becoming a legend by pam munter
When I was a little kid, I had a secret that I never told anyone. I was going to become a legend. It was merely a matter of getting in front of the right people, being seen and being heard. When I went to the movies or listened to records by the popular singers of the day, I knew I could do that, given half a chance. It wasn’t until I went off to college that I discovered not everyone wanted to be a movie star, much less of legendary status. What was wrong with them?
I was a plump kid who wore thick glasses when few other kids did. As a young girl growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades in the 1950s, I was way too smart for most of the boys and had little in common with the other girls. The girls around me were still playing with dolls and learning domestic skills from their mothers. Unlike many of my friends, my personality was composed of both male and female characteristics– classic androgyny – when that was not mainstream or even socially acceptable. I was empathic and sentimental but also strong and athletic. Later, as a psychologist, I would learn that androgyny and mental health often went hand in hand. But that was not recognized as optimal when I was growing up. So the thought I might be special or fated for fame somehow made it all understandable. It gave value and meaning to my uniqueness. I wasn’t a nerdy loser; I was anointed. It’s just that nobody knew it yet.
The 1950s era was perhaps the last time in our culture when it was possible to be “discovered.” You’d be sitting in a restaurant or at a bus stop and some talent agent or famous director would see you and just know you should be signed to a contract immediately. You weren’t picked out for stardom because you had talent, mind you. You had a certain look or unique personality or demeanor. Movie magazines were full of such juicy stories. I didn’t know one could go to school to learn to be an actor, that there might be a career path. To me, it was serendipitous, a matter left to the Hollywood fates. It had happened to Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Debbie Reynolds and Janet Leigh, among so many others, after all – all created and groomed by the studio system. In those days a handful of big studios controlled movie making in every way. They would take you under wing, teach you how to do everything, control your life and promote you to stardom.
It was also a time when stars were carefully presented to the public via information written or screened by studio publicists. There were no gossipy newspapers, no National Enquirers, no reality or tabloid TV shows spilling every secret – no computers and no Google. There was only the seedy but irresistible Confidential magazine, eventually sued out of existence for telling sordid tales without studio clearance. The information vacuum made the image on the big screen that much more powerful and the lives of the stars more glamorous and unknowable. There were no tape recorders, no VHS, DVRs or digital replay. The experience of watching a film was a singular one – it happened only in the theater. It was big, intense and powerful. I couldn’t get enough. I was at the movies whenever I could afford to be.
The Bay, my home away from home, was a 1100-seat theater with art deco flourishes throughout the décor. Walking in past the effluvia of buttered popcorn coming from the refreshment stand on the left, the eyes automatically were drawn downward as the extravagantly ornamental carpeting seemed almost alive. On the back wall in the lobby was an equally over-the-top brightly-colored mural that resembled an Audubon painting had the artist been high on dexadrine. The interior was less visually noisy, the winding flowery design forming a narrow ribbon on all the walls surrounding the screen. There was a balcony that ran the width of the theater but I never sat up there, even when I came with a boyfriend. I was far more interested in the action on the screen. And just in case the movie was dull, one could focus on the painted Greek-like statues on either side of the screen area. There was something to see everywhere you looked.
I had seen actual movie stars in that exotic setting, on those rarified nights when a studio would hold a sneak preview there. Klieg lights excited the sky and could be seen for miles. The audience wouldn’t know what they’d see until the credits flashed on the screen. It didn’t matter to me. I just loved the experience of being part of an early and important focus group. Afterwards, there would be cards to fill out. Did you like Elizabeth Taylor in this? Was there anything you didn’t like? What did you think of the ending? Somebody in Hollywood wanted to know what I thought of the movie. The best part, though, was seeing the stars who attended these galas, engulfed in their fame and entitlement.
More to the point, I knew exactly which movie star I wanted to be: Doris Day. Her first movie was mine, too - “Romance on the High Seas,” in 1948. I was five; she was (depending on whom you believe) 26. I’m sure it wasn’t love at first sight, the adoration likely accumulating over the countless hours I spent at the movies watching her in those colorful, magical Warner Bros. musicals. There was no doubt that hers was the world in which I wanted to live. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t real. She was everything I wanted to be. She was perky, clever, talented, attractive and socially adept. She was perpetually smiling and happy. And even when she’d cry, it was for a really good reason and the sadness never lasted very long. And that voice – so warm and personal, the intonation perfect, the diction crystalline. In her early film promotions, the studio publicity department had dubbed her “The Tomboy of Warner Bros.” and boy, could I relate to that. In “By The Light of the Silvery Moon,” she emerged from under a model T, all greasy, having successfully fixed the family flivver. That was a radical scene for the sexist 1950s. Her early screen persona reassured me I didn’t have to be frilly and feminine to make my way in the world and be accepted. There were no role models remotely like me in my real world. I had to find one by buying a movie ticket.
