September 16, 2002 12:00 PM

Caroline Rhea marvels at the view from her new offices in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, where she now tapes her own talk show—the one that replaced Rosie O’Donnell‘s as of Sept. 2. “I’m very impressed by St. Patrick’s,” she says. “Another deity to me is definitely Saks Fifth Avenue. Someone told me that when they go to Vermont, they feel like they’re home. I’m that way at Saks.”

But the place where she really wants to put down roots is the syndicated Caroline Rhea Show. After performing stand-up, sitting in a neon-trimmed box on Hollywood Squares and acquiring a fan base of young girls as Melissa Joan Hart’s jolly Aunt Hilda on The WB’s Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, the 38-year-old has landed her dream job. “I’ll be a host for life!” she says.

She may need the rosy optimism. Ratings prospects without the Big R are uncertain enough that two key markets, New York City and L.A., have moved the show from O’Donnell’s 10 a.m. slot to 12:35 a.m., up against Conan O’Brien. “I hope people give her a chance to be herself,” says O’Donnell, who knew Rhea first as a comic and later asked her to appear on Rosie as both guest and then guest host. When O’Donnell decided to quit last spring after six years, she told her producers they couldn’t do better than hire Rhea. “She’s a great girl,” says O’Donnell.

If Rosie was the Queen of Nice, gushing over celebrities and going all googly over kids, Rhea is the Princess of Pert: upbeat, smart, more sophisticated than her meat-and-potatoes predecessor. Her new set, she says, “looks like a Pucci scarf. It’s all of my colors”—pastel yellows, pinks and greens. If Rosie obsessed over Tom Cruise, Rhea—engaged to Bob Kelty, 40, an L.A.-based fund-raiser for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation—pants for Colin Firth, who visited during one of her sub stints. “I’m thinking, ‘Darcy from Pride and Prejudice is next to me. Oh my God.’ ” A crocheting enthusiast, she plans to have a designated knitter in the studio audience each day to knit blankets for homeless shelters. Otherwise, as far as Rhea is concerned, handling celebrity guests ain’t brain surgery: “It’s a talk show. They have to talk.”

The Montreal native was raised to be fluent in more than just showbiz chitchat. Encouraged by her parents, David, an obstetrician-gynecologist, and Margery, an antiques dealer (both now retired), “I grew up thinking that if I wanted to go be prime minister, I could,” she says. Unlike older sisters Celia, who became a lawyer, and Cynthia, an entertainment industry executive, Rhea started out as class clown and never swerved from that role. “I was just the youngest in the family,” she reasons, “and most in desperate need of attention.”

Skipping out on college to move to Manhattan, she established herself in the comedy clubs before landing the role of a witchy aunt in the sitcom Sabrina in 1996. Two years later, performing at the eighth Comic Relief benefit, “she just killed,” says Bob Kelty, who at the time worked for the homeless organization. Romantically, though, he was the one who scored the knockout. Rhea was attracted by what she calls his “gorgeous gray hair, like Richard Gere and Bill Clinton,” and won over by his kindness. “He used to be an altar boy,” she says. “I don’t think he ever got over it.”

Engaged since 1999, one year after Rhea took up her spot as a regular on the resuscitated Hollywood Squares, “they complement each other nicely,” says Toronto homemaker Pam Gregory, Rhea’s friend since childhood. “She’s gregarious. He’s quiet and supporting.” The only time they’ve ever argued, says Rhea, was picking bathroom tile for their Colonial-style home in L.A. “You would have thought it was divorce court and there were millions of dollars at stake,” she says. “We ended up with plain white tile.” And although their bicoastal life will be easier to manage now that they own a two-bedroom Manhattan condo, they’re still not in sync about a wedding date. Whenever they consult the calendar, she says, “I’m in a parade, and he’s off on a big job.”

One vital point is settled: Like Rosie, Rhea can’t wait for the day she can regale viewers with adorable anecdotes about her kids. “Oh, please God, I hope so,” she says of starting a family, then slips into a fantasy monologue of introducing her child to a new friend: “Let me tell you about your playmate today. You’re going to be playing with Tommy. He’s 3. Not much of a sharer, but I think you’ll enjoy him. Please welcome…Tommy!”

Tom Gliatto

Mark Dagostino in New York City

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