I don’t want to give the impression that I had an unhappy childhood. On the contrary, I had a very happy childhood – in my room. My room was the happiest place in the world to me because a little box with moving images made it so. It was as if my television was a sibling. I was always searching the dial for something to make me laugh to escape the craziness of what was outside of my bedroom door.
Television was so much of a major influence in my life, that many of my thoughts and actions over the years, came from watching family sitcoms such as Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show and Ozzie and Harriet. I do realize that the problem resolution in these shows is very unrealistic; but, in my young mind, all that mattered was that everyone was happy at the end of the program. I really didn’t have much interaction with my parents so, I conducted myself according to advice the sitcom parents gave to their offspring. I can just imagine how I would have turned out if my influences were shows that are on television these days. My favorite shows as a child were ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘The Carol Burnett Show’ and anything with Jerry Lewis – which accounts for the silly part of my personality. I could always count on them to bring a smile to my face. Once, when I was approximately ten years old, a few neighborhood kids stopped me on the way to the mailbox. After pushing me around for a bit and pulling my hair (it was the norm back then, most of the time, when I was around other females my age), one of them snatched two envelopes out of my hand. She asked me why I was sending letters to Lucille Ball and Jerry Lewis. Without skipping a beat, I said that Lucy was my mother and Jerry was my Uncle. I don’t remember if they believed me or not – but, since they had previously given me nicknames such as “white girl” and “light bulb” , they probably didn’t think that it was out of the realm of possibility. I always froze when I saw these group of girls approaching me because I knew that I was going to have a headache before long due to the inevitable hair pulling.
My mother enjoyed some of the shows that I liked, as well; practically, the only time that we did spend together was watching them. This time was special to me because it was rare when we would laugh together –however, only if my step-father wasn’t home. If he was home, all her time was spent with him. I guess that is how and why I started doing impressions. These people made my mom laugh – so, I would re-enact parts of the shows for her. I assumed that my mother enjoyed them because sometimes when she had company over, she would call me from my room to do impressions for her guests. Even if I was asleep, I would enjoy being called into the living room to entertain. However, after my ‘act’ was over – it was back to my room. But, for a brief moment, I was having so much fun seeing the smiles that I put on everyone’s face. I loved the feeling of making people smile.
I would work on my impressions and put together skits in my room. I also loved to sing and dance. I had natural rhythm as far back as I can remember and I could pick up any dance routine easily. The Jackie Gleason variety show was another favorite of my mom, and I remember telling her that when I grew up I wanted to be a ‘June Taylor’ dancer. I looked forward to the segment of the program when they would come out and do their routine. In fact, any dancing I saw on TV gave me a thrill. VCRs were not in existence back then – so, I just had to catch what I could and recreate the moves from memory. I even invented some dance moves and routines on my own. I was a singing and dancing fool in my room. I had such a great time with me! *smile*
Although my mother would call me out in front of her friends to entertain them, things were quite different when we were home alone. She would call me from my room – but, only to get her a beer from the fridge or to point out someone on TV, tell me how pretty and talented they were, and say that I would never be like them because I wasn’t pretty. She would also make fun of my lips. Over and over, she would tell me that my mouth looked like a ‘bell-clapper’ or a ‘toilet seat’ and she would smack me across the mouth. Whenever a beauty pageant would come on television, she would call me from my room and make me watch it, pointing out how attractive the women were and saying that she wished I could become Miss America one day, but because of my big lips that would never happen. I would sit there quietly and later cry myself to sleep because my mom thought I was ugly. The lip thing would bother me until I was a senior in high school. I would always try to hold my bottom lip in when taking pictures, so that it wouldn’t look so big.
