Everybody knows Mary Jo Catlett. Even folks who have never met her and have no idea who she might be still know her. Her ubiquity in the entertainment world curls tendrils of enjoyment throughout all the media among myriad age levels.
To prove it let’s lope through a list establishing her near omnipresence in our viewing and listening lives. She performed on Broadway in the original Hello, Dolly! as well as in the 1972 musical of Lysistrata, the 1973 revival of The Pajama Game and the originals of Canterbury Tales, Different Times and Play Me a Country Song.
She worked on film with directors Woody Allen in Bananas, Mel Brooks in High Anxiety and John Waters in Serial Mom and acted on the big screen opposite Burt Reynolds in Semi-Tough, Jon Voight in The Champ, Reynolds again and Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Ed Asner and Jodie Foster in O’Hara’s Wife, Lou Gossett, Jr. in Legend of the Mummy, Ernest Borgnine and Kim Hunter in Abilene and Rob Schneider and David Spade in The Benchwarmers.
Her TV credits include The Bob Newhart Show, The Waltons, Kojak, Maude, Starsky and Hutch, MASH, Mr. Belvedere, Night Court, Alf, Gimme a Break!, Murder She Wrote, Matlock, Fantasy Island, Cold Case and Glee although she’s most recognized visually for her 58 episodes in four seasons as the housekeeper on Diff’rent Strokes and aurally for her 23 episodes (and counting) as Mrs. Poppy Puff on SpongeBob SquarePants.
Continuing her stage work between stints in front of the camera, she won Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for Come Back, Little Sheba in 1976 and Philadelphia, Here I Come in 1980 in addition to appearing in local productions of Beauty and the Beast, Big River, The Full Monty and Nunsense.Â Up next is Bell, Book and Candle as Aunt Queenie for the Colony Theatre running Oct. 23-Nov. 21.
It all began in her native Denver at the age of nine. She recalls, “I went to a Catholic school where one nun had been a ballerina and another was very gifted in music. They put on a variety show every year to raise money. They usually chose a theme.Â I was an Irish colleen who sang “˜A Little Bit of Heaven.’ That was it. Up through eighth grade I sang in all their shows, perhaps to other’s dismay, but I enjoyed it. These days I’m more of a talking woman than a singing woman.”
Home embraced her in a nurturing cocoon of encouragement so the trials and tribulations of growing up became instead a testament and tribute to the loving strength of family. She insists, “I had an idyllic childhood.Â I often wonder if it’s better to have a terrible childhood and a normal adult life or the other way around. Fortunately I can only wonder.”
The parents providing that stability were Robert Catlett, a fireman who worked his way up to captain, and Cornelia nee Callaghan, a housewife who her daughter swears “should have been a chef.”
Catlett glows when speaking of them: “My father was more than just a fire department captain. He was a hero of the neighborhood.Â When he passed away, his funeral was gigantic in its turnout. He brought the fire truck to grade school one day.Â He raised the ladder off the back of the truck, wrapped his legs around the top rung and held his hands in the air.Â My sister pointed at him and yelled, “˜That’s mine!’
“My mother was the most beautiful, caring person in the world.Â She cooked a prime rib you could cut with a fork.Â Her gravies and sauces were amazing. I’ve never been able to find or duplicate her chicken gravy to this day. I once asked her if she ever failed at any dish she tried to prepare. She said, “˜Of course I have.’ But I never experienced it and because she was so good in the kitchen, I ate quite a lot. Fortunately she was also a beautiful seamstress which helped my self-esteem more than you can know. In those days large young girls didn’t have much in the way of fashion to choose from in the stores. They were mostly matronly clothes so my mother saved the day for me on the fashion front.”
What about her sister? “Patricia became a sister””a nun. I guess it’s unusual to have a nun and an actress in the same family. She joined the Dominican Sisters of the Sick Poor which later became the Dominican Sisters of Hope. She lives in Denver.Â We see each other at least three times a year: on birthdays, at Christmas; and we love to take cruises together.”
Her professional journey had to wait on her academic passage and dallied just briefly with another alternative before homing in on the performing arts. “I remember thinking,” she says, “how I knew what I wanted to do after singing in that first show at school.Â I wanted to be a singer, slash, actress or go into opera.Â I thought “˜I’m glad I know this so early.’ Of course I kept learning new techniques and new things about myself. I had one teacher, Virginia Starr, tell me, “˜You’re quite a talented singer but you should learn how to belt.’ I had no idea what belting was although I may have done it a few times unconsciously.
“Then when I went to college, I thought I’d like to be an anesthesiologist until I realized you really had to be a doctor for that. All that chemistry was too much for me. I love kids so child psychology was another area I considered.”
True to her early passion the stage overruled those considerations.Â “I started college by majoring in music but changed my major while still a freshman.”
She earned her BA in speech and drama with minors in music and psychology from Loretto Heights College in Denver.Â Immediately afterwards she joined the Windsor Players, a company specializing in melodramas, in her hometown.Â She maintains, “I learned more with them than I had learned in college. And even though I was from there, my time with the Players made my name in Denver. I also got the best advice from one of their members who told me I should go to New York and not Hollywood because in New York I wouldn’t have to get an agent to get some work.”
Following that advice, she found herself “living in a four-flight walk-up with a bathroom down the hall. If I had foreseen how tough it could be, I might not have gone at all. Still in just nine months””the time it takes to have a baby””I booked my first Broadway show.”
The show was Hello, Dolly! with Catlett originating the role of Ernestina to the Dolly Gallagher Levi of Carol Channing.Â She remembers a slight hiccup before Dolly bade hello to a hit: “We did our out-of-towners in Detroit and Washington. Well there was this other musical called Bravo Giovanni which had its tryouts there shortly before we did. It was a turkey. It had gotten terrible reviews.Â One of our reviews started out, “˜Not since Bravo Giovanni have we seen such.’ That inspired [director] Gower Champion to make some great changes in a great hurry””great in both senses of the word.”
After its Broadway run Catlett went on the road with three other Dollys: Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye and Dorothy Lamour.
When she did make her way to Hollywood, she landed her first film assignment in a TV movie entitled The Littlest Angel in which E. G. Marshall played God to Johnny Whitaker’s shepherd boy. She made the stage-to-camera transition rather easily because she explains, “The director Joe Layton made it look more like a musical comedy. I didn’t have many speaking lines. Just mostly singing. He teamed me with Lu Leonard as twin angels. We were chunky angels.”
She experienced more difficulty with her first commercial, a spot for Heinz 57 pickles. She says, “I think of a commercial as a small film because it tells a story with a beginning, middle and an end but I was way too big for the camera on my first take. Luckily the director was very patient and worked with me to get it right. I played a pregnant woman with 11 kids who ate a dozen flavored pickles to honor all the kids and the one on the way. At the end a voice-over announces, “˜And Heinz has 57 varieties’ while I moan at the prospect. Some of my moans were real because I didn’t know to ask for an empty milk bucket to deposit the pickles I bit into so I ate all those pickles. By the end of the day I was not a well person.”
When she learned David Merrick, Dolly’s Broadway producer, was preparing to produce a movie, she wrote him a letter. “I said, “˜Mr. Merrick, I was your Ernestina.Â Can I be your Earlene?’ I don’t know if the letter actually carried any influence but I did get the part.”
The part was Earlene Emery who had a sexy romp with Billy Clyde Puckett played by Burt Reynolds in Semi-Tough. Catlett confesses to mixed emotions when looking at the film today. The pleasant feeling comes from her work itself. She says, “When I watched it recently, I thought with as much objectivity as I could summon: it’s very good.”
The not so pleasant comes from the memory of the other project offered to her at the same time as the film, the role of Miss Hannigan in the new Broadway musical Annie for which Dorothy Loudon, who did the role instead, won the Tony Award. Catlett admits, “I still haven’t gotten over that, to the point I’ve always turned down the role whenever it’s been offered to me in revivals or touring companies.”
Another downbeat experience happened in her last Broadway musical to date, Play Me a Country Song, which closed after opening night.Â “I played Penny, the waitress at a truck stop. The book had many problems. Still when you put in 10 weeks rehearsal, then open the show and then come in the next day to clean your belongings out of the dressing room and you see all these beautiful flowers you were given the night before and they haven’t even wilted yet, there’s no way you cannot feel sad about it.”
