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THEATER AND FILM : Actress Does It All: Shakespeare's Juliet to Disney's Minnie

February 23, 1988|Herman Wong

The next time you hear Minnie Mouse, think of actress Deborah Gates.

It may seem an odd coupling for Gates, who is co-starring in the Grove Theatre Company production of "Mrs. California," which opens Friday at the Gem Theatre.

Gates, a 1978 UC Irvine drama graduate, is a fresh, naturally ebullient, off-the-wall personality, while Disney's Minnie has been--let's face it--the rather bland first lady of cartoondom for lo these 60 years.

But Gates, whose credits have ranged from Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" to featured roles in daytime television soapers, can also do a perfect vocal imitation of Minnie.

"Want to hear my Minnie?" asked a sprightly Gates, seated on the Gem stage one afternoon last week.

No matter--she wasn't about to be stopped. And her sound was indeed pure Minnie: shrill, jarring, squeaky-pitched.

So now, the secret's out.

For the last three years, Gates has been Minnie's voice for commercials, educational toys, "talking" watches and Disney-produced recordings, including an album called "Totally Minnie."

And while doing Minnie isn't quite on a par with acting Shakespeare's Juliet--a role in which Gates has won favorable notices--the Disney job has given her some occupational stability.

"I'm pretty lucky because it's a lot of fun to do and Minnie, after all, is a family institution," said Gates, who won the Minnie role over scores of other aspirants. "And just to get a fairly steady job in this field is really lucky."

Like other struggling young actors, Gates has lived mostly a migratory existence.

After UCI, where she acted in such heavy dramas as "Hedda Gabler" and "Antigone," Gates went to State University of New York in Buffalo on a fellowship for graduate studies in drama. She also taught stage classes there for the emotionally and physically handicapped in a federally financed project.

In New York City, Gates not only helped organize a cultural center on Staten Island but also appeared in off-Broadway versions of "Twelfth Night" and "The Three-Penny Opera." By the early 1980s, however, she was back in Southern California, organizing a stage and instructional troupe at the Irvine Cultural Center.

Since then, her work has been even more diverse: more Shakespeare, including "The Taming of the Shrew," at the Globe Playhouse in Los Angeles; daytime serials including "Ryan's Hope" and "Guiding Light," and television sitcoms including "Mr. Belvedere."

Her movie career has been less than spectacular but, she noted, "I've had a chance to do some pretty quirky characters" in such films as "Brewster's Millions" and the upcoming "Return of the Killer Tomatoes."

But Gates is still busy with her Disney stints, which have included voices for Bambi and Thumper the rabbit. And she seems to have found another steady professional base with the Grove Theatre Company.

At the Grove since 1986, Gates has performed in Shakespeare's "Henry IV--Part I," "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid" in the annual summer outdoor festival. She was a member of the much-praised cast of the Grove's version of the frontier musical "Quilters."

(Gates has also been named to a Grove administrative post. She will head the newly organized Children's Conservatory, which is expected to offer acting courses this spring. An afternoon open house for the program will be held March 12 at the Gem.)

In the Grove's production of Doris Baizley's satirical "Mrs. California," Gates plays Mrs. San Francisco, one of the married contestants in their last-hurrah chance at this kind of competition, set in the '50s.

Although the Baizley play was performed in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 1985 and the L.A. Public Theatre in 1986, the Grove's is the first staging of Baizley's newly revised version.

"It's about women who were exposed to all those job opportunities in World War II and then were forced back into the same old household-drudgery trap," explained Gates, who was raised in Santa Ana, attended Saddleback High School and now resides in Sun Valley.

"It was a short-lived liberation for them, and it really hits home for a lot of us, because it's about our moms' own generation."

Even though the Baizley play is "about the attitudes toward women in the 1950s," added Gates, "it's really about what's happening--or not happening--in women's rights still today."

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