Before she -- or anyone else -- had ever heard the term, Lily Tomlin was already a performance artist. Growing up in blue-collar Detroit, Tomlin says that she never missed a chance to dress up and do monologues for her friends and family. "I'd put on my mother's slip, and pretend I was Beatrice Lillie, or I'd do jokes from Jean Carroll, who was kind of the first woman standup [comedian] on The Tonight Show."
By phone from whatever city in which she's currently performing her one-woman show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Tomlin cracks up her hapless interviewer with tales of her childhood and the forces that steered her, often unintentionally, toward a career as the dean of America's comic actresses. She's scheduled to perform the acclaimed piece, written by her frequent collaborator Jane Wagner, at Gammage Auditorium this week, on Thursday, December 9, and Friday, December 10.
One of her particularly vivid stories involves a certain Mrs. Rupert, a botanist neighbor who decided that Tomlin might have a chance to rise, by marriage, above her working-class station, and so undertook to train her in ladylike behavior. "Mrs. Rupert was wonderful," Tomlin recalls, infectiously giggling at the memory. "She wore a fox hat and gloves to take out the garbage. She taught me that a lady should always be able to locate anything in her purse without looking. She'd take me out to lunch, and we'd walk up into an alleyway to blow our noses. And she was very reactionary. She used to say that she'd helped to indict Alger Hiss."
Mrs. Rupert, however, would not have approved of Tomlin's eventual career choice. "I was doing a magic show, and I hadn't told Mrs. Rupert about it, only because I wanted to surprise her. But when I told her, she was appalled."
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Tomlin began in college as a premed student, but eventually, inevitably, became involved in campus theatrics, and soon began to make her mark. "I was in a comedy revue, and I wasn't all that taken with the sketches; most of them were pretty collegiate stuff. But it was too short, and the director said, 'I wish we had another sketch.' Well, this was 1962, when they had blown the lid off the suburb of Grosse Pointe, that it was covertly segregated. So I did a takeoff on a Grosse Pointe matron. It was a sensation, because it was the only one that was relevant. I was very conscious of class, I was pretty politicized even then."
From these humble beginnings, Tomlin set her course toward television -- brief stints on The Garry Moore Show and The Music Scene, fame on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In; movie roles ranging from Nashville and The Late Show to The Incredible Shrinking Woman to the recent Tea With Mussolini; a Tony for the Broadway incarnation of Search for Signs, and a basketful of Emmys, Grammys, Peabodys and other such honors.
Her most famous characterizations, no doubt, remain the self-satisfied little girl Edith Anne and the telephone operator Ernestine. The latter has had a hard time adjusting to the shifts in the communications industry, however. "I have sort of moved Ernestine to the Internet. Her new handle is 'Techno-Nymph,' but she hasn't really found her place yet. The last real fun she had was in a cameo when we did the film of Search. She moonlighted as an usher, so she could really browbeat the patrons, you know, make them spit their gum out before they take their seats and so forth."
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is scheduled to be performed at 8 p.m. Thursday, December 9; and 8 p.m. Friday, December 10, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. Tickets range from $15 to $45. For details call 480-965-3434 (Gammage) or 480-503-5555 (Dillard's).