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Golden Years, Indeed

Lois Wyse looked in the mirror and wrote 'Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother.' Now the image-redefining book is a stage musical.

November 16, 2000|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you thought you were busy, talk to Lois Wyse.

An energetic grandmother of nine, Wyse is the best-selling author of more than 60 books, ranging from collections of her poetry to business how-tos. In the 1950s, Wyse co-founded Wyse Advertising and was personally responsible for such advertising slogans as "With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good."

Still president of Wyse Advertising, she also founded and remains an active partner in City & Co., a publishing house specializing in books about New York City.

Wyse, who has residences in New York City and East Hampton, N.Y., was a contributing editor to Good Housekeeping for 13 years. She now writes a column for the online publication ThirdAge (http://www.ThirdAge.com).

First published in 1989, "Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother," Wyse's humor book about how the role of the grandmother has changed and evolved over the past generation or two, was on the New York Times' bestseller list for 19 weeks.

Wyse has adapted the bestseller into a musical, perhaps a natural progression, considering that her late husband, Lee Guber, was the theatrical producer of such Broadway smashes as "The King and I." The West Coast premiere of the play, which Wyse co-wrote with Sheilah Rae and Robert Waldman, opens Saturday at the Santa Monica Playhouse.

Question: Which came first, family or career?

Answer: I started as a newspaper reporter. I married someone who wanted to be in the advertising business. I went into the advertising business. I eventually had children, and then, as a gift to my son, I wrote a book. Why I said I would write a book, I don't know. I just did. Then I found that after I wrote the book, "The I Don't Want to Go to Bed Book for Boys," everybody kept asking "What are you writing next?" So I just kept on writing books.

Q: With "Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother," did you consciously set out to redefine the notion of the average grandmother, or was that just a byproduct of the book?

A: Well, I became a grandmother, and I looked around at my friends who were also grandmothers, and none of us looked like the prototype of a grandmother that you always saw in the "Dick and Jane" books. In fact, we didn't look like my grandmothers. I had grandmothers who wore shapeless dresses and shuffled around in Red Cross shoes. They had gray hair and tight little buns. And that's not exactly what my friends and I looked like.

Q: You were a regular writer for Good Housekeeping for so many years. Those sorts of vintage women's magazines do deal with topical issues now, but there's a common current of hearth and warmth and home--and of course recipes and diets. It's reassuring somehow.

A: It goes back to those things on which we were all nurtured. And I think that's what I'd like to be more than anything, is a nurturing writer, to have someone read me and feel comforted in his or her decisions, or find the courage to express feelings that may not have been expressed. It's kept me sort of centered in a values kind of orientation. I really got into that very strongly with my Good Housekeeping columns too, where I really wrote a lot about how we truly feel about life, and where our values and concerns are today. I really write my philosophies.

Q: Your career in advertising predated the feminist movement. You really were in the vanguard of those women who got out of the house and into the work force.

A: I didn't really think I was at the time. I was out there because of necessity. Like all women, I felt guilty when I wasn't at home and guilty when I wasn't at the office.

Q: Was the progression of "Grandmother" from page to stage an arduous transition? Or was it fun?

A: Like anything, I would say it's been both. As a writer, I've led a singular life. Once a book is over, it's over. It's in hardcover and you can't do a thing about it. This has been a collegial experience writers don't ordinarily get. And I worked on it with Sheilah Rae, a good friend of mine. Then we brought in Bob Waldman, and he worked on the music with us. It's something we've developed and refined and shaped together. In a play you can say, "That line doesn't really play right," and you can change it. In a book, you say, "Hmm, I don't think that line's quite right." But it's there for the world to see forever.

Q: Do you have your sights set on a New York run for "Grandmother"?

A: No. I have a vision of the show playing all over the country, in lots of little productions. We've played around with other productions, in places like Florida and Tennessee. It's the kind of show that can be produced inexpensively. I like the fact that this show creates heroines who aren't 22 years old, that it gives actresses of a certain age an opportunity to appear.

Q: What's so special about being a grandparent?

A: The major difference is that it's a parent's job to say no, and a grandparent's job to say yes. That's your role. It's wonderful. If your grandkids ask, "Is it all right if I eat that candy?" you say, "Yes. Here, have another Hershey bar." You can be candy grandma.

Q: But what about those women who have pushed having their children back until they were in their late 30s. Will we still have the energy to be candy grandmas?

A: That won't matter. It doesn't matter when you have them or how many you have. There's a sense of continuity. When you have a grandchild, you realize your life had even more meaning than you'd thought. It's difficult to describe. You reinvent your own sense of history, and your own purpose.

* "Funny, You Don't Look Like a Grandmother" opens Saturday at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. Regular schedule: Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 7 p.m.; Sundays, 6 p.m. Ends Feb. 25. $22.50-$24.50. (310) 394-9779, Ext. 1.

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