IRVINE — She is, without doubt, one of the more colorful characters to ever draw a breath within the city limits.
First, there's that hair, fashioned in a billowy beehive and only a few shades darker than the candy-apple red Camaro she drives around town. Then there's the voice that sounds like Ernest Borgnine's kid sister. And those earrings and that pin on her sleeve. Aren't those ladybugs?
But what you're apt to notice most about 63-year-old Marilu (Bugs) Stellitano as she laughs, chatters and schmoozes her way through the night shift at Mimi's Cafe in Irvine, is her energy.
She darts to and from the kitchen, running circles around waiters and waitresses young enough to be her grandchildren. She tells jokes to the "honeys" and the "sweethearts" seated in her section, races over to tables that aren't even hers to fuss over babies, and belts out birthday songs with a bravado that would intimidate Ethel Merman.
On good days when she's "really flyin'," she's been known to break into a dance just because she feels like it.
"I love working here because they don't try to hold me back. They don't try to make me fit in," says Stellitano, who punctuates her point with a sudden, spontaneous stanza of "I've Gotta Be Me."
"I've been doing what I do for a long time, honey, and my secret is that I love people. I was the youngest of seven, and my father raised us to never look down on anybody. That's what I try to do every day. That's who I am--I'm just being Bugs!"
How and when she "became Bugs" is a fiercely guarded secret, one of the few things the normally effusive Stellitano is unwilling to discuss. What she will reveal, however, is that the nickname came before the huge collection of ladybug items she's amassed over the years.
Her collection has grown so big, in fact, that she's christened one of the bedrooms in her Irvine condo "the Bug Room" and has filled it with hundreds of ladybug gifts that her family, friends, and customers have given her.
Stellitano, who was divorced 28 years ago, is the first to admit that Bugs is an unfortunate nickname for a woman who serves food. But she says in the 30 years she's worked in Southern California restaurants, hotels and supper clubs, none of her bosses have ever asked her not to use it.
"Sometimes my name can really get people going," she says. "Not too long ago, these two ladies came in for dinner and the boy who was hosting thought they were regulars of mine. He asked them if they wanted a table with Bugs and they thought he was being a smart aleck!"
As you might imagine, working with Stellitano can be quite an adventure.
"She runs around like a maniac," says server Heather Morgan, 24, of Irvine. "You can't help but love her, though, because she's got such a big heart. For baby showers and birthdays, Bugs is always the first one to pitch in. But she is definitely different. She does stuff I would never do. Last Tuesday when we were singing our "Zip a Dee Doo Dah" birthday song, she got so carried away that she did a pelvic thrust!"
Morgan says she knew Stellitano was one of a kind even before they began working together. She was on her way into the restaurant the afternoon Stellitano applied for a job.
"We met in the parking lot and I thought she was a nut," Morgan remembers. "She pulled in, hopped out of her car and was yelling, 'Are you guys hiring, are you guys hiring?' in that voice of hers. She was a complete crackup."
Restaurant general manager Matt Sims, 28, shakes his head and grins as he recalls his first encounter with Stellitano.
"We weren't sure what to make of her at first because we'd never met anyone quite like her," he recalls. "You see people like her on TV, but not in real life. But she was very persistent and she certainly had plenty of experience. We weren't sure how well she'd fit in, but we decided to give her a try."
The gamble paid off. Stellitano recently celebrated her third anniversary with Mimi's, and Sims says he receives five or six times as many complimentary letters and comments about her than any other employee.
"She's conscientious and she gives great service, but the bottom line is that people just plain love her," he explains. "They always say the same thing--that they've never seen anyone at any age, much less her age, with so much energy. It's very easy to forget she's nearly 64 years old."
Which is exactly how Stellitano prefers it, thank you. She admits that when she started with Mimi's, she worried she might not fit in with the younger crew. She was used to working with people closer to her own age. Today, she considers her co-workers--"my kids"--part of her extended family.
"They make me feel wanted and that I belong," she says. "I look forward to coming to work. We talk about what's going on in the world and we tell jokes. In the break room the girls show me pictures of their boyfriends and I whip out pictures of my grandkids. Being here keeps me involved and keeps me sharp."
Those who work with her says she keeps them sharp.