Ronnie Claire Edwards -- best known as Corabeth in The Waltons -- is

coming to the Edinburgh fringe. And her life story is as outrageous as

her show. WE NEVER got around to her harrowing escapades with 15-foot

alligators and how she made her thrilling hair's breadth escape from the

jaws of death. We didn't visit Egypt's Valley of the Dwarfs. Nor did we

discuss the strange case of the man who named his daughter Hernia Sue.

And I never managed to ask what it feels like to have someone toss an

axe at your rapidly whirling body, although I did wonder whether she

ever was a knife-thrower's assistant.

To which Ronnie Claire Edwards replies only with an old-fashioned look

and an arch of a perfectly plucked eyebrow. That, says Larry Randolph,

who has directed Edwards's one-woman show, The Knife-Thrower's

Assistant*, which opens on the Edinburgh fringe tomorrow, is like

asking, ''Are those beautiful pearls real?'' The clever answer is

''almost''. When Edwards -- still fondly remembered for her brilliantly

acidulous portrayal of Corabeth Godsey, the storekeeper's wife, in The

Waltons -- promises a festival of abnormality, she ain't kidding. This

woman, according to Earl Hamner Jr, creator of the saccharine-coated

soap to which Edwards brought a hint of vinegar and a twist of lemon, is

''not for the faint of heart. She is armed and dangerous''. Armed with a

rapier-sharp wit.

Which is just what a woman needs when she has lived her life ''on the

cutting edge''. She arrives for breakfast at Edinburgh's Caledonian

Hotel, having flown in from her Los Angeles home the previous day, and

she immediately wants to know whether I have seen the fringe show in

which trapeze artists fly through the air with the greatest of ease. ''I

love trapeze artists,'' she drawls. ''I have never forgiven my mother

for not telling me that there was a circus right there with us in the

same town, Hugo, Oklahoma. I would have run away with them.''

Looking every inch the perfect lady, with her brunette hair piled on

top of her head, dressed in flowing green, and bedecked with many pieces

of antique jewellery, Edwards says she has always been attracted to

borderline existences. Let's just say she has acted in some strange

places since she was young. ''I have worked in tent shows in mining

camps, in carnivals, rodeos, and some very odd arenas indeed.'' And now

here she is walking the tightrope of the one-woman show -- ''and all

without the aid of a safety net'' -- which she performed for President

Clinton's Inaugural Celebration. ''I didn't vote for him, you know,''

she confides, fixing my tape-recorder with a beady eye. ''I hope you are

going to be prepared to edit this. I can be very extempore and somewhat

pithy.'' And as sassy as a glass of sarsaparilla.

Ronnie Claire, announces Larry Randolph, is an avid collector of the

abnormal. A sort of Autolycus of the prairies, a picker-up of

unconsidered trifles. Tell Jackie, he urges Edwards, about the Possum

Breeders and Growers Association of America. Well, says Edwards, they

are part of the show, along with 'gator ranching, emu hatching, and the

near mythical creature, the ''zule'', a crossing of a jack donkey and a

mare zebra. But it's the seriousness with which people take these things

that makes her laugh. ''These people actually believe they are going to

save the world's hungry by breeding possums.''

At this stage of the interview, you are in danger of splitting your

sides and worrying how you'll stitch them back together again and

thinking how spot on was the man from The Hollywood Reporter who wrote

that Edwards ''could make the Sphinx laugh'' and that she was as much

fun to be around as all three Marx Brothers on their very best day.

Despite much cajoling, though, she is cagey about ''the true story and

near-death experiences on the tent show circuit of the knife-thrower's

assistant, a tale to chill the blood'', with which she ends her show.

Which promises to be a colourful patchwork quilt of crazy stories,

cock-eyed yarns, lies, exaggerations, and Bible truths.

Edwards claims she was ''born off-centre'', although she is from the

very heart of America -- Oklahoma, where the waving wheat sure looks

sweet. Her mother wrote stories for True Confessions magazine and her

father was a trial lawyer. ''People ask how I got to be an actress and I

say, combine those two and my Scots, German, and English heritage and

this is the result! My grandparents made the run from Texas into

Oklahoma, the Indian Nation, on April 22, 1889, in a buckboard wagon.

You just ran and anything you staked a claim on was yours. They were

very eccentric people,'' she says, dropping her voice to a stage


She grew up in the last stronghold of poetic speech in the States.

''The language is colourful, full of colloquialisms and, unlike urban

humour, it is rooted in animals, in the land. It is a little rough, a

little coarse and there is a lot of that in the play. My folks would

never have thought of themselves as speaking poetry, but they did. I

talk about my grandmother, Caroline Hamilton, a lot. She spoke in this

very Victorian, Dickensian manner, often from behind her hand, which

lent the most mundane utterances great drama and suspense. She looked

like a cross between Martita Hunt in The Mad Woman of Chaillot and

Estelle Winwood as Miss Havishamin Great Expectations.

