Many people go about their lives perfectly content to share a story with a friend, family member or workgroup – but never put that story on the page, or on stage to a formal audience.
Sometimes, I wish I had been one of those people.
From the time I was born in Huntington Woods, Michigan in 1962 (yes, I’m that old) my backstage Mother, little Janet, pushed me to be a child star and model like she was. Not really getting the significance of “performing” other than making the connection of cause and effect: i.e., if I play piano, I got ice cream. If I sweetly greeted the guests with a little song or courtesy in my pink ruffle dress aka Sound of Music, I got a hug and compliments. Even at three years old I could see the need to please the parents and be a “good girl”, or be adorable for the company. Definitely. It scored more points rather than sulking in the corner or being banished to my room where there was no candy or action whatsoever. (I remind you of those days being in your room was punishment, while today it’s a retreat in which to play World of Warcraft until 3am with your online friends.)
But what my Mother was asking, I thought, even as a toddler, was not just the simple give and take of assessing how the social game was played. It was different. There was this overwhelming need for her to have me do things for groups of guests, or people, to see me do these things. It’s called “exhibitionism” and I sensed it was not your average expectation of a child or business as usual. Time after time she’d prod me to do funny little dances or sing or pose in front of people that made me feel odd. It was, in my little mind, unnatural and very uncomfortable. And, while the attention was okay, her need for it was bizarre and suspicious to me. The word “love” decidedly was not part it, I knew that for sure.
This culminated at age four when she marched me into her modeling agency. I remember seeing a line of mothers and daughters seated along a wall (weird, I thought) waiting for something. Mom greeted everyone in her beautiful charming manner, anxious to talk to the “agent” about me, I imagine. She was gorgeous in a Donna Karen black silk suit, hair in a chignon with pill box hat, long black gloves, black high heels and stockings – and I was dressed to match in a little black and white ruffled skirt from Saks Fifth Avenue, black mary janes, a black tam, hair curly like Shirley Temple with a bit of black sticky substance on my eyelashes that wasn’t my favorite thing to wear, indeed. In fact, I recall red lips and cheeks as well.
I was pretty quiet when I stepped into Judy Wheeland’s office on the 9th floor of the Penobscot building in Detroit, Michigan. At the time in her 40s probably, she had a kind, somewhat stressed face with dark hair in a very no-nonsense bob. She hugged my Mom and instantly looked me up and down for “potential”.
I didn’t like that one bit.
I think Mom nudged me to smile. And I did. But in that second she saw my stubborn streak as clear as chemtrails. (Well, some chemtrails.) There was an awkward pause, and Mom skirted me to one of the seats in front of her desk. We all took our places, and I was now in my first agent interview.
She complimented my Mother on how pretty I was and started right in.
“How old are you, Leanna?” she leaned towards me.
“I’m four,” I said matter of factly in a grown-up tone. I didn’t want to hold up my hands showing my age, that was so 1965.
“Well, we’re going to get you to the photographers for some pictures sweetheart, (ok…um, a bit too familiar) and see how you test.”
“Great!” Exclaimed Janet. “I have Jerry and Fred who are on my list.”
“Good. Now Leanna why don’t you step over there and turn around to let me look at you, darling. And we’ll take a polaroid picture or two.”
“Go On!” My mother practically pushed me out of my chair.
While it wasn’t that offensive, and I think I got the basic “modeling” premise, I stood up and stopped half way to the “wall” that obviously served as the background for these “polaroids”.
Mom almost fainted because she knew my look and before she could stop me…
“I won’t be exploited,” my small voice hit the office walls with a thud.
Dead silence. Yes, at four I knew the both words: “exhibitionist” and “exploitation”. Great vocabulary, now if only I was smart enough to get the gist of making 6 figures a year on modeling and television I probably would have played along. But that day, I didn’t.
Judy stood up and Janet, mortified, practically begged. “Oh, it’s jitters, she’s just nervous darling, she’ll have the photos to you in a week and we’ll start her on auditions!”
“No, I won’t.” I was terrified but determined. Who were these people and what right did they have to parade me around? Why was my Mother doing that, as well? I was hurt, mostly, that instead of love all I got was some kind of weird freak show – I being the freak. Nothing seemed real, or kind, or genuine. I had obviously had enough, and, had enough at exactly the wrong time.
My mother was crying the car ride home and even threatened to slap me. Screaming all the way to the doorway, she slammed her purse and hat down on the dining room table and proceeded with the domestic chore of fixing dinner (something I’m not too good at today.) I ran upstairs to my room, hearing her wail with loss and disappointment from all the way downstairs. I was under the covers, determined to hide from it all.
Eight years later at 12 years old, at Uncle Stosh’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration (Dad was German/Polish while my Mom a Southern Bell – only in America, right?) I was surprised to find I was not seated with my parents at one of 40 round tables full of Hamtramck notables and guests, but rather with eight “adults” of all things and no one my age. I was in my favorite blue knit dress, white belt and tights, hair in a Laura Ashley do, looking rather smart, I thought. I was in 6th grade, not so happy about that (I was being “bullied” at school – for another story…) but did enjoy the distraction of the wild reception now unfolding. Something called “a polka” was blasting and guests were toasting and eating at an alarming rate. They also had little tiny glasses and kept pounding what appeared to be water. Well, we were near Flint, Michigan, I mean – whatever keeps you going.
I had managed to somehow make the entire table focus on me by a few things I said, and, in ten minutes I forgot all about my absent parents. Yes, I had the adults totally hooked -mesmerized with what would appear to be “jokes”. Quite thrilled with myself, I toasted Mrs. Slovakowitz on the recent death of her husband (you had to be there) and I heard a roaring sound behind me, like a combination of elephants on a rampage and New Orleans jazz, with an upbeat. “Ah, The Pied-Piper Polka!” Mrs. Slovakowitz exclaimed, and right then, for some reason, Janet’s genes kicked in: I stood up, I motioned for the band to follow me around the room!
Dad spilled the coffee out of his mouth when he saw his 12-year-old daughter leading the band around the corner into the other assembly of tables, laughing and clapping like her life depended on it. People rushed from each corner and started to join me in the conga line until almost 100 people followed little-piped piper me around the hotel ballroom at a raucous clip! Mom looked at Dad in amazement, held her drink high and screamed at the top of her lungs!
“Ladies and gentleman, meet MY DAUGHTER LEANNA!”
The crowd cheered as Mom and Dad jumped in the line and we went around the hotel lobby, pool and kitchen back to the ballroom, with cooks and employees in tow. I’d like a polaroid of that, please!
So, alls well that ends well, and I’ve been active as a stand-up comic and writer ever since. My Mother and I live near each other in Gulf Breeze, Florida. Sadly, Dad is now gone, but she and I have partied like rock stars ever since that fateful day at the Hamtramick Marriott Ballroom.