Another Edna, for a moment

Posted in Uncategorized on February 24, 2010 by Allison Sommers

“Siege”

This I do, being mad:

Gather baubles about me,

Sit in a circle of toys, and all the time

Death beating the door in.

White jade and an orange pitcher,

Hindu idol, Chinese god,—

Maybe next year, when I’m richer —

Carved beads and a lotus pod. . . .

And all this time

Death beating the door in.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay




Greasepaint Covers Everything But Winter’s Chill

Posted in Bonnie with tags , , , , on February 18, 2010 by Allison Sommers

I first heard Biff Rose’s sweet simple “Molly” on a visionary, game-changing public television magazine-format show in the early ’70s called The Great American Dream Machine, that seems to have been unfairly shuffled into a dusty back room of the TV Clubhouse of Fame. The Paley Center for Media has the original segment, but I can’t access that. What I’ve posted is a You Tube video someone has made using the composer’s own record as the soundtrack. I’m working on one of my own.

The elusive, erratic, enigmatic songwriter/comedian/counterculture philosopher Biff Rose is 70-something now, lives in New Orleans, still performs a bit,  flirts with total obscurity, seems uninterested in Mulligans, hard to say. He was acknowledged as pretty crazy back in the day, and is unquestionably much, much crazier and more controversial now. He is one of those artists best appreciated In Context. But he knows all about dusty back rooms and about floating around the shallows of fame and what you sacrifice to stay afloat even in the shallows.  His one-trick-pony’s trick was a Bowie cover called “Fill Your Heart“, which is probably still supporting him.  But his defining career song is “Molly.”  It’s his story as well as his song — and it’s Bonnie’s story, mine, my husband’s as well  — in fact, most people in Show Business, “Molly” is their story too.  It’s the simplest, truest story in the Show Business, and it’s pretty much always the story, ask anyone.  Any of us can tell you what we did for love.

I have remembered the lyrics ever since I heard it on TV in 1971 and wanted to be in Show Business more than I wanted to draw breath.  And there is a reason “Molly” came and found me on the Internet the other day, after going missing for 40 years or so from the Playlist In My Head.

You may not believe me, but I understood even then, watching an interpretative dance kind of thing on Great American Dream Machine, hearing this sad, circussy little song, what I was Signing Up For.  I think it was clear to me as a kid, on a prematurely wise and weary level, that by choosing the Circus  — not just as a fantasy, but as Real Life — I was agreeing to a dark bargain, like the one that Bonnie had made.  The Circus makes that deal with you.

I think 50-year old me has remembered “Molly” all of these years because 12-year old me knew that I would eventually figure it out, eventually come to understand about what the Circus gives you and what it takes away, after almost 40 years in it.

Things Like That Don’t Happen to People Like Us

Posted in Bonnie with tags on February 17, 2010 by Allison Sommers

<i>Charleston</i> released on Roulette Records 1957 Bonnie’s debut album on Roulette RecordsArrangements by Stu Phillips.

Truly, this is Tin Pan Alley’s best Mulligan song, and those Tin Pan Alley boys were responsible for some of the best of them all.

BYE BYE BLACKBIRD, vocal by Bonnie Alden

Words by Mort Dixon, music by Ray Henderson. Jerome H. Remick & Co. copyright 1926

Each of us in our little (Bonnie, Jimmy, Roger, Me) family has Second Acts.  I think we even have maybe three acts apiece, like a good old-fashioned play — like, you know, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? or The Little Foxes.  Which is not to say that our last acts have ended/will end happily.   All we can do is keep bringing the curtain up time after bloody time, and try not to forget our lines or bump into the scenery.

