Something extraordinary but not surprising happened at Rita Rudner’s Chicago appearance last year. It was at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. I was there. She had just finished her show and as always, she invited the audience to ask questions. A man seated on the main level didn’t raise his hand or even hesitate. “You’re the most brilliant comedian I’ve ever seen!” he boomed. The audience cheered in agreement.
When she became a comedian in the early eighties, Rita imitated no one. She showed the comedy world how to make performing in the grandest venues – Carnegie Hall, late night television studios, Las Vegas theaters – feel like an intimate conversation with your funniest, most observant friend. This former Broadway actor and dancer’s comedy is soft-spoken, never mean, yet also edgy and fearless.
She continued to break new ground in every decade. When her daughter Molly, now fifteen, was a baby, Rita and her husband (writer and producer Martin Bergman) put down roots in Las Vegas so she could avoid traveling. The MGM Grand built a theater for her. During her time there, she became the most successful solo comedy performer in Vegas history, selling nearly two million tickets and earning the title “Las Vegas Comedian of the Year” nine years in a row.
There’s another side to Rita, too, which is especially timely to talk about since her next Chicagoland appearance is the day before Mother’s Day, May 12, when she’ll be at the Raue Center in Crystal Lake. Those qualities of fearlessness and warmth also translate into motherhood. She once faced off against the Secret Service on her daughter’s behalf, and with her husband, has encouraged her daughter’s path to becoming a successful singer/songwriter.
Last year, Rita and I spoke about her life in comedy. This year, Rita was kind enough to speak with me again. We talked about adventures in motherhood and other celebration-worthy events: she has a new comedy special that will air on-demand in November, a musical that she is co-writing with her husband, and an upcoming memoir which pays tribute to the ways her life has gone to the beautiful dogs.
Teme: It’s been a year since we last spoke! What are you looking forward to in the coming year?
Rita: My husband Martin [Bergman] and I have written a new play. I’m singing for the first time since I was on Broadway, so it’s been thirty years. I’m learning the songs now. It’s a little bit rickety, but I’m getting it back. I like challenges and this is challenging. We’re doing a reading in May. Then we’re doing a two-week tryout at a theater and we’re going to see where it goes from there. Maybe nowhere, maybe somewhere.
Teme: So there’s a possibility it could come to Chicago?
Rita: Absolutely. We’re going to wait and see. For now, we want to do it in secret with not too much going on because that’s the only way you can figure it out. You’ve got to put it on its feet and see an audience reaction and have somebody in the back saying, “This works. This doesn’t work.” These things never emerge fully cooked.
Teme: What is it about?
Rita: It’s called Two’s a Crowd and it’s about two strangers who meet in a hotel room in Las Vegas.
Teme: It sounds wonderful. And what would you say has been the highlight of the past twelve months since we spoke?
Rita: I bought a really good gown for $19.99.
Teme: Whoa, that’s awesome. Where did you get it?
Rita: Ross Dress for Less. Everybody said, “Oh, where’d you get that gown!” And I told them it was $19.99. That’s quite an achievement, don’t you think?
Teme: I do. I love a good bargain!
Rita: I do, too. I’m a bargain shopper. I also found Betsey Johnson shoes there for about twenty dollars. I like finding these little treasures.
Teme: I do, too, and that happiness continues every time you wear it.
Rita: It does. I did get one gown where the stitching came out right away, and I said, “You know, it’s going to cost more to sew these things back on than what I paid.” But I still kept it. It’s still hanging in my closet.
Teme: Because it was still a good buy!
Rita: It was still a good buy, and some day when I don’t have anything to do and I have eleven hours free, I’ll sew all the sequins back.
Teme: Since you’ll be here the day before Mother’s Day I thought I’d ask what is the best Mother’s Day present you ever got?
Rita: When Molly was a little girl, she covered a shoebox with some wrapping paper. Then she cut out the letters, “I love Mom” on the top of it. I still have it in my closet. It’s so cute when they’re little and they don’t resent you yet. Now I just have to remember that she once loved me and thought that I knew something.
