At 18, Anita Luebben had a GS4 Government rating with security clearance. She was a medical stenographer. If you had suggested that three years later, not only would she be on the Broadway stage in Gypsy, but that her job would be saved by the irascible Ethel Merman, she’d’ve thought you mad. Yet, as a pregnant newlywed, exactly that occurred. In the course of a long, colorful, can-do career, young Marvin Hamlish was her audition pianist (She would sing one of his first songs on The Tonight Show), Burt Lancaster cooked impromptu spaghetti in her kitchen, Bill Murray took Anita riding on an elephant. She’s necked with Dudley Moore, tangoed with Richard Gere, and has fan letters to her from Irving Berlin and Neil Simon. And she’s not done!
When Anita was a child, music in the Luebben house featured Aunt Effie playing an old, beat up piano while her sisters harmonized. At six, little Anita was taken to compete in a talent contest at the Baltimore Hippodrome. She performed “Don’t Fence Me In.” “I did ok, but I didn’t win.” The experience was frightening and wouldn’t be repeated. Her family couldn’t afford lessons, so she marched into their church and auditioned for the junior choir. Its choral director taught her to read music; the minister’s wife taught her piano. “We sang Smetana and Romberg. I was very snobby about my music.”
“Good, better best. Never let it rest…until your good is better and your better best.” Anita’s dashing German father was very strict. She identifies herself as an honor roll student and “a real stickler for detail, but trying to let loose.” Raised to take care of three younger siblings, a sense of responsibility developed early.
“In the class where I grew up, if you weren’t going to college, and I didn’t, though I was very good at marrying smart men, then you’d get married and have children.” Anita studied typing and medical stenography securing a job with the Army at a classified chemical center. She lived at home and was driven to work by her father. The lab experimented on Texas Wether Goats whose organs are close in size to those of humans. Every day, Anita would watch the goats go by “feet up” on dollies. “When I told my boss I couldn’t continue, he took me to Safe 13 and pulled out files of wounded soldiers. You’ve seen the goats, now look at the people we’re trying to save, he said. That got me through it.” Here she met Dr. Gillette.
Anita continued her singing with The Valley Players (musicals) and the Alamedian Light Opera. The latter was run by Colonel Blanche Bowlsby, later her model for Sarah Browne in a City Center production of Guys and Dolls. “I really understood that woman. She had a collar stuck in her neck…” While her fiancé, Dr. Gillette, interviewed for a job in Brooklyn, she went to an open call “in order to get it out of my system…” and was cast. Consulting “everyone in charge of me—mother, father and boyfriend,” she accepted. The doctor went AWOL to see her in Beverly, Massachusetts. He left the service and they moved to New York marrying that October. Anita got a job at Sloan Kettering. She STILL wasn’t going to pursue the stage.
The New England theater tracked Anita down through her mother, offering another season. It was time to make a decision. Dr. Gillette agreed it was her choice, so back up she went doing “all the little parts in addition to being in the chorus.” Work at The Papermill Playhouse, several television commercials, and a role Off Broadway in Russell Patterson’s Sketchbook (a revue) followed. (Anita would win a Theater World Award for this.) Suddenly she had momentum; a career. She’d been approached by an agent and worked steadily. A natural at memorizing lines, the performer learned her craft by doing it. Her life might be a black and white MGM film.
In 1960, Anita Gillette joined the original Broadway cast of Gypsy as a member of the chorus (her last time in a chorus) and understudy for Dainty June. The “little Hollywood blondes and tall showgirls” had nothing to do till the second act, so Faith Dane (Miss Mazeppa), offered art lessons. Taking over a 5th floor dressing room, the girls spread out easels, canvas and paint. They had a good hour and a half before being called. Anita was having a great time. Then she discovered she was pregnant. As word spread, she was poised to quit when she overheard Ethel Merman telling the stage manager that though Anita couldn’t do the splits, the understudy job should be hers until she couldn’t do the cartwheels. “The kid stays in the show” sealed her immediate fate. When the baby began to show (costumes were loose), the girls would lay Anita on the Equity Cot and take bets as to whether her son would kick in a certain period of time. (Every theater must have a place for an Equity member to lie down in case of injury.) “I learned to take the stage from Ethel Merman.”