Bonnie was almost out of steam on her Act Two by this time she made this album, 1957. She was already trying to get pregnant with me, getting ready to Take A Breather for a little motherhood, as most broads did during that particular moment in history.  I can’t for a moment believe she was totally ready to bail on the Show Business at this particular moment in her career and her personal Act Two.  No, not at the deepest, most shameful place in her yearning, craving heart.  And I can’t for a moment believe walking away from her career was a voluntary, lateral move — oh, no, not after getting this close to the Gold Ring — that is,  the carousel-metaphor-Gold Ring,  which was not usually a girl’s first choice of Ring, back in the middle of that century.  Bonnie seems to have had both kinds of Ring simultaneously, lucky girl, and kept them reasonably well-juggled at this point: a handsome husband at her beck and call (except when he wasn’t, more on that anon), nightclub bookings at the Persian Room… (was it actually the Persian Room at the Plaza? Or the Peacock Alley at the Waldorf?  Do I remember it wrong or was it Bonnie herself creatively mis-remembering?)

Listen to that great big gorgeous orchestra behind her. I still have the band charts for that arrangement. Can you imagine our Bonnie was in any way happy to relinquish that extraordinary oceanwave of sound that was all for her? As an even swap for the sounds of a baby and an empty apartment?

After this musical adventure Bonnie hunkered down into the motherhood thing until 1972 or so.  She did it quite well, all things considered, but I think she spent the rest of her life looking back at this existential segue in 1957,  playing Bye Bye Blackbird in a boop-boop-ee-doopey, Helen Kane voice, over and over in her head with a million different What Ifs singing along.

Ooops.

I know.  I’ve skipped a lot of Plot Development. I will go back — I will –I’ll  fill you in with How Bonnie Gets Herself Out of Act One, I promise.

But since Bonnie’s birthday was on Valentine’s Day and I didn’t pay much attention to it, I thought a little upbeat Coming Attraction trailer-esque post might be a festive tribute, better late than never, right?

PLUS! And lastly, a call to arms.

It isn’t every day one finds out one’s actual mother is on iTunes. http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/charleston/id333466074

AUX ARMES, CITOYENS!

Friends of the Almost Famous! Supporters of Also-Rans! Partakers of Sloppy Seconds! Contenders that Coulda Been!

Do this for every time you’ve wondered what you would leave behind, that wasn’t just Stuff.

Go to iTunes and buy yourself an adorable 1920’s novelty number as arranged by Stu Phillips for my mother, Roulette Records’ hot young recording artist BONNIE ALDEN in 1957.  For 99 cents (I’ll pay you back, OK?) you can make my mother a little bit more famous than she was.  I have no idea who gets the money and I wish them the very best with it.

I just wish they had used the artwork from the album. I still have the contact sheets from her photo session.  Nobody who was even slightly connected to the copyrights represented by images or information on that album cover is alive to give a damn, and Bonnie would have been absolutely delighted.

Bonnie would have loved the Internet.



Just Because You Can’t See It Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Coming

Posted in Bonnie with tags on February 14, 2010 by Allison Sommers

NewstandBonnieShirley1943 copy

Bonnie told lies about being an actress from the time she started school in the Bronx until she went to the Pasadena Playhouse and became an actress.  Like all thoroughly commited liars, she knew that the bigger and better the lie the more likely it would actually be true at some point, even just for a small breath of time.  And she had a good handle on her audience, a valuable weapon in any fibber’s tactical arsenal.  The audience/enemy was the battalion of 6th grade girls at P.S. 77, who had nothing but disdain for the fat Jew kid who kept reminding them in a far-too-friendly fashion that her name was Bonnie, not Edna.  One day at lunch — she’d shoved herself onto the bench in the schoolyard whether the pretty girls wanted her there or not — she let the secret slip: she was Shirley Temple’s understudy. Yessirree bub, she’d gone to Hollywood in the summer and stayed with her Aunt — which was why her parents and sister weren’t there,  of course —  and acted right alongside Shirley Temple, in case she was sick.  And she was sick a lot! Oh, yes, they’d probably be seeing Bonnie in a movie or two any day now, soon as the new ones came out.  Years and years later Bonnie couldn’t remember exactly how she’d climbed out of the holes in her narrative (“Hey, wait! How come your hair’s not curly, then?” “Ain’t they gonna give you the money?” “Didn’t they make you get skinny?”), but reported that even the most vicious, most skeptical little Hedda Hopper was duly convinced and even prepared to swear she knew Shirley Temple’s real Hollywood profesional understudy. Eventually a note was sent home and Doris was summoned to appear right there in the classroom to discuss all sorts of misconducts (of which story fabrication was only one). Doris’ wrath was spitting and shrill, the foul Yiddish of her mother and the new, angry American street talk no one ever spoke on the radio but all the mothers knew. It’s One Thing to lie to your parents, who you obviously don’t ever think about,  and Another Thing to embarrass us in front of everybody and her mother!  Bonnie tumbled with her mother into the dark well of mortification — but Bonnie, as usual, got up and pulled herself back up toward the light, where another whopping, wonderful lie was sparkling in the sun.

