Red scare

"I tell all my friends that this is my favorite job since 'Taxi,'" glibs one pinched Marilu Henner, bragging on her next second-tier moment while standing at the front of Church Street Station's ornate Cheyenne Saloon. Cast in the touring production of "Annie Get Your Gun," Marilu is here at a loosely Western-themed cocktail-and-weenie hour to salute members of the Central Florida Theatre Alliance and their kin -- a private party, then, that nobody else would want to attend. The menopausal theater boosters chortle accordingly on cue, although the reception is hardly the rapturous sneeze one might expect for the world's most misunderstood redhead (er, Tawny Kitain?).

You remember Marilu, don't you? Oh.

Well, Marilu Henner was the maleable auburn who may or may not have been sleeping with the ugliest man alive, Judd Hirsch, throughout the armpit-stained heyday of the aforementioned '70s television time-passer. After "Taxi," our henna-d Henner took a gig as Burt Reynolds' passive-aggressive wife on the megabore "Evening Shade." These days, she's licking the recently departed heels of perky Bernadette Peters and meaty Tom "Bo Duke" Wopat in the Irving Berlin musical -- that is, when she's not writing every book that comes into her pretty little head about such valuable topics as brats and dairy. She is the ideal entrepreneurial, post-L.A. American woman, really -- at least the parts of her that aren't slyly pinned up behind her ears. And today she looks just like somebody's uncomfortable mom.

Relative disgust

Accordingly, then, her kids -- brats, to be sure -- are brought up on stage to pick numbers out of hats so that these monied patrons might have some free shwag to ship to their kids in Jersey this Christmas (oooooh, a T-shirt!), and the kids effectively exploit their passable cuteness for their mother's desperate gain. The audience politely glows at the awkward show of maternity playing out on stage, all while staring straight ahead and feeling nothing.

Mostly because I can't even THINK about Marilu Henner anymore, I start to think about the other Mary Lou. Not "Prom Night II" Mary Lou, mind you, but spunky four-foot-tall Wheatie's girl Mary Lou Retton, and her heart of gold. She's doing Jesus commercials now. Not Marilu Henner. She's advertising herself.

;;"You know what I like most about Florida!!!!!!!!!" peps Henner. "It's such a healthy state. I mean, all the health-food stores, and you know I write a lot of health books, so ... " Blah, blah, blah. "You should all give yourselves a hand!" ;;

Light clapping. Or maybe just rain.

"You know, we normally leave [town] on Mondays," confides the cab girl, acknowledging the quick departure that usually follows her Tuesday-to-Sunday run in each city she plays. "But we're staying till Tuesday just to have an extra day." I'm still counting on my fingers and marvelling at her math when she displays a "know-what-I-mean?" glance that accompanies the regional slur,"especially after two weeks in Detroit!" Gnosh, gnosh!

Socialites in cowboy hats are milling about aimlessly as Henner winds down her post-stardom credits in glee-club manner. Yes, everybody writes books and does Broadway when nobody else will have them anymore. No, you're not going to win a Tony.

"And of course, Burt's a Florida boy ... " Etc., etc.

Hair ye, hair ye

Afterwards, I hazard to stumble in Marilu's direction. I want to see the staples, you see, and that damn pancake concealer just won't let me. Past the incredulous gazes of big people with bigger broaches stands one television princess -- one Tony Danza foil -- who at one point during my latch-key puberty might have occupied a moment away from reason and taste, if I remember correctly. And I'm about to touch her.

"Hello, Marilu," I say, biting my lip on the tired cleverness of the "Prom Night II" reference. "I'm Billy Manes with the Weekly. ... We met at a book signing in Jersey (ahem). I love your work."

And then, with all due sincerity, our favorite cab driver did exactly what anybody would do to a cheeky hack with too many hair products bent on invading her personal space.

"Nice hair," smirked Henner, ruefully twisting a tired lock just north of my left ear.


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