As I looked around me, the worst thing I could imagine was that I would become like many of the neighborhood women. Once the morning chores were completed, they’d meet in each other’s homes, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and kibbitz about their husbands. Even at my young age, it seemed like a vacuous, unfulfilling world. Doris was infinitely more interesting, promising something I could never see on my block. In fact, most everything about Hollywood seemed far better and more important than anything I experienced in my real life.
To discover who Doris Day was when she wasn’t portraying a character, I went to the only available source – movie magazines. I figured out when they’d hit the stands at our local Rexall Drug Store and I was there that day right after school. Rexall was owned by a curmudgeonly 40s-ish man with badly pocked skin who tracked us as we hurried to the magazine racks to the right. Though the shelves throughout the store were filled with easy-to-pocket items like cosmetics and over-the-counter remedies, he was obviously afraid we’d furtively abscond with a movie magazine. I was much more interested in finding Doris in their pages. Stealing never occurred to me. There might be photos of her on the cover or inside features showing her on the set, helping the movers carry boxes into her new Beverly Hills home, or multiple shots with her husband and agent, Marty Melcher. She looked as if she were enjoying her life, half-smiling at someone, not really posing. The candid shots showed her often in pedal pushers, the collar of her blouse turned up. The short blonde hairstyle and casual look gave the impression her perky, energetic self was in perpetual motion. Everything in her world just seemed perfect to me – both on and off screen. My bedroom walls were covered with framed 8X10 glossies of movie stars, many of them personally autographed and several from Doris, herself.
My other habitual pit stop was the local record store where I’d spend my allowance (and later, my babysitting money) for whatever record she issued. It was a small store on Swarthmore Street on the main drag. Walking in, the smell of vinyl was almost overpowering. Though there were instruments on the walls and tiny teaching rooms in the back, the store was mostly filled with records from every era. Rifling through the bins, I looked for 45s and LPs with her name on them. It didn’t matter what the song or album was, so long as I would hear her reassuring voice when I put it on my portable bedroom record player. I’d hurry home with my new treasure and play it repeatedly until I knew every nuance of voice and music and then sing along until I learned the lyrics by heart – and long afterwards.
It wasn’t at all inconsequential that I grew up in a community full of people working in all aspects of show business. Living on our eucalyptus-lined street were silent film star Francis X. Bushman and exotic heartthrob Anthony Quinn. Richard Boone lived around the corner. People would see them around town but they were seldom asked for autographs or really noticed much. I could easily run into James Arness or Vivian Vance in the drug store, or see Jerry Lewis driving through town in his big convertible. I’d wave at him and he’d wave back.
In fact, I had sent Lewis a “condolence letter” when he broke up the successful partnership with Dean Martin in 1956. Lewis was Honorary Mayor in our community of Pacific Palisades. I had enjoyed his wacky films with Martin and was genuinely disappointed that pairing was kaput. The professional divorce was big news, headlines in all the papers. People took it very personally, too, declaring polarized sympathies with one partner or the other. One night on my way out to a dreaded Cotillion at Buddy Ebsen’s School of Dance, the phone rang. I was fooling around in my room, imagining the social rejection ahead. Looking in the mirror, I had seen the femmy, uncomfortably pink dress so appropriate for the occasion but not for me, and had issued the now ritualistic complaints to my mother who had selected it. I answered the phone on the fourth ring, thinking it was a friend, commiserating with my fate that night.
“Hello. Is Pam there?”
“This is Pam.”
“Pam, this is Jerry Lewis.” I thought at first it was a friend putting me on. It took me a second but then I recognized his voice from the movies. It was his serious, adult voice, not the zany kid he often portrayed.
“Oh. Hi.” What should I say to him?
“Pam, I called to thank you for the very nice letter. It was sweet of you to write.”
“You’re welcome, Honorary Mayor Lewis.” Was it really him – calling me?
“I know you probably have lots of important things to do but I wanted to call to tell you I’m very honored that you thought enough to write to me.”
Then I remembered the likely reason for the call. “I am really sorry this happened, Mr. Lewis. I’ll miss seeing your movies with Mr. Martin.”
“There will be others. I’m making one by myself now. It’ll be out in a few months. I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
“I’m sure I will. Can hardly wait to see it.”
