Remembering Valri Bromfield

Oh, don’t worry, Valri Bromfield fans — she’s very much alive. It’s just that Bromfield (b. 1949) left show business a couple of decades ago, so my memories of her as a performer are at least that old. But it should also be stated for the record that I DO remember her, for she was a known personality in her day. She was part of the larger pool of original Saturday Night Live/ SCTV people, though her career took its own twisty, turny, more peripheral path. But she was in every sense the peer and equal in talent of her cohorts. She had force and energy and personality. I remember her because she was memorable.

A Toronto native, Bromfield was Dan Akroyd’s original comedy partner, and one of the cast members of Second City Toronto. As such she ran around with the likes of Martin Short, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, and Brian Doyle-Murray. In 1974 she became a regular on Bobby Gentry’s summer replacement variety series on CBS, making her one of the first of her crowd to make inroads into American television.

In 1975, Bromfield was part of the cast of Lily Tomlin’s third TV special on ABC, along with Christopher Guest, Laraine Newman, and Doris Roberts. Like Tomlin, Bromfield was a lesbian. It’s far from a shock to learn; she was all about gender ambiguity, and would often slip into male characters, or butch female ones (crusty gym teachers and the like). We mention this here because one of the writers on the Tomlin special was Lorne Michaels, and he was clearly a fan of Bromfield’s because that same year he cast her to do the opening monologue on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live. Unlike her old comedy partner Aykroyd, she wasn’t made a full time cast member, but she was clearly part of the larger family. We bring up her sexuality though to observe the changing times. The lesbian Bromfield was on SNL at the beginning; yet it would be over three decades before Kate McKinnon would become the first OUT cast member.

At any rate, Bromfield had a stand-up act at this point. It’s what she performed on SNL (though it was cut in half for time), and she also made several appearances on The Mike Douglas Show through 1976. In 1977 she made a guest appearance on SCTV, playing a role identified as “Dyke”. In 1978 she made her second appearance on SNL. The following year she was a regular on the ABC sitcom Angie, playing a character named “Mary Mary”. In 1980 she was a writer and performer on David Letterman’s short-lived daytime show. 1981-82 she was a regular on a sit-com called Best of the West. Starting in ’82 she made several appearances on Late Night with David Letterman. 1983-84 she was a writer, producer and auxiliary cast member on SCTV. In 1983, she had a supporting role in the Michael Keaton comedy Mr. Mom.

1984 was kind of a watershed moment for Bromfield. While she had been at the periphery of SNL and SCTV, Lorne Michaels made her, along with Dave Thomas and Buck Henry, one of the core cast members of The New Show, his experiment with a prime-time variety show. The program was an odd combination of late night sensibility and the conventional standards of prime time. It lasted less than a season, but I watched every episode, and remember Bromfield well (in particular her terrific Ruth Gordon impression). In 1986, she and most of the SCTV crew were in a 1986 special starring Dave Thomas called The Incredible Time Travels of Henry Osgood.

For the next decade or so, she was incredibly busy before and behind the cameras, as a creative consultant and occasional cast member on the Howard Hesseman sit-com Head of the Class (1986-90); as an actress in the film Home is Where the Hart Is (1987), directed by her brother Rex Bromfield and featuring Leslie Nielsen and Martin Mull; in a supporting role in Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989) with John Candy; as a co-producer on the Who’s the Boss? spin-off Living Dolls (1989) with Michael Learned, Leah Remini, and Halle Berry; as a co-producer on the sitcom Going Places (1990-91) with Alan Ruck and Heather Locklear; as a supervising producer on Kids in the Hall (1991-92), as an actress in the films Nothing But Trouble (1991), Caged Fear (1991), This is My Life (1992), Needful Things (1993) and the sitcom Grace Under Fire (1993-95, on which her sister Lois Bromfield also worked as a producer and writer) and finally as a writer on The Rosie O’Donnell Show (1997-98). This is in addition to writing the occasional sitcom episode for various shows, and perfoming as a voice over artist on Animaniacs, Tiny Toons Adventures and other kids’ programs over the years. She was writing for TV as late as 2001. But basically fans of Bromfield stopped seeing her on screens in 1995 — over a quarter of a century ago.

Where’s she been? Well, she’s not hiding. She went back to school, got her Master’s, and has been working for years as a psychotherapist. This phase of Bromfield’s life is well-documented on the Internet for those who are curious, although I am going to respect her privacy by not providing you with links. Her major life change seems to have come about not because of lack of success in show business — her resume was fat, she had more powerful friends than she could count, and naturally her talent and appeal remained intact. She seems to have had a genuine, organic shift in priorities. The timing of her career transition provides a clue. One of her early focuses was crisis counseling in the wake of 9/11. That’s obviously important work, easily as important as making people laugh, though that’s not to be sneezed at, either!

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For more on variety entertainment, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous