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Bandicoots, Knitters and Stella Stevens

Stella Stevens swept into Fritzel's wearing a white crocheted dress, which swept in a quarter of an inch later.

"Here we go on the grub kick," she said.

The lady in the next booth said: "Excuse me, but I couldn't help wondering - is that a hand-crocheted dress?"

"Yes," said Stella.

"How wonderful," said the lady. "I knit myself."

"How wonderful," said Stella, "to knit yourself."

"Yes," said the lady. "Do you knit yourself?"

"Not myself, no," said Stella.

She studied the menu "The grub kick,'' she said. "When I came out to Hollywood, I was a hot 19 and very big on champagne and caviar. I remember making a picture with Elvis Presley, who was very big on hamburgers and cokes. We both came out of Memphis, see. We were Memphis kids. It's a funny thing. Now I've come around to hamburgers."

And Elvis has come around to caviar?

"No," she said. "No, Elvis is still on hamburgers. Actually, I was born in Yazoo City, Miss. I didn't use to mention Yazoo City a lot, but Willie Morris, who is now the editor of Harper's magazine, was also born in Yazoo City. Although he also got out.

"Anyway, never be in an Elvis movie. His fans come for the sole, purpose of seeing Elvis. They don't look at anyone else on the screen."

Why did she make the movie? "I was under contract, cheap, to Hal Wallis for one more picture. I got two stalks of celery and a pistachio nut annually. So I made the movie. Elvis is a nice guy; you can talk to him. One day I said, Elvis honey, why do you do this crap? He pondered and said, 'Don't knock success, Stella.'

"Which is true. The odds against getting anywhere in the movies are so great that if you realized beforehand, you'd stay home. But I wasn't happy as a child. I wanted to be a movie star. I used to spend hours in the movies. In Memphis, we lived behind a theater, the Park Theater, and I used to park my behind there every afternoon.

"My mother thought I went to too many movies, but I found out that if I bugged her enough, she'd give me the money to get rid of me. I remember once I went to see Jane Russell in 'The Outlaw,' but Mom came in and yanked me out before the good parts."

She smiled. "Mother said she didn't want me watching risque movies. But I showed her, I guess, when I posed for Playboy. I mean, you have to be realistic. Playboy has an enormous circulation, and getting into Playboy increases recognition. People know they've seen you somewhere. The recognition factor."

"Pardon me," said the lady in the next booth, the one who had asked about the dress. "You are Stella Stevens, aren't you?"

"See, the recognition factor," Stella said, "although off-hand she doesn't look like your typical Playboy reader." She turned. "Yes," she said smiling.

"I just wanted to ask you," the lady said. "I'm so curious about your figure." "You don't say," said Stella.

"I mean, how do you keep it? I joined that Weight Watcher's Diet - basically, I'm a thin person - but right away I started adding on weight."

"How tall are you?" Stella asked.

"Five-eight," the lady said.

"How much do you weigh?"

"About 110. That's with heels."

"I see'" Stella said.

"Of course I eat a box of candy now and again," the lady said.

"Of course," Stella said.

The lady rejoined her group.

"Did you get that?" Stella said. "She weighs 110 with heels. I guess that means she stands 5-8 dripping wet."

So anyway, about the Park Theater...

"Right. The Sons of the Pioneers. Sitting around the bunkhouse, and one would say, 'Let's sing a little tune.' What afternoons those were! Gene Autry was the real king of the cowboys. Roy Rogers won by default when Gene was drafted, but his fans never forgot him."

The waiter came with the food and asked if there was anything else. Stella answered with her Pat Buttram imitation: "Nothin' only just another stick of Doublemint, Mister Autry." The waiter nodded and escaped.

"Cowboys and Indians have always grabbed me," Stella said. "My great-aunt before she died was a member of the DAR. We had an ancestor who dressed up like an Indian and dumped tea into Boston Harbor. I never got it straight whether he was a patriot or whether he just got his kicks dressing up like Indians.''

The closest she got to dressing up like an Indian, Stella recalled, was when she was in "Li'l Abner." That film more or less established her screen image as a sex symbol with a humorous, not a torrid, approach. She was in "Too Late Blues" with Elvis and "The Nutty Professor" for Walt Disney and several others, but it was "The Silencers" with Dean Martin in 1966, which established her securely as a star.

She is with Martin again in "How to Save A Marriage and Ruin Your Life,'' now at the Oriental. Another current role is as a spy in "Sol Madrid," now in neighborhood theaters. And she plays a nun opposite Rosalind Russell in "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows," which is due at Easter.

"Enough movies for the time being," she said. "Next it looks like I'm going to Australia. Can you believe it? I want to bring back a Kuala bear, because I have three eucalyptus trees in my living room, and no one to eat the leaves.

"I'd bring back a Kangaroo - I've always been a marsupial fan - but Hollywood is no place to keep a kangaroo. Did you know bandicoots are marsupials? There's no end to the fascination of the marsupial family, You could do a week on marsupials and never get tired.

"But keep in mind always: If it hasn't a pouch, it isn't a marsupial. That's the whole concept, she reflected, "it is so terribly foreign to the behavior patterns of us, as mammals."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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