This Friday, in a benefit for the Fox Theater restoration, Julia Sweeney comes to the Fox Theater to perform her one-woman show, In the Family Way. You probably first heard of Julia Sweeney through the character of Pat — the genderless, fashion-disaster, mystery creature she fished out of her own imagination and who achieved meteoric geek celebrity on Saturday Night Live in the early '90s. Or maybe you've seen her one-woman show — God Said "Ha!" — which tells the story of Sweeney's year of living cancerously, when her brother Mike died of lymphoma and she was diagnosed with a rare type of cervical cancer. (Mike accused her of coming down with a case of "sympathy cancer" because she just couldn't stand him being in the cancer spotlight all the time.) You've probably spotted her on various TV sitcoms over the years, and maybe you know she's writing for Desperate Housewives this season. In short, by any yardstick, Sweeney is a showbiz success story.
What you may not know is that it all started right here in Spokane, in the late '70s, when Sweeney was drafted by her friend Dina Kelly to be an usherette and popcorn slinger at the Fox Theater. "You could eat all the popcorn you wanted," says Sweeney from her home in Los Angeles. Thus began her enduring love affair with the movies.
She remembers Animal House packing the theater every night, the laughter so loud and raucous, "it practically blasted the doors open." Even in high school, she felt the lure of the footlights when she played the role of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. She had wanted to be Juliet, of course, but says the experience taught her "my role is more of the Nurse variety." So when she went to UW, she didn't take part in the renowned drama program, but embarked on a double major in European history and economics, with the idea that "I would be more of an academic."
When Sweeney told her mom that she wanted to be a history professor, her mother fumed that she would never find a job. "You'll be a waitress," she warned, "reading history on your breaks."
So Sweeney returned to her girlhood dream. "It was a familiar fantasy, a tale that's been told a thousand times." She would "live in Hollywood and be... an accountant."
So for five years, she toiled amid the balance sheets and revenue calculations. Out of this seemingly barren ground came the she-man Pat — the weird fictional progeny of two strange souls in the accounting department.
When Sweeney later decided to become an actress and had taken up with the Groundlings improv troupe, Wallace and Muriel (their actual names) provided her with inspiration. The stardust had never faded, you see. Besides, says Sweeney, after accountant, actress "was the next profession on the list."
For Sweeney, the two years with the Groundlings were a kind of Showbiz U., launching not only her acting career but teaching her how to write as well.
"The Groundlings taught me how the business worked," Sweeney adds. Although at the time student actors actually had to pay the company to participate, she saw how it was a proving ground for performers, who then found their way into commercials and TV shows as actors, writers and producers. She also grasped that contacts are the lifeblood of the entertainment world. When Lorne Michaels saw her with the troupe, he cast her on Saturday Night Live. (In fact, it took nearly a year, and she nearly lost out to fellow Groundling Lisa Kudrow; her happiness was dimmed only by the worry that Kudrow might not find work, she laughs.) She realized that "what you need are 500 little breaks like that — people who know you and will recommend you."
Eventually, all those little breaks led to a trilogy of one-woman shows and her current job, which she loves despite the hours, writing for the mega-hit Desperate Housewives. This Friday, in a benefit for the theater she once worked at, she performs In the Family Way, which tells the story of her trip to China to adopt her daughter, Mulan, now almost 6 years old, as well as the mental obstacles she had to overcome to get there. Once she came to grips with the difficulty of having her own biological child after her bout with cancer — as Sweeney puts it, "ending the love affair with my own DNA" — she found out that for a single woman wanting to adopt a child, "it's all about China."
This summer, she and Mulan spent time with family and friends in Spokane, and Sweeney's thoughts turn to fantasies of coming back to live here. "I really have a love affair with Spokane," she says. "There are all these romantic places... the Courthouse, the Davenport Hotel, Manito Park... the Donut Parade."
Yeah, right, you say. On the other hand, this is the resourceful woman who managed to go from Spokane to a glamorous accounting career in Hollywood and then create a family all her own.
Who knows, you might run into her taking Mulan to a matinee at the IMAX one of these days.
Julia Sweeney performs In the Family Way at the Fox Theater, 1005 W. Sprague, on Friday, Oct. 7, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $45. Visit www.foxtheaterspokane.com or call 624-1200 or 325-SEAT.