LA Times | Sep 13, 2007

Archive for Thursday, September 13, 2007

Country charm? Ay caramba!

Bart Simpson might not approve, but Nancy Cartwright, the voice of the cartoon brat, knows what she likes.

By David A. Keeps
September 13, 2007 in print edition F-1

ROSES. Chandeliers. Whimsy. Country. This is not a decorating mantra that Bart Simpson would chant. Well, not without his trademark smirk. But for Nancy Cartwright, the Emmy Award-winning voice actress who puts the sarcasm into the cartoon rascal’s mouth, those four girly-girl design elements are not open for discussion.

“These are my themes,” the diminutive pink-clad mom declares.

On a recent visit to her Northridge home, the roses are freshly clipped blooms from her garden, set in a vase in the wildly wallpapered dining room. “Chandeliers,” she announces, standing underneath a gilt and jade-colored glass confection in the kitchen. Cartwright points out a tiny figurine of Tinker Bell suspended on a beaded swag strung between the arms. “Whimsy,” she says.

As for country? That river runs deep, from the whitewashed scalloped trim and shuttered windows outside the 1947 Connecticut-style farmhouse to the beamed ceilings inside. A gambrel-roofed red barn serves as her garage. On the front lawn, Cartwright has placed an appropriate sentinel: a life-size fiberglass cow she named Milk Dud.

The 1-acre spread also contains the property’s original pine-paneled guest apartment, now done up with Western cabin furnishings found at flea markets, as well as cottages housing a studio and offices for managing Cartwright’s speaking engagements, charitable activities, books on tape recordings and bulging roster of animation voice gigs.

IN addition to portraying Bart and four other “Simpsons” scamps, Cartwright does voices for “The Replacements” and “Betsy’s Kindergarten Adventures,” produces a Web-based cartoon called “The Kellys” and frequently is called upon to play yet one more role: hostess. At home, she presides over civic functions as the honorary mayor of Northridge, holds get-togethers for the Church of Scientology and her own philanthropic group called Happy House, and throws fundraisers for a proposed youth recreation center nearby.

“I live in a very nice home with great neighbors, but you go a quarter of a mile down the road and there’s one of the highest concentrations of gangs in L.A. County,” she says. “I’m not scared living here, but it’s a little bit of an island in the middle of insanity.”

Recently she and children Lucy, 17, and Jack, 15, jumped in a golf cart and delivered more than 600 invitations for a neighborhood “mingle,” she says.

“I wanted them to know that I am accessible and to get them to volunteer at the youth center.”

Hosting large groups required a re-evaluation of the house that began in 2002, around the time when Cartwright and her husband, Warren Murphy, divorced. Three years later, with her ideas fully formed, the actress sought out interior designer and landscape artist Melinda Brownstone to renovate the house for her role as a single mom and event planner.

“She probably had 50 magazines dog-eared and marked with Post-it notes,” Brownstone says. “For the most part, it was her own creative concept.”

The designer quickly nicknamed her new client Nancy Fancy Pants.

“She’s feminine and likes to surround herself with fun and inspiring things,” Brownstone says. “When you have a personality that big, you have to embrace it.”

At the front of the house, they built a spacious sun room with French doors crowned by a half-moon window. Filled with bookcases, a folk-art game table and pink- and green-plaid chairs, the addition spills into the formal living room, which has several seating areas.

“We’ve crammed 70 people in the living room,” Cartwright says proudly. “And although there’s a TV, it’s hidden. I did not want that to be the focal point.”

That honor goes to the enormous stone fireplace and the antlered creature above it, a Semi-Normal Green-Lidded Fawn designed by Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.

Guests pass a bar built underneath a staircase to reach the grand kitchen, which was blown open to accommodate a computer station and laundry area. Doors lead out to a covered dining area and a series of outdoor spaces created for entertaining.

The most drastic change was the reconfiguration of the landscape. An unused tennis court was dismantled and the original pool filled in, allowing for a lawn with Adirondack chairs and additional parking. A new lagoon-style swimming hole was placed at the back edge of the lot, adjacent to an outdoor living room centered on a fireplace made from Arizona flagstone. All-weather wicker chairs in English hunting green and Old World-style outdoor carpets give the spaces an old-time down-homeyness.

If the ground floor was designed for guests, the romantic second-floor suite is decidedly Cartwright’s haven. Though she admits to splurges, such as a hand-painted secretary that she says cost in the $10,000 range, Cartwright also hunted for bargains at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. The floor plan was redesigned to give the actress an elaborate walk-in dressing room to accommodate her vintage clothing and furniture.

“It’s like a Barbie-doll closet with all her outfits,” daughter Lucy says.

Brownstone designed a master bath with sitting room that, Cartwright jokes, “is bigger than some New York apartments.”

“I spoiled myself with it, but it’s every girl’s dream to have a big tub with a chandelier above it.”

And not just any dangling, spangling array of crystals will do.

“A chandelier isn’t just something that distributes light,” she says. “It has to have its own personality.”

