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Humor and Grit: Capturing Erma Bombeck

May 2, 2017
Playhouse General User
Barbara Chisholm, who plays Erma Bombeck in Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, sheds light into her character development of this trailblazing woman.

What sort of research did you do in preparation to play Erma Bombeck?

Like literally millions of people, I was familiar with Erma Bombeck as my mother was a devoted fan. We were that family that had her columns taped on the refrigerator. So, in preparing for this role I went back and read or reread her books: If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What am I Doing in the Pits? and At Wit’s End and endless columns. And thanks to her numerous appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson I was also able to observe her on YouTube, and I watched them obsessively. I also have recordings of her at one of the dozens of speeches she made. They’re on my iTunes playlist, and I listen frequently. Perhaps my favorite bit of research was excavating a little known photo I had vividly remembered: it was of Erma Bombeck in a shower cap lounging in Liz Carpenter’s hot tub with a glass of champagne in her hand. For reasons I cannot explain I remembered the photo, but it was really hard to uncover. Through various friends of mine and Ms. Carpenter’s, I found it and gave it as a gift to the creative team of At Wit’s End.

What did you discover about her that was most interesting?

Nevertheless, she persisted. She had two full-time jobs for a long time: raising a family and running a household with all that entails and producing three columns a week for years. And writing New York Times bestsellers. And making personal appearances. And advocating for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She persisted. She was disciplined. Her contemporaries and colleagues were men who had enormous support systems and had one job to do with women at home who reared the children and provided for nourishment and clean clothes and order in the domestic sphere. She was one half of a two-career couple in a time when that was unusual in the white, middle-class world. Her husband supported her immensely but the culture she inhabited didn’t necessarily encourage a wife having a career. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Bombeck wrote provocative columns in a time when women were expected to cook, clean and raise children. We have come a long way since then, with a culture of activism that sees women becoming more vocal about social issues. How do you think this play will resonate with audiences?

There seems to be two camps regarding Erma: those that have tremendous affection for her and those that have never heard of her. For those who love and remember Erma, I think they’ll be moved and touched to learn how much grit and depth there was to her that is belied by her wit and humor. She overcame and worked through tremendous personal challenges. She used her celebrity to work passionately for passage of the ERA. She worked so diligently and hard and cheerfully and humorously; I believe this play gives her a measure of respect and gravitas to add to the deep affection in which she’s held. There’s a bit of trivialization in some circles regarding Erma’s work because she wrote about domesticity from a women’s point of view. This play dispels all of that. There’s nothing trivial about the world Erma inhabited and wrote. And to those who are not familiar with her, they will be utterly astonished and amazed and appreciative of a formidable and singular and trailblazing woman.

What do you hope people will discuss after experiencing the show?

That Erma was a woman of unexpected substance! That the ERA still isn’t part of the Constitution! That humor is a powerful tool to wield as we go through life! That love and hard work can bolster us and make us better people and a better world! That they’re inspired!

To learn more about the Playhouse production of Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End, visit the production detail page.