Hart celebrates ‘ET’ anni

THERE IS something to be said for positive thinking in public figures. I am harking back to some seemingly happy females in show business — Mary Pickford, Shirley Temple, Jeannette MacDonald, Doris Day — and today we have Mary Hart, an absolute fixture of “Entertainment Tonight,” the living embodiment of upbeat, cheerful anchoring.

Went to the St. Regis to drink an iced tea with my longtime pal, Mary. She is celebrating “ET’s 25th anniversary of having her on board. I have known this girl since 1980 and today she is more beautiful, more charming, and nicer than ever — if that’s possible. (Mary swears she hasn’t been surgically enhanced or improved though says she has nothing against it and might do it someday.) The onetime Miss South Dakota just seems to need to keep on keeping on. Frankly, she’s better looking than she was 25 years ago.

I asked Mary what has changed since she bowed as the ongoing host of “ET” with changing male partners through the years? “It’s a much more crowded world these days with celebrity worship multiplying. It’s amazing. When we first started, there was doubt that we could fill half an hour with entertainment news daily. Then Walter Cronkite gave us a boost in 1982. He said we were the best organized ‘news’ show on the air; he complimented our touch with soft coverage that is now all the rage. And ‘ET’ is still No. 1. The throng of shows that are imitating us today only enhance our more respected image.

“Once upon a time ‘ET’ covered the Academy Awards in style and with the luxury of space. Now we have much smaller room in which to operate though we still lead the pack. The Oscar and award stars all come to us first! They know we may ask tough questions but we have compassion. Our first place is deserved; it’s as it should be, but there are so many shows nowadays that Oscar can hardly accommodate us all.”

I wondered, as Mary has been an observer of the altering pop culture, how she explains the celebrity obsession we have now? “Honestly, I think the real change began with reality TV. The transformation of ordinary people into celebrities, some of them with a valid shelf life even, totally changed the playing field. And I watch some of these younger celebrities who are kind of famous for being famous. Amazing! I mean, they are thrown, or throw themselves into this life with no training, no real awareness of the responsibilities and the pitfalls. I have to say, it’s a less glamorous world now, but we can’t look back.

“And sometimes something really exciting does happen. Look at Kelly Clarkson, how she jumped from ‘American Idol’ as this very regular, kind of awkward winner of a TV show to a real adorable mega pop-star, a real star!” Mary sighed, “Look, it’s a tougher world to be ‘exclusive’ and ‘first’ anymore. Not with cable and the Internet and people so fast to click you off into oblivion because there are 500 other channels. So, we have to be more aggressive in touting ourselves. And I came late to that idea. I was always saying, “Oh, but we’re ‘Entertainment Tonight’ we don’t have to be so rah-rah-rah. But we do.”

ANY SPECIAL stars or moments in 25 years? “Too many to count! Too many great stars. But I tell you what always makes me laugh — when they know who I am! When Camryn Manheim won her first Emmy she was backstage crying, and then said, ‘Mary Hart! Can I have your autograph?’ Or when Rosie O’Donnell heard somewhere that I wasn’t going to be on ‘ET’ anymore and she said at an event, to the ‘ET’ cameras, ‘Mary Hart better still be working for you guys!'”

“Also, please, I want to cite Linda Bellblue, Bonnie Tiegel and Brad Bessey, all senior producers who’ve been there from the beginning. Yes, I’ve had offers to leave and I did do some Vegas shows but found it too disruptive of my wish to marry (Burt Sugarman) and have a family. My teenage son AJ is my pride and joy. I have always been proud I grew up in South Dakota; it has kept me humble and grateful.

“I think people want to relate to those who are lucky to be on their TV screens and I have tried to make that work for me. So I have no regrets. Celebrities seem to like me, to trust me. I work without notes. I look ahead not back. My parents are still with me and they’d be happy if I had remained a school teacher. But I had dreams. And they have all come true!”

I made Mary Hart pay for our iced teas. She’s a big star; I felt it was the least she could do.

BROADWAY BABY Sutton Foster, whose most recent triumph is “The Drowsy Chaperone (five Tony wins and a nomination for Sutton), was wide awake Monday when she wed longtime boyfriend Christian Borle of “Spamalot” fame.

The couple met and worked together on Sutton’s first smash, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which brought her the theater’s highest honor. Sutton and Christian recently bought their first home. In fact, the deal was closed the day “Drowsy” opened.

The show continues to pack ’em in at the Marquis and recent celeb attendees include Stephen Sondheim, Dustin Hoffman, George Lucas, Salma Hayek, Cybil Shephard and Woody Harrelson.

SPEAKING OF wedlock melded with work, Sutton and Christian might look toward Ashford and Simpson for inspiration; they have been married and career collaborators for 31 years! The iconic duo have taken their act to Feinstein’s at the Regency. This wildly devoted pair belt and croon all their famous hits, and introduce three terrific new songs from their in-the-works Broadway show — “Invisible Life.” Nick and Valerie, who give Cher a run for her money on baubled, bangled and beaded costumes, perform for the next two weeks.

ONE NIGHT ONLY: Angela Lansbury, four-time Tony winner, retires to Broadway on Nov. 5 for “This is on Me, An Evening of Dorothy Parker.”

Tom Fontana of “Oz,” “Homicide” and “St. Elsewhere” fame adapted the works of Dottie for this special event benefiting the Acting Company. Boyd Gaines, Harriet Harris, Lisa Baynes and Lynn Collins join Lansbury on the stage of the Gerald Schonefeld Theater. Call 212-258-3111.

(Email Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com)

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