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Idol Chatter

When you think of Sally Struthers, do you think of Saturday night on CBS during the '70s? Or do you think of starving Third World babies? The star of stage, screen, and sincere-yet-strident infomercials has such a checkered resume that she's never sure what people will say to her on the street.

"Sometimes it's, 'Oh, thank you for your work with Save the Children,'" Struthers says. "Sometimes it's, 'Oh, I loved you in All in the Family.' Or, 'You know that movie you did with Steve McQueen?' And sometimes people just come over and ask, 'What time is it?'"

Struthers debuted on Broadway in 1981's Wally's Cafe, and the McQueen film, for those who don't know, was The Getaway (1972), in which she played the sluttish wife of a veterinarian.

For the next six weeks, however, it's Nashville time. The Emmy Award-winning actress will be appearing in Always... Patsy Cline, a popular theatrical biography of the singer that features a live country and western band on stage. Struthers plays Louise, a character based on a real-life Houston woman who met the star and enjoyed a short but affectionate friendship with the singer before Cline's 1963 death in a plane crash at age 30. "If you read any Patsy Cline biography," says Struthers, "you see that Louise was Patsy's biggest fan.

"In the show I tell the story of their meeting -- about Louise's hearing from a local DJ that Patsy would be in town playing at the Esquire Ballroom. Louise makes a point of grabbing her boyfriend and rushing down to the ballroom to beat the crowd. She gets there so early that no one is there but Patsy, who has time to kill. Louise invites her over, and she sits down and talks to Louise."

This chapter of the Cline story is set before the release of "I Fall to Pieces," the 1961 song that sparked her rise to fame. Between 1955 and 1960, the singer recorded 17 singles, but most of the material didn't suit her; the only hit out of the bunch was "Walkin' After Midnight." But Louise champions the singer. For example, Louise insists that the ballroom manager allow Cline to perform two short sets rather than a punishing four-hour show. According to Struthers, Louise knew the ropes because her father had been a musician. Her true motive, though, was a self-centered one. "In the time that Patsy's not singing, she'll come talk to Louise," Struthers reveals.

In the two-woman show, Cline is played by Rachel Lynn Ricca, an actress Struthers met last year when both starred in Only a Kingdom, a would-be Broadway-bound show about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Hollywood Playhouse board member Jeff Kiltie and Michael Larson, a musical director who occasionally works at the Playhouse, were also involved with the Los Angeles production. When Struthers and Ricca hit it off, the Playhouse extended an invitation to the two women to work together on the Cline project.

Struthers thinks the appeal of the show is that "it's about falling in love with a performer, something everyone knows about."

Her story about why she identifies with her character's stubbornness, however, is not something everyone knows. "I wasn't really aware of what a hardheaded Scandinavian Lutheran I was till my mother was ill," Struthers says. "Before she passed away, I would go to the hospital every day. Since everyone knew it was my mother in there, I had to look presentable because I was going to be stared at all day. My mother was on a morphine drip, but she said, 'Oh honey, you're so beautiful.' I replied, 'Well, if I'm so beautiful, why can't I even get a date?'"

Her mother's answer: "Maybe because you're so bossy."

-- Robin Dougherty

Always... Patsy Cline runs from May 21 through June 20 at the Hollywood Playhouse, 2640 Washington St., Hollywood. Tickets cost $28. For a complete schedule, see "Stage" listings. For more information call 954-922-0404.