Archive for Bonnie

JENNY KISSED ME

Posted in Bonnie with tags , on April 25, 2010 by Allison Sommers

JENNY KISSED ME, Part One

When she had the pocket money Bonnie took the number 6 train from Parkchester to midtown and had a bran muffin and coffee and cigarettes at Childs; the almost daily argument she had with Doris about Herman paying for her trainfare and Luckies and lunch out every day upset her stomach, but the pangs would ease and quell as she slipped into Bonnie Alden for the day just as the train slipped underground at 125th street.

If she sat at the counter, she could sip black coffee and smoke and read the trades for most of the day, the tightly-wound counter ladies uninterested in moving her along unless it was raining and the place was jammed. Bonnie circled and clipped the audition notices with gestures and sighs and excited little “Ooos!” and “Ahas!” which she hoped would signal “actress” to all onlookers but still sound blasé and customary. When she spotted a notice that did, in fact, alert her to the possibility of a role she felt could be hers, she’d rip it from the paper with a triumphant flourish, flutter her fingers for the waitress, fiddle loudly in her change purse, juggle her envelope of glossy pictures and resumes and sheet music, and stride purposefully and busily toward the Ladies’ Room, as if there were not a moment to lose. She imagined she heard in her wake a clattering of coffee cups and the sound of Other Young Actresses flipping frantically through their own copies of Variety to find the life-altering casting information.

The notice for “Jenny Kissed Me” was one she barely skimmed: a new Broadway play by Jeani Kerr, set in a girls’ Catholic school, starring Leo G. Carroll, an imposing English movie star revered by her teachers at the Playhouse, as the head priest. The Alexander H. Cohen office was seeking children, “Irish Catholic little girls, aged 8 to 16.” After she got to the end of the trade paper she turned back and considered it again. With a vaguely guilty determination that felt nothing like confidence, she rubbed her lipstick off, hard, with a paper napkin and performed her Going to an Audition pantomime for the oblivious folks in Childs. Trying not to think about being too old, too fat, too not-Irish, too Jewish — Bonnie rushed out the door to the address on Shubert Alley given in the ad.

Her suit jacket was buttoned tight over her chest which had been relieved of its padded brassiere in Childs’ bathroom. She had flattened her breasts into the plump, pillowy, amorphous mound that every fat girl recognizes under other fat girls’ too-tight clothes. She’d stuffed her stockings and girdle into her handbag, and her legs were blue and numb when she arrived at Alexander H. Cohen’s office.

The elevator man pulled back the gate and she stepped into a mud-colored linoleum hallway of many doors with many gold-painted names on each door. Against the wall between one open door and the fire escape was a lineup of folding bridge chairs in which sat a dozen 12- and 14-year-old girls with red hair and freckles, gold crosses on necklaces and button noses and bows and braids. Each girl sat beside her mother, and all of them were fussing for one reason or another.

“Picture and resume please,” said the woman at the desk just inside the open door, shouting a bit to be heard over the hallway chatter.

“My name is Bonnie Alden.” She clutched twenty copies of her glamourous headshot and resumes that said she was a graduate of the Pasadena Playhouse, to her squashed chest in a big manila envelope, and said she didn’t have one.

”Age?” asked the woman.

“Fifteen.”

The woman looked up from her paperwork and took in the sight of Bonnie Alden: tiny and fat, with a mop of black hair loose and curled to her shoulders (having come down with her bra in the Childs bathroom stall) “You’re here for Bridget, then?”

“Yes,” said Bonnie, who almost said “Who?” but for some reason did not.

“Where’s your mother?”

“She couldn’t come.”

The secretary wrote down her name and the phone number in Parkchester, and handed her a stapled sheaf of “sides” — a typed scene with the priest’s lines omitted to save space except for the cue words, and the lines of “Bridget” circled in pencil. “Take a seat and we’ll call you.”

Bonnie would be reading for the speaking part of Bridget O’Reilly. Not a just walk-on, as the ad had implied, but a part with a name. No other information was forthcoming, but it seemed from the sides that Bridget was a Fat Girl, and Father Moynihan wanted her to lose weight. Bonnie’s pang of Fat Girl shame at the secretary’s assessment was quickly mollified by the thrill of the fact that she was going to audition for a part in a Broadway show, a part with lines, and a name – the name of a fat, fourteen-year-old, sheeny schoolgirl.

One by one the girls and their mothers were called in – several were, in fact, named Bridget. Bonnie could hear simpering voices through the door and imagine their pouty, porcelain angel-faces as they gasped and cooed to Father Moynihan — or to some man who was reading the priest’s lines flatly, poorly, a stage manager perhaps. She heard the lines she held in her hand a dozen times before they finally called her name, but not the way the lines sounded in her head. Years later, she told us how it had come to her while she waited, the utter certainty that Bridget should be funny. She knew this was right, and was terrified.

Inside the room, after hours of waiting, she was in a big office with wooden folding chairs behind a big wooden desk with no drawers, covered with ragged piles of glossy pictures of little girls and scripts and pencils and somebody’s sandwich, coffee cups, some with cigarette butts submerged in beige sludge. She saw a funhouse image of herself, reflected and distorted over and over in the glass of dozens of gleaming photo frames on the walls, filing an entire side of the room, from which the happiest people in the world flashed their easy showfolk smiles. The people behind the desk looked amused when they saw her, and asked how old she was.

“Fourteen,” she said, hating them.