My high school pic which shows me trying to tuck in my bottom lip
Yes, television with its loving families (however, unrealistic the situations were to what was actually going on in real families), crazy comedians, dancers and singers was what I was drawn to and made my childhood world tolerable. Anything positive made me smile. I tried to steer clear of anything dark. I had enough of that at home. I wanted desperately to be a part of those families. I wanted to be ‘Kitten’ from ‘Father Knows Best’. I wanted to be Lucy, Jerry and Carol and make others laugh and smile. I wanted everyone to hear me singing the songs that I wrote so that they could sing along with me. However, every time my mom told me that it would never happen – I would believe her for a short while, tear up my songs and poems and throw them away. I would then get a little sad when I saw the singers and dancers on TV and know that I COULD do that – but, probably never would.
One of my favorite entertainers of all time!
I remember once, while watching a television show, I saw Sammy Davis Jr. for the first time. He was introduced as a ‘singer, actor, dancer and impressionist. I turned to my mom and said, “That guy is just like me”. She laughed in my face and burst my bubble, yet again. I yearned to meet this man who I felt such a strong connection with. Sammy passed before I had the chance to tell him how much joy he brought to my little world, and when he did pass – it honestly felt like a very small part of me was gone. I did however get the chance to meet two of my childhood influences – Lucille Ball and Jerry Lewis.
In the 80s, I was a member of the Museum of Television and Broadcasting. I received an invite – as did other members – to attend an exclusive meeting with Lucille Ball. After watching this woman for so many years, there was no way I was going to miss it. Prior to meeting Lucy, I had heard how she was absolutely nothing like the comedic character she played on television. So, when she entered the room of 150-200 people who were in attendance, I was prepared for less ‘Lucy Ricardo’ and more’ Lucille Ball’ – well, at least I thought I was prepared. She started right from the beginning telling everyone that she was nothing like her character. Then she said, “I heard that someone here spent all night outside on the street waiting for me. Who did that?” An excited young man, in one of the back rows rose to his feet with a wide grin on his face. Lucille said, “You spent the night on the street waiting for me?” The young man, shook his head, grinned even wider and replied, “Yes!” I sat there waiting for Lucille to thank the man for being such a great fan, however, she shot back at him with, “All I can say to that is…you need to get a life!” The smile faded from the mans face. He stood there for a moment and then slowly lowered himself into his seat as Lucille went on to say how it made no sense and more which I don’t recall. I believe she did ask him if he had other interests. I felt so, so sorry for the guy. Miss Ball proved just how much of a tough cookie she was.
Lucille Ball on the day that I met her
Her daughter, Lucy was there and presented a montage of Lucy clips. They both talked about the ‘I Love Lucy’, ‘Here’s Lucy’ years. Lucille touched briefly on William Frawley’s (Fred) alcoholism (although she just referred to him as a little troubled) but, it became clear just how close she was to that man – especially when another fan presented her with a rare album that Mr. Frawley had recorded. Lucille almost broke down in tears and I was surprised to see her soft side surface. I only wished that she had shown the same love to the guy who had waited for her all night. After the clips, questions, etc. there was a brief time for everyone to talk to Lucille, up close and personal. After being in her presence for approximately two hours, I actually feared the woman, somewhat. Anything that I probably would have said to her prior to that day was lost. When I got up to her, I just said, “Nice to meet you,” and kept on moving. As I stated, I don’t like negativity and I didn’t want to say anything to her that would make her come back with something to make me dislike her. Lucy had been a childhood idol and I wanted my fond memories to stay intact. This was somewhat of an enlightening experience to me. It wasn’t lost on me that this was the woman who for years I had wished was my mom because she seemed like such a fun person to be around. Hmmm..the grass is always greener on the other….yeah, right. Those shows still make me laugh, though and I still love Lucy – the show.
