EAST COUNTY — Jeanne Larranaga has spent most of her life doing what she loves without getting paid for it.
A singer and actress whose career has been spent mostly in community theater, Larranaga, a Heritage Harbour resident in her 60s, has had touches with fame.
During a brief three-year professional run, Larranaga worked with Betty White, Ed Ames, Carol Lawrence and “The A-Team” star Dirk Benedict in a performance of “Oklahoma!”
Larranaga even has a fan base, many her age, who pack vans and travel to watch her perform.
In her latest role, Larranaga will star in “Sunset Boulevard” during a two-and-a-half-week run at The Players Theatre in Sarasota.
The show, in which Larranaga plays Norma Desmond — a suicidal, aging, silver-screen star hungry to make it big again — kicks off Jan. 10 and will include matinees and nighttime performances.
It will also feature a pack of followers — 70-plus Heritage Harbour residents recruited by master planner Cathy Faust — who will fill the crowd, just like they did during Larranaga’s previous performances in Sarasota/Bradenton, including productions of “Jekyll & Hyde,” “Titanic the Musical” and “The Sound of Music.”
Faust, a former tour organizer whose eight years as a Heritage Harbour resident nearly matches Larranaga’s nine, sometimes plays piano in her friend’s shows.
Faust sends reminder mass emails to members of Harbour Hats and Helping Hand, volunteer committees to which she and Larranaga both belong, for anniversaries and birthdays or, really, whenever she can find an excuse to do so.
“(Larranaga) is quite the lady and I love doing it,” Faust said. “We have a very supportive community.”
Another 50-plus congregants of First United Methodist Church of Bradenton, for which Larranaga sings in the choir while her husband, John, ushers, will attend a show, as well.
Her loyal fans appreciate that Larranaga performs simply to entertain.
“I always think about the old saying, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’” says Larranaga, whose community-theater career spans 35 to 40 years. “I’ve been so blessed in so many ways. I feel like I have so much to give back.”
Growing up in Southern Missouri and Arkansas, Larranaga’s performance career started off with a whisper.
When she was 4 years old, Larranaga’s father, whose amateur singing career peaked with him singing World War I songs such as “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” around the house, brought his daughter to a public place and simply told her, “sing.”
Onlookers applauded, though more out of courtesy.
“My dad said, ‘Sweetheart, you have a great little voice, but it doesn’t make difference if no one can hear you,’” Larranaga said. “That’s the last time anybody told me to sing out loud.”
Always blessed with the ability to memorize her lines quickly, a young Larranaga strutted around and recited radio commercials. Larranaga’s mother, a fellow sing-in-the-shower type, would belt out the jingles with her.
At Central High School, in Springville, Mo., Larranaga and her older sister took voice lessons and played instruments.
“My dad always said if there was a talent in the family, we would make something of it,” Larranaga said.
Larranaga majored in music at Southwest Missouri State University before switching to theater at University of Arkansas and then crossing the globe performing.
First, in her late 30s, came a three-year professional journey in which Larranaga performed with the New York-based group, The Kenley Players, touring the Midwest and understudying for lead performers such as Pam Dawber in “My Fair Lady” aboard a cruise line.
During summer circuits, Larranaga’s middle- and high-school-aged children would travel with their mother as she performed, from Michigan, to Illinois, to Indiana.
During their school year, Larranaga rarely saw her kids. So, she decided to stop traveling. She turned down an offer from the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter to take care of her family home in Indiana.
She quickly got the itch to perform again, this time for free.
In the 1990s she toured with an international choral group in England, where well-known British composer John Rutter arranged the music.
Larranaga also worked with Rutter during a show at the prestigious Carnegie Hall, in Manhattan, N.Y.
By 2004, Larranaga had moved to Bradenton.
In October 2010, during a rehearsal for the show “NUNSENSATIONS!” at The Manatee Players, Larranaga danced on some steps before darting off stage and tearing her meniscus.
Between shows put ice packs on her knees, and on stage she rode around on a motorized scooter. She fooled the audience into thinking it was part of the performance.
To prepare for her latest role in “Sunset Boulevard,” Larranaga depended on her husband and biggest fan, like always.
John Larranaga joined his wife as they watched YouTube videos of previous versions of the play; they wanted to create a unique Norma Desmond.
Leading up to the show’s debut, the couple read the script aloud twice a day.
Larranaga would repeat the lines to the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, on a CD in her car, through an MP3 player in her husband’s car and the speakers in their home.
“I ask (John) if he gets tired of this,” Larranaga said. “He says, ‘No. Never.’ My husband says two things: He says he’s the best audience you’ll ever have, and he writes a great check.”
On stage, Larranaga will listen for John’s signature “woo-hoo” from the audience, a shout that comes from a different seat each night. John likes to mix it up during one of the eight to 10 shows he will attend.
Larranaga cherishes her time on stage, because time can be unfair in the theater business, even for the unpaid.
“I think about hanging it up,” Larranaga said. “I’m reaching the stage of my life where I don’t want to do it anymore. I want to spend time with my husband. I’m also at an age where there aren’t many wonderful parts for me. I just want to sing that one big song.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected]