ANAHEIM — As she settled into the coffee shop booth, Dorothy Lamour gave the distinct impression that she would rather be putting her old sarong back on than facing the interview at hand.
First, the 76-year-old actress-singer--who shot to Hollywood stardom in the 1930s with a series of jungle films and who opens tonight in "Side by Side by Sondheim" at the Grand Dinner Theatre in a hotel near Disneyland--wanted to know just what questions she would be asked.
Then, when the food arrived, she held off biting into her ham-and-swiss croissant. "Let's do this first," she said, as if she couldn't really eat in peace till the pesky questions were over with.
Although she was not exactly effusive, Lamour was often cordial, down-to-earth, disarmingly frank and wryly funny.
Asked whether she had ever studied acting, she replied with a chortle: "No! Can't you tell?"
Had she ever studied singing? "No. Can't you tell?" laughing again.
Does she work with a vocal or acting coach now? "No!" Her large, sparkling eyes widened at the preposterous thought.
On a more serious note, though, Lamour said she has "not one" regret about where her career has taken her. Nor, she said, is she the least bit bitter at having missed out on the sort of fame that went to Bob Hope, her co-star in several "Road" films.
She has stuck mostly to touring productions and guest television spots since her heyday. She isn't interested in major motion pictures anymore. She doesn't really like today's movies.
"I'm not a prude, I assure you," said Lamour, who was clad in a bright red sweat shirt and wore her soft dark hair swept off her forehead. But today's movies "are too full of violence and sex. Sex can be a very beautiful thing, but it can also be an ugly thing. I think the young people should be shown the beautiful side of life. I don't approve of sex that's flaunted."
As for Broadway, she said she's had offers but that she's "never had a desire to play Broadway . . . I don't really know why." Instead of performing in the spotlights of New York or Los Angeles, Lamour, a longtime North Hollywood resident, said she prefers doing regional dinner theater in outlying cities such as Anaheim.
Stage fright, she said, is something that "never goes away," and in Los Angeles, "there would be too many people I'd know in the audience, and that scares me to death. I don't know why. I know they're on my side, but it just makes me nervous."
Lamour said she feels fortunate to be active in her craft and to have her good health and vigor. She will appear in "Side by Side" on six nights and two afternoons a week, singing two songs ("Broadway Baby" from "Follies" and "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from "Gypsy") and narrating the two-hour tribute to composer Stephen Sondheim.
"I think everybody, especially senior citizens, should try to keep themselves busy," she said. "I'm lucky: I've got show business. But nowadays there are so many charities you can work on. Even if you can't get around, you can do it by phone, and you're doing something good for somebody else, but at the same time you're doing something good for yourself."
Hard work brought Lamour out of a long period of semi-retirement and out of the deep depression she suffered when her husband of 35 years, William Ross Howard III, an Air Force lieutenant and businessman, died in 1978 after a long bout with emphysema.
"After he died, I sat around and moped and wouldn't talk to anybody," recalled Lamour, who has two sons and a stepson, all grown. "I didn't want to see any of my friends. I was almost a recluse. One day a friend of mine said, 'How would you like to do a show?' "
Lamour said yes. In 1979, she did "Barefoot in the Park" at a dinner theater in San Clemente. Since then, she has toured with that and other productions, one of which is a one-woman show. She also has done TV and written an autobiography. She decided to do "Side by Side" at the suggestion of her musical director of eight years, William Lockwood.
"I don't think we've ever done her (one-woman) nightclub act anyplace in world where she didn't get a standing ovation," Lockwood said. "Audiences simply adore her. She has that wonderful little-girl quality that makes people just want to hug her."
Lamour, who was born Dec. 10, 1914, in Louisiana, began winning over audiences at 16, when she was named Miss New Orleans. After pounding the pavement as an aspiring singer for a while, she was discovered by bandleader Herbie Kay, who became her first husband. She worked as a band vocalist and radio performer until she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures.