From left: Misty Rowe, Buck Trent, Jana Jae and Lulu Roman
Celebrated old acts and exciting new ones make up the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) showcase roster, and one act at last week’s gathering qualified as both.
That was the one made up of legendary Hee Haw cast members Misty Rowe, Lulu Roman, Jana Jae and Buck Trent, who as the Kornfield Friends showcased at Funky Joe’s—a short walk from the New York Hilton Midtown APAP home base, where they earlier signed autographs at the WBA Entertainment exhibition hall booth.
“We tested it last year in Texas and Oklahoma, and audiences went wild!” said Rowe of the quartet, which takes its name from Hee Haw’s fictional Kornfield Kounty setting . “I think they’re glad to see that we’re still alive!”
It’s hard to believe, but Rowe joined the Hee Haw cast back in 1972, staying with it through 1990 as its young and ditzy blond bombshell. She extended the role during the short-lived but hilarious sitcom spin-off Hee Haw Honeys, which also starred other Hee Haw regulars—including Roman—as well as one new performer, Kathie Lee Johnson, soon to earn lasting fame as Kathie Lee Gifford.
“Lulu’s our star singer,” noted Rowe of the Kornfield Friends lineup. “She rercorded her interpretation of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ [on her 2013 album At Last] and Dolly liked it so much she sang backup on it.”
Roman sings “I Will Always Love You” during the Hee Haw memorial tribute part of Kornfield Friends shows.
“I don’t have that kind of voice to sell a song, but I write comedy and dance and tell jokes,” said Rowe. “Our show has a huge cornfield set same as the show, and I start out as Minnie Pearl—since I’ve played her before and knew her so well on Hee Haw. Then we go into some big cast numbers with people popping up in the cornfield—like we did on the show.”
Rowe, Trent and Jae had done the Kornfield Friends show prior to Roman joining.
“It was really a lot of fun, but we needed a great singer—and she’s a great comedian, too, and beloved. Jana wanted to put together the best combination of different talents and weave them all together.”
The idea for Kornfield Friends, then, originated with Jae.
“I ran into her a couple years ago at [Hee Haw producer] Sam Lovullo’s memorial,” continued Rowe. “They asked me to speak, and I wore the little red dress I wear in the show, since I wore it the last time I saw Sam and he made me promise to wear it the next time I saw him. Jana and I went to dinner nearby afterwards, and they had a four-piece band playing and I told Jana they needed a fiddle. She went out to her car and got her blue fiddle and played—and it set a seed in her mind.”
Jae invited Rowe to appear at her annual American Heritage Music Festival in Grove, Oklahoma, where she told jokes and sang “Rocky Top.”
“She got a hold of Buck and then Lulu—and here we are!” said Rowe. “I think they were shocked by us in New York! But we did seven interviews in one day including Fox & Friends, Facebook and Larry the Cable Guy.”
Before Hee Haw, Rowe had starred in the 1972 “low-budget R-rated” movie The Hitchhikers.
“I was really young and got a good review in The LA Times, and did a few little plays,” she said. “The first time I was on TV was an Artie Johnson special. I wasn’t even 20, maybe, and they wanted a girl to walk across the set in a striped Gucci bikini. They didn’t have spray tan then, so I had on pancake makeup that was dripping, and they put me out in the hallway with my arms stretched out. An old man smoking a pipe came over and asked if I was cold. Nobody wanted me around because I was dripping, and he took off his jacket and put it around my shoulders. The director saw me and did a double take and asked where I got the coat and I told him it was that nice old man—and it was Bing Crosby!”
While not as visible since Hee Haw, Rowe has nevertheless remained quite successful.
Following the birth of a daughter and divorce from the father, she wound up on the East Coast, “where I knew no one.” She auditioned in Denver for the off-Broadway musical Always...Patsy Cline, where creator Ted Swindley said, “‘Misty, you’re a hoot!’--and a couple months later called back and took me to Branson, where I played the part of Louise for three and a-half months. Then I did it in West Virginia and in California—where they loved me and wanted me to direct it. I’d done it hundreds of times and Ted said I could do it, but there were over 200 lighting cues, and I had to sit with him and learn them.”
