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Loretta Swit, Ed Asner bring ‘The Roosevelts’ to life on stage

While the late Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt won’t be able to be present at the big 70th anniversary gala of Roosevelt University April 10, the school has come up with an entertaining alternative.

An actor and actress who are best known for their television work — Loretta Swit for her role as Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on “M*A*S*H,” and Ed Asner, who will always be remembered for his gruff Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” followed by his “Lou Grant” series — will showcase their stage acting talents and bring the former president of the United States and his vibrant First Lady to life in a presentation of “An Evening With the Roosevelts.”

Both Swit and Grant have been touring separately with one-person shows based on the Roosevelts, and also have previously joined forces — as they will on Friday at the Auditorium Theatre. Each will deliver a pared-down version of his or her full solo plays;  Swit has been performing hers for the past two years, and Asner for the past five.


When: 7:30 p.m. April 10

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

Tickets: $25-$65 (performance only)

Visit: auditoriumtheatre.org

Swit clearly has become increasingly awed by the legacy of the woman she interprets on the stage. Calling it a “frightening privilege,” Swit said the experience has been a “wonderful, satisfying time doing her story. It’s not her whole story, certainly, but my attempt to capture the essence of this great lady. One of the wonderful things about being an actress, is the research that you can do. The more I know about her, the more I love her and it’s been a wonderful journey for me.”

While Asner stresses the obvious: “I don’t look like Franklin Roosevelt and I don’t sound like him,” the actor added he believes that isn’t such a big deal. “My only hope is by choosing his words and believing myself to be possessed by him and all he stood for, I can convey to the audience an image of his actuality — the spirit of the man and the message he brought to us.”

Because so much time has passed since Eleanor Roosevelt was such an active presence on the American scene, both as our longest-serving first lady, and later as delegate to the United Nations and as an adviser to world leaders, Swit feels a strong responsibility to younger generations to make them aware of his early icon of the women’s movement, who died in 1962.

“The word icon is used too loosely today, but in her case it applies. Young women today really need to know that they are enjoying the benefits of what this great lady did,” said Swit, saying that is why she is anxious to perform her one-woman show on college and university campuses across the country.

“So many things she accomplished that we take for granted today. I mean, in her day, there were virtually no women in government. It’s because of her and the hard work she did as first lady that they started to open up the doors to women in all kinds of jobs. She demanded that those leaders in agriculture and labor and all kinds of industries and professions pay attention. She told them they had to recognize women are changing the world — and you’ve got to recognized that!” said Swit, audibly morphing into the persona of Eleanor Roosevelt.

So what would the actors have asked their real-life counterparts, if they could have gone back in time to do so (the president died in 1945; Eleanor died in 1962)?

In Asner’s case, the actor said: “I have a smattering knowledge of stamps, and Roosevelt was famous for his obsession with his stamp collection. I might have brought that up.

“More seriously, I would have talked to him about the fact he was such a powerful physical being, prior to being struck by polio. Yet while still [disabled] and unable to walk without assistance, he maintained that upper body strength, and clearly that was important to him. I must commend the press at the time, because we were never aware that he was a [disabled] human being.

“Of course, he was this incredibly powerful world leader and didn’t act [disabled,] nor did the press or Congress or anyone else treat him as being [disabled] and that was very important during both the Depression and World War II years.”

When asked what he thinks Franklin Roosevelt would think of our current world situation, Asner let out a loud Lou Grant-esque harumph. “He would have said, ‘My God! Do they need me!’ … He would have been shocked by the crumbling nature of the world as it looks today. He would have been shocked by the new methods of disruption that are taking place — the capacity for terrorism.”

As for Swit, if she could have sat down for tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, there would have been many issues she’d have liked to discussed with the former first lady.

However, the most important one would have had to do with self-image.

“As Eleanor was growing up her mother and the family surrounding her — with the exception of her father, who unfortunately died when she was very young — all convinced her that she was ugly and worthless.  I would want to talk to her and get input for young people today, who might be growing up with some complexes. … I’d like to learn from her how she overcame how she was treated as a girl and became the incredible, confident woman that she did become.

“She punched her way through that glass ceiling, but it would be lovely to hear her talk about it and pass along some ideas to young people today,” said Swit.