“I’ll let you go now. Thanks again for thinking of me.”
“You’re so welcome. Thank you for calling me.”
That night, at the Cotillion, I breathlessly told whoever would listen about the incredible call but all I got were blank stares. Did they not believe me? Did they not know who he was? Getting a call from such a famous person admittedly was an unusual occurrence, out of most people’s realm of experience. How had he gotten my phone number, anyway?
Even before my teens, I was able to recognize the character actors I’d encounter in the market from the books I had read about the biz. But I didn’t have to look too far for real fame. It was just across the street from me. In a white clapboard house still living with his family was Doug McClure, who made his mark first as a model, then as Trampas on “The Virginian.” He and his brother had played catch in the street in front of my house and let me sit on the curb and watch. Many of my classmates were the kids of famous people. A few became famous on their own.
I was surrounded by possibility.
As I read all the movie magazines, I imagined myself in them, their glossy pages promising insider tales of domestic bliss and unparalleled happiness. A star’s toothy, beaming countenance on the cover was sufficient provocation for me to practice that exact grin in the mirror. It was all demeanor, after all, a life of illusion. I was in training.
By the time I was 13 or so, I was ready to explore this intriguing world in person. Boarding a municipal bus with my best friend, Jacquie, we would head off to the Brown Derby in Hollywood to have lunch with the movie stars and the Hollywood elite. It took a while to save up to be able to afford one of the cheapest things on the menu, the Cobb salad, but it was the best place to see movie stars and possibly be discovered. And the Derby was much more urbane than the tacky but equally fecund Schwab’s drugstore some blocks away where Lana Turner was supposedly discovered while sitting at the soda fountain. The Derby’s dining room was long, narrow and sedate, filled with red leather booths with bleached white tablecloths so white it almost hurt your eyes. The booths lined the three walls with another row in the middle of the room. The best tables were against the wall, the better to see what celebrated personage had entered the restaurant. The Derby was famous for Jack Lane’s caricatures of the stars hanging on its walls, famous people who had actually eaten there. When we got seated, I’d ask the waiter with a conspiratorial whisper if there were any movie stars there today and there always were. I tried not to stare, to stay nonchalant and blasé about it all. Once, I asked Jacquie to go outside to a nearby phone booth, call the dining room and ask for me. When the waiter brought the phone to me after announcing my name, I pretended it was a call from my agent. I felt very special, indeed, like a real celebrity. I looked around with exaggerated importance as I made the faux call. Unfortunately, no one seemed to notice.
After lunch, we’d walk by the Capitol Records tower on Vine Street in the heart of Hollywood, just a short block away. I knew that no lowly civilians were ever allowed in there, but it was thrilling just to stand outside, knowing what wonderful sound was produced in that huge cylindrical recording studio. It would have been luscious if a big-name singer would have walked in or out, but it never happened.
Jacquie and I had met as we walked to school on the same path. I was in the fourth grade, she in third. Her parents were Jewish-Romanian immigrants who spoke English with a heavy accent and, even then, I sensed something wasn’t right with the family unit. She seemed to want to spend a lot of time with me and at my house, which fit my needs perfectly. We were both gaga for Hollywood but we were different in many other ways. Jacquie wasn’t especially interested in school or thought about a career. She knew early on her fate would be as a wife and mother. Intriguing to me, however, was the fact that her uncle was Herb Vigran, a highly visible character actor on TV and film. It was disappointing to me I never got to meet him, but he was able to get her autographed photos of some of her favorite stars. I always suspected she (and he) were instrumental in my receiving several autographed photos from Doris, too, but she would never admit the connection for some odd reason.
At that point, I must have thought that talent and fame had the same properties as cooties. If you stood close enough, you’d catch them and you’d be infected with a life of fun and excitement, transformed. Looking back on it now, though, I realized it wasn’t the stars themselves that intrigued me as much as their lives. What was it like to be a working actor, to be rich, to be famous, to be recognized everywhere you went? To see myself up on that big screen? I wanted to live an extraordinary life, full of passion and big moments, in contrast to the choices that had been made by the adults around me.
When the timing was right, we’d sneak into TV tapings at NBC on the corner of Sunset and Vine just down the street from the Derby. You had to be 16 to get in but we’d puff our 13-year-old selves up, act cool and easily passed by the ushers.
“How old are you?” an usher would ask.
