Only a handful of people on the planet can be recognized by just their…laugh. Actress and Comedienne JO ANNE WORLEY is one of them; she has been for decades. After being voted “School Comedienne” as a freshman in high school, the stunningly beautiful Indiana native landed a drama scholarship to Midwestern State University in Texas. Soon after, she relocated to So Cal to attend Los Angeles City College and later studied at the Pasadena Playhouse. Next Broadway came a calling, a short-run production followed then she decided to create her own vehicle: a nightclub act she performed in Greenwich Village. Hollywood heavyweight Merv Griffin took notice of her live show and recruited her to perform on ‘The Merv Griffin Show’. During those dozens of appearances, ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’ producer George Schlatter recognized her vast talents and cast her in his new hit TV show.
Worley left ‘Laugh-In’ during its peak to appear on several variety shows for Tom Jones as well as Engelbert Humperdinck and Andy Williams. She also continued to showcase her comedic genius on ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ and game shows: ‘Hollywood Squares’, ‘Match Game’ and ‘The $10,000 Pyramid’ included…more recently she even entertained on a number of programs for The Food Network. (See below!)
Throughout her extensive career, Worley has always favored being on stage; musical tours include ‘Gypsy’, ‘Mame’ and ‘Hello Dolly!’ along with non-singing theater productions ‘Same Time, Next Year’, ‘Steel Magnolias’ and a female version of ‘The Odd Couple’. She has also seized naughtier roles including a musical production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ with Mickey Rooney at The Pantages Theater here in Hollywood as well as New York’s Madison Square Garden; and appeared in the stage spectacular ‘Wicked’.
The star devotes much of her personal time serving as President for Actors and Others for Animals, founded by Doris Day and dedicated to focusing on the humane treatment of animals. Worley sat down for a lovely lunch at the world-famous Smoke House in Burbank to grant this exclusive interview for The Tolucan Times.
You were first discovered by writer and performer Billy Barnes of The Billy Barnes Review.
I was in a show, he came to see another girl and I had one pantomime sketch. During the bow something went wrong with the lights; it was supposed to be lights up, everybody bows, black out; lights up, everybody bows. When it was supposed to go black a spotlight stayed on me so I made faces and the audience started laughing. The lights would come up, we’d all bow like nothing had happened and they’d go black on everyone else and the spotlight was on me again so I did my thing. Billy came backstage and asked me, “Do you talk? Do you sing? Because we’re looking for a replacement here in Los Angeles for a show we are taking to Broadway”. If it weren’t for that spotlight my path would have been different…
How did you create your own nightclub act?
I was doing a show in Chicago and there was a piano bar in the hotel that we stayed in. The piano player would riff with me while I made up silly songs and I would string them together; that’s how a acquired a lot of my material. Then there was a club in New York called Upstairs at the Downstairs where I would perform my act and the bookers for ‘The Merv Griffin Show’ came to see another comedienne. I wound up doing a whole bunch of [Merv’s] shows. A tape from an episode that was shown to George Schlatter got me on ‘Laugh-In’. I just talked to George the other day. Ruth Buzzi lives in Texas now, but we all still see each other. (Worley actually receives a phone call from Buzzi during this interview!) The Smoke House where we are having lunch right now was right across from the ‘Laugh-In’ office where we would do table reads and rehearse the musical numbers; during lunch breaks and when the day was done we would come over here. I have many memories of Henry Gibson, Arte [Johnson], myself and some of the girls here and always having the garlic bread just like we are doing today!
How did you acquire that infectious laugh?
That is just how I laugh. George used to say, “We’ve got something that’s a little weak…Give it to Jo Anne, she’ll make it work,” and usually that would be by adding the ‘laugh’, which meant to the people watching, “Here’s where you laugh”…
Then you became one of the chosen few Disney darlings.
My very first movie was for Disney called Moon Pilot. It was so exciting just to be at Disney Studios – Walt Disney came to the set to greet everybody! I went on to do a couple ‘Mouse Factories’ where I interacted with cartoons and of course Beauty and the Beast is the gift that keeps on giving! I did ‘Wizards of Waverly Place’ and a lot of kids know me these days as “Nana Banana” on The Disney Channel’s ‘Jessie’.
Even though you are a comedienne you have played your share of devious characters…
Being in ‘Wicked’ was like being a rock star! With the first notes of the orchestra’s overture, the audience is screaming!
And your culinary interests have garnered you appearances on The Food Network.
I learned growing up on the farm how to cook for thrashers… At harvest time all the neighboring farmers would come with the thrashing machine and help harvest the crops while the women cooked tons of food. It was my turn to take over the cooking in our house when I was 11. When I did ‘Celebrity Chef’ they offered me my own cooking show; it was in New York but I live here in L.A., it was very time consuming to go back and forth and really wasn’t my main thing.
You are currently the President of Actors and Others for Animals (AOA).
Richard Basehart and his wife were on their way to a set one day and someone from the car in front of them threw a dog out the window. They stopped and picked up the dog, brought him to the set, collected money from the other actors to take him to the vet and others on the set, the director, lighter, camera man, all wanted to contribute too, so that’s how the organization got its name. Our main thing is spay and neuter; we help with the pet overpopulation that there are not enough loving homes for. We are going to be doing several events to help raise money: my favorite idea is “Celebrity Autobiographies”; ours will be “Animal Celebrity Biographies” with celebrities reading from Lassie’s book as well as Trigger, Rin Tin Tin, etc., with a wine and cheese reception. Another one is at The Magic Castle in Hollywood where we have “Magical Luncheons”; people bid on these to dine with celebrities. We had a “Laugh-In Ladies Luncheon” which had Lily Tomlin, who just joined our Board for AOA, and me in the Houdini Room. We are possibly going to have a “Magic M*A*S*H* Luncheon” because Loretta Swit is on our Board and Jamie Farr is a good friend… oh and a “Magic Comics Luncheon” because I can call on friends like Fred Willard!
Any upcoming projects?
I am doing my one-woman show which is my nightclub act but more personal. I have my brother’s letters from when he was in Vietnam and my sister saved everything, including my old reviews. And I just picked up a new Justin Bieber musical tooth brush that I’m going to be using in my new act!
http://www.actorsandothers.com/, (818) 755-6045