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At 80, she's still teaching her mom

Charlotte Rae is thrilled that her album of witty tunes -- recorded in '55 -- is available again.

December 25, 2006|Michael Kuchwara | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Fifty years ago, Charlotte Rae made a sweet, silly and very funny recording called "Songs I Taught My Mother." The humor was witty -- impish and literate at the same time -- and the melodies tuneful, the work of such masters as Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Marc Blitzstein and Vernon Duke.

The album, something of a legend among musical-theater buffs, has been out of print for decades. Now, it has been re-released on CD by PS Classics, a small yet enterprising recording company run by Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin. And no one could be more pleased and astonished than the album's star vocalist, whose lengthy career has spanned Broadway, the golden age of New York cabaret and television.

"Unbelievable," the 80-year-old Rae trills in her distinct, melodious voice that starts high and ends in a quavery coo, quite a journey for just one word. "I can't get over it."

The performer, dressed in a smart red pants suit, sits in her Upper West Side apartment and talks about this long-unavailable treasure, recorded by Vanguard Records in an old church in Brooklyn in 1955. "The sound there was perfect," she says with a sigh of remembrance.

The piano accompaniment was by Rae's then-husband, John Strauss, who also did the musical arrangements and led the little band, the sassily named Baroque Bearcats.

Vanguard, a quality label that mostly did jazz, folk and classical albums, eventually disappeared, but Rae tracked down the recording rights and in the 1970s bought back the album for $5,000. "I didn't know anything was ever going to happen with it," she says.

Flash-forward a couple of decades to when Rae was singing at a benefit honoring an old friend, lyricist Sheldon Harnick. One of the raffle prizes was a copy of her LP. She was surprised anyone would want it.

Harnick, a buddy since their college days at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., in the late 1940s, suggested she contact Krasker, head of PS Classics, which recorded the 2004 Broadway revival of Bock and Harnick's "Fiddler on the Roof."

Rae did. Krasker liked the album, and her recording has now resurfaced for a whole new generation, those who know Rae primarily as Mrs. Garrett from those TV sitcoms "Diff'rent Strokes" and "The Facts of Life."

Rae was born in Milwaukee, and she did stock in Wisconsin, but her real roots in theater go back to her days at Northwestern University. That's where she appeared in its annual student theatrical extravaganza, the Waa-Mu Show.

"I wanted to be a serious actress," she says. "I am a serious actress. I've done lots of good stuff."

Her favorite dramatic role is Miss Daisy in "Driving Miss Daisy," but comedy called, and Rae excelled at getting laughs.

The first year Harnick was at Northwestern, he wrote a song for Waa-Mu, and the performer who sang it was Rae. "That's when we became friends," he says.

So, it's not surprising that four of the numbers on "Songs I Taught My Mother" are by Harnick. They include "Merry Little Minuet," in which the singer comedically chirps her way through nationalistic animosities, not to mention nuclear annihilation, and "Gus the Gopher," the tale of a forlorn creature that little girl gophers didn't "go fur."

"A lot of the material on the album I did in my club act at places like the Village Vanguard," Rae recalls. When she came to New York in the late '40s, night spots were booming. Not only the Village Vanguard, but also the posh Blue Angel, home for budding talents such as Barbra Streisand, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

Rae perfected her comedy in clubs and did it, she says, "to showcase myself for Broadway," where she eventually appeared in such musicals as "Three Wishes for Jamie"; "Li'l Abner," in which she played Mammy Yokum; and "Pickwick," opposite Harry Secombe.

In Los Angeles, Rae made frequent TV appearances on everything from "The Phil Silvers Show" to "Car 54, Where Are You?" to "The Love Boat" before landing her long-running gig as Mrs. Garrett.

And the woman is still working. Earlier this year, Rae managed to stop the show at New York's City Center during a concert version of Kander and Ebb's "70, Girls, 70." In a duet with young dancer Mark Price, she managed to kick up her heels while admonishing the audience to "Go Visit Your Grandmother."

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