Jacquie was shy so I’d pipe up, confidently. “We’re sixteen, sir, just last month.” Again, demeanor won the day. I just knew when the cameras panned the audience someone would see me and single me out for a studio contract or at least an audition. More than watching the show being filmed, I tracked the position of the cameras. I put a slight smile on my face as they panned our section.
On the way home from Hollywood, we’d get off the bus at Canon Drive at Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills and walk the four blocks up to 713 North Crescent Drive where Doris Day lived. Long before, I had somehow acquired a Map of the Stars, so I knew where they all lived. But I was only interested in one of them. Fortunately, Jacquie was also a fan so she didn’t mind repeatedly walking back and forth up and down the block, feigning insouciance. On one daring occasion, we ventured a walk down the alley behind her house, hoping to see something – or even her. The dense shrubs and thick plantings were effective obstacles, preventing even a glimpse, so we never bothered again. Besides, we had seen the Beverly Hills Police Department patrolling the streets around there, probably looking for possible interlopers just like us. It was my dearest fantasy that she would suddenly emerge, spot us and invite us in. I even had dreams about what the inside of the house looked like, fueled by occasional photos in the magazines. Much later, when I was an adult, her house was featured in Architectural Digest and it wasn’t at all what I had imagined it to be, disappointingly “done.” These were the years long before stalking became an issue but, in retrospect, we weren’t too far from that – merely lacking the malevolence.
During my early teen years, Pete Duchow, our very handsome neighbor who lived across the street, went to work for Capitol Records as an A&R man (artists and repertoire). When I heard this, I knew fame was just a matter of time. I had babysat for his little girl; cleaned the house for his wife sometimes to earn extra money. He had the job (without any training, I sniffed) of selecting what songs singers recorded on their latest albums. Immediately prior to this, he had been cleaning swimming pools for a living and I couldn’t figure out how he could land a position of that stature. This only confirmed my belief in the serendipitous magic of success in Hollywood. He thought he was very important and I completely concurred. Sometimes he came over to our house to have me to listen to an unreleased 45 and ask my opinion. While I thought he was gorgeous and worked to stifle my youthful romantic fantasies, what I really wanted was for him to sign me to a Capitol contract. Doris recorded for Columbia but Capitol had Sinatra and Garland. Good enough. It turned out, however, that Pete’s contribution to my life was selling me - at a “special” discount - the LPs that were given to him free by his bosses at Capitol.
Through Pete, my family met Bob Bailey. Bob was a prominent radio actor, having starred in the popular “Let George Do It,” a popular mystery program, for a couple of years. But he was best known for his portrayal of the title character in “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” He had a gloriously resonant, distinctive, immediately recognizable voice just made for radio. Though I thought him charismatic, his slight build (and, I would later discover, his history of alcoholism) meant he was not often hired for film or television roles. But he was a bona fide star on the radio when radio was still big.
Bob spent time at our house now and again but never brought his family, which I thought puzzling. He was married and had three children, the youngest of whom was severely retarded but living at home, unusual in those days. Bob’s presence in our living room was always entertaining. I would rush into the room when I heard he was there, just to hear anything he had to say. He would regale us with stories of his times on various sets or his interaction with other actors. I thought of him as the ultimate insider, the closest I could get to real Hollywood. Bob often brought me his old Johnny Dollar scripts the week after they’d aired. The next day, I called my friends together to meet for our regular re-enactments, all huddling around the script - long before the invention of the Xerox machine. We’d pass it from hand to hand, each reading our lines as if it were being broadcast from my bedroom. Needless to say, I was Johnny Dollar.
“Tonight and every weekday night, Bob Bailey in the transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account, America’s fabulous free-lance insurance investigator…”
“Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar!”
When I went to his house to visit his daughter who was about my age, I would walk into his den and see this week’s ‘Johnny Dollar’ script on his desk. The whole room was infused with his Old Spice cologne, which I have loved ever since and instantly associate with him. On the longest living room wall was a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcase filled with plays and books about the theater. When the daughter was in the other room or doing chores for her mother, I would sit down and read anything within my reach. Bob told me about a book club where he was able to acquire many of these books, the Fireside Theatre. I joined immediately and eventually accumulated an impressive number of plays, adding to my paltry but growing knowledge of theatrical literature.
