Jean Stapleton in “Hello, Dolly!”

Jean Stapleton, all dressed up.

Jean Stapleton, all dressed up and looking great!

My favorite theater story of all time is this one.

In the late 1980’s, Jean Stapleton was playing the title role in Hello, Dolly!  This was at the Totem Pole Playhouse in California.

Jean had become famous, of course, for playing the wonderful, lovable “dingbat,” as her husband “Archie Bunker” called her, “Edith Bunker” on All in t he Family.    The role was a double-edged sword for her.  On the one hand, it elevated her to the status of a household name.  On the other, though, it typecast her as someone who could play dowdy roles that were not too bright.  The world also didn’t know that, unlike her “Edith” character, the real Jean could sing out with the best of them and had been in musicals on Broadway.

Jean decided to do something about all that when she took the role of “Dolly Levi” in Hello, Dolly!  

The show is about a woman coming back into the world after mourning the death of her husband.  She enters a restaurant in a bright red dress and the waiters, delighted to have her back in their establishment after too long a time away, greet her with the song, “Hello, Dolly!”  This song contains these lines that Dolly sings:

“Wow, wow, wow, fellas!

Look at the old girl now, fellas!”

Jean Stapleton decided to take the lemons of her typecasting as “Edith,” make lemonade, flip them, and turn the situation on its head.  When the time came for her to sing Jerry Herman’s lyrics, she inserted a change to mark the occasion of letting an audience see her all dressed up and looking great.  She got out there and sang out:

“Wow, wow, wow, fellas!

Look at the dingbat now, fellas!”

The audience stood up and cheered!  That class act of a lady had the spirit of a champion.  Brava, Jean!  That is the biggest theatrical moment of my lifetime that I most wish I could have seen in person!

The costume worn in "Hello, Dolly!" when Dolly Levi rejoins the living.

The costume worn in “Hello, Dolly!” when Dolly Levi rejoins the living.


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