Two-time Emmy Award winner Loretta Swit, who starred as killjoy by-the-book U.S. Army Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the award-winning “M*A*S*H” television series (1972-83), will play Mame Dennis, the irrepressible free-spirited title character, in the North Carolina Theatre’s inaugural production of the award-winning Broadway musical comedy Mame. Mame opens tonight [10/24] in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium and runs through Nov. 1.

Houlihan’s evolution from a sensuous but sexually repressed blonde martinet into a tough but far more compassionate chief nurse at the world’s most famous mobile Army surgical hospital earned her 11 Emmy nominations and eight Golden Globe nominations.

Born in Passaic, NJ, on Nov. 4, 1937, Swit also won the Genii Award presented by the Organization of Women in Radio and Television, three People’s Choice Awards, and the Silver Satellite Award presented by American Women in Radio and Television in Canada.

Swit is the star of 25 TV movies, including the 1981 pilot for “Cagney & Lacey.” She would have played Detective Christine Cagney in the series, had she been able to get out of her “M*A*S*H” contract.

Loretta Swit made her Broadway debut in 1975 in Bernard Slade’s charming two-character comedy Same Time, Next Year, playing opposite Ted Bessell. She later played The Princess Puffer and Miss Angela Prysock, replacing Cleo Laine, in Rupert Holmes’ 1985 musical version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens.

Swit performed in the national tours of Any Wednesday and Mame. She starred as Agnes Gooch in the latter tour before headlining as Mame Dennis in New York and Valley Forge, Pa. More recently, Swit won The Sarah Siddons Award, Chicago’s most prestigious theatrical honor, for playing the title role in Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell.

She recently toured in the hot new swing musical Song of Singapore by Erik Frandsen, Michael Garin, Robert Hipkens, and Paula Lockheart; and she performed A.R. Gurney’s romantic two-character play, Love Letters, with Anthony Franciosa. Swit just finished performing The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler in New York City, Chicago, and London.

Mame Dennis is such a larger-than-life character, says NCT executive producer William Jones, that he wanted a star of the first magnitude in the role. So, Loretta Swit will provide the candlepower for the current NCT production directed and choreographed by Stephen Terrell.

Terrell previously directed the critically acclaimed NCT productions of The Sound of Music (2003), Guys & Dolls, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Based on the best-selling novel 1955 novel Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis and the award-winning 1956 play Auntie Mame by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Mame chronicles the escapades of young Patrick Dennis and his madcap aunt between 1928 and 1946. An orphaned 10-year-old farm boy from Des Moines, Iowa, Patrick is sent to New York City to live with his only living relative, his wealthy, glamorous and sophisticated aunt Mame Dennis. Patrick is shy; but “Auntie Mame” is a real free spirit, a woman about town, and a regular ball of fire.

“I reread and study Auntie Mame like a hilarious, glamorous bible where, among other wise lessons, one learns that true sophistication and innocence are two halves of the same glittering coin,” writes Charles Busch (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom).

Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae) claims, “Auntie Mame is the American Alice in Wonderland. It is also, incidentally, one of the most important books in my life. Its witty Wildean phrases ring in my mind, and its flamboyant characters still enamor me. Like Tennessee Williams, Patrick Dennis caught the boldness, vitality, and iridescent theatricality of modern American personality. In Mame’s mercurial metamorphoses we see American optimism and self-invention writ large.”

Joe Keenan, the Emmy-winning writer/producer for “Frasier,” says, “Mame Dennis is the grande dame of grand dames and I, for one, am thrilled that she’s back among us. She is still hilarious, sparkling, and utterly indestructible despite the best efforts of time, neglect, and Lucille Ball.”

And Robert Plunket (Love Junkie) writes, “Auntie Mame is a unique literary achievement a brilliant novel disguised as a lightweight piece of fluff. Every page sparkles with wit, style and though Mame would cringe at the thought high moral purpose. Let’s hope Patrick Dennis is finally recognized for what he is: One of the great comedic writers of the 20th century.”

The Broadway musical Mame features a book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Its hit songs include the title tune and “We Need a Little Christmas.”

Mame made its Broadway debut on May 24, 1966, at the Winter Garden Theatre and ran 1,508 performances. It was nominated for eight 1966 Tony Awards®, including Best Musical, and won three Tonys: for Best Actress in a Musical (Angela Lansbury as Mame Dennis), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Frankie Michaels as Patrick Dennis, age 10), and Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Beatrice Arthur as Patrick’s nanny Vera Charles).

Second Opinion: Orla Swift’s Oct. 24th Raleigh, NC News & Observer profile of Loretta Swit: [inactive 5/04]. Cameron Tew’s Oct. 23rd Durham, NC Herald-Sun profile of Swit: [inactive 1/04].

North Carolina Theatre presents Mame Friday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 25, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 26, at 2 and 7 p.m.; Tuesday-Friday, Oct. 28-31, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Nov. 1, at 2 and 8 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $18-$60. 919/831-6950 (NCT Box Office) or 919/834-4000 (TicketMaster) or North Carolina Theatre: [inactive 9/04]. Internet Broadway Database: Loretta Swit: M*A*S*H” (1972-83 TV Series): M*A*S*H (1970 Film):