Catlett believes, though, one can and does learn valuable lessons from negative experiences in less than ideal circumstances. She gives an example: “I did a play with a co-star who was English. It was an English piece and she was true English. I of course was faux English although even she admitted I did it well. There was a scene where I gradually had to break down and absolutely lose it. She had the audacity to tell me “˜She would never do that.’ The director, enamored of her and her Englishness, sided with her.Â I was so glad when that show closed. I had developed a severe cold brought on in part because your physical self tends to break down as emotional stress becomes so intense.”
So what exactly was the lesson? “When you’re doing a play, that’s the key word. You should play and have a good time. The other thing is all directors should always have two words in their vocabulary.Â Those words are “˜Try it.’ They should never say “˜No, no, that won’t work.’Â We’re there to explore and discover and play so we need to walk down as many roads as we can and to be encouraged to keep walking down those roads.”
Has she directed? “Oh yes, I love directing because in my mind I get to play every part. Back in Denver I directed the melodrama Ten Nights in a Barroom or Little Mary’s Plaintive Plea.Â A few years ago I directed Ray Stricklyn in Naomi Court.”
How is she faring with her current director on Bell, Book and Candle? “Richard Israel is one of the good ones because he listens and he lets us “˜Try it.’ He’s so warm and caring. I was having a great deal of difficulty one night in rehearsal keeping my focus, remembering my lines, centering on my character’s motivation.Â I have no excuse.Â I was just off.Â He said, “˜Don’t worry about it. We’ll find a way to make it work.Â We’ll make it easy.’Â I saw him through whole new eyes as a thoughtful, fostering individual in addition to being the able director I’d already seen him as.Â I think I’m in love.”
She extends her love to her fellow cast members.Â “Willow [Geer] is going to be a huge star. Well she’s already a star but she’s going to be one of the great ones. I always thought Doris Day was the best crier in the business. Well now she’s second best.Â Willow is better. Will [Bradley] and Benton [Jennings] are both wonderful. And so is Michael [Newcomer]””and those eyelashes; you can dive into the swimming pool off them. They’re all so wonderful on stage this could be the perfect show if I can only get myself up to their level.”
Judging from her track record thus far along with the recognition earned for her work, one harbors no doubts on that score. How does Catlett feel about winning awards for work she loves doing anyway? She replies, “It sure feels good to win. What’s more it’s a validation. We go through this business thinking we might be pretty good at it but then those doubts always creep in that we aren’t nearly as good as we tend to think we are. So then when we get an accolade in the form of an award, it makes us think, “˜Well maybe I am okay after all.’ The best part of all though is winning an award helps you get more work.”
Being recognized carries its own rewards as well. Catlett shares some examples: “I was getting on a plane and asked the flight attendant, “˜Where is this seat?’ A little girl who must’ve been about eight or so said, “˜Are you Mrs. Puff?’ When I told her yes, she said, “˜No way!’Â I told her she had a really good ear and should think about a career in broadcasting or voiceovers when she grew up.
“Another time I was at the vet buying some dog food. The kennel person who brought it to me asked, “˜Are you an actress?’ I said I was and he yelled back through the door, “˜Yes, it’s her. They recognized your voice back there.’ Those moments are nice.”
She will probably stockpile many more nice moments as she continues her career, a journey she has definite thoughts about. “You know, if you don’t still have dreams, you don’t have much of anything. I have three I can think of right now.Â I dream of directing another old-fashioned melodrama.
“I dream of revisiting the play Something’s Afoot. I originated the role of Miss Tweed in its premiere at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and moved with it to the Goodspeed Opera House but was replaced by Tessie O’Shea when it went to Broadway. If I could try it again in a local or regional production, that would be lovely.
“Finally I dream of entertaining on a ship and not merely because I could get a free cruise out of it but I think I could work up some interesting material. I could sing something from Hello, Dolly! and do some Kate Smith songs. I do a Julia Child impersonation some people have complimented me on.Â What I’d need is an accompanist who could help me shape the material and play piano. If I can find that person, I’ll try to make that dream happen.”
One feels finding the perfect accompanist will approach reality quicker than a dream because after all everybody knows Mary Jo Catlett.
Production photos byÂ Michael Lamont
Bell, Book and Candle, presented by Colony Theatre Company, opens Oct. 23; plays Thur.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 3 & 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through Nov. 21. Tickets: $20-$42. Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; 818.588.7000, x. 15 or colonytheatre.org.