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Women of the Year: Ellen Travolta came to Coeur d’Alene ‘to give something to this community,’ not just to have a great place to live

Actor Ellen Travolta is photographed Friday at the Couer d’Alene Resort.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
By Carolyn Lamberson For The Spokesman-Review

Since 2013, Ellen Travolta’s Christmas show at the Coeur d’Alene Resort has been a cozy evening of good tidings, a throwback to an era of radio and TV variety shows packed with songs, jokes, stories, and a healthy dose of charm.

This year will be the last Travolta Christmas show at the resort. At 84, the longtime Coeur d’Alene resident says she’s ready to pass the baton.

“It’s bittersweet,” she said.

She’s had a grand time devoting the fall months to creating, casting, producing and, more often than not, starring in the show, which always opened the day after Thanksgiving.

It’s given her something to do, a goal to work toward. And, as an actor who has been working professionally since her late teens, it’s what she knows how to do.

“To have purpose is very important,” she said. “To have somewhere to go to have something to do is very important as you get older.”

The family business

Travolta loves to tell the story about the time she told her mother that a friend of hers was going to be a doctor.

“Oh, that’s fine honey, but it’s not as good as being an actor,” was her mother’s response.

Helen Burke Travolta had wanted to pursue a career in acting, but the times – and her parents – didn’t allow it.

She had a radio show for a while in Hackensack, N.J., “The Sunshine Sisters.” That was before marriage and the arrival of six children, beginning with Ellen in 1939 and ending with John in 1954.

Still, she passed on that love of acting and entertainment to each of her children, all of whom have pursued entertainment careers. It began at bedtime, when their mother would read plays instead of children’s books, acting out all the parts as she read along.

“She absolutely was the influence,” Travolta said.

As a kid in New Jersey, Travolta did school plays, recitals and sang with her uncle’s band.

“I loved theater,” Travolta said. “I loved performing.”

She won a scholarship to study acting at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). One summer break, she auditioned and was hired for a New Jersey theater company run by Robert Ludlum – who would go on to win fame as an author. She didn’t go back to Tech; eventually, she headed to New York.

She joined the Broadway cast of “Gypsy” near the end of its run, and was part of the company headed by Ethel Merman that toured the U.S. for a year.

“She was my idol,” Travolta said. “It was a big deal when I got into ‘Gypsy.’ ”

She toured other shows, too, such as “Carnival,” and did off-Broadway and cabaret shows in New York. She spent a year in Chicago with a show called “Three Cheers for the Tired Businessman.” There, she met James Fridley, a commercial and fashion photographer; they married in 1964.

Travolta for the most part put her career on hold as her children, Tom and Molly, came along. When her husband decided he wanted to give up photography, the family moved to Wyoming and later Southern California, where he worked on ranches. Their marriage ended in 1976, and Travolta resumed acting in Los Angeles.

That meant television.

Career transition

She was a 37-year-old mother of two, so she was no dewy-eyed starlet just off the bus. But it didn’t take her long to start booking jobs.

“I was a new face. All my contemporaries had already been seen,” Travolta said. “I also had stage experience. It really was the beginning of the boom in live sitcoms. … They wanted people who knew how to wait for laughs and were not thrown by having a live audience. So I fit in.”

She had a line in “All in the Family” and booked gigs on “Police Story,” “One Day at a Time,” “CHiPs,” and “What’s Happening.” She played Horshack’s mother on “Welcome Back, Kotter” – her brother John’s breakout show – and Scott Baio’s mother a bunch, from “Happy Days” and “Joanie Loves Chachi” to “Charles in Charge.” She was working a lot, and loving it.

“I did pilots and movies and series. It just was a wonderful, wonderful time,” she said. “It was the right time for me to go back into the business.”

In 1978, she met Jack Bannon, a longtime actor then co-starring on “Lou Grant.” They married in 1983 and maintained busy careers. In 1989, they came to Coeur d’Alene, looking to buy a lake place. They found a theater company.

Lake City lives

“The day we’d be looking around Coeur d’Alene, we got stopped in the park by these two people. They stopped us and they recognized us from television, and they asked what we were doing here. We said we were going to move here, and they said, ‘Do you want to be in a play?’ ” Travolta said. The play was “Company,” and it would be Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre’s first season at North Idaho College’s Schuler Performing Arts Center.

“We opened Summer Theatre in 1990 with ‘Company.’ Jack and I were in it together,” she said. “We both loved theater, but we hadn’t done it in years.”

Roger Welch met Travolta that same year. The actor and director wasn’t in a show with the theater, and was a few years away from being named the company’s artistic director. But he went to a show that season and happened to be seated next to her.

“It started our friendship,” Welch said.

As her friend, her director and her frequent collaborator, Welch said he is always impressed by her demeanor. She is enthusiastic – “She eats life,” he said – and has become a best friend and a second mother.

“She is and was always so humble,” he said. “She never came in riding on her name. She was always so humble, and kind and fun. She is one of my favorite people on the planet.

“I’m so proud of her now, all these years later, to still see her still kicking it,” he added. “She’s just done two Hallmark movies. She has her Christmas show. She’s back on ‘General Hospital.’ It’s kind of spectacular.”

They moved to Coeur d’Alene full time in the mid-’90s, commuting to Los Angeles when they had jobs there. When they weren’t working, they got involved in the community.

“You want to make a difference,” she said. “Jack was born and raised in Los Angeles. He said everybody came and took. Nobody came and gave. We came here in our mid-50s and we wanted to give something to this community, not just say, ‘Wow, what a great place to live.’ … We wanted to do something to make a difference.”

The duo would perform A.R. Gurney’s “Love Letters” for whoever needed a fundraiser – the Coeur d’Alene Library, Lake City Playhouse, the former Interplayers in Spokane. Travolta and Bannon teamed up with Patty Duke and Dennis Franz for a staged reading of “Over the River and Through the Woods” to benefit Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre. She brought in her brother John for a fundraiser in 2004, and teamed up with Coeur d’Alene artist and former actor Stephen Shortridge for an evening to benefit the library.

After Bannon’s death in 2017, she established a scholarship in his name through the Coeur d’Alene Arts and Culture Alliance.

“Our focus is young people in the arts to help them go to school,” she said.

Her relationship with Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre would continue until 2013, when financial difficulties forced the company to shut down and reorganize. In that reorganization, plans to do a holiday fundraiser at the resort were up in the air. Travolta stepped up and decided to produce the show on her own. It was a success, and for the next 10 years, the show went on.

It went on after Bannon died in October 2017, while they were in rehearsal for that year’s show.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can sit here and cry every night and not do anything or go anyplace, or I can just go do it.’ And with knowing Jack … I decided that I was going to go for it. It was hard.”

That was the first year they incorporated audience members’ letters into the show, a move that has proven to be very popular.

It’s also one that further burnished the show’s feeling of family. Travolta has traditionally surrounded herself with family for the season. Her sister Margaret, who also lives in Coeur d’Alene, is a frequent collaborator. Her daughter Molly Allen, co-host of the “Dave, Ken and Molly Show’ on KZZU FM, has performed for several years. There’s also an assortment of chosen family, actors and directors pulled into the fold and cherished.

As she contemplates what’s next, Travolta looks back at her Christmas show run with pride. She built something that has lasted, and she has been thrilled to see it so well-received by the community.

“We were really doing a family show,” she said. “And the resort really gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted. And having my family there with me has been a huge part of doing this.”