Who was Erma Bombeck? When I first read the title of a new play back in 2018, I thought to myself; that sounds like something Crighton Theatre patrons would like to see! I got the script, read it and loved it and decided to produce the play at the Crighton. It was in researching the topic of the play; the life of beloved humorist Erma Bombeck, that I found my purpose for producing the show and my own inner Erma Bombeck.
As a child of the 60s and 70s, I had certainly heard about Erma Bombeck. She was on Good Morning America for 10 years. She had written 15 books, 10 of them New York Times bestsellers and in her lifetime wrote 4,000 newspaper columns. At the height of her fame, her column, At Wit’s End, was syndicated in 900 newspapers (are there even 900 newspapers still in print?). She was a regular contributor to many popular magazines including Readers Digest, Redbook, McCalls and Family Circle. She appeared on talk shows including Donahue (who was her neighbor in Dayton Ohio) and even The Johnny Carson Show. Despite all that, I really wasn’t the right age to appreciate her humor and it wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I really valued her wit and wisdom. In preparing for this show, I came to know a great deal about America’s favorite housewife humorist and I found we had a lot in common.
Erma, the working mother
One of the things we had in common was we were both working mothers. Yet, Erma was a working mother in a time when not a lot of women worked. During the 50s and 60s when Erma was a young mother, if a woman worked she usually stopped once she married and had kids. Her life was then devoted to raising children and keeping house. Erma did that too, but ever since she was a child she wanted to be a writer (she worked as a copy girl at the Dayton Journal Herald at 15 yr old). When her youngest child started kindergarten she decided “that it wasn’t fulfilling to clean chrome faucets with a toothbrush.” So at 37, she decided to strike out on her own and resume her writing career. Not only did she work, but she found a way to work at home and still be there when her kids came home from school. Erma’s kids remember sliding notes under her door as the sound of the typewriter hummed while Erma was working on a deadline.
Erma, the feminist
Being a working mother, it should not be surprising to anyone that Erma Bombeck was a feminist. Yet this is something that many, myself included, are surprised to learn about her. Erma was very proud of her work to advance equal rights for women. She was appointed by President Carter to the National Advisory Committee for Women to make recommendations to the President on how to make things better for women in America. She spent time strategizing with Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. She traveled around the country for 2 years to promote ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and was very disappointed at its failure to become part of our nation’s constitution. One fascinating aspect of her involvement with the women’s movement is that by some in the movement she was considered an outsider! Here this working woman that was able to balance raising children with an extremely successful career was viewed as an ‘Uncle Tom’ because she wrote about sock eating dryers and thawing pork chops by placing one under each armpit. Erma was frustrated with the women’s movement and I found I shared her frustration. Erma felt that there was no need to go bra-less and have long leg hair to be a considered a feminist; one need not become a man to get the rights of a man. She called some in the movement ‘roller-derby rejects’ because she felt that they diluted the message of the movement. For her, it was only about equality. Do you think that even though Erma Bombeck was the most widely distributed columnist in the country that she was paid more than a less successful male columnist? She was paid less. As was her mother who worked in a factory during the depression and was paid less than men that worked right next to her and did the same job. Erma was trying to bring about change and it was truly one of the greatest disappointments in her life she was not able to bring that change about in her lifetime.
Erma and PKD
I found my reason to produce the show when I found another thing I shared with Erma; Polycystic Kidney Disease. Prior to my research about her, I had assumed Erma died from cancer. I had heard she had cancer and assumed, as many do, that that was the reason for her passing. It was not. Erma Bombeck had polycystic kidney disease (PKD). She was diagnosed with the disease in her 20s and it wasn’t an issue for her for nearly 40 years. When her kidneys failed in her sixties she was on dialysis for years and then sadly passed due to complications from a kidney transplant. PKD is a chronic, genetic disease causing uncontrolled growth of fluid-filled cysts in the kidneys, often leading to kidney failure. It affects an estimated 600,000 people in America and 2.4 million worldwide. Once a person has kidney failure, dialysis and kidney transplant are the only treatment options. Parents have a 50% chance of passing the disease to their children, so it often affects many people in one family. I was stunned to find out Erma had PKD because I do as well. Like Erma, I was diagnosed in my 20s. Like Erma’s family, my family has been impacted by this disease. My mother’s kidneys failed in her 60s, like Erma, and received a kidney transplant after 2 year on dialysis. My younger brother has already had his kidney’s fail and received a kidney transplant 2 years ago. Erma inherited the disease from her father and then passed the disease along to both her sons. My mother, never one to play favorites, passed it along to all three of her children. PKD is the reason I’m doing this show; to raise funds for research and awareness. Profits from ticket sales and concession sales will be donated to the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation (www.pkdcure.org) which is dedicated to finding a cure. More information about the fundraiser can be found on my fundraising page: Carolyn ‘At Wit’s End’ in Conroe at www.pkdcure.org.
I hope you will consider joining me at Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End by Allison & Margaret Engle to learn more about this remarkable woman and to support my efforts to raise funds for research on a disease that impacted Erma, her family and many families. Show dates are June 25-27, 2021 with performances at 7 pm on Friday June 25, and 1 pm and 4 pm on Saturday June 26 and Sunday June 27. Performances will be held at the historic Crighton Theatre at 234 N. Main in downtown Conroe, Texas. Tickets for Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End are $26 for adults, $24 for seniors 62 yr and older and $17 for youth 16 yr and under. Tickets for STAGE RIGHT season subscribers are only $20. Group discounts are available for groups of 10 or more by calling the box office. Tickets can obtained by calling the Crighton Theatre box office at 936-441-SHOW (7469) or online at www.crightontheatre.org. As of this writing, the theatre will be open to 100% capacity. Masks are encouraged but not required.
Much thanks to my sponsors who are making this show possible: TSF, Inc., The Dockline Magazine, Texas Coffee News, Wesley Bush, The Crighton Theatre Foundation, and STAGE RIGHT of Texas. The show is produced by TSF, Inc. by arrangement with Concord Theatricals. Pictures obtained with permission from Matt Bombeck and The Erma Bombeck Collection at the University of Dayton.