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Road-Tested

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the road for nearly four years--first with “Grease” and now with “Annie,” opening today at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--Sally Struthers considers herself “a seasoned veteran” of the musical theater and wouldn’t mind touring the rest of her career.

“It’s a wonderful way to make a living,” she said, the rigors of the road notwithstanding. “You get to see America, and people jump to their feet every night to give us a standing ovation.”

What’s more, the Emmy-winning actor who became famous playing Archie Bunker’s daughter on “All in the Family” recently gave up her spacious $3-million digs in Brentwood (seven bedrooms, six fireplaces and all the trappings).

Which isn’t to say that Struthers, 49, has taken up suitcase living permanently. She still needs a home, of course, so she bought a smaller place in Hollywood (only five bedrooms).

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In fact, she gets back there every couple of weeks and holds a sleepover party for the kids who play the “Annie” orphans. “I do it four at a time,” she said, purring like a cat with kittens. I did it with all eight the first time, and it was a free-for-all. I see their weary mothers on the road with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They light up like Christmas trees when I say I’m going to take their daughters for a night.”

Struthers, the den mother, certainly gives the lie to her “Annie” role--mean Miss Hannigan, the boozy orphanage mistress who mistreats her charges, especially Annie, played by 9-year-old Brittny Kissinger.

“Brittny calls me Aunt Sally. She’s such a wonderful little girl,” said Struthers, whose own daughter, Samantha, is a freshman at Vassar College “going to a degree in cognitive science.

“I must tell you, Miss Hannigan is a much more delicious role than Miss Lynch [the high school teacher she played in ‘Grease’]. There’s much more time onstage, and Miss Hannigan is not incidental to the play.

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“But I don’t think I would have gotten this if I hadn’t done ‘Grease’ first. When Tommy Tune called me up four years ago and said he’d like me to play Miss Lynch, I told him I didn’t even know who Miss Lynch was. That’s because I saw the movie, not the play, and she’s not in the movie. They were looking for a ‘name’ who would bring the people in in Des Moines. They always had two or three ‘stars’ in that cast.”

Both Miss Lynch and Miss Hannigan are “obstreperous women,” noted Struthers, a belter with “cords of steel” who took over the “Annie” role from Nell Carter. “I’d love to be typecast for musicals.”

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Billed as a 20th anniversary revival of the Goodspeed Opera House original, the show, set during the Depression, has such well-known tunes as “Tomorrow,” “Maybe” and “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.”

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When this revival opened in March 1997 on Broadway, the original creative team of Charles Strouse (composer) and Martin Charnin (lyricist-director) added a new song for Carter; it was much touted by the producers and is still being pitched by publicists, though it’s no longer in the show.

“The first thing I said to them is, ‘I don’t care to do that song,’ ” Struthers said. “It was a perfect musical 20 years ago. It doesn’t need the song. They said they didn’t want it in there, anyway. They only put it in because Nell Carter wanted it.”

Hardly a sentimentalist, Struthers never watches the TV show that made her famous, even though “All in the Family” is syndicated almost everywhere she tours.

“Been there, done that,” she said. “Besides, I’m a news junkie. I love watching any kind of news.”

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As for her Emmy Awards, “they’re nice to have, but they don’t do a thing for your career,” she said. “Actually, I’ve never understood acting awards. Calling somebody ‘best actor’ is a really crazy concept. If we wanted trophies, we should have joined a bowling team.”

* “Annie” continues through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tonight-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 and 6 p.m. $21-$52.50. (714) 556-2787.


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