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STEVE LOPEZ

Hulu's No. 1 sensation basks in the camera glow

Mae Laborde celebrates her 100 years

May 24, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

Mae Laborde was always a star, if you ask me. For most of her life, though, she never caught the break she needed.

But the gods have finally addressed this cruel injustice, and the Fresno native and one-time bookkeeper for the Lawrence Welk Show has broken out in a big way. There she was last Sunday at the Santa Monica YMCA with a "what-took-you-so-long" look on her face as she was honored by admiring friends, dignitaries and, yes, showbiz people.

The occasion?

Her 100th birthday.

Or, if you care to look at it this way, the seventh anniversary of her acting career, which began at 93.

The blessed event was sponsored, rather appropriately, by the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum. Mae was feted as "Queen for a Day" and wore a handsome tiara atop a wave of snow-white hair. My family and I were there because we used to share an alley with Mae when we lived back-to-back in Santa Monica in the late '90s.

"Now, honey," Mae had reminded me in her many, many calls the last few months, "don't forget my birthday party."

Several years ago, when I had eye surgery and began coming to grips with my failing faculties, I went to see Mae for a driving lesson. Although she is too short for half the rides at Disneyland and had to look through rather than over the steering wheel of an Oldsmobile the size of a Rose Parade float, she always drove like a champ.

"It's a speedway out here," she told me at the time, advising that I be sure to drive defensively because "people don't even look where they're going."

When I wrote about Mae's driving tips, a talent agent named Sherri Spillane paid a visit to her and a scene-stealing star was born. My phone would ring day and night, with Mae asking me to accompany her on auditions or shoots. She's been on Bill Maher and Mad TV, where she played Vanna White 40 years in the future, a little cranky but still turning letters on Wheel of Fortune. Mae, it turns out, is perfect for satire, because you can't tell whether she's in on the joke or basking in fame's glow.

She's been in a Ben Stiller movie, she's done commercials for Lexus, Sears and J.P. Morgan Chase and she became an outrageously popular late-night guest on "Talkshow With Spike Feresten," where she played, among other things, the 99-year-old daughter of Sen. John McCain. She also did a skit that "went bonkers," as Feresten described it, becoming the most popular video clip on Hulu.com.

"The jaded studio audience that regularly attended my show only went crazy for three guests in three years," says Feresten. "Jerry Seinfeld, David Archuleta and Mae Laborde. She's a star."

More on the cult of Mae's late-night stardom in a minute. First, I have to say that even before Mae became an actress, she acted like one. No one tells the Legend of Mae without mentioning the time when, as a youngster of 92, she needed a ride to the KABC radio studio for an evening interview. Mae had given up driving in the dark, but rather than call a taxi, she called the Santa Monica chief of police, whom she had never met. The chief's secretary, Terrie Centeno, didn't know what to do with the call but put it through.

"I was a little perplexed, but I said, hey, the woman's got spunk," James T. Butts Jr. recalled in a letter that was read at Mae's birthday party. Butts, now deputy executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, had to attend a wedding last Sunday but wanted to share his "Driving Miss Daisy" story about going to pick up the widow Mae.

"I came early and you told me about your life, showed me photos of your beloved husband Nicholas, the L.A. Red Car trolley conductor and your only offspring, Shirley. . . . We were best friends from that night on. . . . Yes, my dearest Mae, you have become a media monster. . . . The latest 'It' girl." . . . All the best for the next 100 years."

Such tributes, which came from the likes of Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Santa Monica Councilman Bob Holbrook, were certainly appreciated by Mae. But like any hot actress, it was Mae's "work" that she was eager to get to, and I had the sense she was impatiently awaiting the video portion of the party.

Finally the lights were dimmed and the Y became Mae's Cinema Paradiso, her illustrious twilight career on display for her adoring fans. Mae's most crowd-pleasing performance was the "Talkshow" skit in which she played the model for a faux public service broadcast on how to make the conversion from analog to digital.

"Analog?" Mae says with a bewildered look, standing next to a television set with rabbit ears.

She quickly gets more addled while inspecting the linguine-like cables poking out of the back of her television and a converter box. It's a hilarious bit that first aired late last year, with Mae representing everyone who ever felt overwhelmed trying to understand the latest technological breakthrough.

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