NEW YORK — The stage lights came up slowly and revealed several paintings. Seated in front of Pablo Picasso's "Portrait of Gertrude Stein" was a real-life imitation of the famed lesbian writer and expatriate who began speaking in a deep, booming voice. Her rhythmic speech was patterned after Stein's own writings.
Suddenly the figure stood, her caftan swirled around her thick body as she yanked off the hat that concealed her close-cropped gray hair.
"Is that a man?" someone in the audience whispered.
No. It was Madge the Manicurist, Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid's symbol of the All-American saleswoman. Jan Miner had given up Madge and her beauty shop for Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre in the title role of "Gertrude Stein and a Companion."
"Everybody in the theater knows I'm alive and well and working," said Miner with a throaty laugh. "I've been doing theater and commercials for at least 100 years, and both have served me very well."
Although Miner was convincing as Stein, she later confessed that she felt more like Madge--just an average woman. She resembled neither as she sat at a center table in New York's Russian Tea Room, devouring a red caviar omelet. Miner's brown hair curled from beneath her gray felt hat, and she answered the unasked question.
"Oh, this is my hair. That's a wig I wear in the show--Rex Harrison's in fact. He didn't give it to me, although he wore it when we worked together on Broadway in 'Heartbreak House.' But he laughed when he recognized it the night he came backstage to say hello," Miner recalled.
When Miner was offered the Stein part, she wrote to Pat Carroll and asked her permission to play the character Carroll had originated. She said that she nearly fainted when the response came back a "yes."
"I thought, 'How can this be done?' There's so much talk and narration between just two people," Miner explained of the play, which captures the romantic relationship between Stein and Alice B. Toklas (played by Marian Seldes). "So, I read Gertrude Stein's works and began to think in terms of she and Alice."
Miner, 68, is a self-taught actress who learned her craft during radio's golden years in the late 1930s in Boston, where she was raised. She wrote and sold a show called "Women in the News" when she was 18; the sponsors also hired her to write the commercials. Her salary grew from $5 a week for acting in regional theaters to $5 a day.
"By that time I knew I could play character parts. At first I didn't think I was pretty enough to be an actress, so I studied stage design at Wellesley. But I learned young and pretty isn't the end-all," she said, her diamond-ladened fingers wrapped around a wine glass.
Miner missed acting, so she moved to New York in 1945. Soon she was doing five radio shows a day and three at night, including "Perry Mason" (she played Della Street), "Casey, Crime Photographer" and "Boston Blackie."
"I was Lucky Pierre from the beginning," Miner noted. "Next I did 'Robert Montgomery Presents' in the days of live television. You never knew if the dead body would get up and walk off camera."
After nine years on that show, Miner headed for Broadway in "Watch on the Rhine" and "Romeo and Juliet," among numerous others.
She was in her 40s when she met actor Richard ("One Life to Live") Merrell, who became her second husband. (she declined to discuss her first). A year later, in 1965, she beat out 500 actresses (her figure) vying to be Madge the Manicurist.
For the past 21 years, Miner's picked up residual checks as frequently as some people wash dishes, and to this day she's convinced she won the part because she dressed for it.
"When I got the call to come in," she recalled, "I put on my best clothes and Joan Crawford shoes--I always wore platforms. I looked the most like a manicurist. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
The Merrells recently sold their house in Connecticut and bought a co-op in the same area. They have kept their New York apartment near the United Nations building, where they spend their workweek.
"We just auctioned off all our things," Miner said. "After awhile possessions get to be a burden instead of an enjoyment. Everybody we knew was being robbed, and we didn't want to worry about that."
Today Madge is an international phenomenon. In France she's known as Francoise, in Germany she's Tillie, and in Denmark, Marisa. Miner studies the languages with the help of a coach and a tape recorder.
"I love to tune in the Spanish-speaking stations and see myself as Madge," she smiled. "I've heard from people around the world that they think it's wonderful that I'm learning their language. I think that shows great media judgment on the part of the ad agency (Ted Bates Advertising)."
Miner takes her role so seriously that she checks grocery shelves to make sure Palmolive Dishwashing Liquid is available.
"I hope I enter the manicurist's union before I die," Miner sighed. "I can give a great manicure, but I can't write like Gertrude Stein."