Loews Paradise: In Which We Meet Bonnie

Posted in Bonnie with tags , , , , , , on February 7, 2010 by Allison Sommers

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

Well, good.

Posted in Uncategorized on February 5, 2010 by Allison Sommers

Preparing to be Read

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 21, 2010 by Allison Sommers

If a tree falls on the Internet and there’s no one logged in, will all the little grubs and beetles that lived in the base of the tree while it rotted and crumbled come running out into the forest of information and infest all our websites?

What? What’s that you say?  That’s a really bad First Post? Well, yes, I suppose so — although it is infinitely better than the TESTING 1 2 3 I was going to throw out upon the cyberseas to see if it floated before I put too much energy into this.  A little Loren Ipsum kind of thing, a little nonsensical patter before the big boffo opening number, you know…

Okay. It is indeed pretty idiotic.  This does not Bode Well.

BUT WAIT —

I get a do-over.  Really.  I do.  It’s a miracle, I tell you.

For no reason I can imagine (except that for ferchrissakes I deserve a break now and then, I mean, really) — without so much as an old fashioned Annunciation or even some lightning effects,  the Universe handed me a 50th birthday present: the Rod Serlingesque gift of The Mulligan, a magic/sci-fi  spell whereunder I get to do everything I’ve already done, long long ago,  ONE MORE TIME.  The cosmic Do-Over.  The tape rewinds and replays a moment in my life, while we’re right here, 30 years hence, but it’s the Same Moment I’d had back then, some big important Turning Point, and through some miracle of Time and the River or something, it’s here AGAIN, NOW! The circumstances have changed but the questions are the same damn ones.

“Who do I want to be?” “Do I have to finish college or can I just fake it?”  “Do I love him enough?” “How much does it matter if I gain five pounds?” “Shall I do it for the money?” “Should I be her friend even if I don’t trust her?”  “Can I pretend to be happy?” Defining stuff like that.  Man, oh man.  The roads we didn’t take.

In the magical/sci-fi Do-Over universe I find again and again  that I am being forced to confront the same Life Or Death, fork-in-the-road decisions that flummoxed me when I was 19.

BUT THIS TIME —

I get to get it right.

The universe has begun handing me Mulligans, and I am not about to look a gift plot twist in the mouth.   I’ve feel I’ve paid far too much into the “Whoops, here take this — You Gave Me Too Much Change” karma account to apologize about the unfairness of my Mulligans to you people who only get to Go Around Once, or question why I’ve been chosen for this gift. I’m just a lucky girl, that’s all.

That you are reading this is testament to the Power of the Mulligan, because (at least while access to these chronicles is limited to the ESC Digital Storytelling family) I know that you are a College Student or Instructor; before the Mulligans began, there was very little chance that I’d be enrolled in a college (albeit an Odd One) writing to be read,  in an academic setting, yet.  But I’ve been given another swipe at this College Thing, which I messed up so very royally so very many years ago.  Step right up to the rematch of the century — Allison vs. College!  Round Two.

So let this therefore  be a blog in honor of The Mulligan.

Noël Coward understood: