Sunday, October 7, 2012

My Life Before The Julie Andrews Hour

     As I entered my first year of classes at Los Angeles City College, attending the tapings of The Julie Andrews Hour was not something I even dreamed of.  I began the Theatre Arts program at LACC with aspirations of becoming a great actress. I wanted to sing too, but that seemed almost an impossible dream. Little did I know that within a few months, I would be take the first step toward put me that goal.

I was born in Burbank, California to David and Marian Russell. My father was a singer, actor and aspiring writer, whose only means of support was working as a taxi cab driver. My mother, a dancer, had put her career on hold to have me. Our little family did not last long. Three months after I was born, my parents separated.

My mother and I when I was five.
My grandmother was partly responsible for this, though it likely would have happened anyway. My grandmother had been a dancer in the style of Isadora Duncan, working in Chicago and New York. According to family legend, when she was eighteen, she married a British director only to discover that he already had a wife back in England. Because of this, my grandmother had great bitterness toward the pitfalls of show business, and she didn’t feel my father was good enough for her “princess,” as she often called her.

I grew up in a world surrounded by show business. My mother was constantly practicing her dances. Although she had studied ballet and ballroom dancing, her favorite form of dance was Spanish dance. She also created many character dances. When I was very young, she often went away on tour, leaving me in the care of my paternal grandfather and his new wife, Delores, a thirty year-old platinum blonde who loved children. In their free time, they drove me to see my mother at work.

By the time I was five, I had experienced the excitement of backstage life: clowns, vaudevillians, show girls, gorgeous costumes, makeup and lights. However, the one thing I really knew about show business was that it was lots and lots of work. When my grandmother asked me to promise never to go into show business, I had no problem. I knew I didn’t want to work that hard!

Nevertheless, I made my dancing debut at the age of four, wearing a ballet dress my grandmother had worn onstage around 1915. The dress was much too large for me, so my mother took a very long, pale, blue satin sash and wound it round and round my waist. In this way, the dress was kept in place and fit me.  That first performance, as I twirled and leapt to Tchaikovsky’s grand music while an audience of people in wheel chairs watched me, I remember feeling suddenly shy. Dancing with so many pairs of eyes staring at me felt nothing like the freedom I felt dancing for myself in the living room at home. Nevertheless, I persisted; I had to keep dancing as long as the music played, even if I didn’t know what I was doing.

In time, my mother began her own dance studio and I took part in the classes. It became a way of life. Instead of going to play with friends after school and on Saturdays, I went to dancing school. My mother taught ballet and tap. She also gave elocution lessons to prepare her students for the yearly recitals, which were real musicals. My mother wrote the plays, adding popular songs and the dances her students had been learning. It was great fun and very exciting!

When I was seven, I nearly bled to death after surgery to remove my tonsils and adenoids. I was in the operating room three times and, finally, given a pint of blood to replace all I lost. On returning home, my recovery took a long time. It was then that I discovered Shirley Temple, a little girl so unlike me--a tall, skinny child, with straight brown hair and rarely a smile. Shirley was chubby with golden curls and dimples. She always had a positive attitude, making others happy to be around her. I decided I wanted to be like Shirley Temple, and for the next few years after my recovery, my playtime often included re-enacting one of Shirley’s films. When I didn’t have a friend to play this game, I‘d pretend to be both the director and the star. I remember using the base of a bird bath to mount our patio wall, pretending it was a horse. First, I mounted the wall as the star, then I’d get down and be the director, yelling, “Try that again, you didn’t do it right! And this time--smile.” Knowing this about me, perhaps you can understand just how thrilled I was when I finally attended my first taping of The Julie Andrews Hour and got to see top professionals at work.

During my early years, the films of the 1930s and 40s that my mother grew up with were the ones shown on television. My mother and I often watched them together and discussed them. I never had a sense that these films were old or passé; they were new to me. I loved Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Clark Gable and Jeannette MacDonald. As I entered my teens, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney became my ideal buddies and performers. Without a doubt, Judy Garland was my favorite, someone I wanted to be like.

