Mr. Edna

Did you know that Australia had titled nobility? Neither did I.

"Neither did they," says Dame Edna, by phone from Chicago. "It's a very egalitarian society. But the 'Dame' title is something conferred by the Queen on remarkable women." Dame Edna notes the company she keeps -- the likes of Judith Anderson, Judi Dench and even Elizabeth Taylor.

A good deal more successful than Vegemite as Australian exports to America go, Dame Edna won a special Tony Award and critical raves last year with her wacky solo stage act, and now she's taken it on the road. When her "Royal Tour" opens a two-week run on Tuesday, April 17, at the Orpheum Theatre, it will be her first visit to Arizona.

"I have a vision of it," she says. "Beautiful rolling hills, tall trees, quaint houses, perhaps with thatched roofs." She may be in for a rude awakening when she gets here, but she insists that her time in the Valley won't be sheltered: "I won't be just appearing in the theaters, I'll be in the shopping malls, I'll be walking down the street."

She has an affinity for the American Southwest already, dating back to childhood -- "I loved Gene Autry," she recalls. "Your readers won't remember Gene Autry. But I met him, as an old man. He lived in Studio City, near my friend Roddy McDowall. And I told him I loved him as a child."

Then, rather hastily, Dame Edna adds, "Bit of a tomboy, I was."

This may refer to her lifelong association with actor Barry Humphries, who played Estragon in the first Australian production of Waiting for Godot in the '50s, who played Fagin opposite the Artful Dodger of Phil Collins in a London production of Oliver! in the '60s, and who has acted in a variety of films and television shows, but who is best known internationally for bringing Dame Edna to the world's attention.

The first incarnation was known simply as Edna Everage, an ebullient Melbourne housewife, but by the '70s the character had gained both title and fame on stage and television throughout the English-speaking world. While she admits that, what with her show-biz fame, "I have a lot of parasites around me," Edna insists that she hasn't lost the common touch. Her entourage is limited to "Madge Alsop . . . my New Zealand bridesmaid. . . . I can speak freely, 'cause she's out of the room. . . . She's my Vivian Vance, only not pretty. When I check into a hotel, I cancel all forms of room service and housekeeping, and she vacuums, because otherwise she'd be a burden."

Dame Edna makes no bones about it -- she regards herself as a theatrical godsend to us Valleyites. "What you get are revivals, tired old Broadway shows. You'll be amazed at the amount of research I've done. You'll think I was from Phoenix." She even relates her sojourn in the desert to the other current American image of Down Under -- Survivor. "You've sent people out to the outback to see if they can survive," says Edna. "I'm part of an exchange program -- I'm being sent to Arizona to see if I can survive."

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M.V. Moorhead
Contact: M.V. Moorhead