In the classic 1970s sitcom "Good Times," BernNadette Stanis played Thelma, the feisty middle child of the Evans household. And in the 40 years since that series ended in 1979, Stanis has stayed busy, with acting roles on stage and in films and television, and more recently as an author with books of relationship and financial advice, a memoir of her mother's struggle with Alzheimer's disease, and more.
Stanis, 65, is attending the National Black Theatre Festival, and set up at a booth at the entrance to the vendor's market at the Benton Convention Center. There, she sells and signs copies of her books and "Good Times" t-shirts and poses for pictures with fans, with proceeds benefiting Alzheimer's education and awareness. She will be set up there from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and keeps in touch with her fans on Instagram at thelmaofgoodtimes.
In between chats with fans coming up to her booth, she took a few minutes to talk about her career.
Q: How did you make the transition to writing and public speaking?
Answer: "I took a little time out to write a book that I really wanted to write ("Situations 101: Relationships"), and it just took me all over the country. It just sustained itself. After I wrote that book, I was encouraged to write another book .... I got invited to do so many different seminars and book signings. and I ended up writing a second book.
"And in the meantime, my mom got sick with Alzheimer's, and I'd had my mother with me on all the book signings. And I said 'Mother, we should write a book together' and she said that would be very nice, but as soon as we decided to write the book Alzheimer's started to do more damage, and we couldn't even think about writing sentences for a book. So what we had to do was focus on keeping mommy alive, and keeping her healthy and beautiful, and the last night of her life I decided to write a book and I decided to call it 'The Last night'. It took me five years to complete it."
Her mother passed in 2011. Stanis said she continues to focus on touring and public speaking, but hopes to get back into acting more in the near future and may even write her own scripts.
Q: How do you prefer your first name to be pronounced, and how did you come up with your stage name? (She was born Bernadette Stanislaus)
Answer: "It's pronounced 'Burn-a-dette.' I fancied it up by putting a capital 'N' in there," she said with a laugh. "I thought that would be really fancy, but it wasn't that fancy, because they ended up splitting it up, and now they call me 'Bern.' My mother called me 'Bern,' so that's OK."
She was asked to take a shorter stage name than her own last name. "Actually, I asked miss Esther Rolle (who played her mother, Florida Evans) where I should cut my name, because it was such a long name, and she's the one who told me to cut it right there. So Esther Rolle really gave me my name."
Q: Why do you think "Good Times" is still so popular?
Answer: "I think it has had longevity because it was such a real show. In fact, my father said to me once, "Good Times" was the first reality TV. Because so many African-Americans and even poor Caucasians and other nationalities, they were going through that financial struggle at that time. There were more people going through that than not at that time, and it related to so many people, because it was a family struggling and in love with each other and doing well, you had the teenage daughter always striving to become something in life."
Q: Where do you think Thelma, the character, is now?
Answer: "She has become the doctor that she wanted to become, and she has, I'd say, three children — a boy in the NFL, and a daughter that is studying to be a doctor, and a younger daughter who, you know, is a teenager trying to get her life together."
Q: Do you think "Good Times" should be revived the way other Norman Lear-produced shows were last season?
Answer: "They should, people would like to see that," she said. But unlike other revivals, she hopes they won't recast but stick with the original cast. "I think they want to see the real people. All of us are still here except Esther, but we can write around that. Every time I hear my audience, they say we want to see the continuation, see what happened to them .... That should be something we should do."