My Quest for Stardom
When I was a child, being a show business celebrity appealed to me. I liked playing a variety of roles, wearing different costumes, basking in applause. I aimed to be a star.
Eight years old, I made my performing debut in the safe confines of Aunt Jean and Uncle Howard’s living room with my brother, sister, and five cousins, ages: four to fourteen. Most of us were enthusiastic fans of The Mickey Mouse Club and liked to imitate the Mouseketeers.
My aunt and uncle’s house was an ideal launch pad for fame. A variety of costumes were in the attic. The living room was spacious and provided soft carpeting, comfy furniture, and decent lighting. A large mirror that hung on a wall behind the couch enabled us to admire ourselves as we performed.
“The Babysitter” was one of our most memorable skits. My cousin Tom, the oldest, played the babysitter. The rest of us were disobedient, naughty kids who made a lot of noise. I took the opportunity to be a bad little girl and pounded Tom on his legs with full force. He yelled, “Ouch, cut it out!” and that abruptly ended the play. Our variety show was a little better. My sister, Marcia, and I danced while we sang Irving Berlin’s “Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters!” At the end of these performances, the family cheered and praised our presentations.
Encouraged, I continued my quest for stardom.
In third grade, I danced in a ballet recital with my sister at a college near our home. Dressed as gypsies, we leaped and twirled in shiny, satin costumes. Since the audience loved us, I thought that might be my path to fame, but Dad put an end to it: “Too expensive.”
My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hodes, cast me as the lead in the school play, The Patriotic Teddy Bear. Standing front and center on the gymnasium stage, I was a white teddy bear dressed in red, white and blue. The bear's head was made with fuzzy white fabric with sewn on ears; it was padded with foam rubber to make it nice and round. Only my freckled face showed as I introduced my classmates in traditional costumes from all around the world. Each student said a few lines while I filled in the rest with words I learned by heart. At end of the play, I gobbled up the applause.
My rise to fame was looking good.
Later that year, after a few weeks of violin lessons, (the teacher’s idea) I returned to the big stage, this time at a recital at the high school. Mom bought me my first nylons to wear. I was short, even for a fourth grader, so, despite the aid of a garter belt, the stockings hung loose and baggy.
While on stage, knees wobbly, hands shaky, I blanked out, forgot my notes and improvised. My violin stuttered and screeched for a couple of minutes until I gave up and put my bow down. There was an awkward pause before the audience clapped.
I began to understand that stardom was not guaranteed.
In sixth grade, I was selected to be an angel in a Christmas play. Wearing a white sheet for my robe and pipe cleaners twisted to form a halo on top of my head, I found the role easy. All I had to do was sit in silence, smile and look angelic.
I tried out for the play Tom Sawyer in seventh grade. One of my cute, blonde classmates was chosen to play Becky Thatcher. My friend Gayle and I landed a short song and dance bit for the opening act. Dressed liked hobos, we danced while we sang, “Side by Side,” by Patsy Cline. Easy lines to learn, not much pressure; we had a lot of fun.
In high school, my parents traded in my violin and bought me a guitar. My friend Peggy got one too. We taught ourselves how to strum different chords and sang to music we liked. Our repertoire consisted mostly of folksongs, especially “Peter, Paul and Mary” tunes. Deciding we had talent, we formed a trio called the Checkmates with our friend Jon and performed a few times for classmates and family. Peggy had a beautiful voice. I was a so-so singer but could sing a melody. Jon, well, he added to our group in other ways. He was athletic, tall, and good-looking. Sometimes he wore a white sweater while Peggy and I wore hot pink dresses with white collars and black bows. Other times we all wore matching blue-and-white checked shirts.
When scouts for the “Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour” came to town, our teenage egos and dreams hardly in check, we auditioned for the show inside the high school band room. We sang “Turn Around,” a song made famous by a folk group called the Brothers Four. Selected to sing again in tryouts for a second and more prestigious round at our small town’s junior fair, we prepared for TV fame.
A few minutes before the show, Peggy decided our song was not peppy enough for the crowd. As an alternative, she chose the Kingston Trio’s song, “Going Home,” a song we had rarely sung. Jon and I carried the main tune while Peggy sang harmony. I must have been the closest to the microphone because, according to my brother, my voice drowned out my fellow Checkmates. Honest as always, he said, “You didn’t sound too good.” No doubt he’d been embarrassed.
Later, in our senior year, Peggy met a guy named Finney who sang and performed in a folk band. Having a crush on Peggy, and having no need for Jon, he asked Peggy and me to play some summer gigs with him. After Peggy ended their brief romance, we were fired.
None of these setbacks quenched my desire to perform. Even after I reached middle age, although I no longer craved leading roles, I tried out for the singing dance chorus in the musical, "Oliver", at the Civic Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
Aware that my singing needed improvement, I sought the help of a friend’s mother, a woman in her seventies, who, for a few weeks, gave me free voice lessons in her home. We practiced “As Long As He Needs Me,” a song from the musical, and she recorded her piano rendition on tape so I could practice at home with my cassette player. She suggested a variety of practice strategies. “Lie face down on your bed and sing with your head hanging over the edge. Sing in the shower. Sing outside. Sing in the morning and at night. Sing as much as you can!”
I did as I was told and practiced, right side up and upside down. I sang along with the recording over and over again and, although I was no Barbra Streisand, I believed I was halfway decent.
The night of the auditions, I arrived at 7 p.m., but because so many people had already signed up, I wasn’t scheduled to sing until 10:30. An early morning person, usually in bed by 9:30, I struggled to keep my eyes open as the minutes morphed into hours. The longer I sat at the back of the theatre and listened to others sing, the more my muscles tightened and I felt a headache coming on. Too many auditioners sounded like experienced performers.
Once my name was announced, my heart began to pound. Dizzy with apprehension, I walked up onstage. My eyes slowly adjusted to the bright lights as found the designated spot next to the piano.
I took a deep breath and the piano player nodded for me to begin. I warbled, “As long as he needs me, I know that’s…”
The piano abruptly stopped. The director, who was sitting in front of the stage, said, “Thank you.” That was it. I walked off, head down, knowing I’d sung painfully off key. The recording I’d practiced with at home was in a different key than the piano player.
I would have liked to go home right there and then, but the auditions weren’t over. Asked to return for the dance portion of the tryouts, I stood with ten other hopefuls. The choreographer demonstrated a few steps, then directed us to dance “stage left”. Still upset about my singing, I leaped to the right. Directed to dance “stage right”, I waltzed left and crashed into the other dancers.
My unfulfilled wish for fame faded many years ago with no regrets. Though my dream didn't turn out as I had hoped, it pushed me forward in ways that have lasting value. I’m proud of my efforts, even the embarrassing ones. I didn’t die. I grew stronger and more resilient. A performer at heart, I gained skills that have lasted a lifetime. Even now, I enjoy teaching classes to adults, sharing stories, and speaking before appreciative audiences.
As for show business, I still love it. I sing and dance with my grandkids and take part in their make believe scenarios in their houses or mine. Choosing different roles, (I’m never the star), we put together makeshift costumes with odds and ends on hand. The audience doesn't care if we sing out of tune, bump into each other, or forget some words. History repeats itself. My grandchildren gain in self-confidence and bask in the applause of a loving family.
What do you dream of? Has your dream changed over time?