How Love Letters Kept Karen Ziemba and Bill Tatum's Long-Distance Romance Alive

Showmance   How Love Letters Kept Karen Ziemba and Bill Tatum's Long-Distance Romance Alive Tony Award-winning musical theatre star Karen Ziemba and her husband Bill Tatum discuss their relationship.
Tatum and Ziemba on opening night of <i>Bullets Over Broadway</i>
Tatum and Ziemba on opening night of Bullets Over Broadway

Karen Ziemba and her husband Bill Tatum fell in love before there was Skype, FaceTime and text messages. Instead they wrote romantic letters — and even a few poems — to stay in touch while Ziemba was on the first national tour of A Chorus Line. Now, over 30 years later, the Tony Award winner is out of town again, this time in San Francisco where she is playing Desiree Armfeldt in the American Conservatory Theater's production of A Little Night Music. They don't write letters anymore, but they do make sure to actually talk on the phone everyday and don't just rely on text messages, email "and that kind of crap" as Tatum calls the less personal forms of electronic communication. He was able to join his wife for her opening night in San Francisco, where they also celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary, before he headed back to the East Coast to start rehearsals for the Cape May production of Jean Kerr's comedy Mary, Mary.

Married on a Sunday night while Ziemba was starring in the original production of 42nd Street, the stage and the theatre community have always been the backdrop of Ziemba and Tatum's love story. For the latest installment of "A Fine Showmance," they reminisce about meeting in an Equity Library Theater production of Seesaw, their Tony Award-worthy wedding and the dinner-break beef stroganoff that brought them together.

I love that you guys met doing a production of Seesaw, the 1973 musical by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Michael Bennett. That's not a show you hear about everyday!
Karen Ziemba: It was at a theatre called E.L.T., Equity Library Theater that was around when Bill and I first got into the business. It was a wonderful place on the Upper West Side where they did three revivals — two plays and one musical — per year. You didn't really get much compensation for it, but all of the casting directors and agents would come see those shows. It was a wonderful showcase for young actors and a chance to do some really great old musicals and plays.

Who made the first backstage move?
KZ: Bill, I think you were the one who made the first move.
Bill Tatum: I don't know…
KZ: It was the first time he had ever worked with major dancers before, and I think he was very intrigued by that. Intrigued by the clothes that we wore, by how disciplined we were and the kind of positions we could get into. He was like, "I like this!" Right, Bill?
BT: All true.
KZ: He loved it so much he even started to take some dance classes himself after doing that musical, which was great. I remember helping him buy his jazz shoes and jazz pants — the whole bit.
BT: I wasn't very good. But in terms of the first move, I think I said, "Why don't we get together?" and you said, "Okay, when?"
KZ: I remember there were two gentleman up for the lead role at the callbacks for the show. My husband, and some other guy. I had seen the other guy before at other auditions, but I'd never seen Bill, and I thought, "Boy, this guy's really handsome. What a good-looking man!" Then once we were in the show together, we started talking and we were just attracted to each other.
BT: I'll have to ask you later who that other guy was.
KZ: Bill was funny. He would flirt with you, and he would do it with humor. I really liked that about him. He made me laugh.
BT: I had an underdeveloped sense of humor at the time, which has grown exponentially.

Did you hang out a lot during the show?
KZ: We would sometimes have dinner in between shows. Bill had worked at E.L.T. before, so he knew where the best little Chinese restaurant was and stuff like that. One night I invited him and another colleague from the show, who was playing the Tommy Tune role, to my apartment, because I lived on the Upper West Side, and I made dinner. I think I was trying to impress [Bill] with my cooking skills: "Not only can I sing and dance, I can cook, too," like the song!

What did you cook?
KZ: Beef stroganoff.

That's a little heavy for in between shows!
KZ: It is a little heavy. I don't know how I danced after that. It's the one recipe that my mother had taught me. I made a really good beef stroganoff.

Ziemba and cast in <i>Bullets Over Broadway</i>
Ziemba and cast in Bullets Over Broadway Photo by Paul Kolnik

Bill was that the turning point for you?
BT: I don't know if the beef stroganoff was the turning point… I was pretty well convinced by then. I wasn't sure why she was inviting this other guy over as well. I guess she was just trying keep things above board in her Midwestern-Methodist way. I'm trying to remember, but it seems like we didn't really get together with any serious intent until after the show was over. It was a short run. It wasn't running for months or anything. Karen actually started working right after that.
KZ: I got my first agent.
BT: Karen hadn't really done anything in New York, so it served its purpose. Then you went on the road with A Chorus Line.
KZ: That was my first national tour, so I went away for a while, but we kept in touch. Bill came out to visit me.
BT: That's right, in St. Louis.
KZ: I still have a wonderful photograph of him with the [Gateway] Arch in the background.
BT: I was about 40 pounds lighter in that picture. I don't know what happened there.

