Susan St. James trades fame for family

June 11, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

Susan St. James, late of "Kate and Allie" and the great 1979 vampire sendup "Love at First Bite," completes the segue from radio patter to music with flawless timing at her computerized broadcast board.

"I am so good!" she gloats in gleeful self-parody, her trademark smile lighting up the tiny control room at WZBG-FM. "I really am!"

Being good at what she does is nothing new to Ms. St. James. She co-starred from 1971 to 1976 with the late Rock Hudson in "McMillan and Wife," winning five Emmy nominations. She received two more nominations for "Kate and Allie," which aired from 1984 to 1989, and she won an Emmy in 1969 for her role in the TV movie "Fame Is the Name of the Game."

But fame no longer is the name of her game; she isn't even Susan St. James anymore. To her new audience, she is Betty Aster, owner of her own radio station in the rolling woodlands of northwest Connecticut and host of its primary afternoon talk show, "Betty at the Beehive." She is through, she says, with series TV and film, and she is having the time of her life.

Ms. St. James, 46, tanned and as fit as her own home gym and frequent cycling can make her, shows up for a pre-air-time interview at her favorite restaurant in Litchfield, the West Street Grill, in an ankle-length flower-print silk dress, sandals and a bright blue baseball cap, worn backward. She wears no makeup, and large golden bee earrings dangle from her earlobes.

The bee is the logo of her new career, a natural construct from her station's call letters (W-ZZZZ-Bee-G) -- even the pseudonym Aster comes from the name of a flower popular with bees -- and she has no intention of trading on the celebrity of the St. James name to make it work.

"I've lived with that name and that famous person for so many years," she says. "The biggest part of my retirement from films and television is because my kids are at that age now where they need to be the stars of our family. They don't need a mother who, when she walks in a room, they get shoved out of the way.

"I've had a much more pleasant life since that star has faded. I'm trying to write the obit on that character. When I did 'Kate and Allie,' I was Kate McArdle, I wasn't Susan St. James. Now I'm Betty. I think of her as a character I can create and have a lot of fun with."

Radio is nothing new for Ms. St. James, the wife of NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol (a Litchfield native) and the mother of five children, 2 to 21. She has pursued radio throughout her acting career.

While fellow actors on film locations from Oregon to the Philippines sought leisure during shooting breaks, she invariably sought out local radio stations, begging for a shift at the control board as announcer or disc jockey. Her smoky voice and knowledge of contemporary music always got her the job.

When a broadcast license became available in Litchfield, she and Mr. Ebersol pursued it, bought the station and put it on the air last July. She calls her station format "music for dead women over the age of 40 -- not a lot of drums, you know." Which is to say she plays what she likes, says what she wants to say and interviews just about anyone who strikes her fancy, and anyone who doesn't like it is free not to advertise on her show, "which is sold out anyway."

Ms. St. James dropped out of show business with the end of "Kate and Allie" after five seasons, having given birth to two of her three children with Mr. Ebersol. Intent upon rearing a family outside that spotlight's glare, she moved to Litchfield, a city of Victorian mansions and some 17,000 residents. Her daughter, Sunshine, and son Harmony, both in college, are from a previous marriage. When she isn't busy with her 3 p.m.-6 p.m. shift at WZBG or raising funds for the Special Olympics, she plays mom to Charles, 10, William, 6, and Edward, 2.

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