SCARBOROUGH — Karmo Sanders says she is finally finding her sense of humor again.
Even about being a widow.
“I was digging around in the crawl space under the house (in January), trying to wrap the pipes to keep them from freezing, and I thought, ‘Thanks a lot, deah, thanks for putting the pipes under heah,’ ” said Sanders, better known as zany Mainer Birdie Googins, the “Marden’s Lady” of TV commercial fame. “I was talking to my late husband while crawling under my house.”
Sanders’ creative collaborator and husband of 42 years, Jerry Sanders, died of colon cancer last May. He had been diagnosed in January 2013. Weeks before the diagnosis, the Marden’s salvage store chain told Sanders they would no longer use her in TV ads.
As the “Marden’s Lady,” Sanders had been ubiquitous in Maine homes, showing up on TV screens seemingly every day for five years, hawking the image and products of one of Maine’s iconic family companies. In the Marden’s commercials she wore loud and colorful clothing, cajoling viewers to come see all the “bahgains” and calling everyone “deah.” Her “Marden’s Lady” character was so popular that Sanders built a stand-up comedy routine around her.
But Sanders didn’t have time to dwell on the loss of her high-profile Marden’s gig. She focused on spending as much time as possible with her husband and then spent the rest of 2013 dealing with his passing.
“People talk about losing a life partner, but with my mother and father you can times that by 10,” said Sanders’ daughter Jennywren Walker. “They wrote and acted together. They raised a family. They did everything together.”
But now that Sanders is starting to see humor in life again, she says she’s ready to bring humor to an audience once more. She’s writing a whole new Birdie Googins stand-up act and has performed already this winter. She’s also writing and trying to sell her plays.
She has Broadway aspirations for a musical about actresses, singers and prostitutes in Alaska called “Gold Rush Girls.” The musical, which she wrote with Jerry, was produced by a theater in Anchorage in 2012. She says dealing with Jerry’s death was “harder than I thought” and that she might have performed too soon when she did some stand-up gigs last year before she was ready.
But like the hardy Mainers from whom she draws the Birdie Googins character, Sanders is not one to let setbacks stop her.
“Sometimes I’m asked what advice I’d give kids in Maine, and I always say, ‘Go. Don’t stop. Pick up your dreams and go,’ ” said Sanders, sitting in the Scarborough home she and Jerry built more than 30 years ago. “I may get that from my mother. She’s 92, and she’s baking herself a birthday cake today for a party she’s throwing herself.”
MAINE HUMOR COMES NATURALLY
Growing up, Sanders split her time between Scarborough and the Oxford County town of Norway. Her family’s Scarborough home was on farmland near the ocean that has been in her family for generations. Most of the year her family lived in Norway, where her father was a Congregational minister.
Sanders was always drawn to music and theater and after high school got a scholarship to study theater at Phillips University in Enid, Okla. Her father, actually, had arranged for the scholarship. Sanders didn’t know until she got there that the college had a strong religious affiliation and a seminary.
“I was so mad,” Sanders said. “I only stayed one semester, but I took every theater course I could.”
It was during that semester that she met Jerry, who was also a theater student. The two dropped out of school around 1970 and hitchhiked around the country. They soon married, settled down in Maine and raised two daughters. Jerry worked as a counselor and healing practitioner, and wrote music. Sanders worked in retail stores, as a personal assistant to millionaire businessman and sailor Dodge Morgan, and as a caretaker for the elderly.
But she also performed often and wrote plays.
For years she was “The Witch of Fessenden Street” on Halloween, dressing up and scaring the children in the Portland neighborhood where her family lived. Her own children were sworn to secrecy as Sanders made the rounds of other neighborhood homes, doing her witch act for other children.
“People would leave their doors unlocked, and my mother would run through their houses and scare the bejesus out of the kids,” Walker said.
Sanders performed in local and regional theaters when her children were young. Walker remembers spending a week in Kentucky with her mother while she rehearsed for a play there.
When her children were older, Sanders focused even more on music and theater. In the early 1990s, she teamed with Jerry and Steve Underwood, a co-founder of Good Theater in Portland, to write a family musical, “Radical Radio.” The musical was directed by Brian P. Allen, also a co-founder of Good Theater, and was performed in New York City at an off-off Broadway theater. “Radical Radio” went on to tour the East Coast for about four years.
It was during the creation of that show that Sanders got her current first name. She was born Martha, but Jerry and Underwood starting calling her “Carmelita” or “Carmelita the Great” and eventually “Karmo,” during their long hours of working together on “Radical Radio.” She liked it and took it as her own.