I had another memorable experience when I met Jerry Lewis. In the early 80s, I worked for a major airline. Soon after being hired, I was promoted and one of my responsibilities was to greet the ‘VIPs’ when they were arriving or departing. I assisted many, many celebrities and most of them were very kind and down to earth. One afternoon, a woman called my office and stated that it was mandatory to get two first class seats for Jerry Lewis in the smoking section. He was flying to Los Angeles from New York and everyone was telling her that there were no available smoking seats left in first class. She said Jerry could not be on a plane for that many hours and not smoke. I told her I would try my best and would call her back if I came up with anything. When I called her back fifteen minutes later, she was shocked when I told her I had the seats. She said she had called all over and even Jerry’s own travel agent said nothing was available. I told her that I would leave the boarding passes at the VIP club and she thanked me. Another fifteen minutes passed and she called back. She said that Jerry wanted to meet me to thank me in person. I was totally floored. Jerry Lewis wanted to meet me? She told me what time they were arriving. I hung up the phone and couldn’t believe that a childhood idol of mine was looking forward to meeting me.
Since I worked in the international terminal, I had to lock the office to take the boarding passes to the domestic terminal. On the way, I told a senior employee where I was going, just in case someone was looking for me. His response was, “Jerry Lewis? Good luck. He’s a jerk. He always gives me a hassle when he comes through.” Now, this is not something I needed to hear on the way to meet the man. However, since this was the same employee that made the exact comment about Diana Ross, when I was on my way to see her concert in Central Park, I brushed it off and continued my stride.
When I arrived at the club, the wife of Jerry’s agent greeted me. She was very warm and said, “So YOU’RE Silawn. Let me take you to meet Jerry.” Seated in Jerry’s area was his fiancée, Sandee and his agent, Joe. His other companion was the cutest little white fluffy puppy that was circling the couch. Jerry stood up, gave me a hug and thanked me for what I did for him. I was still kind of amazed that everyone was treating me as if I just cured the common cold – but, I guess back then, smoking was a very serious thing with him. I love animals, so I immediately gravitated to the puppy. Jerry said that was “his heart”. I wanted so much to tell him how much happiness he brought to me as a child – but, since I was working, I had to keep things professional. We continued with the small talk and then Joe said he wanted to take a picture of us. I really wanted to take a goofy picture. After all, this was Jerry Lewis – the ‘King of Goofiness’. But again, I had to keep it professional. Joe took my address and said he would mail me a copy of the picture – but, I never received it. It’s not such a bad thing, though, considering I was wearing a lot of bright blue eye shadow, at the time.:-)
I had been hanging out with Jerry and the others for about a half an hour, when I felt comfortable enough to tell him that when I was a child I used to tell people that he was my uncle. He laughed and said that was sweet. After some more idle chatter, I looked at my watch and realized that we should be heading to the gate. I told Jerry that it was time to go and he said that we had time. A few minutes passed and I told him again that we really should be making our way to the gate. Again, he said not to worry and that we would make it on time. I began to think that after getting the seats, spending time with him and having a great time, everything was going to turn sour if this man missed his flight. Before panic set in, Jerry started getting his things together and put his little furry friend in the carrier. As we all headed out the door of the club, Joe said to Jerry, “I still can’t believe that she was able to get the seats for you.” to which Jerry replied, “What did you expect? She’s my niece.” I smiled at him and he smiled back. He didn’t know it, but he also put a smile on my heart.
When we got to the gate, the flight was still boarding and I breathed a sigh of relief that we made it on time. Tony Bennett passed right in front of me and was getting on the flight, too. He hadn’t been on my ‘VIP’ list – so, I was curious as to who had taken care of him. But, my attention turned back to Jerry and his group. We all exchanged hugs and said goodbye. My job was done. A week or so later I heard in the news that Jerry had a heart attack. I sent him a bouquet of flowers to the Palm Springs hospital that he was admitted to and signed them, “Get Well Soon, your ‘niece’, Silawn.”
I have received many responses to the chapters, thus far. However, may I request that you please reply in the comment section of the blog – as opposed to on Twitter, Facebook or emails – so, that all responses will be together. Your comment may be helpful to others who come across this post. You can comment anonymously. Thank you and many blessings.