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CALAFORNIA SWEET

Frasier's Peri Gilpin thruned a run-down , Spanish-style L.A. home into a happy hangout for a crowd of family and friends

Even on the street you can hear the laughter floating out from Peri Gilpin's Mediterranean-style home in the hills of Los Angeles. Up the steps and through the front door, it becomes clear that the source is Gilpin herself and two friends, who are in hysterics in the light-splashed living room. "When I walked into this house the first time," the 33 year-old actress says later, "I thought it was the happiest place I'd ever seen." In the two years she has owned it, Gilpin, her dogs, and a non-stop parade of visitors have come to almost communally inhabit the place, lending it the nickname the Sorority House.

Its natural cheerfulness is just one of the qualities that made this 1922 house perfect for Gilpin, who shares the wit and seductive earthiness of Roz Doyle, the character she plays on Frasier. A Texas gal to the bones (she drinks Dr Pepper, has her car radio preset to a country station, and does a impression of Luanne from King of the Hill), Gilpin was drawn to the Spanish architecture, which was reminiscent of her home state. And a nester by nature, she wanted a fixer-upper to stamp as her own. "It had a fireplace in the bedroom, a pool and a good kitchen-everything on my wish list."

The house, now completely renovated and decorated by Pamela Galloway, seems to wind up the hill like a vine, and one of its many charms is that every room opens on to either an outdoor terrace or a garden. The rosemary-and-lavender-studded terrace off the dinning room, with its broad mid-city views, is a fine place to hear Gilpin tell her life story and, being a Texan, she tells a good one.

Gilpin starts at the beginning with her birth in the "Baptist bubble" of Waco, where her parents were students at Baylor University. Her father studied for the ministry while her mother pursued drama; Peri was born nine months to the day after their marriage. When the couple divorced, after the birth of Gilpin's sister Patti, her father, Jim O'Brien, hit the road, the ministry for a career as a DJ. Mother and daughters moved into a "bachelorette pad,” but eventually Sandra O'Brien married a long lost friend, Wes Gilpin. "He had two in, Marc and April, and we totally Brady Brunch - ed it," says Peri. "We all wanted to be a family so bad. We never use the word step, ever." Says Patti, with a younger sister's perspective: “Peri took on a lot of responsibility. She and Mom had to make a family for us. There were always celebrations. Our mother even gave us cards on Washington's Birthday." Sandra decided to return to acting, and was soon modelling and doing commercial work.

Wes, a salesman, followed in her steps, and it wasn't long before all the children were in on the act. Peri's confidence as a performer was boosted both by years spent at the Dallas Theatre Centre and by the support of her beautiful and feisty mother. It was Sandra Gilpin who took her frightened older daughter to a new school and stood like a fortress in the back of the room all day. Years later, Sandra went into battle mode at a University of Texas at Austin committee meeting when a weeping Peri was bounced out of the theatre department. Getting thrown out of the program actually motivated Gilpin, pushing her to study Shakespeare in London and to apprentice at the Williamstown, Massachusetts, theatre festival. She was 22 when her father, Jim, by then a respected TV broadcaster in Philadelphia, was tragically killed in a parachuting accident. He was 43.

Gilpin was ready for a change when her manager took a stable of seven actors to Los Angeles. One of the other actors was her best friend, Cameron Watson. "Peri was so confident about the trip, but I was scared to death," remembers Watson. "I just attached myself to her and said, 'Help me! Help me!' " The pair took an apartment together, which they shared for five years. "Only the first couple of months were platonic," says the handsome Tennessee-bred Watson. "We spent our 205 together, and we were going to get married, but eventually we decided not to. We still wanted to be in each other's lives, so we became best friends." After a few false starts, Gilpin hit a career mother lode when she landed the role of an acerbic radio producer in Kelsey Grammer's Cheers spin-off, Frasier. It was her "dream job in every way"~and now, five years later, Gilpin is giving guests a tour of her dream house.

The first thing she did when she was ready to perfect the space was call Galloway, who also owns Gilpin's favourite home-furnishings store on Ventura Boulevard, a genteel emporium of European country designs called Ferret. "Peri said, 'I just bought a house, and I want it to look exactly like your store,' " recalls Galloway "The house was bare white when we started Gilpin hired artist Jean-Francois Blanc to paint it the walls in Mediterranean colours, bringing "sun into the whole house."

But there were many cheerless moments during the two years the house was being fixed up. Just after Gilpin bought the property, she was called to Dallas, where her mother was battling cancer. Friends stepped in and took over the renovations, which included revamping the electricity and plumbing, as well as re-plastering, redoing the floors and repairing the exterior. "We all just pitched in," remembers Watson, who moved into the house to help out. "And when it was time for her mother to come, it was perfect."

Gilpin had returned from Dallas to resume taping Frasier when her mother called. "She'd had surgery, and we didn't know if she'd pull out of it," says Gilpin. "And she said, 'I'm coming out for a visit.' I kind of humoured her, but she did come. I picked her up at the air-port, carried her off the plane and up to the bedroom. She never really came down again, except maybe once or twice to look at the Christmas tree." Gilpin's house was soon filled with family. "I said, 'Why don't you stay? Why don't we stay here and help each other?'

Sandra Gilpin spent the last six months of her life in Pen's home, and died there in January 1997. The experience has only made the house more special and alive. "Pen had some concerns about how she would feel about the place when it was over," remembers Watson. "But she had a huge memorial, and people came from all over. The house became a celebration of her mother, and there was nothing bad or eerie about it. It blessed it."

Now Gilpin's home is always filled with people-with friends at z in the morning after the theatre, with family from Texas staying over, with 40 guests for a sit-down celebration of Frasier co-star Jane Leeves' engagement. Peri's lovely, willowy sister Patti still lives here.

"Peri followed beautifully in my mother's tradition, making a wonderful Christmas for us this year," she says. "She's my hero. She's the kind of person who devotes herself 100 percent to everything, including her family, and I am so lucky to be on the receiving end of it."

The frightened girl whose mother stayed in the back of the room the first day of school is now a confident, elegant and magnetic woman, very much her mother's daughter. Which of course means she is also feisty. "Pen's the first to argue about something for a week and a half," says Watson. "But if she's wrong, she's the first to back down." As the sun starts to set over the ocean and the clouds get heavy and purple, Gilpin opens a bottle of champagne, and soon an argument over theatre heats up on the terrace. People walking on the street below can probably hear her laughter, and for now, no one is backing down.

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