December 05, 1977 12:00 PM

Mike Nichols was producing this musical based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, and he wondered if Dorothy Loudon would be interested in playing the harridan who runs the foundling home. Dorothy had been pals with Mike since the ’50s when they headlined at the old Blue Angel nightclub, but she was a little queasy. She’d already had enough Broadway calamities to be dubbed “Our Lady of the Flops.” Besides, Loudon noted, “There’s an old saying, ‘Never be in a show with kids, dogs or an Irish tenor,’ and this show had all three.” But she decided to give it a shot, largely on the continued urging of her husband (and despite his having suffered a heart attack during rehearsals). The musical became, of course, this year’s super-hit Annie, and Loudon, at 47, handily manages to hold the stage with the better-publicized 14-year-old title star, Andrea McArdle. Any doubters should be convinced by Dorothy’s peer-pleasing triumph over Andrea for the 1977 Tony Award. Others can see for themselves Dec. 4 when the two co-star in NBC’s rousing Annie Christmas Special.

“My life was far more filled with happiness than I ever dreamed it could be,” Dorothy says. Then, five weeks after that exultant Tony night, her arranger-composer husband, Norman Paris, died. It was particularly tragic because they had enjoyed one of showbiz’s most glowing if difficult relationships. They were close for 23 years, but for the first 17 he had been married to (if legally separated from) his first wife. “We had tried living together,” recounts Loudon painfully, “but it seriously hurt too many people—my parents, his kids.” Finally, when his children were grown, he got his divorce and they were wed. Dorothy went joyously into quasi-retirement (“My marriage was my cause”), while Norman’s career was flourishing. Before what turned out to be his terminal illness, he had worked on a Zero Mostel number for the film The Front and arranged Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning LP Still Crazy after All These Years.

For weeks after Norman’s death, home for Dorothy was a succession of hotel rooms while she avoided returning to their East Side townhouse. That was where “we read all night together.” Though they had first met when Norman came backstage at a cabaret to offer to rearrange her “terrible” material, she says in their last years together “you couldn’t have dragged us to a club.”

Loudon’s background was showbiz periphery in New England. Her dad was an advertising exec who blew sax on the side, her mom played piano and organ at Filene’s department store’s Salad Bowl. Dorothy herself sang in boondocks clubs for several years after dropping out of Syracuse U before evolving from chanteuse to comedienne. She broke into prominence opening for Ray Bolger in Vegas, and her only subsequent setback was that some stars, like Mort Sahl, found her too socko an act to follow. There was also, of course, her run of Broadway bombs, though her personal notices were unfailingly good.

She made her national name in 1962 replacing Carol Burnett on CBS’s Garry Moore Show. “I knew if you weren’t in television you were dead in this country,” she recalls. But she still squirms at the talk shows. What rankled were the sly questions about her “single gal” status. “It was so offensive and sickening to me,” she says. “In nightclubs I always wore a fake engagement ring, a zircon, to keep people away.”

Clearly Dorothy brings a lot of life experience to her role as Miss Hannigan in Annie. “I didn’t approach her as funny,” says Loudon. “People laugh because no one in the audience has not wanted to scream at kids, and if they say so they’re lying.” As for herself, Dorothy now says poignantly that she had no children because marriage came late, “and everything’s so temporary in show business, it’s unfair to kids.” She adds, “I’m sorry now. A successful career is not much fun if you don’t have anyone to share it with.”

As for what’s next, Dorothy says she throws TV series scripts under her couch but could be tempted by a movie. Not that she’s bored by the first long Broadway run of her life. “I’ll turn gray in this part before I’ll leave it to do anything I’m embarrassed with,” she says. “Let’s face it, my career is all I have now, and God knows it has sustained me.”

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