published Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Curtain Call: Love of performing drives Wendy Tippens

Actress/entertainer Wendy Tippens is shown in her Love Van, a 1997 Nissan Quest that she has decorated with colorful tiles, glass, beads, stones, found objects and paint. It has become her passion, and she takes it to shows around the country.
Actress/entertainer Wendy Tippens is shown in her Love Van, a 1997 Nissan Quest that she has decorated with colorful tiles, glass, beads, stones, found objects and paint. It has become her passion, and she takes it to shows around the country.
Wendy Tippens

Age: 50.

Hometown: Rossvile, Ga.

Education: Rossville High School, Chattanooga State and UTC.

Family: Husband, Jeff; daughter, Olivia Tippens; son, Cody Cowen.

Vocation: Artist/entertainer.

Wendy Tippens has some vivid memories of events that led her to the stage. One that showcases both her love for theater and comedy was performing in plays at Rossville High School.

"You have not lived until you've seen a Rossville school production, circa 1978 or '79, especially a Greek tragedy," she said.

The dialogue might have been more than a little "Southernized," but Tippens said she learned a lot doing those plays.

"Our teacher, Jeanne Dunn, would say, 'I don't care if a herd of elephants comes through the auditorium, you keep going and make sure the back wall can hear you. I've never had a problem being heard.

"Once I performed to that high school crowd, doing stand-up was nothing."

Tippens has been performing ever since, though with a few years' breaks during and after college. She got back into it after her father, who she said is her biggest fan, asked to videotape her performing a cast of characters she'd created over the years. It was intended to be a one-time thing, but out of it came Big Bette, a 50-year-old "country and western musical extravaganza. She's been married 13 times and is looking for No. 14 because hope springs eternal."

Tippens has performed Big Bette onstage and at parties and special events for nearly 15 years.

It was Tippens' father who introduced her to the stage.

"I was 14," she said. "He came to me on a Sunday with a newspaper article or ad and said, 'You should do this.' I grew up watching Carol Burnett and H.R. Pufnstuf and all the Sid and Marty Krofft shows. I could do a pretty good British accent, and then I learned some others."

Her father took her to an audition at the old Chattanooga Little Theatre, and Tippens said she was hooked as soon as she walked through the doors.

At 23, she signed up for the Funniest Person in America contest. Though she did well, the experience terrified her. The first one was held at Yesterday's, and if the crowd didn't like you, they simply talked over you, she said.

The next year it was held at a club on Brainerd Road, and the crowd was a bit rowdier.

"It was a double-decker, and they were three deep," she said. "If they didn't like you, they wadded up beer cups and threw them and yelled at you. I did well and made it to the finals, but I had to do blue material, and I didn't like it."

That experience pushed her toward acting, where she could take on a different personality altogether.

"It didn't scare me at all. You memorize the lines and act, and you are someone else."

Her big break came when Anita Ricketts, then owner of the Back Stage Playhouse, gave her six weeks to do a one-woman show featuring Big Bette and a cast of characters with names like Madame Irene, Doctor Yolanda Greenwood and Martha Crouch.

She mostly does Big Bette these days. She said she tailors the material to the audience and works hard to keep the jokes, and the songs she performs, current.

"When Clinton was in office, I had a song called 'I Wish I Was Married to the President' sung to 'Rocky Top.' When he went out of office, it was heartbreaking because that song went with him."

Big Bette affords her a chance to say and sing just about anything, she said.

"I can tailor it to the audience," she said. "I did a class of 1968 reunion and a wedding recently. I did a show in Atlanta the other day, and I was told it was a retirement assisted-living place, but it was a place for retirees with Alzheimer's. Big difference."

You can see several Big Bette videos, including a "How To Speak Southern" series, on YouTube.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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