Tony the Tiger can't find his costume, but otherwise the grand opening of the Lucky/Sav-On in Covina is going off without a glitch. With her pale complexion, black tailored suit and flaming carrot top, Lucky pitch-model Stephanie Edwards cuts a striking figure under the vivid fluorescent lighting. Flanked by the city's mayor and some economic-development types as well as a brigade of store managers, branch managers and district managers of the various corporate entities (as with most of the retail world, Lucky supermarkets have mega-fied into Lucky/Sav-Ons with a Bank of America teller counter and ATM thrown in), she introduces each one to the applause of the crisply aproned employees and a human Oreo cookie. Finally, "We cannot control the thundering herd any longer," Edwards declares. She and the assembled dignitaries cut the blue ribbon. Hundreds of shoppers stream into the pristine market.
I first meet Edwards at a Lucky opening, because she has promised, "those are usually a hoot." My arrival on the scene coincides with a trail of tough breaks for Edwards, culminating in Albertsons' announcement this month that it plans to take over the company that owns Lucky. All that is weeks away, unforeseen. On this day, I'm witnessing one of L.A.'s most enduring TV personalities at her most glorious.
In Hollywood and on the Westside, where it's possible to run into Leonardo DiCaprio at the 7-Eleven, a Stephanie Edwards sighting might not rate terribly high. But this is Covina, and Lucky is her turf. The mayor, Kevin Stapleton, invites her and her husband (not present) to his house for their anniversary (Edwards was married in Covina 23 years ago). As she heads to a table in front of a Russell Stover candy display to sign head shots, the line of fans trails all the way back to the dairy section. A mother points and says to her daughter: "Look. It's Stephanie Edwards from TV. Do you want to talk to her?" The 8-year-old nods yes. An Arabic woman in a traditional head wrap enters. She sees Edwards and her jaw drops. Singly, in couples and with kids in the cart, shoppers present themselves, young and old, in all the ethnic hues of Southern California suburbia.
Longtime residents recall Edwards' days as co-anchor of the early '70s pioneering TV magazine program, "Ralph Story's AM." Others know her as the co-host, with "The Newlywed Game's" Bob Eubanks, of the Tournament of Roses Parade. Some are fans of "The LIVE Show with Sam and Stephanie," an interview-talk show still airing at the time of the opening. But mostly they know her as "the Lucky Lady," after the supermarket chain she's represented on TV, radio and in personal appearances for more than 17 years. They tell her they love her show, that she's even more beautiful in person. A man in a postal uniform carrying a six-pack of Coke stops and says, "You're real." 'To the max!" she shoots back. At one point, Bob Gelman, who, in the early '70s, went by the name "Lobo," happens in and spots her. He rushes back to his car and presents Edwards with an autographed cassette of "Lobo's Greatest Hits." "I've been wanting to meet her for a long, long time," gushes the singer who once recorded "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo."
Edwards is no cynical corporate shill. The woman sincerely feels a part of the team, unfailingly and unself-consciously referring to Lucky and its parent company, American Stores, as "we." When I tell her that, yes, I have, in fact, used the Versateller at my neighborhood Lucky, she's delighted. More impressive, she knows all about it. "It had been a troubled store in that the clientele were very demanding," she informs me. "But now it's being managed by exactly the right man for the job." Although there is a Vons right by her house, Edwards never goes there. "Lucky doesn't deserve having me seen shopping in Vons," she says. She only sinned once, she claims, when she forgot to bring muffins to the Presbyterian church she and her husband regularly attend. "I had to run to the nearest market, which was Mayfair," she confesses. "My whole face flushed . . . like I had been caught in flagrante. The clerks were all smiling. I turned around and said, 'Please don't tell.' "
And here, acting as the supermarket's personal emissary, Edwards spreads the Lucky goodwill with unflagging enthusiasm as potential customers file by for 21/2 hours without letup. They give her their names, their mom's names and those of husbands, wives and neighbors--as many as five or six per shopper--and Edwards graciously complies, writing the requested names on picture after picture, along with a heart and "Thanks, Stephanie." Even the creepy guy who leans his face right into Edwards' and whispers "You want to have dinner with me?" doesn't mar her composure. ("Somebody without any discretion," she later says. "There's one at every opening.") And when someone suggests, "Your arm must get really tired," she cheerfully replies: "You know what? It never does."