40 Years On, The Cast of ‘Della’s Diner’ Reunites for an Out Front Theatre Benefit: A Conversation With Tom Edwards and Libby Whittemore
On Saturday night, two generations of Atlantans will converge at Out Front Theatre in West Midtown for a cast reunion reunion and benefit concert performance of the much beloved musical comedy “Della’s Diner.” Created by Tom Edwards, the soap opera spoof featuring original songs by Harris M. Wheeler and starring Megan McFarland as Della and Libby Whittemore as Connie Sue Day, the 31st Lady of Country Music, first burst onto Atlanta’s theater scene in 1978. Set in a cozy diner perched atop Tennessee’s Morning Glory Mountain, the show focuses on Della, “a sassy big-hearted café owner who dispenses love, wisdom and advice” to an ever-evolving parade of eccentrics who populate the chili dispensary.
The show’s success spawned five sequels, all written by Edwards and starring McFarland and Whittemore with a production of the musical eventually making its way to off-Broadway in 1983, inspiring New York Times critic Frank Rich to sneer, “This joint’s special is yesterday’s hash.” (The Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile offered a kinder assessment — “Home cooking, cornball humor, and a dash of social significance furnish the principal ingredients of this folksy country musical.”
By the late 1990s with “Della’s 6,” Edwards and company had served up the final ladleful of musical comedy from Morning Glory Mountain. Edwards would go on to work for Turner Home Entertainment and write a critically acclaimed debut novel, “Blue Jesus.” From 2000 to 2006, Whittemore owned and operate Libby’s Cabaret in Buckhead and continue to star in theatrical productions across Atlanta, including an acclaimed run as Joanne in the 2016 Actor’s Express production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” and an ongoing residency each season at Actor’s Express.
Before the members of the original cast reunited this week to rehearse the show under Edwards’ direction, Tom and Libby agreed to chat with me by phone for a funny and occasionally wistful conversation discussing forty years of “Della’s Diner” and what it means for the two old friends in 2019 to help raise money for the city’s new LGBTQ+ nonprofit theatre company.
Eldredge: How did this “Della’s Diner” reunion as a benefit for Out Front Theatre happen?
Tom Edwards: Well, Ritchie Crownfield, who played Preacher Larry in one of the episodes, has been harassing me for the last four or five years about doing a production. I had been sort of ignoring him because I wasn’t going to do it unless Megan and Libby did it. And he went and put this whole thing together to raise money for Out Front and when everyone signed on, I agreed to direct, because, darling, my performance days are long gone. But this is all thanks to Ritchie Crowfield.
Eldredge: Take us back to the first “Della’s Diner” which was staged in 1978, correct?
Edwards: Correct, at a place in Ansley Mall called Showcase Cabaret.
Eldredge: I’m sure no gay people went there.
Edwards: (laughs) Oh, Jesus. Honey!
Eldredge: Libby, through the years, six “Della’s Diner” plays were produced, why do you think this material has endured?
Libby Whittemore: Because it’s good. It’s funny and the characters are quirky but relatable. Honestly, it’s just a brilliant script that still works.
Edwards: It’s also a script with heart, even with all the silliness, a character who’s really a doll whose eyes light up and the radioactive stew on the menu, there’s still a human element there. I used to get letters from people all the time who would write and tell me, “You know me so well, I’m just like Della.” Which, for the record, used to freak my gay ass out!
Whittemore: That’s funny, I never got letters saying, “I’m just like Connie Sue.” Not a one.
Edwards: I’m sure they were lost in the mail, darling (Whittemore laughs). I’m sure Reba McEntire just forgot to thank Connie Sue last month at the Kennedy Center Honors!
Eldredge: Tom, you started out as a performer and only got into writing because someone needed a script, right?
Edwards: Showcase Cabaret was a wonderful place in Ansley Mall. I think it’s a furniture store now but in the ‘70s, they were doing a show called “Something for Everyone” that ran for, how long, Libby?
Whittemore: Close to a year. Back then, you could run a show that long because people still went out.
Edwards: So they beat that show to death and then they needed another show. So I pulled out this thing I had written for my friend Amy Miller, who was performing at Tyrone’s in Pershing Point. It was a little club that looked like it had been constructed out of tin foil. Everything was silver. When Showcase needed a new show, I told them I’d write it for them and it turned out to be “Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces.” When that kinda became a hit and we beat that one to death, then I wrote “Della’s Diner” because my friend Megan was waiting tables up in Washington D.C. And if you know Megan, you know the one thing she should never do is wait tables. We brought her and her husband down to Atlanta to do the show.
Whittemore: Basically, so we could all be employed over the Christmas holiday!
Eldredge: Tom what inspired you to create “Della’s Diner?”
Edwards: During my six years of college, I arranged all of my classes around my soap operas. I was hooked on “Another World” and “Guiding Light.” I just wanted to give Megan a job and I knew she could yodel. I loved soap operas and it worked perfectly as a musical because anytime someone got overwrought, they could punch in B-3 on the jukebox.
Eldredge: Where did Connie Sue Day come from?
Whittemore: Do you mean which planet?
