"I was going to be a concert artist, yes siree," announced pianist/composer Joel Raney, 30. "Now look at me. I'm dressed up like a geek, playing in a gas station."

It's not as bad as it sounds. Raney and his wife, actress Susie Vaughn-Raney, are part of the cast of "Pump Boys and Dinettes," a toe-tapping, feel-good musical (of rock and pop, country, bluegrass and ballads) about singing waitresses and gas station attendants, now in its fifth month at the Las Palmas Theatre.

And as Vaughn-Raney, 32, points out, there are a lot of similarities between where they are now--and where they began.

"We're both from very small towns in Alabama," she explained. "I was raised on a farm in a little community called Oakland; it had a stop sign and one general store. And years ago, right next to the store, there was a diner--exactly like what we've got on the set."

On the other hand, her husband "grew up in a town without stop signs or diners, though actually we did have a cafe when I was a kid. But it went out of business. Later a Dairy Queen came in."

The Raneys' easy back-and-forth banter is genuine--and clearly well entrenched. Friends long before they began dating at the University of Alabama, Vaughn-Raney, a former Miss Alabama, later gave up her schoolteacher's job and followed Raney to New York, where she worked as a flight attendant (putting her husband through the Juilliard School). On weekends, they appeared as a duo in what Raney calls "an almost underground, but really well-known singing waiter/waitress place."

"And I was always in (acting) class," she added. "Before then, I hadn't been ready; I thought I was going to stay in that little town all of my life. But when I got to New York, I knew what I wanted to do."

For his own part, Raney "never made the decision not to be a classical pianist and go into theater--it just happened. I was working in a nightclub and one job led to another. Then I was asked to direct musical showcases. Then 'Tap Dance Kid' came up. . . . "

Before long, both had healthy careers--albeit often in separate cities. Their longest time apart was three months, when Raney was conducting a revue on a cruise ship. So this current status--of living and working together--has required some adjustments.

"The great thing about doing this show is that Susie and I have fun together--always have," Raney stressed. Agreed his wife: "We're like two kids. On stage, I'm always pinching him or blowing in his ear or tickling him when the audience can't see. . . . However , on the (down) side, we don't have much privacy. We get up together, have lunch together, go to work together. Everything is together. So we have to make time to be apart. I'll just say, 'Toodle-oo, see you later,' go down to Melrose and buy something--and then I feel better."

Besides their marriage, the couple has another long-running concern: the show. Before coming here, Vaughn-Raney had appeared in the Chicago production of "Pump Boys" for 1 1/2 years--and is very much aware of the perils of becoming too secure, going on "automatic pilot." She recalled one time, "when I was doing my solo and realized I'd been thinking about the laundry, my parents coming to town. . . . My brain wasn't telling me the words but my mouth kept singing! It freaked me out."

These days, they've both got plenty of other thoughts to sidetrack them. Besides Joel's burgeoning composing career (including writing the partial score for a coming feature film), the couple is experiencing strong nesting urges.

"We want to have a family," Vaughn-Raney said firmly. "We're itchy to settle down somewhere."

Added Raney: "We've been putting it off for years, waiting for the right time. Well, we learned that we've got to make the time. Susie's gone through clubs, television ("Guiding Light"), recordings. I was going to be a pianist, then a musical director, then a conductor. We've dabbled in everything. But this is the first time that it's all felt right. And L.A. seems to be the place to do it."

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