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Laugh on

The legendary faces of Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin will keep you laughing at Pantages Theatre Saturday night. Photo credit: LilyTomlin.com

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Comic talents come and go -- some more deservedly than others -- but no performer in our time has earned more enduring success than the legendary Lily Tomlin. Born in Detroit, Mary Jean Tomlin spent her 20s acting and doing standup off-Broadway. She performed under a variation on her mother's first name, Lillie, and was recruited into the cast of the already-hit show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in 1969. There, by drawing on characters she created for the stage, she became not just one household name but several. "Edith Ann," a precocious kindergartener in an oversize chair, traveled from Laugh-In to classic Sesame Street to a trio of prime-time animated specials. "Ernestine" was a hyponasal phone operator who knew Ma Bell wielded (in those days) the tactical advantages of an indispensible monopoly. "We're the phone company. We don't care," she explained to recalcitrant customers. "We don't have to."

Ernestine anchored Tomlin's first comedy album, 1971's This Is a Recording, which won a Grammy for best comedy recording. That made Tomlin the first female solo performer to top that category, succeeded only by Whoopi Goldberg and Kathy Griffin in the decades since. A year later, Tomlin and her partner-turned-wife, June Wagner, gave Edith Ann the spotlight on And That's the Truth; that album was named for the character's signature closing phrase, usually punctuated with a vocal raspberry.

In 1975, Robert Altman cast Tomlin in the dramatic role of "Linnea" in his pioneering film Nashville, for which she received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. She was part of a trinity of workplace avengers in 1980's smash hit 9 to 5, followed by memorable appearances on The Electric Company and HBO's Emmy-winning adaptation of And the Band Played On. She was a series regular on The Magic School Bus, Murphy Brown, The West Wing and Desperate Housewives, and she costarred with Jane Fonda on four seasons of Grace and Frankie.

Tomlin's most lauded, comprehensive showcase was probably 1977's Tony-winning The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, a highlight of which was an acerbic bag lady in contact with extraterrestrials. Perhaps Tomlin's second-best showcase is her current, touring show, which deploys many of her classic characters and hits Tacoma's Broadway Center this week. And that's the truth!

AN EVENING OF CLASSIC LILY TOMLIN, 3 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 16, Pantages Theatre, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $39-$110, 253.591.5890, broadwaycenter.org

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