To her loyal readers she is America’s Housewife-at-Large, a cheery suburban survivor with a wry eye for family foibles. Yet Erma Bombeck, at 54, wears more bats than even the busiest homemaker. Besides writing a thrice-weekly syndicated column for more than 900 newspapers, she tapes a regular segment for ABC’s Good Morning America, authors nearly a book a year (her latest: Aunt Erma’s Cope Book.) and makes occasional one-day forays from her home in Paradise Valley, Ariz. to stump for the ERA. Now her wash-and-wear life-style has a new wrinkle. Every week Erma flies to California for a five-day stint as creator, writer and executive producer of a new ABC Saturday night sitcom bearing the modest moniker Maggie. “Out here titles don’t seem to matter much,” she shrugs. “I like to fiddle with book titles, but for TV it has to be simple and that’s all.” The series, starring Miriam Flynn in the title role, chronicles the home-life hassles of a Dayton, Ohio couple and their three sons. For “mother hen” Bombeck, there have been hassles of a different sort. In a conversation with PEOPLE reporter Suzy Kalter, Erma discussed the dangers facing an avowed homebody who finds herself plumped down in Hollywood.
I don’t do much driving around out here because I get lost. I try to keep my traveling limited to the airport, my apartment and the studio. Everyone tells me it’s much easier to use Burbank Airport than Los Angeles International, so I tried that. Well, I stopped at a self-service station to get directions into L.A., but the man who tried to help me just stood there, scratching his beard, trying to give me directions without knowing the names of any of the streets. If you don’t write it down for me, I’m in trouble.
Once I get into town I give myself 35 minutes of looking for something, then I declare myself officially lost. I have a way to get from the studio to home, and if that street is ever closed, so help me I’ll never get back.
You can never get a parking place at the market, so I drive to the fabric store nearby and then walk to the grocery. Of course sometimes it takes me a long time to find my car again. I rent a car each week at the airport, so I have to cope with trying to remember what color my car is this week. I leave something in the back seat so I can walk up and down the parking lot aisles and look in the windows. I’ve got pink luggage and a yellow briefcase. No one else has pink luggage and a yellow briefcase.
My apartment is beautiful, far nicer than anything I’m used to. I rented it furnished from an interior decorator, and it’s got a tiger skin rug on the floor. When I get up in the middle of the night I have to walk across an animal’s stripes to get to the bathroom. It’s a religious experience.
I’m trying to make my life here as simple as possible. Each weekend I stand in my bedroom closet at home in Arizona and try to predict the next week’s weather in Los Angeles. This is not easy. If I pack woolen skirts and sweaters because it was cool last week, the next week it turns out to be blazing hot. I end up feeling like I’m in a sauna. Or I find one dress and wear it all week. Every morning in L.A. I get up, shower and put on the same scruffy brown shoes, the same comfortable clothes. I take my dirty laundry home to Phoenix to do in the comfort of my own utility room. I don’t go to Laundromats anymore; I’ve done my time.
I’m not intimidated by Hollywood glamour, but I’m really impressed with the people who make a living at playacting. I’m kind of a hick out here, and they’re the stars. I’m awed by them. I saw Animal from Lou Grant on the lot the other day and almost wrecked my car. I’ve been in front of the cameras, but I’ve never considered that showbiz. It took 12 years for me to realize that sometimes people even recognize me. Usually they just think it’s Marie Dressier come back.
Art Buchwald was out here, and he invited me to a party at Dinah Shore’s. Cary Grant was my dinner partner. He said he read my column, and I said, “Oh, you don’t have to say that.” Then he quoted lines to me. I couldn’t believe it. I would have been happy to talk to him about asparagus.
My hours are long, and I don’t have time for all those fancy Hollywood lunches everyone talks about. I eat at the commissary, and I’m still alive. Sometimes I buy my lunch at the market.
What has made the adjustment easier for me has been the people I am associated with. I never expected them to be nice to an outsider. It’s probably my age, but at my age I’ll take any kindness. They’ve been very patient too. There’s so much for me to learn—things you do and don’t do, protocol. Like the director directs. I always tell everyone how to do everything. Now I let the director direct. I’m learning more every day, and I haven’t had any problems with the Hollywood types at all. Of course, the other day I went into one producer’s office and found all the secretaries doing the bunny hop. But I didn’t ask any questions.
I love television, and I don’t care what I see. Anything that moves I’ll watch. But making television is hard work, especially for me because I’m used to working alone. Here, everything is done by committee. In Maggie we’ve made a lot of changes—in the story line, the location, some of the actors. I wanted to make Maggie a character who was believable, who didn’t wear wet lipstick and four-inch heels. You see, I always read the critics. I figure they don’t know me, so they can’t dislike me, so they must have something to say. I listened to their comments on the pilot episode, and we have a better show for it.
Maggie has three young sons. One is a teenager you never see. He’s always in the bathroom. God knows what he does in there. Working with kids is chancy, and I thought about putting all three kids into the bathroom and leaving them there. To get a kid who doesn’t giggle before he says his lines is almost impossible. And we were not looking for Donna Reed’s kids, who were perfect in every way. We’ve got great boys now, but golly, they were hard to find.
I’d been developing Maggie for a year and a half before I even got here, and my husband, Bill, has been very supportive. He sits there listening to me read him all these scripts. His eyeballs are rolling with sleep but he listens. Poor man. I don’t know what I’d do if I had a husband who gave me a bad time. Some women leave the house to go play bridge; I leave to go to Cleveland to speak. My husband has learned to sleep warm and eat cold. I don’t like the two-house situation, and I certainly don’t plan to do this the rest of my life. My marriage is the most important thing in my life. I mean that truly, and nothing is worth tampering with that. Besides, I’m too old to shop.
At the studio they haven’t put my name on the door yet. It makes my office harder to find, but then they can’t fire me either since they don’t know where I am. If we get high ratings, maybe they’ll give me a lamp that matches the sofa. I might even spring for a desk calendar. I did buy plants at a place across the street, and I bought a piece of fabric at the fabric store to cover up the sofa. Nothing could really hide that sofa, and I didn’t want to invest in paintings or posters for the office, so I thought I’d hang the fabric on the wall for color. Then, if the show doesn’t pan out, I’ll just take down my piece of fabric, make it into a skirt and go home.