For Tomlin, the ‘Search’ is on again
With alter egos in tow, she returns and talks with Julie Yolles about her early Detroit days
“Here I am out here on the cutting edge of quantum uncertainty, grappling with the imponderables. May I have the envelope, please, so I can push it?” asks Trudy, the crazy bag lady, one of nearly 20 characters who have been brought to life by Lily Tomlin
in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. In 1986, Tomlin took home the Tony Award for Best Actress for that show. It’s been 11 years since Tomlin’s been back to Detroit. And she’s still searching.
Since moving from your hometown of Detroit permanently in 1963, you’ve come back three times to perform. The last time was in 1988 when audiences got to experience Trudy and a host of other insightful social commentators in The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Fisher Theatre. You’re now bringing all of your alter egos home gain to perform Search at the Fisher Oct. 22 through the 24th. Why?
Jane Wagner, the playwright and my longtime collaborator, and I did Search at a college Show recently, and it had so much impact and seemed so timeless, especially here at the end of the century.
I know you added characters and made some revisions when you turned the play into a movie in 1991. What can audiences expect when you come home?
I don’t think I did Paul the Sperm Donor when I was in Detroit. But the changes are not important. It’s such a rich show that people get different experiences from it. The piece is very universal. [Eleven years later], I feel like another person performing The Search. It resonates even more with me. It’s extremely moving and funny. The theme of connectivity between all of us as individuals just seems more timely now than it ever did. I was at a party with friends and we were all trying to recount the theatrical experiences that we’ve had that have had the most impact on us, and everybody named The Search as one of them. And I know it’s true, because I used to feel it when I performed it. It’s such an affirmation of us as a species, as individuals
Well, it was affirmed on Sept. 1 that you turned 60.
Oh, my God!
Yeah. Well shove it (laughs).
In The Search, Trudy the wacko bag lady is collecting data on human intelligence, like when Nobel Prize winners James Watson and Francis Crick had a “eureka experience” about the spiral-shaped DNA structure when they walked down a spiral staircase. Was turning 60 your eureka experience?
(Laughs). Well, if I were like Archimedes [the Greek mathematician and inventor who discovered pi, I would run down the street naked yelling “Eureka! Eureka!” That’s what he did. Maybe I should run down Woodward Avenue screaming “Eureka! Eureka!” Or, I could g0 to Eureka. Mich. One of my relatives has moved up to Eureka, but I never went up there.
You were born right in the heart of Detroit. You went to Crossman Elementary, Hutchins Junior High and Cass Tech, where you were captain of the cheerleading team. What are some of your memories of the city back then?
I grew up on Hazelwood, between Byron and Woodrow Wilson, near John C. Lodge and Clairmount in the old neighborhood that burned down in the ’67 riots. My old apartment house got gutted by fire and later it was torn down. My dad used to hang out on 12th Street, and I’d go to the bookie joints and bars with him. I was very socially conscious as a kid growing up in my neighborhood, which was a predominantly black neighborhood.
My parents (who came from Kentucky) were poor, white, blue-collar Southerners working in factories. There were a lot of different ethnic groups and other poor people. The whole makeup of this environment was very classic.
There was every kind of person left over in this apartment house. There were still
the upwardly mobile, more educated people who were now retired and couldn’t afford to move still living in that building. Some people were completely uneducated; some were political, apolitical, radical or conservative. You got a little taste of everything. It was just like a love affair with humanity.
Street by street, as you left this apartment building, the houses got bigger and bigger. I had friends who lived in the rich houses nearby, and I was very conscious of the discrepancy in what people had economically and how people related to people of materialism. I couldn’t help but see it.
Let’s talk about your early days at Wayne State University. You certainly didn’t start out as a comic and actress.
I was in pre-med in college — not that I would have ever made it as a doctor. I was sort of good in science; I wanted to have a career, and I thought being a doctor was a great thing to do. I’m sure I had it all very romanticized. Meanwhile, the theater kids were doing shows all the time. And I had done shows all my life, as a kid in my old apartment house. I was crazy about making shows. But being a blue-collar kid, you don’t think that [theater’s] a way to earn a living. I thought I had to have some kind of profession, so I was in pre-med.
Until your ad-libbed spoof in the Mackenzie University Annual Variety Show got you revered in all the drama students’ eyes, and you were asked to create another bit for the variety show.
Joe Morocco was the only person who was kind to me at that time. Joe had a radio show on the college station, and I took him off to the side and told him to interview me like I was a Gross Pointe property owner matron, ask me about my charity work, my social activities and my daughter’s debut party, which I was going to build around Charlotte Ford’s debut, which was happening around then. And that was the first time I did Mrs. Audley Earbore III, who became the Tasteful Lady on Laugh-In.
I wore a suit, hat, fox furs and a good handbag just like I was that person. The monologue I did for The Tasteful Lady was very contemporary, socially topical and satiric. Then, in the end, because she was so tasteful, cultured and refined in her speech, when she got up, she- would unconsciously spread her legs and push herself up off the chair. So that was the payoff on this piece. And people would howl and scream laughing.
What happened in 1962 at the end of your junior year?
I had gone on all the local TV shows and did this monologue, which was a sensation. Everybody thought it was the greatest, the hippest, the funniest, and I’m sure it was unusual for that time. So I thought, “Oh, gosh, this would he great if I could just make a living doing this.” So I finished finals and left for New York, for the first time, where I worked as an assistant bookkeeper in a big talent agency
Those first few months were erratic and frugal. But I went to New York to study mime because, at that time, it was considered very narcissistic. I mean, if you were a really hip bohemian type, you didn’t want to be an actress. You had to be either a sculptor, a painter or a jazz musician, or you had to be a mime, because anything else wasn’t artistic enough; it was too commercial, too pop.
So you wanted to be part of the hip crowd.
For sure. So I was going to study mime, which lasted a few weeks because it’s absolutely the most arduous thing you can imagine. It’s totally anonymous. You have no words. Nothing. And, of course, I love words so much. But I got into a mime show and I got my Equity card and, oh, it’s a long story.
You said you didn’t know that much about show business at that time, so you lasted in New York only about five months.
I decided that I wasn’t really experienced enough. I didn’t know how to be an actor in New York, so I went back to Detroit and worked at the Unstabled Coffeehouse, which was run by Edith Carroll Cantor. We used to do comedy sketches and theater and poetry readings and folk singing and, after hours, we’d have jazz and it was a very happening place.
When you came back, you would have been a senior at Wayne State. Did you ever graduate?
I didn’t finish school. They did give me a [doctorate of fine arts in 1988], but I felt unworthy of getting the honorary degree. But I took it anyway, just like any other corrupt person. I was infinitely conscious of the fact that there were people up there who had worked very hard to get their doctorate.
In the early ’90’s, Tomlin helped establish the Lily Tomlin Endowed Scholarship for Theatre Students at Wayne State. “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” will be performed at 8pm Oct. 22-23 at the Fisher Theatre, Detroit. 313-872-1000 or 248-645-6666. ON Oct. 24, two performances (2 pm and 7:30 pm) will benefit JARC, Jewish Association for Residential Care. 248-352-5272
Julie Yolles is a Birmingham-based free-lance writer.