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'Show Boat' Actress' Ship Is In

Theater: Karen Morrow, called 'Queen of the Flops' for her links to Broadway failures, is basking in production's success.

September 23, 1997|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Karen Morrow finally knows what a hit feels like.

And it shows. She came bounding up the steps near the stage door of Segerstrom Hall recently, eager to talk about her role as Parthy, wife of Tom Bosley's Capt. Andy, in a critically acclaimed touring production of Hal Prince's "Show Boat." The musical shoves off for Arizona on Saturday after a five-week run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Until now, Morrow's 37-year career had been marked by more than a few short-lived shows.

"People joke about me being the Queen of the Flops," she said with a laugh.

Morrow made her Broadway debut in 1965 with "I Had a Ball," starring Buddy Hackett, a show that ran barely six months. She starred in other Broadway shows over the next decade or so, most of which also died quickly.

"I never had a show close in one night," she said. "I think three weeks was the shortest run I had. Out of the [eight] Broadway shows I've done, six of them opened with a closing notice already posted."

Her bad luck got to be a joke among her friends. After she moved to Hollywood--Van Nuys, to be precise--and launched into a series of guest roles on such television shows as "Trapper John, M.D.," "Night Court" and "Murder, She Wrote," her agent asked, "If you were back in New York, what flop would you be in this year?"

She viewed the string of stage failures as a learning experience until a friend suggested that she might have learned much more from a hit or two.

"You don't learn anything from flops," she said. "You really don't. Being in 'Show Boat,' which is such a wonderfully artistic operation, feels entirely different. It's a sense of freedom, like an absolute weight that has been taken off my shoulders. I'm learning much more from this production than I ever learned from those other things."

The daughter of two opera singers, Morrow grew up thinking she was destined for show business. She recalls watching her parents pore over their scrapbooks, laughing at memories of the road.

"That really planted the seed that that is joy out there. That is escape. That's fun. That's family. To be out there with all these people who are there for the same purpose, that was what I wanted. And, of course, I had talent--thank you, Mom and Dad. I put that on their gravestone."

Even with 90 members in the company--"it's huge"--Morrow says "Show Boat" feels like family. Sarah Pfisterer, who plays Magnolia, the daughter of Capt. Andy and Parthy, says she has learned a lot from her stage mother.

"I learn so much from her each night," said Pfisterer. "It's interesting to watch people like Karen, who have done so many things, to watch them in a long run, to see how they change and grow, and make adjustments, just to get through an eight-show week."

Pfisterer loves hearing Morrow, who declines to give her age, talk about her career on Broadway. "She was in so many things," Pfisterer said. "And if just one of them had been the big hit that some other shows were, we'd all think of her the way we think of Ethel Merman, or whoever."

That sort of recognition comes from originating roles, and Morrow's successes have been in revivals, and in the Broadway production "Drood," in which she played in the last six months of the run.

It's been said that Morrow is the biggest star on Broadway who never made it.

"I was never a celebrity," Morrow said. "I'm on the Internet, sort of a 'Whatever happened to?' But I have worked for 37 years, and never had to do anything else. I'm very lucky."

"As the 'Show Boat' producer said, 'There's a short list of women your age who can walk and talk at the same time.' I said, 'I'm on that list? How wonderful.' "

* "Show Boat" continues at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. $32.50-$67.50. (714) 740-7878.

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