In June 1969, I dug deep for $5 and bought a Mechanic Theatre orchestra seat to see Baltimore's own Anita Gillette advise her audience to "Don't Tell Mama" in the hit musical "Caberet." It was her professional debut here.
R.H. Gardner, The Baltimore Sun's critic, gushed in his morning-after review: "Every girl, on leaving home to seek a career in show business, dreams of returning in a blaze of glory. Last night, Anita Gillette did."
Four decades later, Gillette is still on the stage, and TV too, as she was Thursday night on NBC's "30 Rock." She'll be back in Baltimore on Friday in her new workshop called "After All." At 73, she has many stories to tell and will do so from a stage at the University of Baltimore.
Anita Gillette is a Baltimorean, born Anita Luebben and raised in Baltimore County's Rossville, where her brother remains in the family home. A graduate of Kenwood High School, she sang at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and occasionally did solo work at Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church downtown.
She did time at some of Baltimore's community theaters, such as the Spotlighters on St. Paul Street, where she once slid across the floor and caught an unforgettable splinter in her backside, the Valley Players and at City College.
City's stage was home to something called the Alamedian Light Opera Company, presided over by the estimable Blanche Bowlsbey. Bowlsbey had herself been a Salvation Army colonel and her strident personality so informed Gillette that when she sang the role of Sarah Brown (a Salvation Army member) on Broadway in "Guys and Dolls," the show's composer, Frank Loesser, ran up to her and said he'd never seen the role played that way.
"She was formidable. She was a strong woman," Gillette said of her Baltimore mentor.
It seemed like Anita Gillette only needed to buy a one-way ticket out of town to see if she could make it in New York. "Instead of getting it out of my system, I got it into my system," she said.
As a 22-year-old, she found herself on the stage of the Broadway Theater alongside Ethel Merman in "Gypsy." To this day, she retains the green eyes, radiant face and wholesome smile that show business reporters discovered years ago.
In the 1960s, Gillette was all over Broadway. She sang in featured roles in the classics of the golden era: "All American," "Carnival," "Mr. President" and "Cabaret." She appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and earned a Tony nomination for dramatic acting in Neil Simon's "Chapter Two." She was in the film "Moonstruck" and played in episodes of "Law and Order."
In that time, she has built up a sizable treasury of show business tales. She was a particular favorite of composer Irving Berlin, whom she would try to cheer up during the composer's periods of depression. She seems to know everybody in the New York theater.
A couple of years ago, I caught Gillette one more time in New York. She was on the stage of the City Center in a revival of the delightful musical, "70, Girls, 70." It was pure joy.
Gillette was rehearsing her material for "After All" on Friday and laboring to keep it to a manageable 90 minutes. She said of the workshop performance, which will be held at 7 p.m. May 14 at University of Baltimore, 21 W. Mount Royal Ave., "it's kind of a musical memoir."