Was it a clip from The Tonight Show? The Mike Douglas Show? The Dinah Shore Show? God, you're getting old when you remember Dinah Shore. Anyway, the clip was from a Broadway production of Peter Pan, and although I was still hairless and larval, this manifestation of the grubby little boy who won't grow up and who can fly and crow like a rooster and fight pirates and steal the hearts of proper English schoolgirls brought about the queerest sensations. Peter was so winsome: wisecracking and tough but as wholesome as a Wheat Thin. Something fluttered inside. Confusion reigned.
"It's okay," Mother comforted. "Peter is really Sandy Duncan, and she's really a girl pretending to be a boy who can fly and fight pirates and win the hearts of proper English schoolgirls." This was more confusing and more exciting and hotter than diggidy-dog. This was how dark, urban desires awaken in the heartland.
Throughout the 1970s and into the '80s, Duncan, who stars as Anna in The King and I at The Orpheum through September 26th, was a television staple. Her hit show, Funny Face, ended after only one season but not because ratings were low. The natural gal from Tyler, Texas, who came of age cutting rugs with Tommy Tune, had a tumor growing on one of her eyes, and she was going to lose it. The glass replacement came from the same folks who outfitted fellow hoofer Sammy Davis Jr., so her eye was in good hands. But as time ticked on, Duncan became less visible: a tousle-haired pixie pushing crackers on a Nick at Nite classic commercial. A punk band called Sandy Duncan's Eye seemed to generate more heat than the spunky American sweetheart.
"I never stopped working," Duncan says. "But I've devoted a lot of time to raising my kids who are both in college now. And when you are doing most of your work in the theater, only a finite number of people will ever see you, no matter what it is you're doing."
Duncan says the work was always important and the fame that it brought was nearly despised.
"For two years, I was high-, high-, high-visibility -- fame and everything that comes with that. And I was never comfortable with that. I didn't enjoy it. My days were filled with doing things I didn't want to do and going places I didn't want to go. So I dropped out and raised my family. I think that is a more interesting path."
Though Duncan is thoroughly urban, putting family ahead of her career reflects her small-town Texas values.
"I sometimes worry about whether or not my kids will have that same sense of what's important," Duncan says. To illustrate her point she recalls being invited to be the guest of Bill and Hillary Clinton and light the White House Christmas tree.
"My kids asked, 'What are we going to do while you're in rehearsal?' I told them some things they could do and that there would be a nice reception at the White House afterward."
Duncan's brood were unimpressed.
"They said. 'We've met every president since we've been alive.'
"I thought, You brats," Duncan says, laughing it off. "It's like they have nothing to come from. They didn't have anything to conquer.''
In 1999, Duncan made something of a comeback starring as Roxie Hart in the Broadway revival of Chicago. Considering the tough-talking Hart's first lines include "Goddamn" and "I gotta pee," it was quite a departure from the girl next door she once personified.
"For people who know me, it wasn't much of a surprise," Duncan says, explaining that she was tired playing doe-eyed ingénues.
"Most of the shows they were bringing back then were old shows," she says. "They were all the kinds of things I'd already done when I was doing summer stock." Although she recognizes that The King and I is also old news -- a show she first performed in as a member of the children's chorus -- it is still a challenge:
"It's hard to imagine that the role of Anna was written in 1950, because she's such a fully blown character. There is such a strong undercurrent of sexuality. Here's this woman matching up against a monarch. She's one of the first strong females in a musical."
But what about all those Wheat Thins Sandy used to munch in her tight little sweaters, amber waves of grain as far as the eye could see?
"I've probably been asked about Wheat Thins 5,000 times," Duncan says. Then she reconsiders. "Maybe I've been asked 20,000. I've never been good with numbers. You know those commercials stopped airing 15 years ago."
Pausing to reflect upon her unshakable association with the multi-grain snack, Duncan offers up a modest proposal. "Think of all the free publicity they've gotten out of me," she says. "I think Wheat Thins owes me one more commercial. Something that pays for my kids' last year in college. That seems fair, doesn't it?" •
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