Even though Bonnie Franklin was nominated for a Tony Award for her work in the 1970 Broadway musical "Applause," many of those who know her from her nine-year starring run in television's "One Day at a Time" are unaware that she can even carry a tune.
"When I did my cabaret act at the Algonquin in New York, a lot of people came because of 'One Day,' " she says with a wry smile of the 1993 performance. "They said, 'We had no idea you could sing!"'
Her CBS sitcom role as Ann Romano, the divorced mother of two daughters, ended in 1984, but Franklin the singer is going strong. Next week she premieres a new cabaret act at Tonto & Dietz, the coffee-and-dessert salon in Studio City.
"There are only two or three pieces I've ever used before, so there's a lot of learning to do," she says over lunch near the club, which she helped open last year as a cast member of its inaugural production, "An Off-Broadway Cabaret."
"The act will be fun, a lot of stuff about love," adds the longtime Encino resident. "There's a whole section of songs written by women, such as Amanda McBroom and Janis Ian, and silly songs--'The Oyster' by Cole Porter and 'I Wound It Up' by Peggy Lee. I make a concerted effort that the acts I do make you smile and relax."
Not that the hourlong show is all sweetness and light. "I love doing ballads and a lot of sad songs," Franklin says. "They have a lot of texture to them, whether they're French, like Jacques Brel, or by these women, who write from the stomach and the soul. You get to draw on the lessons we've all had in life.
"I'm doing quite a remarkable arrangement of 'Being Alive' (from 'Company' by Stephen Sondheim). I was singing it the other day, and I couldn't get through it. Whenever that happens, I know I have a strong connection to the material and that the lyric will connect to somebody."
Indeed, as perhaps befitting a former UCLA English major, the lyric is the thing for Franklin. "That's one reason I love playing this room," she says. "It's so intimate, but you've got an area to move, and there's a really good feeling that you're communicating with the audience. You have a sense of telling a story."
That sentiment is echoed by Shelly Markham, Franklin's music director and arranger for more than 25 years, who has also worked with such singers as Lainie Kazan and Nell Carter.
"Bonnie is an extraordinarily literate, intelligent woman," he says. "She looks at a lyric very thoughtfully, as to what it says to her now. She's always had a lot of pizazz, but now she's looking at life very honestly and openly, looking at some of the negative things. Her voice has gotten lower and richer, and she has more of a sense of dynamics. And she adores a challenge. She doesn't stick to things that are tried and true."
Those challenges extend beyond the choice of song material. In the past few years Franklin has taken on roles in a number of non-musical stage productions, among them "Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune" off-Broadway, and "Shirley Valentine," "Wait Until Dark" and "Love Letters" in New England regional theaters. She may star in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" this fall in New Hampshire, pending approval by playwright Edward Albee.
"It's been pretty much 50-50 between the acting and the singing," she says. "The stuff I've done on stage has been so bloody exciting. The roles are just extraordinary. To play a person who is drunk, or angry, or English, or blind, to have that kind of stretch--when you're over 40, that's the exact time of the really great, meaty roles for women in theater. It's a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of that part of the business."
Nowadays she also keeps busy working with the Stroke Assn. of Southern California, becoming involved after her father suffered a stroke eight years ago. She is honorary chairwoman of the organization's annual fund-raising event June 11 at UCLA's baseball stadium, which features a 5K race, health fair and raffle.
"I'm trying to do everything I can to make sure people know that this organization exists," she says. "A stroke doesn't affect just the person who has it, but an ever-widening circle of family and friends."
Franklin will be taking her new act on the road, most likely to San Francisco and New York, and performs the "Off-Broadway Cabaret" in New York in late April and May. She would love to do another television series, she says, if the material were right. Post-"One Day," she directed episodes of "Charles in Charge," "Karen's Song" and "The Munsters Today," but found she much preferred the spotlight.
"I wasn't a theater major in college because I didn't want to take all that other stuff, like costumes. I wanted to perform," she reflects about her time behind the cameras. "I think I must have known then what I had to relearn later on--that I was passionate about performing. Creating a new act, learning lyrics, rehearsing, is all hard. If you're going to do it, you'd better be passionate about it."
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WHERE AND WHEN
Who: Bonnie Franklin.
Location: Tonto & Dietz, 12747 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.
Hours: 8:30 p.m. March 31, 8 and 10 p.m. April 1 and 7:30 p.m. April 2.
Price: $15 cover charge.
Call: (818) 763-4166, reservations required.