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Even before she got through the door of the Omaha Community Playhouse late Sunday morning, tears glistened in Jane Fonda's eyes.
Fonda, who had requested a personal tour of the theater that gave her equally famous father, Henry, his start in acting, dabbed her eyes and greeted about 15 Playhouse staffers and board members in the lobby late Sunday morning.
Then, like a fan in Hollywood for the first time, she snapped photos on her cell phone of just about everything on the hourlong tour for her blog. In lightly tinted glasses, a crisp white blouse with upturned collar and an ankle-length cotton print skirt, the petite actress exuded star power, energy and charm.
“When I did ‘The Country Girl' with Dad, was it here?” she asked her tour guides, Playhouse directors Carl Beck and Susan Baer Collins. No, Collins answered, the 1955 production when she was 17 was staged at the Civic Auditorium.
Fonda, whose entourage included her son, actor Troy Garity; his wife, Simone; director-screenwriter Alexander Payne; and actress Laura Dern, was soon absorbed by a wall of photos from past Playhouse productions.
There's Henry Fonda in the 1926 production of “Merton of the Movies.” She snapped a photo. There's Henry with little Dorothy McGuire, a future Oscar nominee, in “A Kiss for Cinderella” in 1930. Another snap.
“Kendrick! I remember Kendrick!” Fonda, 74, exclaimed at a photo of Kendrick Wilson, who directed her, her father and McGuire in “The Country Girl.” Snap again.
Fonda asked if the Playhouse was really the nation's largest. Yes, Collins confirmed, in both season subscribers and attendance, drawing a proud fist pump from the actress.
Dennis O'Neal, chairman of the Playhouse Foundation's board, presented her with a memory book, telling her, “There's no family that has meant more to the Playhouse legacy than the Fonda family.”
Beck reminded Fonda that her last visit to Omaha was for a Playhouse fundraiser, a screening of “On Golden Pond” in January 1982. A raging blizzard sent wind chills to 80 below zero. “Isn't it nice to have this weather to balance it out?” he joked about the triple-digit heat.
“The reception (in 1983) was so warm, I forgot about the blizzard,” Fonda smiled.
Through the lobby and green room, she snapped more photos as she chatted with her son and hosts. Entering a large, overflowing costume department, she exclaimed, “Dad would be so proud! It's like the old movie studios.”
“Paramount wishes,” Dern responded. “This is very impressive.”
Collins told Fonda that Collins' grandmother, Mabel Baer, was a Playhouse costumer and knew Henry Fonda. Baer loved to repeat the story of how a young Henry told her, “Well, Mabel, I'm going to New York,” with just $10 in his pocket.
“My dad's father didn't want him to do it,” Jane Fonda said. “He wouldn't speak to him for a long time after that.”
As an elevator door was closing, Garity suddenly shouted, “Hold it! We're missing something good here!” At the far end of the corridor opposite the elevator, a poster of Jane's aunt, Harriet Fonda, was prominently displayed from a 1927 production of “The Romantic Age.”
Jane gamely posed in profile with her aunt's picture. Snap, snap.
A minutely detailed model of the set for the Playhouse's next production, “August, Osage County,” drew Fonda's admiration in a rehearsal hall. Soon she was chatting animatedly with Collins, who has the lead in the show.
“Streep's doing your part in the movie,” she said.
More chatter followed the revelation that Beck and Collins had worked for Ted Turner's fledgling television empire in Atlanta at the start of their careers. Turner and Fonda were married from 1991-2001.
Beck admired Turner's entrepreneurial spirit and original thinking at the start of cable stations CNN and TBS. “He was just doing wild things!” he enthused.
“That would be Ted,” Fonda smiled, saying she'd heard that, back then, Turner might wander the studios early in the morning in a bathrobe, searching for coffee.
In the scene shop, Fonda recalled that her father began at the Playhouse not as an actor, but building scenery. On the main stage, where set pieces from “Hairspray” remained, Fonda laughed heartily when Garity said they looked like the set of “The Dating Game.” She posed for pictures there with Garity, his wife and Payne.
“This has been a great experience,” she said back in the lobby, having come full circle. “I'm just so happy I got to do it!” A quick autograph of her book, “Jane Fonda: My Life So Far,” and she was out the door gushing thanks, still snapping photos in the 100-degree heat.
“She has a strong grip,” Beck remarked.
“She's a force of nature,” Collins replied.
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GALLERY: Notable roles from Jane Fonda