Performing Arts

Funny lady Morgan Fairchild returns to Kansas City theater

Morgan Fairchild and Fletcher McTaggart appear in “Murder Among Friends” at the New Theatre Restaurant.
Morgan Fairchild and Fletcher McTaggart appear in “Murder Among Friends” at the New Theatre Restaurant. New Theatre

Funny thing about historical snapshots — you never know if they’ll simply vanish with time or resurface with a new meaning.

You could say Morgan Fairchild is making her Kansas City-area debut in the New Theatre Restaurant production of “Murder Among Friends.” And while that may be technically correct, it’s not actually true. Because when Morgan Fairchild first appeared in Kansas City in 1972 she wasn’t Morgan Fairchild yet.

When Dennis Hennessy and Richard Carrothers, founders and co-owners of the New Theatre, were struggling to open their first dinner theater, the former Tiffany’s Attic near the Country Club Plaza, they and a small crew did most of the work themselves. That included jack-hammering concrete, installing flooring, painting walls and staining woodwork.

Carrothers recently recalled that the work was so all-consuming that he and Hennessy knew there was no way they could get the theater open in time for them to produce their first show from the ground up. It would have been virtually impossible.

So for the first production in Kansas City under the Hennessy-Carrothers banner, they opted to bring in a touring version of the Neil Simon comedy, “Last of the Red Hot Lovers.” The star was Barney Martin, an ex-New York police detective turned actor and comedy writer. Much later Martin played Jerry Seinfeld’s father on “Seinfeld.”

But also in the cast was a young unknown, a willowy blonde named Patsy Calmes. Carrothers glanced at her thin resume, which included professional appearances at theater companies in Dallas, and thought: There’s no way this novice could hold her own with Martin.

“What was amazing was she got him in the corner and kept him there, to use a boxing metaphor,” Carrothers said. “Forty-two years ago. Wow.”

Later Patsy Calmes moved to L.A. and became Morgan Fairchild, a femme fatale specialist who appeared in a series of prime-time soaps and made-for-TV movies.

She remains busy, and when her agent told there was a possibility of doing a play she wasn’t sure she wanted to. Compared with movies and TV, plays don’t pay that much.

But then she found out it was in Kansas City and that Hennessy and Carrothers were the producers.

“I said, ‘I love these guys! Yes, let’s do the play,’” Fairchild said during a recent interview. “I have such fond memories of Kansas City. It was the first time I saw peonies. I always remember how kind and sweet Richard and Dennis were. So I was thrilled to get back and work with them.”

Grew up in Texas

Fairchild, 64, grew up in metropolitan Dallas, where her father worked for Texas Instruments. He moved his family into a brand-new subdivision in Richardson, an affluent suburb that began as a frontier settlement.

“It was a great place to be a kid,” she said. “I’m really glad I got to grow up in Texas. It was kind of the old-fashioned stuff you hear about now. I could go out butterfly-catching all day and mother didn’t worry. Just as long as you showed for lunch and dinner, people didn’t have to worry.”

The way Fairchild described it, her subdivision had been carved out of undeveloped land.

“(Richardson) was one of those bedroom communities where practically every family had two parents with a college education, which was kind of unusual at the time,” she said.

“I remember standing tarantula guard for my mother. You know, she’s gardening and tarantulas would charge and I’d have to chop ’em up with a hoe. Rattlesnake guard. Giant scorpions. It was a new community out there, so not that civilized. But it was a fun place to be a kid. And fireflies. I miss fireflies. We don’t have ’em in L.A.”

Fairchild, born Patsy Ann McClenny, said she began performing when she was 10. She and her sister took classes at Theatre Three, one of the oldest and most respected theater companies in Dallas.

When Fairchild was 16 she scored her first movie gig as Faye Dunaway’s double in “Bonnie and Clyde,” much of it filmed in northeast Texas. Anytime you see Bonnie Parker at a distance in the movie, it’s probably Fairchild.

Fairchild has taken a lot of courses through the years but doesn’t have a college degree. Part of the reason, she said, was that she was married at 17 and ended up the breadwinner for her husband and mother-in-law.