''Everything was said in this conspiratorial manner. She simply

thought that everything she uttered was of great import. She was just

crazy, speaking in whispers and tip-toeing around. Beyond eccentric. Her

mind, as we say back home, had slipped its halter.''

The Edwards clan lived in a huge house with dozens of nutty relatives,

from poor relations to the seriously strange. Her grandparents took in

cousins, ancient maiden aunts, the recently divorced, in-laws, and

''delicate ladies not recovered from melancholia''. There was Uncle Jim,

who was a licensed medical doctor, but who preferred to embroider

tablecloths. His divorced wife, whom he ignored, lived on the fourth

floor, while he resided on the third.

''They never spoke at all. Now why take her in? She wasn't any kin,

she just stayed on and they kept her. And then there was the poetess who

lived in the attic. Her nerves caused her to claw the skin off her

hands. Just what every family needs, a spook up the attic! All her meals

were delivered on a tray, so she never descended. And there was the

Judge -- no kin -- who sat on the verandah drinking patent medicine,

heavily laced with alcohol. And Little Joe Phillips, the child from next

door, who decided at the age of four that the Edwardses were preferrable

to his own family, much to their relief because he ate too much. I

remember him when I was a kid, when he weighed around 300 pounds.

''Oh, and did I mention the two black men who lived with us? One of

them had no duties or responsibilities but to keep track of my

grandmother's sewing basket. The other, Turpentine was his name, came

with the car when he drove it out from town. Is this too much?'' asks

Edwards, pausing for breath. ''I think it is too much. My grandmother's

three sisters, old maiden aunts, Moldina, Ruth and Ethel, lived with

them too. Ethel galloped towards madness at an uncheckable speed, and

Moldina and Ruth had an on-going affair with the same man until they all

fell into decrepitude. They were just very peculiar.''

Although Edwards's grandparents had made the run into Oklahoma owning

nothing, the land was rich in natural resources and they became wealthy.

''My grandfather made a lot of money. But my grandmother had exquisite

taste in beautiful clothes and furs, so she spent it all. She used to

say, 'I always thought there was more where that came from'. Finally,

they were busted when she took a liner to Hawaii to spend the last of

their cash on jade dinner rings for everyone. She was the sort of woman

who could make a tin can and a piece of string look real stylish.''

Now widowed (her late husband was a tax lawyer), Edwards is childless,

but she can look back on an unconventional childhood rich in oddities.

''I always wanted to act. We had these French doors and I was always

coming in through them and performing. My grandmother took me to

operettas and I loved the rodeos, but nobody we knew was in show

business.'' Perhaps they ought to have been? ''A freak show, maybe,''

she says, crisply.

SINCE studying drama at the University of Oklahoma, Edwards says she

has worked and worked and worked, in everything from the tent show

circuit where her favourite line in melodrama remains, ''What I am is

best known to myself. You see the boy does not know I am an

adventuress,'' to Broadway, the movies and television. Which brings us

to The Waltons, ''a rare and wonderful experience''. Everybody loved to

hate Corabeth. ''I'd be on the up escalator in a store and the people on

the down would be shouting, 'We hate you.' I sure had the best role.

Because of all that treacle, what was needed was another spice. It was a

fantastic part, the best character in the show. People still remember,

'No credit, Mr Godsey' and that just delights me. I am very fond of


Recently a Walton's Mountain Museum was opened in Schuyler, Virginia.

Six thousand people turned up, including many cast members, with whom

Edwards remains in touch. A Waltons reunion TV special is to be filmed

in the autumn, bringing the story up to the 1960s. What about Mr Godsey?

Where is he? ''I don't see Ike,'' she replies, tartly.

No one in her family spoke in a conventional way, she says. Her

grandfather met his long-lost brother in Texas and asked him where he

had been for the last 20 years. ''Ah've bin down in old Mexico, fighting

with Villa,'' he replied. Her father never just went to bed, for

instance, ''he would go wrestle with Morpheus''. Much of her carnival

ride of stories came from her father, says Edwards. She has a huge cache

of his letters.

''Poppa's letters, that's going to be The Knife-Thrower's Assistant,

Part II,'' says Larry Randolph. Gee, said the actor Red Buttons to

Edwards when he saw her show in Hollywood, ''I would have loved to have

known your father.'' And that was when she realised that The

Knife-Thrower's Assistant is a loving tribute to her Poppa. ''As I

wrote, I heard his voice in my ear. People come to me after the

performance and say, 'I'm in love with your father'.''

*The Knife-Thrower's Assistant is at the Festival Club, Chambers

Street, Edinburgh, until September 4.