Then once for Father’s Day, we made a big sign, “I love you, Dad.” That was really fun. When they’re little and they have all these projects, it’s really sweet.
Teme: I love that your daughter opens for you sometimes. How did that come about?
Rita: She started playing the guitar and then the piano. She wrote her first song when she was about eight years-old. We bought a beach house and she wrote a song called “Going Down to the Beach.”
Because we’re in show business, Martin and I said, “If you’re going to be a singer/songwriter, there’s no point in just singing songs that have already been written.” Because that’s what we do. I write jokes. He writes plays. We write movies. You’ve got to write your own things. So we started harassing her right away. And then she started writing music.
I was asked to do a parody for one of my friend’s son’s schools, and I said, “Maybe Molly could open for me.” And my friend said “Sure!” and Molly just walked right out and did it. And then she said, “Can I do it again?” People like her and she’s good. We usually only work together in the summer because that’s when we travel together as a family.
Last summer, I did shows in Hawaii and she opened for me in Hawaii. She opened for me on the Oprah cruise to Alaska. She just wrote a song for a new charity for kids with cancer. A song she wrote two years ago for two charities was adopted as their official song. So maybe by the time she’s thirty she’ll be making some money.
Teme: What is your favorite memory so far of working together?
Rita: I always work with her on New Year’s Eve. That’s really fun because I can keep an eye on her and I know where she is.
Teme: One of the best mom stories I ever heard is about how your daughter met President Obama! Can you tell us more about that?
Rita: Molly was eight years-old and I was asked to do a benefit. I’m a friend of [Nevada Senator] Harry Reid and I did lots of fundraising for him. He said, “President Obama is coming to town for a fundraiser for me and he’s going to be speaking. Would you host it?” It was me, Sheryl Crow and Bette Midler.
The organizers said, “Of course we’ll introduce you to President Obama.” And I said, “Yes, I’d love to meet him, but I would love for my daughter to be able to meet him.” And they said, “Oh, sure. No problem.”
When we got there that night, they came to get me and said, “It’s time for you to meet President Obama.” And I said, “Come on, Molly.” And they said, “Oh no, she can’t come.” I said, “Why not?” And they said, “She hasn’t been vetted.” I said, “Well, she’s eight. What is there to vet? She hasn’t even been late to school.”
They said, “She can’t come.” And I said, “Well, if she can’t come, I don’t think I can host the show.” And they said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Well, this is part of the deal. I don’t ask for a lot. I want a picture with my daughter and President Obama.” They said, “Well, that’s not possible.” So I said, “Well, I’ll just sit here then.”
Teme: That’s so great. Good for you!
Rita: Then they had somebody else talk to me and calmly explain why it wasn’t going to happen. And I calmly explained why I couldn’t host the show.
They finally went to the head of the President’s security who came back and said, “What’s the problem?” And I said, “Well, they want me to go back and meet President Obama which I’d love to do, but they said my daughter can’t come with me.” And he said, “That’s ridiculous. Come right here!”
So Molly came in and we had a lovely chat with President Obama. And I have a really nice picture. He talked to her for a while and he said, “I have two daughters about your age. I’d love for you to come to the White House and play with them. We just made a really good playground out of recycled tires.” Then he left and Molly asked, “When am I going to go to the White House to play with his daughters?” And I said, “He’s a politician and he says things like that. Ignore it and we’ll have a nice picture.” So I have a nice picture of her with President Obama.
Teme: I love how you stood up for your daughter. Even under difficult circumstances, you wouldn’t break your word to her.
Rita: Absolutely. I wasn’t going to let that happen. They wouldn’t let my husband meet him, either. And I said, “Well, that’s understandable because I’ve lived with him and he’s not exactly the calmest person in the world. But my daughter, she’s coming with me.”
Teme: I want my kids to know that if I make a promise to them, I’m going to keep it.
Rita: Absolutely. No promise I ever made that I haven’t kept to my daughter.
Teme: I’m so looking forward to your memoir. How did you decide to call it My Life in Dog Years?
Rita: It’s My Life in Dog Years because my life is divided up into four dogs. I’ve always had dogs, and I love my dogs.