She appeared in shows at professional theaters in the Dallas area, waited tables and was a model for Neiman Marcus, the upscale department store.

“I was working all the time,” she said. “I spent my 21st birthday doing a Priscilla of Boston bridal fashion show for Neiman Marcus.… Sometimes I’d have four or five jobs a day. I’d do a fashion show, I’d do a photo shoot, I’d go do theater at night.

“Dinner theaters were coming up at the time so I started doing dinner theater. If I didn’t have a show I’d wait tables at the dinner theater. I was always workin’ away trying to keep a roof over our heads. And taking philosophy at SMU at night.”

When she was 11, Fairchild said her mother had Fairchild’s IQ tested. She scored 147, which would have qualified her for membership in Mensa.

“Those are the things mom was proud of: eligible for Mensa, eligible for the DAR,” she said.

After moving to Hollywood and establishing a career in TV and movies, she continued reading widely and occasionally taking courses.

“I’m a voracious reader and I have rather eclectic hobbies,” she said. “Even when I was doing ‘Flamingo Road’ I was taking anthropology in night school at UCLA. So I’d be sitting there between scenes in the little silk teddies and the little Marabou shoes working on my midterm.

“The crew would always get a big kick out of it because they’d come over and say, ‘Morgan! You gotta move all your books ’cause you’re in the scene. What are you readin’? Hemispheric dysfunction of the brain? What the hell is that?’”

Fairchild laughed telling the story.

“I was always sort of the odd duck,” she said.

“Too controversial”

Fairchild is known as a passionate supporter of causes, from animal welfare to AIDS awareness to abortion rights. She was, in fact, one of the first people in Hollywood to speak out about AIDS. She said actor Rock Hudson’s death was the catalyst.

But she lost some friends — and jobs — in the process.

“I was the only famous face they had who could go on and talk about it,” she said. “Film actors at that time tended to be a bit more closeted.

“I was advised by my manager and my PR manager not to talk about it. Even gay producers wouldn’t hire me and it would get back to me that I was too controversial.”

Slowly but surely, though, she saw a change. More artists in Hollywood began talking about AIDS and the effect it was having on the film and theater communities.

“It was the best thing I ever did,” she said. “What I did was take it on the chin to make it OK for everyone else.”

It was put to Fairchild that there’s a disconnect between the high-IQ woman — a self-described “science nerd” fighting for social causes — and her image as an actress, often playing seductive ice queens.

“You act in what they offer,” she said. “If you’re a singer you can maybe go sing on the street corner. But if you’re an actor you have to take what they offer.

“They never cast me as a lawyer. I would have loved to have been in ‘Jurassic Park.’ I would have loved to have been in ‘The Normal Heart.’”

Regardless, she said she makes an effort to choose carefully.

“You try to be selective,” she said. “I had a certain look and I could do comedy. That’s why I did the first season of ‘Mork and Mindy.’ I saved my characters in all those soap operas by making them funny. That’s what saved me.”

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

Onstage

“Murder Among Friends” runs through Nov. 2 at the New Theatre Restaurant, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park. Call 913-649-7469 or go to www.newtheatre.com.

Remembering Robin Williams

Morgan Fairchild appeared in three episodes of “Mork & Mindy” in 1978-79, where she got to know the show’s star, Robin Williams, who recently died. Like everyone who knew the late comic or enjoyed his performances, Fairchild was shocked by his death.

“Robin was a genius, Robin was fabulous,” she said. “He was the sweetest, dearest man. He was very generous to other performers. Some comedians want to be the only person out there. But he was just such a dear, loving man.… He was always looking for a way to give back.”

Williams is remembered for his manic comic energy as a standup comedian, among other things. Fairchild said that was a reflection of his intelligence.

“He was very smart,” she said. “He would incorporate medieval writings. He would incorporate everything. And he was just so quick.… If you got him one-on-one all of that went away instantly and … he was just a nice guy to talk to. Some comedians never turn it off. But you could talk to him for hours, about politics, about the world, about anything.”

Robert Trussell, rtrussell@kcstar.com

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