I was about eleven or twelve when I saw Julie Andrews for the first time. Prior to that time, I must confess I was a bit snobbish about Julie. Of course, I heard the children at school talking about Mary Poppins, but I had not seen it. I also heard adults speaking about her, saying how wonderful she was.  I remember wondering, ‘just who is this Julie Andrews and what makes her so wonderful?’ I loved my old movie stars and couldn’t imagine anyone new comparing to them.

One day, my great Aunt Dora came to visit. She had seen The Sound of Music on Broadway. Now that it was a film, she told my grandmother I should see it. So ,the two of them took me. I will never forget the grandeur of the overture, nor the first site of the beautiful Alps on the big screen. And, then, suddenly, there was Julie twirling and singing the theme song with that glorious voice. By the time the film ended, I knew Julie Andrews was wonderful. Of course, my second thought (if not the first) was that I wished I had been in the film too! I was just the right age for at least one of the children. When Aunt Dora bought me the album, I learned all the songs.

Shortly after this, my grandmother took me to see the film My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. Of course, after seeing the film, my grandmother let me know that Julie Andrews had played the role of Eliza on Broadway. I was absolutely loved My Fair Lady and, almost immediately, knew that I would love to play Eliza. The idea of playing a girl who was a cockney girl, one who learned to become a lady and pass for a princess, was enchanting.

Cover from the author's 1972 collection.
In the following years, while some have written about Julie Andrews’ supposed flops, in truth, she was very popular, and her recordings were often played on the radio. In those days, popular radio stations included a mix of pop songs, film tunes and Broadway hits. I remember a time when Thoroughly Modern Millie was played on the radio several times a day. Songs from Camelot were also heard (most frequently, “If Every I Would Leave You” by Robert Goulet), along with The Sound of Music and the theme song from Star! Everyone knew and loved these songs. During this time, Julie Andrews was a huge movie star, and along with all the other things going on, an important part of the 1960s culture.

In January of 1970, my mother remarried. One year later, in my junior year of high school, she gave birth to my brother, John. During this time, she continued to teach dancing, though I discontinued my lessons as she was no longer teaching anyone my age. My plan was to become a missionary in Korea. For years my mother had sponsored many Korean orphans, and, besides being attracted to another culture, this seemed a good cause. Meanwhile, my interest in music and show business continued.

One of my greatest pleasures at this time were my visits to the library. Sometimes in the evening, my mother or step-father would drive me there. I was an avid reader and, along with the books I read for school, and the mysteries I loved, I was always looking for books about movies and movie stars. I was shy and soon discovered that many of my favorite stars had also been shy, which was encouraging to me. Shyness did not have to stop you from achieving your dreams, I learned.

One day, I found that in addition to books, the library also lent out records! That day I took out three Broadway albums: Hello Dolly starring Carol Channing, Gypsy starring Ethel Merman and My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. On Saturday night, when my mother and step-dad went out for one of their weekly dates, I listened to all the three recordings. With the first notes of My Fair Lady’s overture, I was transported. I knew that Julie Andrews was indeed Eliza, the best Eliza, and I was enchanted. I also knew that as much as I loved the role I would never play it because I would never be able to sing like that. However, once I learned that the play had originated with Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, I memorized a good portion of the first scene, playing all the roles, and presented for a high school speech competition. I was thrilled when I passed the first level and was sent to compete against other schools, but that was about as far as it went.

During my junior and senior year, it became clear to me that I was not going to be a missionary in Korea. My heart was in performing and I would have to follow my heart. To everyone’s shock, including my own, during this time I won best actress in the class competition. I was so shy then that most people had no idea I could act.