Teme: I was trying to articulate to myself, what is it about dogs that makes them so extraordinary?”
Rita: Well, my dog is always happy to see me, you know? I walk her. In fact, right after we hang up, I’m walking my dog. I feed her. I bathe her. I do everything for my dog. And she appreciates it. And she loves me for it. I’m the one that she loves the most in the house because I do the most for her. I love my husband and my daughter, but sometimes I feel taken for granted because women, we do so much. And my dog just doesn’t take me for granted.
Teme: So true. What kind of dog is she?
Rita: She is a questionable breed, but she’s a lovely, beautiful, hairy little dog.
Teme: What is your favorite thing that any of your dogs have done?
Rita: Oh, that’s easy. My dog Bonkers was a dog that we met in Las Vegas. He used to be in a show in Vegas and he was a high jumper. But he got hit by a car and had to have a big operation and he couldn’t jump anymore. So they couldn’t put him in the show. We met the owner of the dog, who was the show’s host and we said, “We’ll take Bonkers!”
So we took Bonkers. He looked like a combination sheep dog and Wheaton terrier. He was about sixty pounds of gorgeous big hair.
I was working in Vegas and I didn’t want to put him in a kennel, but they wouldn’t allow dogs in a hotel because of insurance policies. I was working at the MGM for a couple of weeks and the head of entertainment there said, “We only allow dogs in the hotel if they’re in the show.” So I put Bonkers in my show.
Bonkers must have worked six or seven hotels on the Strip. He was in my show for twelve years until he was too old to perform. I think that was my favorite thing, Bonkers coming to work with me every night in Las Vegas.
Teme: What did he do in the show?
Rita: Nothing because he didn’t know how to do anything. I’d say at the end of my show, “Would you like to meet Bonkers?” The audience would say “Yes!” and this huge, hairy, beautiful dog would come out. I would say, “Okay, be as tall as Mickey Rooney.” And he would get up on his hind legs, then run offstage and get a treat.
He was on one of my HBO specials. I brought him out at the end. He was a beautiful dog. I love my dogs so much. So now I have Twinkle, who is a little version of Bonkers. But Twinkle isn’t in any shows because he wasn’t born into show business. This dog was born into just being cute.
Teme: I know what you mean. I’m so attached to my dog. What is the hardest part of writing your autobiography?
Rita: Just remembering everything. Sometimes I’ll write something and Martin says, “Did you write about this?” I’ll go, “Oh, no. I forgot that.” And then I have to go back there and write that. But it’s nice to remember all the things that are kind of in the recesses of your mind. But the book is on hold while I’m learning all these songs for the play. While I walk the dog, I listen to these songs I have to learn.
Then I have a new comedy special coming out in November called Rita Rudner: Tale of Two Dresses. I couldn’t decide which dress to wear, so I changed in the middle of the show.
Teme: That’s such exciting news, too! What else would you like people to know about your upcoming show at the Raue Center?
Rita: It’s a family-friendly show. I don’t think it’s good for kids who are twelve and under because I talk about marriage and love and raising a teenager and not understanding technology in a world that’s moving faster than I am.
Teme: I relate to all of that! What is the most memorable question anyone ever asked you during your Q&A?
Rita: It wasn’t a question, but once this guy raised his hand and said, “My wife is in the hospital giving birth, but I decided to come here to see you instead.” And I said, “Well, get up! Hail a cab! Get to the hospital!”
Teme: Is there anything you haven’t done that you would still like to do?
Rita: Yes, I want to do our musical and I want to learn these songs. I have very short-term goals.
Teme: Absolutely anything else that you would like to add?
Rita: I’m very excited to be coming to Crystal Lake and I think Crystal Lake is a very beautiful name for a place.
Teme: I was thinking it could be a good name for a person, too.
Rita: “Have you seen Crystal Lake?” “No, but I heard she’s very pretty.”
Rita Rudner is at The Raue Center, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake on Saturday, May 12 at 8:00 p.m. For tickets and more details: http://rauecenter.org/
For more tour stops and to stay up to date with Rita: www.ritarudner.com
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