On a five-acre ranch in the country, Roberta MacDonald plays the leading lady in herding her zoo of animals — five dogs, one cat, a few swans, some peacocks and two burros.
“We rescued them from the Grand Canyon,” says MacDonald about her beloved burros. “They were being killed because they were causing erosion of the ground. I was doing ‘Mame’ at the time. We’ve had them since 1996 — she knows she’s Mame and he knows he’s Beau.”
If MacDonald weren’t seated before you in a neatly pressed all-black ensemble adorned with a golden dragon, you might picture her running around the property clad in overalls and rubber boots and carrying a bale of hay in her arms. And you might laugh when she tells you that, because her neighbor recently took in an injured buzzard, nicknamed “Buzzy,” she can sometimes be seen scouring the streets for a road-kill snack. But the former Broadway star says she’s probably the one person whom broadcast journalist Barbara Walters can thank for her career.
“It always tickles me that this New York City girl who thought St. Armands was the country when she moved here now lives way out east and raises swans and peacocks,” she says.
During her show Saturday at The Glenridge Performing Arts Center, “Songs, Stories & Mr. Chatterbox,” MacDonald shared stories of her life with the audience, including her time on “The Today Show.”
“I went on and did ‘The Today Show’ for six months with Hugh Downs,” she says. “It was fabulous. Barbara Walters was my writer and went with me everywhere. I remember being overwhelmed by how bright she was and also feeling overwhelmed with my high school education.”
MacDonald loved the gig.
The show’s producers encouraged her to show off her musical chops and to speak her mind — advice the spirited performer happily took to heart. The approach seemed to be working well, until MacDonald made an offhand comment suggesting Britain’s King Edward VIII take his unpopular twice-divorced American girlfriend as his mistress rather than his wife.
“I said, ‘He could have taken her as his mistress,’” MacDonald said. “Whoops. The next day they said I was going to be removed. Barbara has me to thank (for the launch of her career).”
MacDonald graduated from The School of Performing Arts amid a talented class of people, such as Dom DeLuise, Danny Melnick and Suzanne Pleshette. In stockings and stilettos, MacDonald pulled off age 19 much better than her actual age of 15 and landed a spot on Broadway’s “South Pacific” for nine months.
When she left “The Today Show,” she got an eight-month nightclub gig touring the Catskills and posh places throughout New York and Chicago, such as the Camila, Drake Hotel and Plaza Hotel.
“Eva Slane was my agent, but she was not interested in the nightclub stuff and got me back on stage for a couple of off-Broadway shows,” MacDonald says. “We went up to Rochester, and that’s when I met Bob Turoff, who was wearing very tight iridescent blue pants and glasses on the rim of his nose. He directed me in ‘Where’s Charlie?’ By the end, I was totally enthralled and so was he. We went to a golf range and he hooked, I sliced and our balls met — kismet.”
In 1968, when the couple’s son, Ben, was in preschool, the family followed MacDonald’s mother and father to Florida. MacDonald fell in love with Sarasota, and when her husband left to direct a show in Raleigh, N.C., she spent two rainy days checking out real estate. She found a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with two orange trees in the backyard on St. Armands for $36,000. She took a few photos, and without Turoff ever seeing the house, the two purchased it over the phone.
“Our deal was that we would never leave Ben with our parents,” MacDonald says. “We wanted to open a theater. We tried to talk Van Wezel into summer stock, but the response was that no one went to the theater in the summer.”
When someone suggested they open a dinner theater, MacDonald, having never set foot in one, drove with her husband to Tampa to see “Norman, Is That You?” on the Show Boat.
“It was terrible,” MacDonald says. “But I told Bob that we don’t have to do bad shows, we just need a good cook. We hired the food and beverage manager from Bird Key Yacht Club and opened the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre in December 1971.”
This year, the Apple will celebrate 40 years.
“Bob and I are going to be married 50 years in three weeks. I thought maybe we’d all get Chinese food and go swimming.”
“When we’re closed during September, we’re going to have a volunteer week of cleaning windows, polishing brass and painting the back of the building,” Roberta MacDonald says about the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre. “We had a mural once — it was a Greek god holding a golden apple. Maybe this time it could be a golden apple tree.”
ROBERTA MACDONALD ON SINGAPORE
“I’ve been to Singapore 15 times. The first time I went in 1990, Bob and I did ‘The Sound of Music.’ We landed in Singapore, and it’s more modern than Wall Street, and the resorts put Las Vegas to shame. You could eat formal dinners in the subways — everything is behind glass with marble floors. The stage we performed on was rimmed with Vanda orchids. I counted 94, and over here, they’re $40 each. The fact that they’d do that for a show only showing five performances … it was a wild experience.”