Edwards: (laughing) Honestly, it was Libby’s voice. I mean, good god, she could sing the absolute piss out of anything but she’s particularly great with country music. I think Connie Sue was created just because I wanted to hear Libby Whittemore sing “Stand by Your Man.” Plus, we all needed employment.
Whittemore: And a show was born! (laughs). Tom always told me that Connie Sue was a little bit of Dottie West, a little bit of Dolly Parton, a little bit of Tammy Wynette and a bit of Loretta Lynn, all thrown into one character.
Eldredge: With a rap sheet.
Whittemore: Correct, but the rap sheet came later which was in the fourth “Della’s Diner” which is the concert version we’re doing at Out Front. But in the first one, she’s just a lost country singer with a broke down tour bus.
Eldredge: Refresh my memory. What did Connie Sue Day go to the slammer for?
Whittemore: In “Della’s Diner 3,” Connie Sue is nominated for a Best Female Country Vocalist Grammy. She loses to Olivia Newton John. As Connie Sue says, “I honestly did not love her!” Let’s just say she did not handle things well and when she got the news, she holds the entire diner hostage. Nobody got hurt but it did lead to her unfortunate incarceration.
Eldredge: Tom, when you were writing these did you ever think, “Oh, I’ve gone too far this time?”
Edwards: I did jump the shark in “Della’s 5.” I wrote the Christmas story using CB lingo.
Whittemore: Which I have to tell you, is absolutely brilliant. This was back when CB radios were really big.
Edwards: I thought I’d hear from some Christians about it and I did hear from some who suggested that, perhaps, I shouldn’t be using religion as a source of humor. But it’s withstood the test of time. It’s still pretty funny.
Eldredge: You two met when Libby, you were right out of high school and Tom, you were performing at the Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Atlanta on the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont, right?
Edwards: Yeah, January of 1976.
Eldredge: What was it that cemented your now 42-year friendship?
Whittemore: We just immediately bonded. Our humor was a lot alike. I’m not really sure you can explain it. You just know when you meet a kindred spirit.
Edwards: We just responded to each other and Libby, my god, is so funny!
Eldredge: Mr. Edwards, in my research I discovered that “Della’s Diner” was staged in 2015 at a Virginia middle school.
Whittemore: Oh my god (laughing).
Edwards: I was unaware of that. I’d love to get some royalties for that (laughs).
Whittemore: I really hope they did “Della’s 1.” I don’t really want to think about a bunch of middle schoolers singing “Side of Fries.”
Edwards: (laughing) That would have had the PTA up in arms!
Eldredge: I wanted to ask you both about Out Front Theatre’s mission, the city’s LGBTQ+ theatre dedicated to LGBTQ+-themed works and raising queer voices. All during the time your careers were being birthed here, Atlanta was becoming a southern mecca for gay people. Having seen that trajectory of Atlanta’s gay scene, what does it mean for you now to raise money for Out Front?
Edwards: Times sure have changed. Whoever thought gay people could one day get married? I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime. It’s been a long time coming and we need to celebrate the success of Out Front and the work they do.
Whittemore: I wouldn’t have a career in Atlanta if it weren’t for the support of the gay community. And that’s not to say that there weren’t straight people who came to the cabarets in the late ‘70s and 80s, there certainly were. But the bread and butter for places like Showcase and Upstairs at Gene and Gabe’s was the gay community. Most of my friends were gay, are gay and anything I can do to help that community, I’m going to do it.
Eldredge: My last question is this – you both came along at a time when Atlanta’s cabaret scene was exploding. It’s an era that’s gone now. These days, most of us sit at home most nights and stream things on screens. Do you ever think about coming up professionally in Atlanta when you did?
Whittemore: I’ve always felt so lucky that my timing was such that I came along in that era when there were so many clubs in town. Every singer in the city could get a job because there were so many different rooms to perform in. You didn’t have to leave town in order to work. You could run a show Tuesday through Saturday with two shows on Friday and two shows on Saturday and never have to cancel because you didn’t have enough reservations. It was a magical time. I would not be the performer I am without having had that playground. And I wouldn’t be that performer without Tom. He wrote a lot of the one-woman shows that I did. I feel very lucky.
Edwards: I walked in off the street and got hired to write a show. Writers today don’t have those kinds of opportunities. And I just kept writing one after another. Going back to the support we received from the gay community, Libby, do you remember when we did “Della’s Diner 4” at Upstairs at Gene and Gabe’s [the current Smith’s Olde Bar venue] and the lines were out the door?
Whittemore: Oh my god, yes. We would be doing the first show on Friday or Saturday night and there would be a line of people outside down Piedmont and wrapped around Monroe waiting to get into the second show. To be a part of “Della’s Diner” was unbelievable. I knew we were onto something when we were doing the first “Della’s” at Showcase Cabaret and people started saying the lines with us. People would come up to me after the show and say, “This is my eighth time seeing this.’ It was “Rocky Horror” without the costumes! Tom created a phenomenon.
A live concert reunion of “Della’s Diner” starring Megan McFarland, Libby Whittemore, Shawn Megorden, Tony Hayes and Ritchie Crownfield with a book by and directed by Tom Edwards and music by Harris M. Wheeler will be staged Saturday, January 12 at 8 p.m. as a benefit for Atlanta’s Out Front Theatre. The performance is sold out.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.