Saturday Night’s Children: Christine Ebersole (1981-1982)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 37 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
A multiple Tony-winning Broadway veteran of almost 40 years, Christine Ebersole has more musical theater fans than SNL admirers; not surprising since she produced no recurring characters, sketches, or catchphrases during her season on the show, and her actual SNL appearances — particularly when she was in her musical number element — have since been largely forgotten and overshadowed by her cast mates Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Robin Duke, and Mary Gross. While Ebersole sought out film and TV roles both before and after her SNL stint, her passion for performing in Broadway and Off-Broadway productions has brought the most acclaim, and instead of leaving the 8H stage for a budding Hollywood career, she’s performed on just about every other stage in New York.
Ebersole’s interest in theater began during her high school years in Winnetka, Illinois. After attending MacMurray College in Jacksonville, she moved to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Art and landed her first Broadway role in the 1976 production of Angel Street at age 23. While she found most success with stage work such as costarring with Kevin Kline in Hal Prince’s On the Twentieth Century in 1978-1979, starring opposite Richard Burton in 1980’s Camelot, and starring in the first revival of Oklahoma! in 1980, Ebersole also landed small television roles starting with the ABC soap opera Ryan’s Hope from 1977-1980 and, just a year later, a repertory player spot on SNL‘s seventh season just after producer Jean Doumanian’s departure.
Alongside newcomer Mary Gross, Ebersole was hired by producer Dick Ebersol (and no, they’re not related) to round out the seventh season cast, but she proved to be more of a go-to straight woman or dumb blonde type (and, occasionally, musical number performer), most likely due to her lack of sketch comedy experience prior to SNL. Still, her singing chops and Broadway-glam delivery allowed her to impersonate a variety of celebrities like Princess Di, gossip columnist Rona Barrett, country music singer Barbara Mandrell, FDR mistress Lucy Rutherford, Carol Wayne (AKA Matinée Lady from The Tonight Show), comedian Fannie Flagg, actresses Britt Ekland and Cheryl Tiegs, Andy Rooney’s wife Marge Howard, and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Many of Ebersole’s appearances were confined to the SNL Newsbreak segment, first as the recurring “Newsbreak Meteorologist” with anchors Brian Doyle-Murray and Mary Gross and, a little over halfway into the season, as Doyle-Murray’s coanchor. She kept her anchor spot until the end of the season, when along with Doyle-Murray and Tony Rosato, she was fired by Dick Ebersol to make room for new players the following year — which by then seemed to be Ebersol’s style. While Ebersole left without much of a mark, her performance of legendary SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue’s song “Single Women” in October 1980 would turn into a Dolly Parton hit single in 1982 and TV movie two years later. In lieu of an available online clip, here’s an excerpt from O’Donoghue’s lyrics:
With a twenty in your pocket
And a toothbrush in your purse
Life could get a whole lot better
But it better not get worse
Like when he’s too drunk to make it
Just when you’re too drunk to care
Do you mind if I come join ya?
Love your dress and love your hair
They are friendly when they meet you
They are strangers when they go
May I taste your Vodka Collins?
May I offer you some blow?
After leaving SNL and appearing in 1982’s Tootsie as well as the musical Harrigan ‘n Hart, Ebersole moved to Los Angeles to pursue more film and TV roles like her Emmy-nominated run on One Life to Live from 1983-1985 in addition to appearances on Love, Sydney, Valerie, The Cavanaughs, Murphy Brown, and the title role in the FOX sitcom Rachel Gunn, R.N. in 1992 (she also sang the show’s theme song). She scored several film parts in Amadeus, the ET rip-off Mac and Me, Ghost Dad, The Lounge People, Ri¢hie Ri¢h, and Black Sheep, not to mention a total of 14 TV movie parts spanning from 1984-2008.
More recently, Ebersole’s shown up in a long list of onscreen supporting roles on shows like Will & Grace, The Big Gay Sketch Show, Boston Legal, Royal Pains, and TBS’s Sullivan & Son, but it was her return to Broadway after 14 years in Los Angeles building her name as a cabaret singer (and recording three albums) that brought the most acclaim, starting with her starring role in 1999’s production of Mame followed by The Best Man (2000), A Connecticut Yankee (2001), and 42nd Street (2001), which won her a Tony and Outer Critics Circle Award. More Tony noms followed after her work in Dinner at Eight from 2002-2003 as well as her dual-role performance in the musical adaptation of Grey Gardens in 2005, which also earned her an Obie and Drama Desk Award in addition to the Tony win. These days, Ebersole lives in New Jersey with her family and continues to perform on New York stages, and she still shows up from time to time in TV comedy, like when she sang “What I Did For Love” on The Colbert Report as an ode to the Bush presidency in 2009.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.