LOTS OF BAHGAINS, DEAH
“Radical Radio” focused on an inflatable radio, with quirky characters singing catchy songs. One character was a wacky woman with a Maine accent who played percussion on a box of “rice pee-laf,” Sanders said. When a producer at Portland TV station WCSH (Channel 6) asked Sanders to come up with ideas for a possible Marden’s TV commercial, she resurrected the rice pilaf performer.
Marden’s, a family-owned, Maine-based salvage store chain specializing in deep discounts, loved the idea. And so, around 2007, Sanders began appearing on the ads and was soon known as the “Marden’s Lady.”
Her fame ranged statewide. People recognized her at tollbooths and the supermarket. They sang the Marden’s jingle to her: “I should have BOUGHT it when I SAW it at Marden’s.” Men asked her out.
“It was a blessing and a curse for my mother,” Walker said. “She always wanted to be famous, but there came a point where she didn’t want to go out of the house anymore.”
The character’s popularity prompted Sanders to name the character – Birdie Googins – and to begin doing a stand-up act based on the character. The character is hers, not Marden’s, so she’s free to continue using it.
Though it can be “overwhelming,” Sanders said she’s “honored” by the attention she’s gotten for her Marden’s commercials. Plus, she finds new material for her act in the way Mainers respond to her.
“I was doing a show in Stonington, and this lobsterman came running off the dock and says, ‘I’m giving you my number, deah. Call me up next time you’re in town, and I’ll take you out on my boat and we’ll get potted,’ ” she said. “I don’t know if he was just referring to lobster pots or something else. All I know is you can’t make this stuff up.”
Sanders made about four commercials a year for Marden’s and was never under contract with the store. So Marden’s didn’t fire her, as some people thought.
Jake Marden, the head of advertising and marketing, said the company decided to stop advertising on TV for a while. He said it was partly because of the cost of making ads and partly because management felt that any future TV ads should focus on items for sale.
But Marden was quick to point out that Sanders’ spots helped spread the Marden’s name.
“Karmo is a sweetheart, and I’ve got nothing but respect for her as a person and for her talent as an actress,” Marden said. “Everyone and their brother seems to know her and that character. So the ads did a great job in that way. But with that kind of advertising, it’s hard to gauge results.”
GO. DON’T STOP.
Sanders’ home in Scarborough is filled with toys for when her five grandchildren stop by. Outside, a stack of plastic sleds stands near her front walk.
The other items that stand out to visitors are in the pile of Birdie Googins-related things fans have given her over the years. These include feather boas, colorful scarves, and shirts and vests so sparkly and gaudy they look like leftovers from a Las Vegas revue.
Not doing Marden’s commercials, Sanders said, has “freed” her to write a whole new Birdie Googins act, a little edgier maybe than she could get on a TV commercial. But she said the character will still be highly influenced by the innate humor of Mainers. When she needs new material, she just looks to her own family – including her mother, who lives next door.
“When I need material I just have to look out at my mother on her riding mower, wearing her ‘Born to Mow’ hat and trying to wave to the new neighbors in their million-dollar house,” she said.
(Sanders didn’t want to give her age for this story. After mentioning her mother was 92, she quickly added: “For those of you doing the math, she had me when she was 60.”)
The year before Jerry was diagnosed, 2012, the couple spent a lot of time preparing their musical “Gold Rush Girls” for its Alaskan run. They also spent five weeks in Alaska for rehearsals. During that time, Sanders wasn’t actively booking gigs for herself. And last year, with Jerry’s illness and death, she still didn’t seek bookings.
Sanders did a Birdie Googins show in Orono on Feb. 1 and said it went “pretty well.” She’ll do another in May at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland. She’s also got a couple of other projects in the works that she said she can’t talk about.
Sanders has some catching up to do, she says, in terms of lining up dates to do her Birdie Googins act in public.
She continues to write plays; she has a master’s degree from Boston University in playwriting. Recently she sent scripts of “Gold Rush Girls” to four Boston theaters and hopes to talk to other theaters soon.
The play is a rollicking musical about Alaska during the Gold Rush of the late 1800s. It’s based on the book “The Good Time Girls” by Sanders’ friend Lael Morgan, former wife of Dodge. The book and the play focus on women during the Gold Rush working as singers, actresses and “ladies of the night.”
The play has themes of female empowerment, with songs like “Give Us the Vote.” Jerry wrote all the music.
Sanders hopes to get “Gold Rush Girls” staged by regional theaters around the country, and eventually, on Broadway. She says she knows it’s good enough for Broadway – she just has to work hard to make sure it gets there.
She says she told Jerry he should write a Tony Award acceptance speech, because “Gold Rush Girls” would certainly win one. But he never got around to it.
After the couple realized Jerry’s condition was terminal, they decided to spend his remaining time with each other and with family and friends.
“Jerry didn’t want any treatment. It was too far along,” Sanders said. “So we just threw one long party. We had people in here all the time.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: