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Poetic Justice : Actress Returns to City Where Career Began

San Diego County Arts Writer

Marion Ross, who played Richie Cunningham’s mom on the ABC television sitcom “Happy Days,” takes on Edna St. Vincent Millay in a one-woman show opening a brief run here tonight.

Titled “Lovely Light,” the play covers the life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet for the “flaming youth” of the 1920s. Ross will give six performances through Sunday at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre, 547 4th Ave.

For Ross, who graduated from San Diego State University in 1950, the pressure of being the only actor on stage for an entire evening is just more evidence of the drive that propelled her from a small Minnesota town into an enviably steady acting career.

She was driven to achieve from an early age, Ross said in an interview Monday before rehearsals.

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“Even in the 9th grade, the teacher would ask, ‘Who wants to memorize this monologue from Shakespeare?’ and I would raise my hand--'I’ll do it, I’ll do it'--even though I didn’t want to do it,” Ross said.

“It would hurt me to do it, but I would do it. Then of course you’d get rewards. So I’d sense that there’s a reward at the end of it.”

There was also the pressure of an “immigrant” mother, a Canadian, who wanted her daughter to make a name for herself.

“Immigrants always want you to become somebody, make the most of yourself, that kind of talk,” Ross said. “She was very inspiring, so wonderful. So I was programmed to be somebody, make the most of yourself, do something swell. And I did, but it was hard work.”

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Almost five years after she taped the last “Happy Days” script, Ross says she’s planning another series, but won’t divulge specifics.

In the meantime she is applying herself to the Millay show. So far, she has performed it only at a few Equity waiver theaters in Los Angeles, and the run at the 200-seat Hahn Cosmopolitan will be her first performances in a theater with more than 100 seats.

She is hoping that Millay will serve her half as well as Samuel Clemens has supported Hal Holbrook, who has made a career out of his one-man Mark Twain show.

“My thought is that I am presenting Edna St. Vincent Millay to a public that has totally forgotten her,” Ross said. “I wanted to have something that I can do at my option (between other engagements). A lot of actors are doing (one-person shows) now.”

Although Millay’s poetry caught the sense of romantic rebellion that was in the air after World War I, the poet died in 1950 at age 58, relatively alone and isolated. By the 1970s, critics had lost their enthusiasm for Millay’s poetry, chiefly due to her use of traditional rhyming forms such as the sonnet.

Despite a drop in Millay’s critical stock, readers and audiences still respond to Millay’s sensual, rhapsodic love poems, Ross said.

Ross is also impressed with Millay’s skills at constantly promoting herself, a trait Ross says she has also developed.

“She was very centered,” Ross said. “She was selling herself all the time: ‘Dear Poetry magazine,’ she would say. ‘Spring is here and I could be very happy, except that I am broke. Do you mind paying me now for those so stunning verses of mine which you have? I have become very, very thin and have taken to smoking Virginia tobacco. Wistfully yours, Edna St. Vincent Millay.’ ”

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Ross always found drama coaches to help her with her acting skills, and others who believed in her. Rosa Choplin, a San Diego State Spanish teacher with Hollywood connections, introduced Ross to an agent.

In a film industry that in the 1950s was fixated on glamorous starlets and feminine pulchritude, Ross was hired anyway by Paramount Studios at the age of 22, fresh out of San Diego State. She can joke now about those days, but at the time they were a nightmare for an average-looking young woman.

“Actually I was a plain-looking girl, probably unique in my own way,” Ross said. “When I was at Paramount, people would say, ‘You work here? What are you? A secretary?’

“I’d say, ‘I’m under contract,’ and they’d say, ‘Jesus! You must be some actress.’ ”

Ross howls with laughter at the punch line, but adds, “Oh, it was the most painful period of my life. I learned a lot about humility and modesty.”

Her family moved to San Diego after World War II from Albert Lea, Minn. Ross was a high school senior, but she already had plans for an acting career in New York City.

“I always had the five-year plan,” she said. “It was fortunate to come to San Diego because, as even today, theater abounds in San Diego. It did then. The Globe Theatre was renewing itself. We had the La Mesa Players, the Coronado Players, the La Jolla Players. You had little theaters everywhere all over the city. I would go and be in all their plays.”

During her four years at San Diego State, Ross played all the leading roles and made connections at the Old Globe, which became one of her favorite places to hang out.

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“I would go with my mother to these meetings (at the Globe), and I would say, ‘Aren’t these people wonderful? They all kiss each other and call each other darling,’ ” she said

Ross’ mother, the immigrant, was less enthusiastic about such behavior. But there was no doubt that Ross knew how to act.

With the exception of one clerical job at a Los Angeles department store before Paramount hired her, Ross says she has worked steadily in film, theater or television since signing with Paramount. Her attitude about looking out after herself is something she shares with Millay.

Ross said Millay would write to editors and say, “You have the proofs of my two books, and I don’t think you have a copy of ‘Aria da Capo’ and I’ll send you one. Oh, P.S. . . . I’m earning an unconscionable lot of money writing short stories under the name of Nancy Boyd. (Or) Poetry magazine just gave me $100 for Beanstalk and I’m spending it all on clothes.”

“She was always telling them about herself, sticking that in,” Ross said. “Boy, she didn’t need an agent. I think that’s interesting for young people to know. Don’t sit around waiting for somebody to discover you. She was out there hustling her stuff.”


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