Archive for The Show Business

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…

Posted in Pictures by others with tags , , , , , on March 25, 2010 by Allison Sommers

This extraordinary image is from Stages of Decay, a slide-show by photographer Julia Solis (who has a lot of other magnificent work that will haunt your dreams forever at http://www.solis.darkpassage.com)

Abandonment is the opposite of a Mulligan.

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.

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