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Sunday, January 24, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Broadway Glory Days But A Memory For Former Star

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

WALLA WALLA - Every once in a while, Pat Stanley Matthews sees a great musical or a whimsical play and feels a slight pang of temptation.

It passes.

"It is a fine thing in life to go from one thing to another," said the former Broadway star, settled deep into a chair in the living room of her 100-year-old Walla Walla home. Much of the art and furniture enlivening the rooms was designed by Matthews or her husband, Gerry, a veteran entertainer whose voice you've heard a thousand times in commercials.

Missing is her Tony Award.

Pat Matthews won a Tony in 1959, but it and most of her Broadway mementos were destroyed in a fire years ago. Only a few things remain. To learn about that part of Matthews' life, you have to move farther back into the house, and into the past.

"You don't want to keep (a career) alive out of guilt," she said.

"I have felt at times I turned my back on something I should be doing, but there are all kinds of parts of your life," she said. "I needed to get away from it . . . I needed to find myself within myself."

It's a long way to New York

It's a long way from New York to Walla Walla and from leaving one talent in life to discover another.

Matthews, 67, grew up shy and quiet in Cincinnati. At 19, she took dance in college, then spent two summers at dance camp.

Dancing felt so completely natural and wonderful that she announced to her mortified parents she was leaving college to go to New York to turn professional.

"No. You can't!" she recalls her mother frantically telling her. "You'll turn out to be common and hard."

Her mother was thinking more of burlesque. Matthews convinced her that it wasn't like that and won her parents' support for dancing classes in New York. After two months in the Big Apple, she went with a friend to an open audition and won a place in the chorus line in the 1952 revival of "Of Thee I Sing."

"It started from there. I never stopped working," she said. "I don't think it could happen that way in New York now. I could dance, act and sing, and there weren't that many people at that time who could do that then. Now, there is."

She performed in numerous plays, including "One Touch of Venus," "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Fiorello!" "Carousel" and "The Pajama Game." She appeared on magazine covers and performed on TV and at the White House for President Eisenhower.

The people in her home town were floored. The woman on stage didn't seem at all like the shy little girl they remembered.

"I was very aware of the change in me," she said. Small and energetic, she leaves the impression that even now, a few years shy of 70, she might be hard for most people to keep up with.

"I'd always felt very much on the outside," she said. "Then I felt very much on the inside. I was the person everyone wanted to be like. It was wonderful and it was fun, but there also were doubts. I always felt slightly like a charlatan because I came to it so late with little training. I never felt really solid in my proficiency."

Some day, she thought, someone would realize her success was a mistake.

In 1959, she won the Tony Award for the number "The Pussy Foot" in "Goldilocks." She went to the ceremony with her first husband, lyricist Johnny Burke, whom she'd recently divorced.

Receiving the award was a highlight in her career, but after it was over she found herself alone in a motel room, frightened by the heights she had attained.

She quits show business

After co-starring with Jerry Lewis in the movie, "The Ladies Man," and performing with Robert Redford in the play, "Sunday in New York," in 1961, she quit.

She earlier had married playwright William Hanley and had wanted a family. She also wanted out of the business.

"It was getting very, very hot, and I don't know that I could have handled it," she said. "I didn't have a strong enough sense of self then to survive it. I think in a way I chose well. I don't think I was strong enough to be there. I also don't regret that I raised my own children."

She and Hanley divorced about 15 years later. She found herself scrambling for a way to support her two children.

She started thinking that maybe she needed a real job. A job like normal people have, with a regular paycheck.

"I thought I could be a social worker," she said. "So at 49, I went back to school. I would never do that now."

Trying to divide her time between home and school, she was in a constant state of exhaustion. One night, she fell asleep while driving. Matthews' front teeth were knocked out and she also suffered a broken hip and ribs.

She didn't graduate. And by the time she healed, she'd realized that social work wasn't for her.

In 1980, she married longtime acquaintance Gerry Matthews after being reunited with him at a friend's funeral. He is a kindred spirit, a man who has spent decades performing in theater, night clubs, television and doing voices for a multitude of commercials.

Earlier in the year they married, she had returned to the theater. She was 50. Most people in the business remembered her as in her 20s.

"I looked pretty young, and I kept getting set up for roles as kids," she said. "I wasn't that person anymore. I had all these years in me."

She forced herself through a few projects.

"When I went back, I had a whole different perspective, like kids who don't get afraid of diving off a 10-foot-board until they are 20." she said.

Miserable despite good reviews

Her manager suggested a comeback act. She chose a selection of songs that reflected her experience and maturity and opened a cabaret act in a nightclub. The reviews were great, and her old friend Redford caused a stir by coming down to see her. But she was miserable.

"I felt trapped," she said. "Here suddenly I was back. I was on the `Today' show. I felt like I was someone else. It was so bizarre. It was agony for me to get up and do this."

She did one more Broadway play, the "Five O'clock Girl" in 1981, then quit again.

After living several years in Los Angeles, the couple moved to Walla Walla in 1989 to retire. They were looking for a rural town in the Northwest with a college. A Seattle real-estate agent who was raised in Walla Walla referred them here.

They got a lot of calls asking them to teach or participate in local productions. They turned them down.

"It felt snobby and awful not to do it, but we were on to other things," she said. "One of the reasons we are here is we don't want to continue that part of our lives."

Their lives now are as retirees, artists and co-owners in the Flying Crow art gallery and Louie Permelia Limited.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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