BootLeg Betty

Ms. Najimy’s Divine Obsession

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Mae Days
Kathy Najimy returns home showing blonde allegiance to her role at the Globe
By Nina Garin
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
July 25, 2003

Dirty Blonde
8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 30.
The Old Globe Theatre,
Balboa Park
$19 to $50

She’s only been in San Diego a few hours, but Kathy Najimy has already taped up a quote from one of those page-a-day calendars on her dressing room mirror at the Old Globe Theatre.

A curvaceous vaudeville actress, West starred as a smooth talking sexpot in a handful of 1930s films like “She Done Him Wrong” and “Diamond Lil.” But more than anything, West made her mark in Hollywood by writing lines like:

“It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.”

And more famously:

“So many men, so little time.”

West, a 5-foot actress from Brooklyn, may not have been the sexiest woman alive, but the blond bombshell made everyone in the room believe she was.

Najimy isn’t blond. Not even close. She’s not even a dirty blonde, like the title of her new play suggests. But that didn’t stop the actress from taking the part of the iconic sex symbol. Najimy already performed the role, written and originally acted by the playwright on Broadway last year.

And now she’s reprising the part here, where her mother and sister still live, along with the original Broadway cast, Kevin Chamberlin and Bob Stillman. The play is directed by James Lapine and Gareth Hendee.

“It’s a lovely homecoming because it’s the Globe, the best theater you can be at other than being on Broadway,” says Najimy, a graduate of Crawford High School. “I never really experienced a level of acclaim in this town. But that’s not so unusual, you have to leave your home town sometimes to really figure out what you’re doing.”

Growing up along Euclid and University avenues, Najimy never found her niche in the theater community. She was cast in plays only because her friend, actor Steve Gunderson, found ways for her to play the checkout clerk or the lady who walks across the stage.

In the early 1980s, Najimy met fellow funny lady Mo Gaffney. Together, they started writing “The Kathy & Mo Show,” a political and feminist sketch comedy act that took them out of their palm tree settings to the gritty world of New York theater. It eventually earned them two HBO specials.

And then came that role.

The one where if someone asks, Who is Kathy Najimy? All you have to say is, The nun from “Sister Act.”

The popularity of the “Sister Act” movies helped push Najimy through Hollywood, despite her non-blonde appearance. And now she’s playing the blond bombshell-iest woman of them all.

“I wasn’t a Mae West fan,” says Najimy during a rehearsal break. “I just thought, ‘Oh, she’s the lady in the tight dress that has the little quips.’ ”

But as Najimy prepared for the role, she was fascinated by West’s take-charge attitude. West owned her own property, wrote her own scripts and handpicked co-stars like Cary Grant.

“She developed her own career,” says Najimy as she pops a piece of gum in her mouth. “There was nobody telling her what to be. She was in charge and she was successful. She was very much responsible for the sexual revolution in women.”

In the late 1920s, West wrote and staged a play about a Montreal prostitute called “Sex.” That production led to a widely publicized obscenity trial that landed the actress a week’s worth of jail but a lifetime of fame.

As much as Najimy can relate to West, she can just as easily relate to Jo, the superfan character she portrays. Najimy isn’t shy about the obsession she’s always had toward Bette Midler.

Najimy was one of those fans that bordered on creepy. She would drive hundreds of miles just to see one performance. She ran up on stage during one of Midler’s shows. If they made Midler wallpaper, she’d have it plastered in her room.

Najimy even takes credit for a part in Midler’s movie, “Beaches.”

When Najimy worked for a San Diego singing telegram company, she took a bunny suit and drove up to Los Angeles where Midler was performing.

“I put on this costume, went backstage and said I had a singing telegram for Ms. Midler,” remembers Najimy. “I didn’t tell them it was from me. Finally they let me in, I hopped in and sang a song. I hopped out. And then I passed out from excitement. Cut to a year later, (Midler) was a big furry singing telegram bunny in ‘Beaches.’ And to this day, she will not say that it’s not inspired by me.”

Unlike most fans, however, Najimy was eventually cast in the movie “Hocus Pocus” with her idol, where she had a chance to confess to Midler her bunny suit activities.

These days, however, Najimy has calmed down a bit. She lives with her husband and her daughter in Los Angeles and holds down a full-time job as the voice of Peggy Hill on “King of the Hill.”

“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. “I think it’s the second best job in Hollywood with the ‘Simpsons’ being the first because they get paid more.”

Yet the voice behind the cartoon, the woman behind the West makeup, is someone who lives and breathes the motto that hangs on her mirror.

It took a while to break into the spotlight, but she continues to pursue projects even though they sometimes take her away from her family.

Najimy travels around the country giving lectures about issues that touch her heart such as animal rights and AIDS. She’s also going to bring back “The Kathy & Mo Show” in New York. And she has ambitions to do some more directing, like she did when she lived in San Diego.

“I like that quote because it’s true,” she says. “Directors are always done after opening night. But it’s up to the actors to keep it going. We have to make it look fresh for every person who buys a theater ticket.”

Heirs to the throne
The Mae West guide to getting famous – sexy talk, provocative clothes and plenty of smarts – lives on in these celebrities:

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Madonna: Sure, there’s the platinum blond hair and an affinity for diamonds that likens this modern-day sexpot to Mae West. But they’ve also both been in trouble for “Sex.” West wrote a play by that name that led to an obscenity trial, and of course we can’t forget Madonna’s disastrous “Sex” book.

“Beginning is easy. Continuing is hard.”

It’s the kind of saying that can apply to anything – love, motherhood, reading a book, her career. But, right now, it’s meant to inspire her to give her all during her monthlong stint as the legendary Mae West in “Dirty Blonde.”

“I always tend to veer toward people who design their lives on their own terms, which for obvious reasons relates to me,” says the Lebanese-born, San Diego-bred Najimy. “I didn’t grow up rich, I didn’t have any theatrical training, I wasn’t thin or blond. You have to find those examples in life that are different.”

The play by Claudia Shear, is part love story, part docudrama and part vaudeville that sees Najimy playing two roles: Mae West and Jo, an avid fan who falls in love after making a pilgrimage to West’s grave.

Queen Latifah: This hip-hop queen-turned-actress has the same quick wit and street smarts of the Brooklyn-bred West.

Bette Midler: Like West, Midler has shaken her bosom on stage and the silver screen. And this nonconventional, sexy, wild woman can tell jokes that would make the foulest-mouthed trucker blush.

Dolly Parton: Behind the sweet voice, the sequined outfits and the mass of blond hair is a woman who knows how to get attention. She may play coy, but Parton knows exactly where your eyes are looking.

–Nina Garin

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