Rowe did that at a non-equity production in Atlantic City, where Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely performed as Louise. When Seely suffered opening night jitters, Rowe fed her her lines, and Seely eventually received a standing ovation.
“The producer thanked me and said that he had wanted to use me in the part, but couldn’t since I was equity—but if I ever had a non-equity show, he’d produce it for me. It just so happened that I was writing a Christmas show, A Misty Christmas, Finally a Fruitcake You'll Like!, and he produced it at The Claridge for five weeks in 2000. I had three billboards in Atlantic City and it was the greatest time in my life!”
And she fondly remembers the last person to come in and audition for it, “a little young man with a beautiful face, who was afraid he was too late and said his name was Peter Dinklage! He got the part, and I taught him to tap dance!”
So after 496 episodes and another 26 Hee Haw Honeys, Hee Haw had opened up the door for Rowe’s future.
“It led to a lot of things,” she said. “I did 100 other TV shows, including playing Wendy the carhop in Happy Days for a year, and I was the first person to portray Marilyn Monroe in a film—Goodbye, Norma Jean [in 1976, before playing her again in 1989’s Goodnight, Sweet Marilyn]. It wasn’t a great film, but I got to go all over the world because of it and meet people like Elton John.”
Goodbye, Norma Jean also brought her a picture in People magazine, which was seen by Mel Brooks.
“He was doing the Robin Hood TV sitcom When Things Were Rotten, and every actress auditioned for it. I got called in because I’d studied with Stella Adler for 20 years. She considered me a dramatic actress and said Hollywood would never give me a chance until I got older because I was too good-looking! But Mel walked over and started dancing with me, and I got called back nine times and got the part. They even flew in Marty Feldman just to direct me! So I’ve been doing Patsy since ‘96, and directing off and on since 2000.”
Other Rowe credits include a children’s show, Misty’s Magical Mountaintop, and Forever Doo Wop, a doo-wop concert she directed in Las Vegas.
But inevitably, it all comes back to Hee Haw.
“Sometimes I get together with Hee Haw people,” she said. “I spoke at a Roy Clark Lifetime Achievement Award presentation, and when TV Land gave an award to Hee Haw in 2007—just after Buck Owens passed--I stood with [his Hee Haw co-host] Roy to receive it. Last year we stayed at Marianne Rogers’ house in Athens, Georgia, when we had to evacuate our home in South Carolina during a hurricane, and I always stayed in touch with Sam Lovullo, who was such a big supporter of me. And Kathie Lee sent me a CD of gospel songs when my mom had Alzheimer’s.”
Looking back at her unusual career trajectory, Rowe identifies “a very charmed career for not being a major superstar.”
“People grew up with Hee Haw,” she said. “People loved it and people miss it: I still get fan mail and Facebook posts about it. But it was true Americana. There was no violence—except maybe when George [Goober] Lindsey hit someone over the head with a rubber chicken! But it was just so crazy, and people want that spontaneity, that silliness. Everyone is so serious now and fighting and accusing and wanting to be right, and Hee Haw was about being able to say anything and do anything and laugh and have fun.”
The Hee Haw cast, Rowe added, “was my second family. Unfortunately, 24 members of my family are now gone—and I’m not young and as sexy as I was. But I get up on stage with my Kornfield Friends and my feet won’t stop! Our show is always fun and different than other shows, and in the end everyone leaves with a smile.”
Rowe does make special mention of a current project.
“I’ve written four plays, and my new one, Forget Me Not, is a bittersweet memoir of a journey through Alzheimer’s. It’s a true story about my mother, and is being developed in Los Angeles and having a first play reading next week—and then an industry presentation at the Stella Adler Theatre. I feared Alzheimer’s, but I want to get the word out that Alzheimer’s is not something to fear, that care is the most important thing. I had to learn it in a painful way, but it’s bittersweet: Probably the most joyous part of my life has been getting someone through this, and I learned what true love is from my mother’s eyes—and my own.”