When Sally Struthers was growing up, "it never crossed my synapses" that acting was a career.
Now, at the age of 66, "Here I am ... never stopping working. I've never been without a job."
And for an actor, that's saying something.
Struthers will perform the lead role of Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" coming to the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday.
Growing up in Portland, Ore., Struthers was set on being a doctor, like her father. But then it came time to really make a decision about where to go to college.
"I guess you could say I had a nervous breakdown. I cried two days, three days ... My mother kept asking me what was the matter.
'"I don't know,'" she'd wail. Her dad - the doctor - would give her a shot to help her sleep. She'd wake up and cry some more.
Finally, after days of this, her mother took Struthers' face in her hands, their faces inches away from each other, and said, "'You have got to tell me what's on your mind,'" Struthers related.
"I CAN'T BE A DOCTOR!" she wailed some more.
"I CAN'T CARVE UP THE FROG AND COWS' EYES." And she was looking forward even less to cutting up a cadaver in college.
Her mother said to her, "Where is it written in stone you have to be a doctor?" Of course, young Sally was afraid of hurting her dad's feelings.
"'He just wants you to be happy, like I do,'" her mom assured her.
"Then what shall I do?" she asked her mother.
Her mother reminded her she had been entertaining the family since she was 2.
"You'll go to acting school," her mother said.
Her mom happened to be reading an issue of McCall's magazine, and there was Raymond Burr, advertising the Pasadena Playhouse School of Theatre Arts.
"You, too, can become an actor," the ad claimed.
That's all they had to hear. The application was sent. Struthers went off to Norway for the summer to meet her Norwegian family, and when she came home, "There was Mom, standing at the door with the acceptance letter."
And they had three days to get to Pasadena.
She loved it there, she recalled. "I loved the all the classes, the professors."
But after two years - it was a three-year program - the school was padlocked by the IRS.
Her mom drove down from Portland, piled her in her Ford Falcon, and dropped her off in Hollywood.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
It wasn't too long after when she landed the role of Gloria in "All in the Family."
"It was a wonderful eight years of my life," she said. "In many ways, that was my third year of college. I learned so much about my craft. The actors were all so great; there was something to learn from all of them."
"It's been a real ride," she said of her career.
She's been invited twice to the White House, once by Jimmy Carter, and once by Ronald Reagan.
Struthers related a story of being in Israel, to check on her stepson who had become ill while living on a kibbutz. She walked from the King David Hotel to the old part of Jerusalem.
"It was like all the stories in Bible studies. People were riding camels, donkeys, all the men had beards."
"One man came riding up to me on a camel. He had a pristine white beard. He looked just like Jesus. I was staring up at him. He was looking down at me. Then he points to me and says, 'GLORIA?'"
She screamed, and ran back to the hotel. "Jesus just called me Gloria!" she said she told the hotel desk clerk.
"All in the Family" did that for her, she said. "What could be better than that, to get a foothold and sail along on a happy ride?"
TV vs. FILM vs. THEATER
"I love them all!" she said.
She explained that when working on a film, you do two to three pages a day. "It's the best pay, but, I love television. I've done five or six series. It's steady work. The pay is a little less, but you can go home at the the end of the day.
"I love theater, but it's not for the faint of heart. You can't be saved by a director yelling 'CUT!' ... You have to save yourself every night. It's like being a trapeze artist without a net. I take great pride in my comfort on the stage," she said.
THE TOURING LIFE
She's not so crazy about the touring life "at this point in my life."
"I miss my daughter, my friends, my dog, who's dying of bladder cancer. I signed the contract before I knew.
"At 66 years old, everything hurts. ... The kids in the ensemble in their 20s, they're doing it with such ease! I'm done worn out. It's hard work!"
But there is an up side. She said, "I couldn't be on tour with a nicer group. There's not a diva in the bunch."
Struthers said she has her own bus for the tour - it's Maya Angelou's bus with lots of "creature comforts" - but she's not comfortable. She doesn't like being alone. When we talked while she was en route to Elmyra, N.Y., it was her first day on the bus. Even at home, she likes to fill the bedrooms of her house with guests. "Someone to say good morning to, someone to share a meal with. ... I have a whole array of people I call 'my kids.'"
She asked her tour manager to find cast members who would be interested in riding on the "rock star" bus with her. "Every day I'll pick six or seven names out of a hat and everyone can go on the rock star bus."
"It's a joy to be in it. ... It's a masterpiece. There are several monologues, great songs, beautiful costumes. I get to make the audience laugh. I get to make the audience cry.
"The audience is so appreciative. They can't imagine Archie Bunker's little girl playing Dolly Levi."
She noted it's "one of those shows you leaving humming the songs. It's very satisfying for the audience."
"The cast is suburb. Everyone's perfect for their role." She pointed out that Dan Sher, executive producer, is doing a great job honoring the "50th anniversary tour" of the show. The set is newly built and the costumes are from the Kansas City Costume Company, she said.
"I've never worn such beautiful clothes. ... I'm very proud to be a part of this."
Being on stage entertaining also is satisfying to her.
"Times are tough. Everyone's trying to stretch their dollars. Sometimes people need to treat themselves to a small escape. Maybe they can't spend $1,000 on a week's vacation, but they can spend $100 and have two hours and 45 minutes of pure entertainment and escapism. It's nice to be part of giving people that escape."
If she could sum up her career in one word it would be "unexpected," she said.
"Who would have ever dreamt I'd have this career? I was just Bob and Margaret's daughter. Now, I'm 66 years old on a 'rock star' bus.
"Who would have thought I'd buy my daughter a set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and she'd pick up the 'T' book (for television) and there would be my picture with the four of us from 'All in the Family.' WHAT?"
"I'm in a crossword puzzle. WHAT?
"Who woulda thunk it.
"It's all quite unexpected."
For tickets to see Struthers and the rest of the cast of "Hello, Dolly!" visit www.capitoltheatre.com or call 304-233-4470. Curtain is 7:30 p.m.