Cartwright’s taste is evident all over the property. Guests who smoke will find a gazebo straight out of “The Music Man,” painted in vivid teal, and the walls of her recording studio are padded with soft Mercurochrome-pink fabric.

It is in the main house, however, where Cartwright turned her rosy, whimsical, chandelier-lighted take on country living into a resoundingly personal statement. The living room didn’t have particularly high ceilings, yet Cartwright wanted to incorporate a huge original poster for the Fellini film “La Strada,” as well as an ornate upright piano and a massive coffee table made from a door that, she jokes, “probably came from a dungeon.”

FINDING a balance between large pieces of furniture, bold patterns and vibrant colors without creating claustrophobia required a complementary sense of scale and a lot of custom-sized sofas, chairs and bookcases, Brownstone says. Wherever possible, the designer used white and black pieces to provide visual structure in the boldly colored rooms. In the kitchen, that meant a black soapstone counter top with a rich vein of green that coordinated with a 1940s Wedgewood stove.

The result is a home that can adapt as easily as Cartwright can slip between cartoon voices, meeting the needs of a large gang of adults or just two kids, two dogs (Lydia and Buddy) and three cats (Emma, Cheerio and Pip Pip). It achieves a sense of comfort without skimping on adult luxuries – or childhood fantasies.

“It is a fun house, not a funhouse,” Brownstone says. “It’s casual, but everything is stepped up to a custom level.”

The overstuffed furniture in floral prints with ruffles and fringe, as well as the embroidered polka dots on the coral curtains, may look like a page out of Martha Stewart’s handbook, but the fabrics are sumptuous silks, not country chintz. The floors are covered in antique Persian and Aubusson carpets.

Cartwright gave her kids free rein to create their own spaces. Jack chose army green and camouflage sheets; Lucy went for pink with simple colonial furniture and a wall of neatly arranged fashion magazine tear sheets. A high ledge that once displayed Beanie Babies is now an abstract clutter of empty wooden picture frames.

“I stole it from a magazine,” Cartwright says of that idea, with a raspy giggle not unlike Bart Simpson’s.

When the upstairs expansion required a steel support girder through her kitchen counter, Cartwright happily sheathed the beam in pine bark and turned it into a tree, lending the enchantment of a storybook forest.

“When you walk in the door, it looks like something out of a fairy tale,” says friend Lorraine New. “Everywhere you turn, there’s some interesting detail, like her sea-horse aquarium in the kitchen, and a multitude of colors.”

Like, perhaps, the bold coral pink throughout the living room?

“It’s just a hot Nancy Cartwright color,” New says.

Cartwright has a history with shocking shades.

“My last house in Glassell Park was totally outrageous,” she says. “It was a ’60s hillside stucco with 65 steps from the street to the front door, and we painted it Bart Simpson yellow.”

By the time Jack had turned 5, Cartwright craved a neighborhood with sidewalks where the kids could ride their bikes. The search led to the Northridge farmhouse, set on what had been 20 acres of alfalfa and eucalyptus before the property was subdivided with conventional suburban homes. The history of the place was intriguing – it had been owned by singer Maxine Andrews of the Andrews Sisters as well as an unrelated Cartwright family – but the property had a more resonant quality.

“It communicated solid Midwestern stability,” says Cartwright, the fourth of six kids all born in Kettering, Ohio. So in 1996 Cartwright, then-husband Murphy and her two kids moved to Northridge. “I gave up the view for the land,” she says, “and I’ve never regretted it.”

By then, her career was solidly established. As a cartoon-loving teenager working at a radio station, Cartwright struck up a correspondence with Daws Butler, the voice of Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound. In 1978 she transferred to the theater department at UCLA and under Butler’s tutelage soon found work. In 1987 she auditioned for the role of Lisa Simpson but was far more intrigued by her older brother, Bart. Cartwright’s résumé grew to include other classic characters, including Chuckie Finster of “The Rugrats.”

THE suburban life – taking her daughter to dance class and her son to soccer games – agreed with Cartwright, and her vast property made it easy to build state-of-the-art facilities for her two production companies on site. Although she is proud of this small industrial complex, it is clear that Cartwright’s heart belongs to her house and the flashes of creativity inside.

“To me it seems normal, because I’ve always been around those kind of things,” son Jack says about the tree growing out of the kitchen counter. “But if you could live in one of your dreams, this is the exact house you would own.”

And it would have a garage with a second-story playroom, like the one that serves as a gallery for Cartwright’s collection of autographed animation cells. Her kids’ musical instruments look primed for an impromptu jam session. There’s a vintage jukebox, an orange-felt-covered pool table.

“I call it the monkey room,” Cartwright says, opening curtains printed with simians dressed in Edwardian finery.

Cartwright stops for a moment to look through the window, toward the main house and the garden filled with flowers. A sign on the white picket fence makes her chuckle. It’s a sweet heads-up to her guests and a reminder of her own good fortune. The hand-painted black lettering simply reads: “No whining.”

[email protected]

Comments are closed.