fleas."

She worries about over-population and societal trends. Using both thumbs, she pretended to be texting on an imaginary phone. Looking up, she asked, "When does something stop being trendy and become a disorder?"

She began her imaginary texting again, then looked up. "How do you compare 'I'm at IHOP eating a waffle' to 'I'm in Tahrir Square in Cairo in the middle of a revolution?'"

She stopped, chin in one hand. "If olive oil comes from olives and peanut oil comes from peanuts, where does baby oil come from?"

And so it went. For nearly two-hours, she jumped from topic to topic, using an expressive face and body language to punctuate her messages during her one-woman comedy show.

As Edith Ann, Tomlin stuck her tongue between her teeth, twisted her arms around each other, wrapped her arms around her legs and jumped up and down, becoming that little girl with a nasally voice.

Edith Ann talked about her dog Buster. She had given him a bath, but a bottle of Clorox accidentally fell into the water.

"Buster's fur fell out," Edith Ann said. "And then we could write on him with a Magic Marker."

Another character, Judy Beasley, gave women good consumer advice. In the video clip, Mrs. Beasley demonstrated the holding power of "Stay Put" hair spray. Her perfectly coiffed black hair remained in place as she went through a car wash - water, suds, brushes and all.

Tomlin also portrayed characters I hadn't seen before.

Trudy, the bag lady, philosophized with imaginary Post-It notes.

"...did you know in the entire universe, we are the only intelligent life forms thought to have a Miss Universe contest?"

"... When humankind had its first thought, most likely we did not know what to think."

And Lucille, who became addicted to rubber. She ate the tips off an elderly person's cane. She ate erasers off pencils and then moved up to art gum erasers. One day her husband came home and found her finishing off a typewriter eraser, the brush still hanging from her mouth. Another day, she left her girlfriends in the dining room and went to the kitchen where she ate a spatula from a kitchen drawer.

"But I'm cured," Lucille said. "I'm no longer a woman obsessed with an unnatural craving - just another normal, very socially acceptable, alcoholic."

Looking back at the May 1, 1975 Collegian article I wrote, I had to smile as it could have been written about her show Friday evening. The headline was "Tomlin stages local laugh-in."

"Displaying superb mimicry, comedienne Lily Tomlin kept two capacity audiences in stitches ...,"

"She told the audience she had so many thoughts running through her mind that she didn't know what to do with them. So she spouted off remarks, randomly interspersing them throughout her show in her spacy, scatterbrained way."

Tomlin remembered her 1975 visit to Manhattan. She said growing up, she always wanted to be a big star and move to Hollywood so she could go on the road and play Manhattan, Kansas.

Ernestine, the prune-faced, surly telephone operator was the last of Tomlin's characters to return for a visit. We discovered that Ernestine has a new career working for health insurance company Controlled Health Corp. She's as happy denying people health coverage as she was telling telephone customers back when AT&T had a monopoly: "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company."

In her new job, after denying drug coverage to one hapless customer, Ernestine chortled, "Oh now, don't be a pill."

Tomlin was born in a Detroit working-class neighborhood. She'll be 72 later this year, but as she bounced around the stage or sat with her legs crossed yoga-style, she seemed more like 27. Her sharp mind displayed an ability to find the profound in the ridiculous and the ridiculous in the profound.

In the end, I was as entertained Friday as I was those many years ago with Tomlin's one-woman, many-character performance.

As Edith Ann would say, "And that's the truth!"

Left, Tomlin in 2009 (Wikipedia); right, Tomlin in the photo accompanying my 1975 article.

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