At some point, I summoned the courage to ask Bob if I could go with him some Sunday afternoon to the CBS studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood where he taped his shows. To my delight, he agreed. I held his script on my lap in the car as we made the 45-minute drive down Sunset, all the while regaling him with my well cultivated Johnny Dollar impression. My attempts to replicate the tough, hard insurance investigator “with the action-packed expense account” made him laugh. He thought I had captured his idiosyncratic, tough-guy theatrical demeanor perfectly – for a kid and a girl at that. As he drove, we discussed the various Hollywood landmarks we were passing: offices of famous agents, the former nightclubs that once beckoned glamorous stars into their exclusive banquettes. Once at the famous, historically significant studio, he introduced me to the other actors and showed me how the sound effects worked. Then he asked me to read some lines from the script for them, to show off my impersonation. I was excited and nervous and wondered if this was the moment I would be discovered.
I turned to the scene I had memorized, took a studied masculine stance and launched into my Johnny Dollar impersonation. The other actors and director laughed, thinking it was cute, a novelty, a young girl sounding like Johnny. After the reading, he led me upstairs in the booth to sit with the engineer while the show was being recorded. It was never mentioned again. My moment had apparently passed. Wasn’t I good enough? What would it take to pass an audition? I was disappointed but, ever the student, knew I needed more information to succeed at this. The visits became a frequent event over the next few years and, of course, greased the fantasies that I, too, could become a famous radio actor someday, somehow.
All this preoccupation with what I hoped would be my future profession was revealed only to Jacquie, who enthusiastically encouraged me. She enjoyed taking interviews from movie magazines and then asking me the same questions, as if I were a movie star.
“What is your favorite color?”
“Who would you most like to portray on the screen?”
“Who is your favorite director?”
I loved the mock interviews. They were like dry runs, rehearsals for the real thing. I knew would happen down the line. It was all kept quiet as I suspected the adults in my world would think it all frivolous. Girls were supposed to grow up to be wives and mothers, a hammered insidious social message. No woman in my parent’s social circle had a career or worked outside the home. None of them had any direct experience with The Biz, either.
There were more adventures around the corner. When I was about 14, my A&R neighbor, Pete, was taking care of a house for a few weeks in Brentwood. He asked if my family wanted to come and visit, since there was a swimming pool, a real treat. When I found out the house belonged to Academy Award winning actor Edmond O’Brien, I could hardly stand the wait. I had never been in a real movie star’s house before. Bob Bailey was a radio celebrity, sure, but somehow that wasn’t the same. Movie stars were real stars, permanently etched in the pantheon of fame. And Eddie had won an Oscar!
Everyone walked into the woodsy, darkened house to get changed for swimming. The house was homey and comfortable, obviously expensively furnished. Too young to recognize the names of designers, I only knew I hadn’t seen patterns and textures quite like this before. I furtively walked around, quietly checking out all the rooms, trying to sop up how a movie star lives. When I happened into his den, I suddenly found myself in the startling presence of The Oscar. It was encased in a glass globe, sitting on a little wooden stage. My breath caught as I absorbed the history that sat on that mantel. I slowly read the inscription: “Edmond O’Brien. Best Supporting Actor. ‘The Barefoot Contessa.’ 1954.” Just then, Pete stuck his head in the door and informed me, “Eddie made the stage himself, just for the statue.” It was beautiful. As I stood there staring, I felt as if I were worshipping at a shrine.
Pete left the room and I looked over at the desk, as I always did at Bob Bailey’s house. There were scripts piled up, handwritten notes on top. Suddenly I spotted the Rolodex. I felt my heartbeat quicken as I looked through it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Here were the names and phone numbers of seemingly every big name in Hollywood, from Darryl F. Zanuck to Louella Parsons. I looked under D for Day but she wasn’t there. When I came to Ida Lupino’s name, I stopped cold. Her TV show with husband Howard Duff was one of my very favorites. “Mr. Adams and Eve” was about a show biz couple with the insider theme I found so seductive. I quickly found a piece of paper and a pen and copied down the phone number. I just wanted to have it, like an autograph. I would never do anything with it. I was hyperventilating with excitement (not to mention fear of discovery) as I quickly put on my swimming suit and joined the others in the pool.
It couldn’t have been more than a few weeks later that my parents went out with friends on a Friday night, leaving me at home to babysit for my brother. At nine o’clock, my brother safely in bed, I tuned into “Mr. Adams and Eve.” The episode that night involved a young girl who Ida’s character was grooming for stardom. That was all the encouragement my fantasies needed. After shockingly little thought, I went to my desk and pulled out Lupino’s phone number, made a path directly to the phone in the living room and dialed. I assumed a maid would answer. I’d leave a message of congratulations on the terrific show that night and hang up. No harm, no foul.
(phone rings, an answer)
I figured if I sounded like I knew her, the maid would be more likely to take the message down. Remembering the lessons of demeanor, my voice reeked with all the pneumatic confidence only a 14-year-old can muster.
