Cristin Kelly

Interview with David Rambo: The Lady With All the Answers

An Interview With David Rambo

In a recent interview with Florida Studio Theatre’s Literary Manager, Cristin Kelly, playwright David Rambo discusses his work and the creation of The Lady With All the Answers.

Cristin Kelly: What prompted you to start writing The Lady With All the Answers?

David Rambo: When Ann Landers died, I read the obituary and remembered growing up and reading her column everyday. I’d wanted to write a show for one actor – I had never done that before. I thought she was theatrical enough to make it interesting. Plus, I really feel that every play is a dialogue between the audience and the play and Ann Landers ran a dialogue with her readers for 47 years, so it was kind of natural.

CK: That interaction with the audience is an important element of the play.

DR: Absolutely. I had to find a theatrical equivalent of the dialogue that Ann Landers had with the country in her column.

CK: Why do you think people are so drawn to Ann Landers?

DR: Even people who don’t know who she is and didn’t read the column who came to see the play in its premier loved her common sense, her straightforwardness and her willingness to listen to every side of an issue and then render a definite opinion. Plus the humor – she’s so funny. She really had the ability to connect with anybody regardless of their politics, beliefs or background. She could connect with anybody because she dealt from this beautiful human core. She got that from her father

CK: What was he like?

DR: Her father was a Russian immigrant who escaped here before WWII. He started out selling chickens from a pushcart, but he was so good with people and so sharp at business that he ended up owning a chain of movie and Vaudeville theatres in the Midwest and a lot of other businesses. He was very philanthropic. He was a good listener, very empathetic and he was a soft touch for people in distress. Ann Landers grew up seeing that. Her father had an expression, “Cast your bread upon the water and you’ll get sandwiches.”

CK: What a wonderful outlook. What do you think drew you to her?

DR: She’s someone I wish I had known, someone I wish I had met. I felt she was always speaking to me. I do know her daughter (Margo Howard).

CK: You got to know her through this process?

DR: Exactly. It took a while for us to get together, but once we did, we hit it off. We’re friends to this day.

CK: What’s been her reaction to the play?

DR: Oh she loves it. She came to the opening night in San Diego, and just laughed and enjoyed it so much that at the end tears were rolling down her cheeks. It brought back a lot of her life. She’s always been very proud of her mother (and) she really felt the play captured her mother’s voice. That’s why I brought Margo in on it. I needed the column. If I couldn’t quote the column, I was not interested in doing the play. That’s where the real voice of the woman we know as Ann Landers lies.

CK: Was she reluctant at first?

DR: To be honest, yes. Previous portrayals of her mother and been unflattering and inaccurate –She didn’t feel that her mother had ever been honestly portrayed until my play. So she was reluctant at first, but she liked me. We spoke on the phone and the conversation ended with her saying “everybody’s advised me not to say yes to this but I’ve got a feeling about you and so I’m going to say yes.”

CK: That sounds like something her mother would say.

DR: She’s very much like her mother.

CK: Besides the letters and talking to Margo, what was your research process like?

DR: I went down to the Los Angeles Central Library and I went through all the microfilm of old newspapers and read all the Ann Landers columns. I read all the anthologies, I read a couple of biographies that are out there, I talked to some people who knew her – I know one of Margo’s ex-husbands, the actor Ken Howard – and he gave me some great recollections. Also Michael Feinstein had some great stories. He was a great friend of hers. Everybody gave me a little something. Then I read about her trip to Vietnam. That’s what made me want to write the play. That was when I said ‘I know now that this is more than just a woman reading her columns to the audience. Now I know what this is about.’

CK: What struck you so much about the Vietnam trip?

DR: She was against the war, but she didn’t just criticize the war from the sidelines. After writing about it in her column and talking to politicians she thought, “I have to go see what this is about, myself.” She pulled strings to get on a mission to go. They put on her on troupe transport planes with soldiers. She flew 36 hours straight. She pent 12 days in Vietnam in the hospitals. She met General Westmorland while she was there. They had a meeting and she told him that we can’t win the war and we should get out. But what got me was that she went to the hospital and she visited every wounded soldier in every single bed, and stayed as late in the day as she had to. She sometimes went through two doctor shifts to see every patient and with each one she took a name and a phone number of someone that they would like her to call when she got home. She came home and sat down and for over a week she called every one of those people. “Hello this is Ann Landers. I was just in Vietnam. I saw your son Joe. He’s doing fine but he misses your meatloaf.” She told everything to the family. It was so generous of her and she wrote nothing about it in her column until very, very much later. She didn’t grandstand on it. It was really such a generous act.

CK: How do you take all of this research, your feelings about her and, as a playwright, create a voice for her. It must be very different from creating an original character out of your head since she is a real person.

DR: Yes, her voice is so distinct. Once you tap into it and know where it comes from, it just keeps talking to you. In fact, if I had a problem writing the play it was getting Ann Landers to shut up so I could get to sleep at night!

CK: This play is very different from your play God’s Man in Texas, which our audience may remember from Summerfest 2001. Are there any similarities that people may recognize in terms of your particular style?

DR: I think every drama has humor, somewhere, so I hope they see that similarity. They’re both plays about people who address the public with some kind of moral leadership. I think those are inherently theatrical characters – people who get up with a crowd and say “this is the way it should be.”

CK: You’re one of the writers on the television show CSI. How is writing for TV different or similar to writing for the stage?

DR: It’s very different. First of all, your characters never go away. Each story is about a character who is on a specific journey and who’s changed forever as a result of it. Also, you write as a group with other writers, producers, and occasionally actors and directors, then you go off and craft a script that the group weighs in on. It is more of a group process than an individual process. It’s a lot of fun. You have great stories to play with and, if you’re lucky, people watch. Wherever I travel people know the show and that’s fun.

CK: Are there any of your episodes that you’re especially proud of?

DR: One is the episode where Faye Dunaway was brought in to play a powerful and glamorous Las Vegas former showgirl. That was pretty exciting. My first episode really uncovered the feelings that the lead character has for his colleague, Sarah Sidle. That was called “Butterflied.” I still get fan mail about that from all over the world and that was four years ago. In the season premiere, I blew up the casino and killed off the guy who plays Marge Helgenberger’s father in the show, shot on location in downtown Las Vegas. That was wild. At 3 in the morning we were holding fans back.

CK: Wow. You get to work in a much larger scale than in theatre.

DR: That’s true, which is fun, but the pressure is greater. I love both of them but they’re just so different. I do theatre because I love it. I love the genre. I’d go nuts if I could only do one.

CK: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the FST audience about the play?

DR: Just that I’m really thrilled that you’re doing it. I’m really happy. I hope that it’s not just a nostalgia trip and that people see that it’s really relevant, The issues Ann Landers talked about thirty years ago are still in our national dialogue. A lot of issues we haven’t resolved, we may never resolve, but the point of Ann Landers is unless you talk about them you’re headed for trouble.

CK: Our culture is much more self-confessional now than it was when she was writing.

DR: It is, but it distresses me so much that we have this country where we can’t talk to each other right now. People clam up rather than have a discussion because they disagree and the tones are so rancorous when people do talk. She’s a woman who gave a forum for people to talk to each other. I think that’s wonderful.

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