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Channeling a pioneer of comedy

Local artist’s one-woman show tells the story of Totie Fields



Contributing writer

If you’ve ever had a good belly laugh courtesy of the likes of Kathy Griffin, Rosie O'Donnell or Chelsea Handler, you can thank Totie Fields.

Fields’ name may conjure up a hazy memory or be completely unfamiliar, depending on when you were born. But according to showbiz veteran Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan, Totie Fields was a groundbreaking 1960s-era comedy sensation whose high-powered stand-up paved the way for the comediennes of today.

This month, Timpanaro-Hogan, who lives in Mechanicville, will take to the stage at Fort Salem Theater to play Fields in the one-woman show “Adorable Me: The Totie Fields Story.”

Fields was born Sophie Feldman in Hartford, Conn., in 1932 and got her start playing Boston comedy clubs. Her national break came with an appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1960s. After that, Fields had regular guest spots on the major talk and variety shows of the era – including those hosted by Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson and Dinah Shore.

Brazen and bawdy, the 4-foot-10 Fields made a name for herself with her unapologetic, take-me-as-I-am attitude and her uncanny ability to be simultaneously self-deprecating and peacock-like over the matter of her size. In an era when the slender British model Twiggy represented the ideal of feminine form, Fields was rotund.

Fields’ talent and style proved captivating for Timpanaro-Hogan, a teenager at the time.
“Totie Fields, along with Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, helped break the sexist barrier in stand-up,” Timpanaro-Hogan explained after a recent rehearsal for her show. “I loved Totie's comedy and her attitude. Her attitude was, ‘I’m big, and so what?’ I was big and ashamed, and she was out there throwing it around.”

Timpanaro-Hogan's admiration for the star only solidified when, at 15, she had the chance to see Fields live on stage.

“I went to see her at the Starlite Theatre in Latham,” Timpanaro-Hogan recalled. “I got up in the middle of her show to use the ladies' room, and she busted my balls over it. That always stuck with me.”

The show influenced the course of her life. Timpanaro-Hogan went on to become a comedienne herself, conquering Manhattan’s cabaret scene during the 1980s and ‘90s. The Saratoga County artist has won numerous awards for her cabaret theater, including the Backstage Bistro Award, The Long Beach Civic Light Opera New Works Festival Award, and the Manhattan Association of Cabaret and Clubs Award.

Timpanaro-Hogan was in the midst of performing cabaret shows and off-Broadway theater when she was struck by the idea of writing a one-woman show about Fields' life and career. She co-wrote “Adorable Me” with Bobby Pearce; the musical score was written by the late Robert Bendorff.

“Robert's music condenses many of Totie Fields' struggles into some very poignant music and lyrics,” Timpanaro-Hogan explained. “It’s an emotional roller coaster for the audience as well as for me.”

“Adorable Me” is a combination of stand-up, monologue, audience interaction and singing. Accompanying Timpanaro-Hogan on piano is John McMahon, a Manhattan artist who has performed “Adorable Me” with her around the country.


Fame and struggles
“Adorable Me” opened in 1993 at the American Jewish Theatre in New York.
“After that, I traveled around the country with the show, including to the Wadsworth Theatre in Hartford, Conn., where Totie's family came to see it,” Timpanaro-Hogan recalled. “They were amazed. Totie was all about breaking the fourth wall of comedy and interacting with the audience, and I love doing that in my shows.”

The show starts off with Fields on stage at a sold-out performance at The Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. Then it flashes back to different parts of her life.
“A lot of people don't remember her, but Totie Fields was one of the premier comediennes of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Timpanaro-Hogan said. “But even if you don’t know Totie Fields from the ‘70s, you’ll still appreciate her and the show.”

Unlike Diller and Rivers, Fields died young, at 48, after being plagued by lifelong health problems, including diabetes and heart trouble. She had a leg amputated in 1976, but that didn’t slow her drive. Fields starred in an HBO special in 1977 and was scheduled to begin a two-week Las Vegas engagement in 1978 when she died of a blood-clot-related pulmonary embolism.

Timpanaro-Hogan said what makes Fields a particularly compelling figure to her is the similarities they shared -- on and off stage. From early in life, both had a taste for fame.
Fields also tended to “push the envelope, both personally and professionally, with food and addiction,” Timpanaro-Hogan said. “I identified with her for that, and because Totie had such a huge heart. The more sensitive you are to being human, the more susceptible to addiction you are.

“Her destructive behavior attracted me to her. Totie was running as fast as she could, and it all caught up with her. It was a big life lesson for me. I got sober in 1988 and wrote ‘Adorable Me’ in 1990.”

Timpanaro-Hogan is co-producing this month’s performances with Jay Kerr, the owner and artistic director of Fort Salem Theater.

Like Timpanaro-Hogan, Kerr said he feels Fields’ life story is still captivating more than 30 years after her death.

“I think anything biographical can resonate for centuries if there’s a lesson to learn from someone’s existence,” Kerr said. “In this case, here was this tough broad who was really a marshmallow. She was desperate and determined to become famous and then to stay famous.

“First, she had to break some gender barriers, then she had to deal with her health issues -- to which she contributed. She kept coming back.”

Timpanaro-Hogan’s performance in “Adorable Me” has drawn rave reviews from critics -- and from peers such as the actors Ray Romano and Nathan Lane. Having performed the show around the country, Timpanaro-Hogan said she's looking forward to unleashing Totie Fields' comedic glory on a whole new audience

“I don’t look anything like her, but I capture her essence,” Timpanaro-Hogan said. “It’s like any form of acting: It’s an allowing. I feel a surge of energy before going on stage as Totie. It’s fascinating. ... I just know it’s going to be there.”

Kerr said he believes “Adorable Me” will be a hit with audiences at Fort Salem.
“Nancy’s just fun to watch and great to listen to,” he said. “The story would be inspirational if it were about Suzie Schwartz, whom no one has ever heard of. You can’t help but have a good time.”


Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan stars in “Adorable Me: The Totie Fields Story,” for eight shows this month at Fort Salem Theater, Aug. 3-5 and 10-12. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For ticket information and reservations, call the Fort Salem Theater box office at (518) 854-9200, or visit www.fortsalemtheater.com or www.nancytimpanarohogan.com.

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