“Hello! Is Ida there?”
“This is Ida.”
Of course it is. Who else could speak with that familiar engine-purring throatiness? Uh oh. Now what? Think fast, Pam. Keep it cool.
“You don’t know me. I got your number from a mutual friend.” I knew she had done several films with Edmond O’Brien and that they really were good friends.
“Oh, who’s that?”
I clearly was not going to implicate anyone else in this impulsive, crazy, probably illegal caper. I could get in a lot of trouble.
“Well, Miss Lupino, I just called to tell you how much I enjoyed tonight’s show. It was very inspiring.”I wondered if she noted how I had changed the form of address.
“I’m glad. So nice of you to say that.”
“I….uh…am an actress, too.” Oh, my God. How far can I carry this deception? Can she call a cop? What if my parents find out? Is there such a thing as being grounded for life?
“Are you, darling? Well, maybe we can use you on the show.”
I thought the top of my head would blow off. Is this how it happens? Pure chutzpah?
“I would love that.”
“Do you have pictures and an agent?”
Oh, now she’ll know I’m an amateur.
“No, not yet.”
“You have to get one. Call the Dorothy Otis Agency. Maybe she can help. But you need pictures first.”
“Oh. OK. That’s so nice of you, Miss Lupino. Thanks for the career advice.”
“You’re welcome, Darling. Good night.”
I hung up the phone and stood motionless, staring at the wall. What just happened? I had cold-called a big movie and TV star who gave me a road map to get on her highly-rated TV show, that’s what. But what do I do now? I was 14 years old. I didn’t know how to navigate these waters. I had only lived in the world of fantasy. Execution was something beyond my capabilities. I knew I’d have to get help for this next step. I’d have to blow my cover, admit what I’d done. Talk about a double bind.
When my parents got home, I reluctantly told them the story and what I had been advised to do – by Ida Lupino! They took the news surprisingly well, though I’m sure they wondered what kind of alien they had spawned. My father quickly decided he would take the photos. Looking back on it now, I’m sure neither of them thought anything would come of it and didn’t want to invest any time or money in such a remote possibility. They didn’t have any of the necessary expertise, either, but did what they could to help. My father did take the pictures – at night, after coming home from work. When they came back from the photo store, my heart dropped. There was no hiding it. As I looked at the pictures I saw the overweight, apple-cheeked girl I was, posed poorly and with bad amateur lighting to boot. Overcome with disappointment and embarrassment, I wondered how I could possible transcend this obstacle. I was afraid Ida would laugh at me if she saw the photos and immediately knew this wasn’t going any further. There was no Plan B and my parents didn’t offer any more encouragement. I was left to my own devices, both to cope with this and to think about what next.
Over the next year, there were several other seminal events in the care and feeding of my show biz obsession and the infatuation with Doris Day. About the same time, I began a subscription to Daily Variety, the Bible of show business, a commitment that lasted over 50 years. It would teach me about the business side of show.
Getting off the bus after school one afternoon, Jacquie suggested we stroll over to the drug store to pick up the latest issue of Screen Stories. That was one of my favorite movie magazines, always filled with photos and summarized plots for five of the latest releases. The trip to the drug store wasn’t a hard sell. So in we walked and when I started thumbing through the magazine, I was rocked to see a short article near the front. It was a feature called “Lookalikes” and there was a picture of me - right next to Doris Day. It took me a minute to take this in. I hadn’t known Jacquie had taken the shot so it wasn’t all that good a picture, which is probably why the editor at Screen Stories thought we looked alike. We did have the same haircut and were both blonde. I was very excited about being in a movie magazine, though, even under these odd circumstances. Mostly, it went unnoticed by those around me. Didn’t matter. It was a brief, if insignificant brush with fame, another rung on the ladder. Like a fireman shoveling coal in a speeding train, it was fuel.
One evening, I walked across the street to babysit for Pete and his wife, he of avaricious Capitol Records fame. As she put her daughter to bed, she casually told me Pete had a new job. He was now working for Marty Melcher, Doris Day’s husband. What? In fact, they had socialized with the Melchers on several occasions at their Malibu beach house. She described Doris playing volleyball on the sand and their having barbecues together. What? What?
“She kept saying when she liked something, ‘Crazy’ and laughing real loud. She loves the music of Paul Anka, played it in the background most of the day. We had a great time.”