“Are you Irish, Bonnie Alden?” a bony, taut woman in tight black pants asked, smirking a bit, thought Bonnie.

“Italian,” said Bonnie, smiling the sunniest, most generous, Sicilian Catholic Wop smile she could muster. “Some Black Irish,” she added, uncertain if that meant hair color or moral code, but she’d heard Doris say it and felt it might help her now.

Bonnie always glowed like a new penny when she told us this story, how they’d all laughed and laughed when she came racing into the room, fast and funny and over the top. She’d knocked them dead, she told us.

• • • • • • • • • • • •

When Doris picked up the phone on Unionport Road early that evening, Bonnie was still riding home on a crowded number 6, re-living the day: taking a bigger pause, a sharper beat, pitching it higher, faster, sweeter, darker – better now, in her head (of course) than she had done it in Mr. Cohen’s office, where they’d laughed but said “Thank you very much, Bonnie,” when she was done and opened the door for her to leave. She clenched one hand around the subway strap and one into a fist to strike the mound of flesh on her hip with small, sharp blows that were lost in the crush of people, punishment for being fat and having breasts.

Doris didn’t understand at first what the woman on the phone was asking. “What do you mean, ‘available?’ She wondered if the woman had the wrong number, and then realized that Edna was in some kind of trouble again, just like when the James Monroe teachers had telephoned or written letters about Edna’s truancy, or poor grades, or lies. She wondered what stories Edna had told now – she must have convinced the woman she was an Irisher named Bridget, or some meshugga thing about – what? something about an Italian girl — Who? Doris told the woman that her daughter, whose actual name was Edna, was nineteen and wanted to be an actress, but had wasted all her father’s hard-earned money on a fancy drama school in California, trips on the 20th Century train, and was now mostly sitting at home, bringing in no money and getting fatter, and she, Doris, wanted nothing to do with this ferkakte acting, and was certainly not going anywhere like Boston as anybody’s legal guardian, and hung up.

“Mama told the lady it wasn’t you she wanted,” explained 10-year old Freddy cheerfully when Bonnie got home; he had been sitting at the dining table doing homework while Doris spoke to the lady from Alexander Cohen’s office. “The lady said that you said you were fourteen. Mama said you lied.”

Bonnie dialed the number Doris had begrudgingly written down. “How should I know from your lying to your Broadway people!” Doris muttered, disgusted and mystified at how crazy her daughter had become.

They put Alexander Cohen on the line immediately.

“Miss Alden? Alex Cohen. Yes, thank you for straightening this out. We would like to offer you the role of Bridget – the fact of the matter is that Mrs. Kerr has agreed to change the name of the character to –“ (Bonnie heard someone in the room prompting him with the name)” – Shirley Tirabossi so that you could realistically be the right type. Are you or are you not fourteen? Wait – I have to tell you that if you are fourteen or sixteen or seventeen-and-a-half your mother, father, whoever, your legal guardian — has to sign your contracts, accompany you and be responsible for your conduct and schooling, both during rehearsals in New York and in tryout in Boston. Yes?”

“No, sir, no! I’m nineteen. I only wanted to –”

He had heard all he needed to know. “Good. Please come to my office tomorrow at 10 o’clock with documents that prove you are over eighteen, and be prepared to join Actors’ Equity as soon as our paperwork is completed here. All right then? Thank you.” Bonnie’s breathless Thank You came out of her mouth at the same moment she heard the crack of the connection going dead.

The name under which she joined Actors’ Equity was, at last, Bonnie Alden.

to be continued…
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Bumper: Don’t Touch That Dial.

Posted in Bonnie with tags on April 23, 2010 by Allison Sommers

It’s been quiet around here, I realize.  One of the problems with getting a Second Chance is that when you take it — and you must, because while Every Knock is Not Opportunity,  Second Chances are meted out by the cosmos like vacation timeshares in Brigadoon — is that they tend to be packaged with A Whole New Set of Projects requiring vast resources of time, energy, commitment, money, and dining table real estate.

School is harder than work. Was it always? Those first 12 years? I don’t remember dragging my weary ass, cursing and spewing and snapping at random oblivious strangers and Service Professionals, into Mrs. Teuller’s Third Grade Creative Writing Class.  I LIKED school once.  But it started  PWNING me day after day once I got to college.  I lost patience and I lost face.

Having gone once more Into the Breach — and having moved a lot of mountains and Bet the Farm just to be allowed to go forth thereinto — I am reminded. Work is hard, and a life in the theatre is hard, living in New York is hard and marriage (even a short one or two) is hard; although I haven’t raised Children (or Pets or Livestock or even Houseplants) I hear that’s all Very Very Very Hard.

But school.  This is a kind of Hard you just have to imagine the rewards for.  You don’t get a paycheck from an Education.  An Education doesn’t get to take curtain calls.  An Education doesn’t give you great sex even when it’s been watching hockey all day long and won’t empty the dishwasher.  School doesn’t give you sweet kisses in the playground or tell you it loves you even when you’re mean.

My brain aches like my abs used to ache when I used to go to the gym, but I’m not allowed to let my Brain Membership lapse, not if I’m gonna do this school thing.

So I’ll write one more story about Bonnie, “for School.”   I’ll take her from the Playhouse to Broadway, where I’ll leave her for awhile.  I’m sure she would have no objection, so long as I leave her there in a triumphant moment in her story.

I’ll try, Mama, but as you know, it’s hard.

Bonnie’s Records

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

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