AS THE-OFF-BROADWAY PLAY Breaking Legs reaches the end of Act I, Karen Valentine sits center stage receiving a foot massage. "Oooooh," she purrs. "Aaaaah." Her ecstasy builds until she seems to be having—egad!—a sexual climax onstage. For those in the audience who remember Valentine as peppy, wide-eyed student-teacher Alice Johnson on TV's Room 222 two decades ago, this is a different lesson indeed.

If the image is jarring to some, that's fine with Valentine. Just don't call her cute, a tag that has stuck like library paste since Room 222's four-year run ended in 1974. In fact, "ever since I was Miss Teenage Santa Rosa, I've always been labeled perky and cute," says Valentine, now 44 and still as wide-eyed and (sorry) cute as ever. "I'll be cute when I'm 90. But I'm other things too."

Like the brassy Italian-American princess she plays opposite Larry Storch, Vincent Gardenia and Philip Bosco in Breaking Legs. But this is one of the few times since Room 222 let out that Valentine has been able to escape typecasting purgatory. "The essence of that character was so much of what I do naturally," she shrugs. "When I auditioned for the role [in Room 222], I went to put my purse down, and my glasses fell off. I picked them up, and then the script fell. The producer said, 'Don't change a thing.' "

She couldn't have even if she wanted to. Valentine grew up gathering eggs on her father's chicken farm in Sebastopol, Calif., 56 miles north of San Francisco. The older daughter of Lou and Angie Valentine, she was a cheerleader (no surprise) and budding actress when, at 16, she was crowned Miss Teenage Santa Rosa.

At the Miss Teenage America contest in Dallas (where she finished in the Top 10), a talent scout recommended her to The Ed Sullivan Show. Two weeks later she was on Sullivan, performing a song-and-dance pantomime to Eydie Gormé's "Blame It on the Bossa Nova." a number she had originally choreographed in an old chick hatchery back home. After a second Sullivan appearance with Harry Belafonte as the headliner ("The first time, I followed the elephants"), she returned to Sebastopol, where she finished high school and then headed for Los Angeles and courses at local colleges.

Between drama classes and off-campus auditions, she earned tuition money with odd jobs as a Parks Department supply clerk, a pool-hall waitress and seamstress. Finally, three years later, she beat out 130 other actresses for the role of the ingenue student-teacher. "After three or four lines, I knew we had the girl," says Room 222 producer Gene Reynolds. "I stopped her after a couple of pages and said, 'I want you to be very careful driving home. Don't get hit by a truck.' "

Within a year Valentine had won an Emmy on the show and seemed headed for bigger stardom still. "After you win an Emmy, everybody wants you," she says. "I was a semi-regular on The Hollywood Squares. I got to meet the stars. I even met Ethel Merman, and we shared a dressing room!"

But her brush with the bigs proved short-lived. In 1973 her four-year marriage to actor Carl McLaughlin Jr. faded. "When we met, we were two lonely kids in Los Angeles," says Valentine. "My star was taking off, and his didn't seem to be happening. We grew apart." A year later a second TV series, Karen, died after 13 episodes. Before long she was drifting through Love Boat guest shots and such forgettable TV movies as The Girl Who Came Gift-Wrapped and Coffee, Tea or Me?

In 1977 she met and wed Gary Verna, a pop music composer who has also written music for The Young and The Restless. After almost a decade of supper clubs, summer stock and "anything that came my way," she and Verna moved to Manhattan in 1987. Three years ago they bought a small farmhouse in western Connecticut, complete with a vegetable garden that Valentine proudly calls "a salute to tomatoes." Childless ("You keep putting it off and—bang—it's too long"), she hopes that professionally, Valentine's day might yet come again.

"People constantly recognize me, even from the back," she says. "But the powers that be don't. Room 222 is like one of those gifts that you're handed, but double-edged. It's just hard to keep it dancing."

J.D. PODOLSKY
TOBY KAHN in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Toby Kahn.