She might as well have spread a line of cocaine in front of an addict. My neighbors were hanging out with Doris Day, my neighbors - people who knew of my strange affinity for all things Doris. And yet they did nothing – I repeat, nothing – to facilitate a meeting of any kind. So close and yet so far. What kind of people are these? They obviously didn’t understand. I wasn’t sure I did, either.
Then, out of nowhere, my parents called me into the living room and told me as a present for my upcoming 15th birthday, they had managed to get me two tickets to the world premiere of Doris Day’s latest film, “Teacher’s Pet” at the Paramount Theater in Hollywood. I couldn’t drive yet, and I most certainly didn’t want to go with either parent, so they recruited the older son of a family friend to go with me. In 1958, premieres were a very big deal - Klieg lights, cameras everywhere, live television coverage with interviews by Army Archerd, fans screaming in the stands. And I’d be strolling into the theater on the very same red carpet Doris would be walking on minutes after me. Wow. Talk about ratcheting up the fantasy.
Robin was a gangly 18-year-old boy with a dusty old beater that seemed to match his personality. To preserve the illusion, I cajoled him into parking it a block away, rather than join the limo line in front of the theater. When we stepped on to the red carpet, though, everyone screamed, thinking it was somebody important. Of course, I waved and smiled, reveling in my momentary brush with fame, finally able to use “the look” I had practiced in front of my mirror at home. Robin, probably completely mortified, wanted to go inside and sit down but I was holding out for Doris to arrive. And arrive she did, dressed in a long, sparkly white gown with a matching fur, flashing her megawatt smile. She was no more than 20 feet away from me. There she was. I nearly stepped on Clark Gable to get a better look over his shoulder. Once she entered the theater, Robin and I went in and sat down. I squirmed around, trying to see where she was sitting. The woman next to me shot me an indignant look. She was likely unhappy that I had accidentally leaned on her expensive sable coat. “Sorry,” I said quite insincerely, looking into her eyes. When I realized it was Rhonda Fleming, I knew we were sitting with Hollywood royalty. Then I took a longer look, since I was right there. It was then I could see why she was called by some “The Queen of Technicolor.” Her bright red hair was almost startling, as was the heaviness of her perfume, the epitome of Hollywood glamour. The brief glimpse in the forecourt would be the last I saw of Doris that night. But I kept thinking about being in the middle of all that excitement, almost as if I belonged. What would it take, I wondered?
I loved the movie and ended up seeing it more than a dozen times, not unusual for me with my Doris enchantment. It was hard being a wannabe. I was getting tired of hearing my callous neighbors talk about the wonderful times they were having with her. I unilaterally decided to take matters into my own hands.
Her birthday and anniversary with Melcher were just a month away and happened to be on the same day, April 3. I conscripted an on-and-off boyfriend for company and planned an incursion into North Crescent Drive. I had read in a movie magazine that she loved Tootsie Rolls, so I bought a big box of them and wrapped it up. Nick and I boarded the two buses it took to get into Beverly Hills and made the long, anxiety-filled walk up Crescent. I glanced sideways at the overweight teenage boy overdressed in his ROTC uniform and selfishly hoped he’d stay in the background.
I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell. There was a long pause and I nearly turned to leave, with mixed feelings of disappointment and relief. Then the door opened and I immediately recognized her son, Terry, who was just a few years old than I was. I told him – announced it, really - we were there to give his mother a present for her birthday and anniversary.
“Wait a minute,” he said, abruptly closing the door. I figured he wouldn’t come back. This was a pretty ballsy thing to do, after all. She probably turned away a lot of unwanted visitors and…then the door opened and…gasp….she stood there, not more than three feet from me.
“Hello. Terry said you were here. I’m having a dress fitting.”
She was taller and thinner than I thought she’d be. She didn’t seem to be wearing makeup so I was able to see all those freckles she complained about in interviews.
“Oh. Sorry to bother you, Mrs. Melcher. I read in a movie magazine that you liked these.” I thrust the box out in front of me and she took it. I was hoping I wouldn’t faint, throw up or turn into a pillar of salt.
“That’s very nice. Thank you.”
I realized my face had likely frozen into a startled mask and forced it into a big smile.
“Happy birthday and happy anniversary!”
“Well, thanks. I have to get back to my fitting now. Thanks again.” She closed the door very softly. I think she might have smiled back, but by that time I was nearly catatonic.
