Loews Paradise: In Which We Meet Bonnie

I’m eventually going to get to the story about The Mulligan and how I’ve been given the opportunity (or snatched it from the cosmos like a playground Mean Girl)  to attempt to do-over college.  I will.  But in order to properly understand and appreciate the extraordinary magic of this Second Chance you have to know a lot of other things.  So we’ll begin before the beginning (or is it the re-beginning?) with some Important Backstory.  It’s practically a whole Prequel, with its own Hollywood franchise. There’s a lot of exposition, but I’ll make it all pay off I swear.  So pay attention.

Bonnie.

This is her picture.Bonnie 1938

Bonnie had many many pictures taken of herself in her lifetime, and I’ve ended up with all the albums and headshots and telegrams and scrapbooks of press clippings she’d gathered from the time she was a kid and kept up until she died in 2000. She probably saved every picture that had ever been taken of her, but in some early shots from when she was a fat teenager, and again in some later family pictures where my brother and I and Daddy all look fine, she’s cut herself out of the frame.

This shot, apocryphally labeled in her own grownup hand on the back, says it was taken in 1938. It was taken — by whom? I can’t imagine who could possibly have owned a camera amongst those ex-tenement dwellers,  just about scratching out a working class existence in the “suburbs” of the Bronx.  It must have been  taken in whichever poorer Bronx neighborhood they had lived in before they moved to Parkchester when it first opened in 1940 or so.  Parkchester was a resplendent new Art Deco apartment development in the Bronx that had crisply trimmed, chained-off lawns and bronze fountains and terracotta sculptures in any number of WPA public art styles.  Bonnie as a grownup loved little better than talking about herself, but seldom steered the spotlight toward her dreary not-quite-poor-enough-for-dramatic-impact, middlebrow childhood, so I don’t actually remember much about where she was headed with a safety-pinned cape, un-ironed satin tap pants, eyeliner,  one finger painted a dark Jungle Red. She’d be about nine, and she’s either pointing to the stars or truckin’ the Big Apple with the assurance of a Harlem hipster, or both.  She is for all the world a chubby little Ruby Keeler about to shuffle off to Buffalo, but her eyes are mad and blaze out from her childhood like a wild creature’s in captivity, desperate and threatening. Get me out of here.  Take me somewhere I can survive.

I think she told me the photo was taken on her way to perform in a Talent Show for local kids.  She might have said maybe a contest to sing on the radio like Horn & Hardart’s Children’s Hour, maybe at the Loews Paradise between the double feature and the newsreels on a Saturday. I’ve made up so many stories about this picture I don’t really even care what really happened.  In the story I’ve retrofitted to the photo she’s been practicing her song with her father Herman (who had always yearned to perform in the Vaudeville and taught Bonnie and her sister all the songs he loved) until her mean-spirited mother Doris started hollering Like a Fishwife about the myriad ways that Bonnie was ruining everyone’s life, as she often did. In my story  she auditions with “I Love to Sing-a,” which is a Al Jolson/Cab Calloway number from a 1936 Warner Brothers’ film.  Bonnie wouldn’t have seen the film, but Herman would have sung the song to her when he was home from the tailor shop on Sunday while Doris and big sister Lenore were out at Lenore’s piano lessons.  Or she learned it when she sat through an all-day kiddies’ matinee (cartoons, two features, newsreels, live show, and dishware giveaway) when they showed the Merrie Melodies cartoon parody of Jolson’s The Jazz Singer — which was a send-up of the radio talent shows and some other topical targets as well.  The cartoon was made by Warner’s animation department as a way to publicize the song from the studio’s own mainstream Jolson feature (in an early example of marketing synergy).

Title CardMerrie Melodies Cartoon

“I Love to Singa” has been used in the years since 1937 for enough retro, slightly subversive, pop cultural insider jokes (and an iconic South Park episode) to render this possibly the only song written before 1960 that most people under the age of 20 can sing along with.

Al Jolson & Cab Calloway sing “I Love To Sing-a” from The Singing Kid, 1936

Did she tell me she won? I don’t remember if she actually said she made it to the Grand Concourse and the Loews that day — did Doris pony up the nickels for the trolley, and another for the movie? Or maybe the talent show was at the Albee or the RKO, and Herman walked her over and watched proudly while she did her number. But that doesn’t sound right, either. It would be a few years before Bonnie started leaving the apartment on her own, saying she was going to the Library, but actually wandering into whatever circumstance, whatever venue — the Talent Shows, the amateur hours, and (later) the USO and the Stage Door Canteen — she hoped would present an opportunity for her to sing and dance in front of an audience who would adore and rescue her.

Oh, it’s important to know this: Bonnie wasn’t Bonnie yet in 1938. She was Edna Marion Altman, named after someone on Herman’s side, someone who apparently didn’t make it out of the shtetl in Russia or Poland or Roumania (no one in my family ever remembers where in that Eastern European diaspora my ancestors, whoever they were, fit in geographically, but we’ve always agreed it must have been a lot like “Fiddler on the Roof.”)  By 3rd Grade or so, one of the many stories she started making up at school was that her family all called her Bonnie at home.  Edna/Bonnie had the students and teachers convinced well enough and Doris didn’t get wind of it until it had been established as her nickname in the classroom and the sidewalk playgrounds. It was by then too late for Doris’ disgust and and angry humilation to matter. Edna became known as Bonnie and  legally claimed it as her Stage Name when she announced herself an Actress, at 16: Bonnie Alden.  Maybe she signed herself up for that mysterious Talent Show in 1938 as Bonnie. I hope so.

Loews Paradise 2010

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