Too much beef stroganoff! That sounds like a difficult time to start a relationship with Karen going out on tour…
BT: When I came to see Karen in St. Louis, I had come from Boston. I was doing a show in New England, so neither one of us was sticking around town, but long-distance relationships are always difficult. We weren't officially anything at that time, but we stayed in touch. Karen writes great letters.

Karen, you wrote letters? That's so romantic!
KZ: At that time, that's what we did.
BT: You wrote me letters from the road. There were phone calls, too, of course, but it would have been before they discovered all of these electronic devices.
KZ: Bill also wrote beautiful letters, and every once in a while he'd write a poem too. They were very romantic, and also funny. Taking the time to do something like that was very impressive to me.

When did you come back to New York and officially make a go of it?
BT: Your tour was closing in Pittsburgh and you had every intention of coming home and never going out again. Of course that didn't happen. As soon as that tour was over they asked her to come to Vegas, but as soon as she quit that, they asked her to go to Broadway.
KZ: That was my Broadway debut.
BT: The Chorus Line people liked her a lot, but anyway her intention was to come home after the tour was over and she basically gave me an ultimatum: Fish or cut bait, babe. I wasn't exactly unencumbered at the time.

Ziemba in <i>A Little Night Music</i>
Ziemba in A Little Night Music Photo by Kevin Berne

You were seeing other people?
BT: I think other people would say that was true. Yes.
KZ: Bill was doing very well at the time. He was the "man about town."
BT: The ultimatum sort of pushed the issue. When she was on tour I bought an apartment and when she came off the road, she said she needed to find a place to live. I said, "No you don't," and that began a year of us living together. Then we got married after a year. By that time, you were in 42nd Street.
KZ: I took over the lead in the original 42nd Street that year. I invited practically the entire cast to the wedding. We did it on a Sunday night, because that's when we had off. We got married at the chapel at Columbia University. It was beautiful, and a lot of fun. We danced the night away.
BT: It was May, so all the flowers were in bloom.
KZ: All the cherry blossoms on the campus were out. It was just beautiful.

That must have been quite a party with all those professional dancers at the recital — I mean reception!
BT: It turned into a recital.
KZ: We had a fabulous live band, and all the people just went crazy. A lot of people sang with the band.
BT: When the band took a break my friend jumped on the piano and we sang rock 'n' roll songs. It was exactly what we had in mind. I also remember that the director of the E.L..T production of Seesaw said, "I'm not leaving the reception until Karen Ziemba sings."
KZ: I had to sing at my own wedding reception.

What did you sing?
KZ: "Our Love is Here to Stay," by George and Ira Gershwin.

You two might have had the most theatrical wedding ever.
BT: It was pretty theatrical.
KZ: The wedding itself was pretty short but once we got to the reception, since so many people from the business were there, everybody just enjoyed each other. My friends from the show were dancing with my mom and dad and my cousins. Bill's young son was dancing with everybody. We had a good time. It was our regular family and our extended family. I call [the people] in the shows we work on our extended family, because we spend so much time with them.

What year did you get married?
KZ: I hate to say this, but it was in the mid-'80s.
BT: '84.

What is your secret for staying together this long in showbiz?
BT: Karen is a pretty tolerant person. That's the secret to the whole thing. Right honey?
KZ: Yes. I think you are, too.
BT: Well, I try.
KZ: I think it is about tolerance, but it's also about the usual things: support and listening, but also laughing. We've had terrible arguments about things which range from any kind of subject you can imagine...
BT: You always start them, though.
KZ: It really is being able to come to some kind of solution. I can also still listen to a story Bill tells me, and he cracks me up. I also make him laugh. We still surprise each other. There's just something about that.
BT: Part of it is that we stay in touch. She may be on the road, or I may be on the road, but we talk everyday. We don't write letters anymore, but we do we talk everyday and not just text or email or that kind of crap. We actually talk everyday, and I cherish that closeness.

Today’s Most Popular News: