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V.I.PIAONCE HOLLYWOOD'S BIGGEST JOKE, ZADORA GETS THE LAST LAUGH--SERIOUSLY

Although she's come a long way in the past few years, Pia Zadora is currently going nowhere fast. But this time, the singer is happy to report, that lack of momentum has absolutely nothing to do with her career. Trapped in a noon-hour traffic jam on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, Zadora giggles into her car phone during a recent interview: "You aren't going to believe this. I'm on my way home from my exercise class and right now I'm behind a Hollywood Fantasy Tour bus. All the people on the bus are turning around and waving because they can look right down into the car. This is s-o-o-o funny!"

These days, the baby-faced songstress in the white Mercedes can afford to laugh. Following a disastrous detour down B-movie Alley that brought her to national attention a decade ago, the zesty Zadora has since executed one of the more spectacular U-turns in recent show-biz history, winning kudos for her recording Pia and Phil (as in London Philharmonic Orchestra) and standing ovations in such tony venues as Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. "She has it all: the range, the expert intonation, a sensitive feeling for the lyrics," raved jazz critic Leonard Feather after attending a Zadora concert several years ago. "It was a musically impeccable evening."

And barring terminal gridlock, Pia will finally bring her impeccable pipes to Phoenix Symphony Hall this Friday and Saturday nights. The pair of concerts represents a landmark of sorts; it's not every day that the symphony orchestra backs an internationally acclaimed vocalist who once doffed her duds for both Penthouse and Oui.

"I guess I have had an unusual career," reflects Zadora, whose resume is about as checkered as they come. At age six, the tiny trouper was playing opposite Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway. A few years later, she landed a role as an extraterrestrial preadolescent in the 1964 Yuletide howler Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. More Broadway. Touring companies, including a 1972 appearance at Gammage Auditorium in Applause. And then, the eyebrow-raising marriage to business tycoon Meshulam "Rik" Riklis, a multimillionaire some thirty years her senior.

"After I got married, I decided I didn't want to work for a while," says the mother of two, who boasts she will soon celebrate her thirteenth year of connubial bliss. "I was just going to be Mrs. Riklis for a while and see how I did as a wife."

Donna Reed, she wasn't. At least not back then.
"It was a real difficult situation for me to relate to--being social and doing all that sort of thing," Zadora admits. "Up until then, my life had always been on the road--working and touring and doing my thing." Cooling her heels on the sidelines not being one of those things, Mrs. Riklis returned to the workplace.

Almost overnight, the name Pia Zadora began showing up everywhere--or at least almost every place in which her spouse had a financial interest. Like the marquee of the Riviera, his Las Vegas hotel and in ads for Dubonnet wines, another company held by her extremely well-heeled better half.

And in films like the Riklis-financed Butterfly, an incest-tinged stewpot that found Zadora playing opposite such disparate talents as Orson Welles, Ed McMahon, and June Lockhart. When she subsequently earned a Golden Globe newcomer-of-the-year award for her role (acing out fellow nominee Kathleen Turner's far more auspicious debut in Body Heat), Hollywood cried "Foul!" Shaking their heads in disbelief, more than a few Tinseltown scribes publicly speculated that Riklis had somehow wined and dined voters into the Zadora camp. "The picture hadn't even been released, nobody knew who I was and yet I'd won against all these heavy-duty people," sighs Zadora. "All of a sudden it was `Pia Zadora! Pia Zadora! Pia Zadora!' Things got out of hand--it was like `Who the hell is Pia Zadora anyway?'"

Backed by hubby's bucks, Zadora seemingly could do no right. During 1985's Night of a Hundred Stars II, for instance, Steve Allen brought the house down by quipping "If a bomb dropped on this place tonight, it'd be a great break for Pia Zadora." (Zadora, who performed in this year's Stars benefit, good-naturedly acknowledged the much-quoted slam by dedicating a song to Allen.) "I was trying to get some credibility out here by doing other things," she says. "I guess I did the wrong things." Few observers would disagree. "You actually saw Fake Out?!" gasps Zadora when the reporter mentions that little-seen opus, the only movie in history to feature a car chase filmed inside a Las Vegas casino. "Well, don't tell anyone!"

Ditto the movie version of Harold Robbins' The Lonely Lady, another movie credit conspicuously absent from her current press material. "That was the all-time worst, the straw that broke the camel's back," she confesses. Recalling a role that introduced another dubious cinema "first" (her character is raped with a garden hose), Zadora sighs again. "It wasn't a great choice but at the time, it was really all I had to choose from. It was Universal Pictures, it was the leading role and it just didn't turn out the way we hoped it would turn out." And neither did Voyage of the Rock Aliens, a sci-fi Grease that never even saw theatrical release.

Rapidly in danger of becoming a latter-day version of Marion Davies (the silent-screen comedienne bankrolled into oblivion by paramour William Randolph Hearst's lumbering vanity productions), everybody's favorite checkbook celebrity beat a hasty retreat from the screen. And save for her goofola cameo as a pot-smoking poetess in John Waters' Hairspray ("The best thing I've ever done!"), she hasn't set foot in front of a movie camera since. In recent years, Zadora's spent most of her professional life in front of microphones. In addition to her just-released Pia Z LP, she's crooned with the likes of Jermaine Jackson, Charles Aznavour and various symphony orchestras around the country. And on the domestic front, she's been trying to spend as much "quality time" as possible with daughter Kady, five, and son Kristofer, three.

Not surprisingly, part of that time is spent around the family VCR watching Mom's loopy legacy on videotape. Asked how the kids react to seeing their mother portray a ten-year-old space cadet embroiled in a plot to kidnap Jolly Old Saint Nick, Zadora explodes with laughter.

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians!? Hey, that's the least of my problems!"

GASOLINE ALLEY DOWN BY THE OLD MILLSTREA... v5-30-90

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Dewey Webb