‘Abbott Elementary’ star returns home to Bethesda Theater, urging ‘Let’s get this strike settled’

Hear our full chat on my podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Lisa Ann Walter at Bethesda Theater (Part 1)

ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” was supposed to return for a third season this month, but was delayed by the ongoing Hollywood writers and actors’ strikes.

In the meantime, one of that show’s stars, Lisa Ann Walter, returns home to Bethesda Theater for two standup shows on Sunday, Sept. 17.

“When my publicist said you’re going to talk to WTOP, which is a radio station in D.C., I was like I know!” Walter told WTOP. “We’ll do a recap of what’s happening if the (football) game is still going. I’m a big Commanders fan — or whatever they’re gonna be called by the time I come do the show, could be anything! … When you tell people out here (in Hollywood) like ‘Who’s your team?’, for years it was pretty shamefaced, but now we have hope.”

Her standup gigs come just a few months after grand marshaling D.C.’s National Cherry Blossom Parade.

“I really felt like a returning hero,” Walter said. “I’m literally doing what I saw people do at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade my entire life. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I had such a good time and everybody was so welcoming.

“It’s beautiful, man. I love coming home. There’s really no place like it in the world. It’s a beautiful city, the people are incredible. I’m so excited to come do standup. I’ve got a lot of people from high school coming.”

Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1963, Walter grew up with her father, who worked for NASA. Her mother was a teacher, which foreshadowed her future role as a blue-collar educator on “Abbott Elementary.”

“Before she did substitute teaching in Montgomery County, she was a regular teacher in Downtown D.C., so I got the bona fides of the Melissa Schemmenti character from my mom,” Walter said.

“Her first job was a one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. … They let them stay home during the harvest, like it was country. Then she totally swung the other direction in D.C. and was the only white teacher in the school. It was very similar to the Schemmenti experience.”

Her mom eventually taught at Takoma Park Junior High, where Lisa Ann attended before graduating from Montgomery Blair High School in 1979. In fact, Blair’s old school building on Wayne Avenue had the area’s largest proscenium stage until the Kennedy Center was built. There, she performed in many of the school’s theatrical productions.

“Go Blazers!” Walter said. “My first year, I did the musical, which was ‘The Music Man,’ … then I did their nonmusical play ’10 Nights in a Barroom.’ … Then I didn’t do ‘My Fair Lady’ because I had mono. … Then my junior year we did ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and I played Yente and brought the house down. I got a standing ovation.

On her experience with ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ she said “I think that’s the show that made me say, ‘I want to do this my whole life. I want to make people feel, laugh and cry.'”

After high school, Walter went on to earn her theater degree from Catholic University in D.C. in 1983.

“Catholic I went to purposely because they had such a prestigious theater department, one of the best in the country that’s not actually a theater school, like Juilliard,” Walter said. “I went down by myself on the brand new subway to visit. It was a beautiful spring day, I’m walking past (The Basilica) on the way to the drama department and I chose (to attend).”

“I paid for it myself,” she added. “Waited tables five days a week at the Bethesda Country Club.”

While at Catholic, she met a young Ed Norton, whose grandfather James Rouse designed Columbia, Maryland. They reminisced years later when she auditioned for Norton’s directorial debut “Keeping the Faith” (2000).

“He looked at my resume and he goes, ‘Oh, you went to Catholic,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah.’ … He goes, ‘I did a play there when I was a kid, you probably never heard of it.’ I looked at him and I went, ‘Wait a minute. Was it a play they were trying out at Catholic and brought to Broadway called ‘Werewolf?’ He goes, ‘Oh my God, how did you know that?’ I go, ‘You were the little kid in it! I ran sound my freshman year and I actually drove you home to Columbia twice!'”

After receiving “the best reviews” of her life in Arena Stage’s summer production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Walter moved to New York City and found a knack for standup comedy. Her career skyrocketed.

“I was the only person as young as we were having made a baby,” Walter said. “I went on stage and started talking about being a mother and being married. It was a very usual experience for a standup, and I got really popular really quickly. I started headlining within about a year and a half. Within six months of starting standup, I was doing it on TV on ‘It’s Showtime at The Apollo’ and killing. I did that for seven years actually.”

Moving to Hollywood, she starred in TV shows like Fox’s “My Wildest Dreams” and ABC’s “Life’s Work.” On the big screen, she played Whoopi Goldberg sidekick in “Eddie” (1996) and Lindsay Lohan’s nanny in “The Parent Trap” (1998). She also shined in reality shows, creating Oxygen’s “Dance Your Ass Off,” judging ABC’s “The Next Best Thing: Who is the Greatest Celebrity Impersonator?” and winning a celebrity edition of NBC’s “The Weakest Link.”

Of course, her life changed when she landed a part on “Abbott Elementary,” created by Quinta Brunson.

“She created a show that generations can watch together,” Walter said. “People come up and tell us, ‘I watch with my parents, I watch with my grandparents, my kids and I watch together.’ It was her absolute intention to do that. She saw that there was not a show that grown-ups could watch and not feel like it’s a corny kids’ show but kids loved it, too. Having it start in September was a throwback to the old TV season and you couldn’t wait to watch.”

Their team of Sheryl Lee Ralph, Janelle James, Tyler Williams James, Chris Perfetti and the rest of the cast won Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series at the 2023 Screen Actors Guild Awards.

“It is an incredibly deep bench of talent,” Walter said. “The American public had never heard of Janelle, she was a comic that Quinta knew. …

On the ongoing Hollywood strikes, she said, “we all cannot wait to get back to work. I miss Sheryl so much. She is truly one of my best friends. … We don’t get to see each other! What’s it like when you don’t get to check in with your best friend every day? It hurts. Let’s get this strike settled so I can go back to see my friends. That’s what I want to do.”

The series’ third season was supposed to have started production months ago, but it’s been sidelined by the continuing WGA and SAG strikes. Walter said it’s important to support what the strike is trying to accomplish — even if it disrupts the industry in the short-term.

“Quinta really is a stalwart supporter of the union,” Walter said. “Whenever (the writers) clear their strike up, it’ll be two months until we (actors) get started. … It’s just about getting a little share of these enormous, record, billion-dollar profits of the streaming services. … It would be easy to solve. People in charge of the corporations have to be willing to give up a fraction. … If you do the math, less than 1% of their revenue could end all of this.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Lisa Ann Walter at Bethesda Theater (Part 2)

Hear our full chat on my podcast “Beyond the Fame with Jason Fraley.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up