In October Anita gave birth. A scant five months later, she joined the original cast of Carnival out of town in Washington D.C. as Gypsy and understudy to Lili. Her mother took care of the baby. It was the first show her parents attended. Though she filled in for Anna Maria Alberghetti several times, Anita left the show for a better role in The Gay Life evoking the late night telephone wrath of David Merrick. When her part was unceremoniously cut, she returned to New York and was surprised to be asked back to fill in for and then replace Alberghetti. All American and Guys and Dolls were next. One show succeeded another. “In those days there were just a handful of ingénues—Nancy Dussault, Susan Watson and I, who could sing soprano and act well enough. We were always called and each got our share. Things were so different. I can’t believe what these kids go through trying to get work.”
It had been 11 years since Irving Berlin had a show on Broadway. He was nervous about Mr. President’s Boston tryout, but friendly. Anita’s presence cheered the icon. It was a role she’d continue years after. “He blamed himself when the cast didn’t get it right, but just until we were up.” Opening night, she found a letter among the Good Luck flowers: Dear Anita, “Next day on your dressing room, they’ve hung a star.” Love, Irving. (It’s now framed.) “Walking through Boston Common the next day with Mr. B., no one wanted to talk about the reviews.” (Knee Deep Amongst the Corn wrote Elliot Norton.) ‘Whadja think of the reviews?’ Berlin demanded. People dismissed them. “ I know I’ve got corny songs,” he interjected, “ What could be cornier than White Christmas and he started naming all these iconic songs calling each one corny. We never said another word about the review.” With presale, they ran a year in New York.
The actress had another son and continued to work. There would be 14 Broadway shows before she left the boards, Off Broadway and tours. During Don’t Drink the Water, Anita learned comic timing by watching Kay Medford. “I set up everyone else’s laughs in that one, which was frustrating.” Playwright Woody Allen would hide in the shadows at the back of the theater sending notes by messenger. On a tour of My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison’s understudy Michael Allinson “taught me everything British theater had taught him. We’d sit in some diner every day going over scenes. He was very demanding. I think I got the Wintergarden scene right twice. Eliza’s street accent is very Baltimorese, but I had big trouble with the upper class one.” Remarkably adaptive, Anita bounced from Sally Bowles in Cabaret to Jennie Malone in Chapter Two (a Tony nomination,) from Travesties to Skin of Our Teeth.
Television also welcomed our heroine. She appeared on Ed Sullivan, major talk shows and the last year of soap opera The Edge of Night, became a popular celebrity guest on games like What’s My Line?, acted in movies and guested on dozens of series. Despite endless hours of television, Anita didn’t feel she’d mastered camera work. She still doesn’t. “I always think it’s going to be too big, that you have to say it with your eyes. I’m self conscious about over doing or under doing.” Directors appear to disagree with her self assessment.
Anita’s first feature film was 1987’s Moonstruck in which she indelibly played Vincent Gardinia’s mistress, Mona. “Norman Jewison made it clear he wanted theater people. It was heaven.” Informed she would tango with Richard Gere in Shall We Dance, her reaction was the sincerely feminine “Richard Gere?!” The most recent cinematic effort, an Ed Burns film called A Fitzgerald Family Christmas is on its way to The Toronto Film Festival. Her role is that of Burn’s mother. “You’d want a son like that. His parents came around. His mother catered the film.” It’s probably the 50th mother she’s played. Jennifer Aniston, Jack Black, Joley Fisher, John Goodman, and Jodie Foster have been a few of her fondly remembered theatrical children. Cast as Bill Murray’s mom, she received a telephone call in which he declared, “You can’t be my mother, I want to date you!” Anita laughed and told him to shut up, she needed the money. It was during this shoot they took the aforementioned elephant ride together. Anita gamely climbed onto the beast’s ankle and was lifted up far enough for the actor to hoist her onto a seat. He “drove.”
Earlier this year, the actress played Tina Fey’s mother on the series 30 Rock. “She’s the best woman—I just love her, so genuine and capable and Alec Baldwin is a pisser.” And the mother in Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal at New York’s Playwrights Horizons. “The kids (the cast) were over here for a big meal last week.” She cooks. And yes, she mothers them, whatever their age, when they need it. On Mother’s Day, there are cards.
Somewhere in here, our thespian had time to divorce Dr. Gillette, raise her sons, eventually marry sound designer Armand Coullet and sadly be widowed. (She currently keeps company with a longtime beau.)
When Anita saw Elaine Stritch’s extremely successful one woman show, At Liberty, a seed was planted. “I loved what she did, but the form takes a lot of work. I didn’t want to talk so much about myself and that’s exactly what you should do.” Selectivity with roles offered opportune time to research what was out there. Then, friend Penny Fuller introduced Anita to writer/director Barry Kleinbort who convinced her people would be interested. The two “knuckled down” and began a process mining her life for engaging anecdotes and turning points. “I told him I didn’t want to do it unless I could be funny. I tell my grandkids to be positive.” The collaboration was fruitful. An intimate version of the show was tried out for friends and family in Baltimore and in January 2012 After All was warmly received at Birdland on West 44th Street in New York City. (Read my glowing review of its premiere.)
The show will return on September 24 and October 1st. Go to Birdland for more information.)
Her show has taught Anita a great deal about cabaret, especially the importance of communicating lyrics. Additionally, until she’s in front of an audience, the actress says she has no perspective on what’s actually funny. Refusing to rest on the laurels of a lengthy and multifaceted career, creative growth remains paramount. “I even grab from kids with whom I work. Some of them are terrific. I can take things too seriously. I need to lighten up and let it happen. They just do that.” With hopes to leave “a little more on film”…for her grandchildren, Anita Gillette continues to practice her art in every available capacity with seemingly unflagging enthusiasm and energy. Sitting beside her on a cozy couch, one sees an amalgam of “that 5’2” bundle of dynamite, Dainty June”, your best friend’s mom, the gracious woman, and a dash of dame.
Photos, from top:
1. Anita Gillette today (photo by Maryann Lopinto), Anita at 16 – Kenwood High School
2. On left, Anita and Anna Maria Alberghetti from Carnival, at right, Anita and David Merrick
3. Theater. Clockwise from left: Mr. President–Anita Gillette, Jerry Strickler, Robert Ryan, Nanette Fabray;
Don’t Drink the Water–Anita Gillette with author Woody Allen;
Guys and Dolls–Alan King, Sheila MacRae, Jerry Orbach, Anita Gillette;
My Fair Lady–Michael Allinson and Anita Gillette
4. TV: What’s My Line–Anita Gillette, Jim Backus, Arlene Francis
5. Film: Moonstruck: Anita Gillette, Vincent Gardinia;
Shall We Dance? Anita Gillette, Richard Gere
6. TV: 30 Rock–Anita Gillette, Buck Henry, Andy Richter, Tina Fey
7. Poster for upcoming show and current image
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Eat: Joe Allen’s
Favorite place to Shop: Lord & Taylor
Favorite New York Sight: The Chrysler Building, especially coming in from the airport.
Favorite New York Moment: 9/11. I was here. The absolute concentration of everybody around to help and comfort everyone else. I’ve never seen people come together like that. The event was horrifying, but the coming together was amazing.
What You Love Best About New York: The opportunity of adventure. I can do anything I want anytime of the day or night. I can walk on a street and meet someone or talk to a stranger on a bus. Or not. I think that’s particularly New York. When I lived in Los Angeles, nobody walked and in a car you had to have a destination. I don’t need a destination here.
What You Hate About New York: Guns. And there’s inequality that I’m sorry about.