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Has it really been almost 50 years since the beautiful, ageless Rhea Feikin first appeared on WBAL-TV? Perhaps those who grew up in Baltimore remember her from “Miss Rhea and Sunshine,” the children’s program with as many plotlines as a soap opera and her first collaboration with the “incredibly neurotic, brilliant puppeteer” Cal Schuman (who sometimes arrived on the set straight from a night of hard drinking). Others might think of Maryland Public Television and those famous membership drives, or her segments for “Consumer Survival Kit” or “MPT On Location.” Or, since Valentine’s Day 2002, “ArtWorks This Week.”
Along the way, there were bit parts in John Waters films, two Harvard-educated children who grew into accomplished adults (Danny, 42, and Jennifer, 40), and two loves— Mark Feikin, the father of her children, and the late Colgate Salsbury, fellow actor and soul mate, who once told her: “A perfect relationship is when you find the perfect audience for your act.”
>I get nervous when there is an administration not interested in supporting public television. Although, the year that Newt Gingrich tried to destroy it, our pledges went way up.
>I grew up in Hampden before it was chic. My parents ran a grocery store on 36th Street— it was our social hub, where my sister, brother and I hung out. By the time I came along, I was a little free spirit who ran around the neighborhood learning to crochet from one neighbor, to cook from another. My parents kept kosher so I would slip out to the neighbor’s to eat homemade biscuits, bacon and fried chicken with milky gravy.
>When I was a speech therapist for the Baltimore City Department of Education, we were offered the opportunity to do an in-school program through WBAL, and my boss said, ‘Who wants to do it?’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ll get to be on TV. I’ll do it! I’ll do it!’ That’s how I became ‘Miss Rhea’ on ‘Betty Better Speech,’ and six months later, ‘BAL offered me a job.
>My father always told me, ‘Do the best you can and have a good time.’ I majored in speech therapy at the University of Maryland— my parents told me I had to major in something that would get me a job— but I spent every breathing moment in the theater.
>It’s hard to say this, but parents today spend too much time with their kids. When my children were little, they both liked to play alone and I let them. I believe you should encourage them to do what they like and then leave them alone.
>Theater is what I love the most. When I see a fabulous play, I’m on a high for a long time. And when you go to the symphony, you look around and people’s faces look almost beatific. The arts offer a way to talk to each other that transcends race, age, everything— they offer nourishment to the soul.
>I still get annual royalties of $2.50 from the Screen Actors Guild for my ‘big’ role in ‘Hairspray.’ I played the schoolteacher who sent Ricki Lake to the principal and I had the best line in the whole movie: ‘What you’re wearing is not a hairdo, it’s a hair-don’t.’
>At some point in the ‘60s, when Gulf Oil decided they would sponsor weather shows across the nation, Brent Gunts, the GM of WBAL, called Cal and me in— knowing we knew nothing about the weather. He told us, ‘Forget barometric pressure. People just want to know a couple of things: Is it going to be hot or cold? Do I need an umbrella? I want a puppet and a woman.’ We made up the animal puppet J.P., and a weather show that had about 10 seconds of weather and the rest, just camp. And Gulf chose us.
>John Waters is wonderful to interview. I met him at Martick’s bar when I was just out of college; he was a wild and crazy guy, and he was hanging out with wild and crazy people. It is a testament to their tolerance that they let someone really ordinary like me hang out with them. He’s so generous, so witty, so loyal, so smart; he’s a voracious reader and e-mails me the names of books to read.
>This is the Barbara Cartland part of my life. I met my second husband, Colgate Salsbury, when he was one of the four actors employed at CenterStage [which Feikin helped to found in 1963], and we both appeared in the first-ever production. But I was married; it was not until 18 or 19 years later that we got together. We had a great relationship, a great love.
>I had the most fabulous firing on TV. Cal and I knew we were being fired, and— here’s a life lesson— they should never let you know something like that before you go on the air. I started that program, ‘This is our last weather show— we’ve been fired.’ I turned to the puppet and said, ‘J.P., do you feel like doing the weather?’ He said, ‘No.’ ‘Neither do I,’ I said, then looked at the camera and asked, ‘Would you like to meet the man behind J.P.?’ Then Cal draped the puppet over the set and we walked off— leaving four minutes of unfilled airtime.
>We do four membership drives a year. I love doing them because— I don’t know why— I do it really well. My late husband once said to me, after I came home from one, ‘You are such a good actor. You only do one role— you. But you do it really well.’ I kind of liked that. —as told to Petey O’Donnell