Rubbing shoulders with celebrity

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Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Feinstein, who sings classics from the Great American Songbook by such composers and lyricists as Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter in concert and shares information about these musical legends on his shows on PBS and NPR. Feinstein grew up in Ohio in the 1960s and ‘70s, the same as me, and shared how he came to be listening to the greats of another era while I tuned my tangerine-colored Panasonic radio to a station that played a perpetual loop of the Rolling Stones, Eagles and Jackson Five.

Find out how he grew up listening to Judy Garland and spent his 20s working for Ira Gershwin in the April editions of the Beacon before his concerts on April 20 at the Music Center at Strathmore in N. Bethesda, Md., and on May 9 at the Hippodrome in Baltimore.

Feinstein is just one of a number of celebrities I’ve had the opportunity to interview for the Beacon. I’ve enjoyed chatting with Sally Field (despite the fact that she kept trying to steer the conversation back to Boniva, the osteoporosis drug she was hawking at the time), Phylicia Rashad (best known for her role as Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”), actress-turned-artist Jane Seymour and singer Melanie (whose signature song is “Brand New Key.”

But one of my favorite interviews was with Valerie Harper when she came to Washington to star as actress Tallulah Bankhead in a pre-Broadway run of the play Looped. Best known for her self-deprecating, big-hearted character Rhoda Morgenstern in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda,” like her character, she was both funny and genuinely nice during our conversation.

“People still come up to me and say, ‘I loved Rhoda.’ At the height of the show, it was Rhoda everywhere. And I didn’t mind a bit. I loved it. She was absolutely the impetus for my entire career,” Harper told me.

So I was saddened to hear the news yesterday that Harper has a rare, inoperable brain cancer, with only months to live. With her trademark pragmatic optimism, she told People magazine, "I don't think of dying. I think of being here now."

When you read the glossy pages of People or Entertainment Weekly, many celebrities seem larger than life, airbrushed and Photoshopped and definitely not like you or me. But in interviewing Harper and others in the public eye, they become much more human, sharing the joy and pride in their work and their appreciation for their fans.

In turn, I appreciated Harper sharing with me a little of her life and the wonderful characters she came to inhabit. Read my Beacon interview with her here.