I don’t remember the walk back down Crescent Drive. I felt as if I had been administered curare. This had been a major goal of my childhood, really, and I had made it happen. We actually met, had a conversation. Unbelievable. Nick and I boarded another bus into Hollywood so I could see “Teacher’s Pet” again, this time with a whole different context. I found myself silently mouthing her part of the dialogue. Years later, when I was taking acting classes, I played a scene where she tells off Clark Gable as a monologue. I could still remember it, word for word.
After the fiasco with the Lupino photos, I realized it was unlikely I would be ever be summoned into the world of performing. Perhaps in part due to the theme of “Teacher’s Pet” (she played a journalism instructor) I joined the high school newspaper staff and began writing movie reviews. I couldn’t really let the infatuation go, though. My byline read, “By Pam ‘Doris’ Osborne.” After I graduated, someone remaining on the newspaper staff continued to write film reviews using the byline, “By Pam ‘Doris.’” It was flattering, if a little freaky.
With a wonderful touch of irony, as the paper’s film critic, I spent many hours on movie lots after school, at screenings set up for reviewers. I’d always arrive very early, get past the gate guard, park my car and surreptitiously wander the lot until it was time for the screening to begin. By that time, I had accepted the reality that I was “just” a writer and it would be another decade or so before I’d revisit the show biz fantasies and allow myself to be seduced once again by performance possibilities.
I lived largely in a world of show biz reverie but somehow, I kept a grip on the real world around me enough so that I was able to do well in both junior high and high school, graduating in the top 10% of my class. And still, no one cared when I had declared myself to be a music major in high school, announcing to no one in particular that I did not intend to go to college. Neither of my parents or any of their many siblings went beyond high school. Like all other girls of the era, I was expected to marry and raise children. I wasn’t especially eager for any of that, so I planned to go to work – in the movies, one way or another.
As I write this, I am still stunned at how accessible many of these stars were – from getting a call from a famous comedian to being free to walk up and ring Doris’ doorbell. No one lived behind locked gates back then. Hollywood was still a mystery to me in many ways, but it also seemed out there just for the tasting.
Of course, we all grow up and move on from our childhood dreams. In time, I realized what I wanted was not fame but the opportunity to make a life as a creative person. And, I later realized, I wanted to be respected for being myself, not for playing parts written by other people.
At some point, my worship of Doris morphed into an appreciation of her personal and professional obstacles and her impressive achievements over many decades and media. While her persona was pivotal in helping me shape my identity, I realize now it was always more about the music. Even now, when I hear her sing a song recorded during those years, my head and heart immediately surge back to my 14-year-old self, revisiting my early hopes and dreams. Those were the rare moments everything that was wrong was right. I would have been an unlikely avatar for Doris, anyway. My personality leaned well away from uncomplicated and sunny. But she did usher me into a world of musical passion and vocal performance. The pursuit of the deeply ingrained passion for all things show biz fueled my life for many years. It was like a perpetually flowing river - sometimes briefly dammed but its eventual re-emergence inevitable.
Almost against my will I would be intermittently re-infected by the show business virus as an adult but could only stay in that world for a few years at a time. I found the heightened reality and intermittence of the intense performance demands difficult to integrate into my otherwise stable lifestyle. I sometimes felt at the mercy of my own passion and the lack of control over it would become intolerable.
There was a significant moment of karma before it was over, though. I had been traveling around the country, giving theme-based jazz/cabaret performances with a jazz trio. One of the last shows was a tribute I had written to Doris Day, spinning my more mature, adult interpretation of her life and career. In the performance at the Cinegrill in Hollywood, a large contingent from the International Doris Day Fan Club came to see me. Out of that show came a CD, quite amazingly recorded at Capitol Records, a place I had stood before with Jacquie as a young teenager. The resulting CD was called “Sentimental Journey: Celebrating Doris Day.” In the album notes, I thanked her for helping me get through childhood and adolescence. All the tunes on the tribute CD were those she had recorded, some of them obscure. After much goading by my record producer, I sent a CD to Doris, to a post office address never thinking it would get to her. Imagine my shock when she wrote to me on her personal letterhead a few weeks later in what had every appearance of being a fan letter. She was “so very grateful” for the tribute, she said, “loved the arrangements” and complimented the musicians and backup singers, some with whom she had recorded. “And you,” she added, “are very, very good.” It still brings tears to my eyes. After all those hours listening to Doris Day in my bedroom, now she was in her house listening to me. Even in my most outrageous fantasies I never could have conjured this outcome. It was miraculous.
Well, I never did become a legend, as you probably know by now. Instead, I became what I would hope is a relatively fully functioning, sensitive and creative person with an interesting life. Perhaps that option is mutually exclusive with being a legend, anyway.