SCARBOROUGH — Every Mainer who watches TV knows her: the saucy, down-home bargain-hunter (that’s bahgin huntah) who has endeared herself in so many commercials with her big blue eyes, corny grin and trademark race-walk waddle through the parking lot.
She’s the woman who has turned surplus-and-salvage shopping into a respected past-time, don’t cha know, and who has inspired children to re-enact her commercials during recess.
The one who has senior citizens and teenagers alike singing, “You shoulda bought it, when you saw it …”
Yes, she’s the Marden’s lady.
But she’s wicked more complex in person than she appears in the 16 or so ads she’s shot for the Maine retailer.
“I’m a lot more glamorous in real life,” she said, as she sat on her deck sipping coffee.
In real life, she’s Karmo Sanders, 57, of Scarborough, a wife, a mother of two grown children and a grandmother to one, almost two, grandchildren. And she hasn’t let her wild success go to her head – she puts her stretch pants on one leg at a time and ties her own bandanna around her head, just like the rest of us. But she pulls the celebrity card when it comes to grocery shopping, delegating that task to her husband in order to prevent an unruly mob and pushy photographers from blocking the produce aisle.
Sanders said she can never go anywhere without fans coming up to her just to hear her “talk Maine” or ask her if “Daddy’s” identity will ever be revealed in the Marden’s ads. And many of them are disappointed if she does not greet them with her famous folksy accent.
Ironically, that accent was a barrier to her dreams years ago of becoming an actress, and the town of Norway native worked hard to lose it as she pursued her career. Now, her speech is neutralized, though the colloquialisms and dropped “Rs” – as well as familiar mannerisms like her hand up near her cheek and the quick wrinkling of her nose – slipped in as she sipped her drink and switched seamlessly between characters.
She calls her alter ego – her doppelganger – Birdie Googins, a name borrowed from a family member. In fact, her family is the inspiration for much of her material.
“One day I said, ‘I’m going to start doing stand-up and all I have to do is talk about my sisters,'” she said.
But, rather than disown her, her sisters occasionally perform alongside her up north in benefit shows at Grange halls, Elks and Lions clubs that have made her the darling of northern Maine.
Now Sanders wants to bring Birdie out of the north, off the small screen and into the big city; she has booked the St. Lawrence Center for the Arts in Portland for her one-woman show.
Though commercials have made the character more famous, Birdie Googins was hatched long before the Marden’s spots, in the off-off Broadway full-length musical, “Radical Radio,” a show written in the early 1990s by Sanders, her husband Jerry Sanders and friend Steve Underwood. The group traveled with the show for about seven years; though it was well-received, its low budget made it difficult for them to continue, she said.
With a master’s degree in playwriting from Boston University, Sanders has almost completed another musical, “The Gold Rush Girls,” about the women who made their way and made a fortune in the late 1800s as prostitutes in the Klondike.
“Women couldn’t even vote, but if they could just get to the Klondike, they could own anything and they bankrolled the men,” she said. “They were the entrepreneurs of that century.”
For a time years ago, Sanders left her home and headed south to Kentucky to work in repertory theater. Though she had some choice parts, she chose to return to Maine and her family after about six months.
“I realized I could never do it – they were such gypsies. I’m not that much of a gypsy,” she said.
As she sat on her deck, with the sun lighting up the face that’s looked into so many family rooms in Maine, Sanders said she is “fulfilled” by her life, despite professional opportunities she may have missed because of the choices she’s made. Ever-optimistic, she has Broadway-bound expectations for her new musical and high hopes for her upcoming one-woman show.
Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org.