Then, six days before the Christmas of 1971, I experienced the greatest sadness I had known. I had just been let out for Christmas vacation and gone to spend the night at my grandmothers’ home in Pasadena where I planned to help her decorate the house for the holidays. The next morning, I came downstairs to find that my grandmother dead. It was a terrible shock and a terrible loss; my grandmother had been like my second parent.

As my graduation neared, I considered what to do. I felt my mother and step-father were a new family, one to which I really didn’t belong. In addition to my brother John, my mom and step-dad would have a second son, Michael, on July of 1972. I didn’t want to go the college, but my mother let me know she would only pay for me to live away from home if I attended college.  My best friend, Alice, suggested I attend Los Angeles City College. It was near Hollywood. In fact, Clint Eastwood and Alexis Smith both attended this college. Unbeknownst to me, so had my father. My friend Alice also told me there was a residence on Sunset Boulevard, near the school, where I could live. They even served breakfast and dinner.

That summer, my family spent time on my grandmother’s lovely property in Malibu. In the late afternoons, just as I had done since the age of eleven, I sat on a hill overlooking the sparkling, blue ocean and sang every song I knew, from the Shirley Temple songs of old to the songs from My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. It was a time of beauty and dreams. Down below, I often saw people walking. Sometimes they looked up. But I sang ever so softly. With the crash of the waves, and ocean breezes, I doubted anyone could hear me.

In the garden of International House
around the time I first met Julie.
After a glorious, yet sad summer, with change clearly in the air, September arrived. I watched Blake Edwards’s documentary Julie with great interest. Here was a real person, Julie Andrews, who was doing the things I wanted to do, yet had a real life. I was longing for my life to it begin.

On September 11th, I packed my bags and my mother drove me to Hollywood. It was exciting, yet sad as she got me settled in my room at International House. After she left, I cried, knowing things would never be quite the same again.

On the dresser next to my bed, I placed the silver, wood frame my mother had given me. It contained my mother’s childhood drawing of a Christmas tree – a gift to her mother. Over that, I placed a picture of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney that I’d recently bought downtown Hollywood. Judy and Mickey would be my mascots, reminding of my goals and inspiriting me on the journey ahead.

A few days after my arrival, my new roommate, Lynn Apple arrived. Lynn was studying physical therapy, and was quite different from me in every way, but it was fun to have her as a roommate and made things much less lonely. Meanwhile, school had begun and there was a lot of adjusting to do. This was not like high school.

In my free time, I took the bus down to the heart of Hollywood, looked at the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, visited Grauman’s Chinese Theater and searched the record stores for music. One store sold promotional copies and with the leftovers from my twenty dollar a week allowance, I was able to buy a few discount albums, some as low as a dollar.

One day, while wandering around downtown, I found the famed Hollywood Palace, which had housed some of my favorite stars. The Merv Griffin Show was now being taped there in the early evenings. As I walked by, there were two ABC two pages standing outside talking. They seemed quite friendly, so I asked them about getting to see a show there. A few minutes after our conversation began, they started asking me about myself. The older one, said,
“How would you like to go out on a date?”
“How old are you?” asked the younger one.
As soon as I said, “eighteen,” the younger one told the older one, whose name was Bill, that he was a bit too old for me. I forget if he was twenty-something or thirty. In any case, I had no intention of going out with him; I didn’t want to get side-tracked from my goals, but I was flattered that I‘d been asked for a first date in front of Hollywood Palace. Meanwhile, these two pages had given me some important information. Whwn asking about tickets for The Merv Griffin Show, I learned that I could get tickets for The Julie Andrews Hour. All I had to do was go a few blocks from where I lived, over to ABC Studios on Prospect Avenue. I’d had no idea I could attend The Julie Andrews Hour. This was exciting!

Shortly after meeting the pages, I took a bus over to Prospect Avenue, went in and got some tickets. My tickets were for a few weeks later. How amazing to get free tickets to see Julie Andrews! I tucked them away in a safe place, anxious for the day to arrive. I was too late for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney at MGM, but I was not too late for Julie Andrews at ABC!

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