[Excerpted from my forthcoming nonfiction book on my observations about living life as a full-time artist. The book is called "NO ONE HERE IS AMUSED BY MY ANTICS."]
I am not quite four years old when the Art Linkletter scouts come to Melrose Nursery School in Los Angeles, on the prowl for kids who say the darnedest things. It is the end of summer, beginning of autumn, and though I have been assigned to the kindergarten-level classes, I will not turn four until early November. This is the Age of Father Knows Best, when most kids my age are at home with their moms during the day and won't start school for another two years. My parents are not together, my mother works, and I have been in nursery school for as long as I can remember. I have been reading for nearly a year by now. In another year, by age four and three-quarters, I will skip public school kindergarten and go straight to first grade.
I am minuscule for my age and verbally precocious - probably obnoxiously so. I am, it will be reported on every progress report and report card I will ever get, "loquacious and outgoing" which is teacher parlance for "has a vocabulary beyond her grade-level and won't shut her damn pie hole". I am called in from the playground, much to my dismay, because this means I will miss my turn on the swings and for one of the smallest, youngest kids in the class, that's a big deal. There are about twenty-five kids, and only three swings.
I am taken to one of the classrooms with several other children and two grown-ups I've never seen before begin talking to us, asking us questions about our parents, about our pets, about our favorite games and toys, and how we like school. I think nothing of this. It's the early Sixties, and where children are concerned, most adults have very few boundaries. This is long before "Stranger Danger" and it isn't unusual for total strangers to come up to you and ask you your age, your favorite foods, and who your mother is, little girl, without so much as a by-your-leave. Granted, given my size, most people assume that, rather than pushing the grand old age of four, I'm more like an older two or younger three, so when they see me in the toy section of Owl Rexall by myself -- where our mothers left us completely unattended regularly until that rat bastard pervert came along and nabbed Adam Walsh -- they probably assume I've wandered off and my mother must be frantic by now. Looking back, I'd probably make this assumption, though I hate to admit it.
I answer all the questions put to me (and some put to the other kids, because speaking out of turn is and always will be an unpleasant habit of mine). I know that some of my answers have come as a surprise to my teachers, to Daddy Frank (the school's owner) and to myself on some level. When the two strange grown-ups are finished with us, we are sent back outside, where I try to get into line for the swings again. When an older, bigger girl gets in my way, I take every inch of my tiny size and every thermal unit of my anger and righteous indignation, and I throw it at her, shoving her off her feet and to the ground.
|This guy thought I was a laugh-riot.|
Back in those days, I knew just how to deal with Resistance with a capital R.
Today, I have no recollection what happened after the two grown-ups left Melrose Nursery School. I just know at some point, I found myself at CBS Studios on Fairfax awaiting my "big break" on Art Linkletter's House Party, one of several children in a room, waiting for grown-ups to tell me what I was doing there and what was expected of me. There were toys in the room - I do remember that. Neat toys, too - Legos, dolls, Radio Flyer wagons, and a couple of tricycles, including a red one which I appropriated immediately and refused to share during my entire tenure in that room. It was mine, and I wasn't going to risk losing it to one of the bigger kids.
Hey, kid. This is my tricycle. Touch it, and things are going to get really ugly, really quick. There's a new sheriff in town, she's riding a little red tricycle and she'll give you an elbow to the solar plexus just as soon as look at you.
My memory of that time is very hazy, except that at some point they separated us into groups of four or five kids, and took each group out and sat us in the empty studio, with only our parents in the audience. They asked us questions again -- about our pets, and our parents, our favorite things - which was confusing to me, because at least one of the interrogators had been at Melrose the day I was first scouted. Wasn't he listening?
At one point, the woman who is asking us questions asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. There was much hemming and hawing among my young panel-mates. We were four-, five- and six-year-olds, for cripes' sake - we have to decide now? The usual answers popped out of my older colleagues' mouths.
And then it was my turn, and before I knew what I was saying, my answer - completely truthful and completely a surprise, even to me, left my lips:
"An actress, a cowgirl and a mommy."
The parents in the seats laughed, the two staffers laughed, the cameramen who were milling around adjusting cable laughed.
That gentle tittering sent an electric jolt through me. Every hair on my body stood up. I had said something and what I'd said had made grown-ups other than my parents laugh out loud.
After we were sufficiently prepped, out came "the Man himself" - Art Linkletter. Of course, I had no idea who Art Linkletter was at the time, but he was nice enough and seemed to be uncommonly interested in all of us for an adult. I glanced up at my mother in bleacher seats, and she didn't seem to be panicking, so I assumed he wasn't an immediate danger to my person. He was a very nice man who put us all at ease with his gentle manner and his easy-going affect.
After our brief introduction to Mr. Linkletter, we were led offstage to await our "Kids Say The Darnedest Things" segment. When we were brought back out, everything had changed. The lights were full on and bright, the bleacher seats were packed with people I'd never seen before, and I couldn't find my mother's face in the crowd. As it happens, for reasons I was never able to get him to explain, my father, who was sitting on the aisle near the exit door in the back, stood up just as we sat down, and I recognized his silhouette almost immediately, though I couldn't see much detail past the hotter-than-the-sun's-surface television lights used for taping back in those days. Seeing his familiar figure saved me. I was, for all my bluster and schoolyard bravado, only three, and I surely would have failed miserably, had I not seen someone I knew in the stands.
From there, it happened really quickly. Questions and answers from Mr. Linkletter, mostly answered by older, less intimidated panel-fellows. Then he asked me if there something that my mother said to me all the time that made me mad. Again, the words slipped out of my mind, rolled down the back of my cerebral cortex and landed flat on my tongue -mimicking exactly my mother's tone of voice - which was yelling at full volume - the very last thing my mother had said to me the evening before, which had made me quite mad:
"GO TO BED!"
This time, the laugh was from more than a few parents and stage hands. It felt like there were hundreds of people (there couldn't have been more than 100, realistically), laughing in unison, including Mr. Linkletter, who made a surprised face and then guffawed. This time, what I felt was more than a tingling sensation. My cheeks burned bright scarlet, but it was only half out of embarrassment. I remember that laugh as if it were yesterday. It awoke something deep in the pit of my stomach - terrifying and powerful, but also fascinating and awe-inspiring.
Somewhere around my fourth birthday, I learned two valuable lessons. If I said just exactly what was on my mind, without filter or editor, without restraint or good judgment, I could make people laugh out loud. And also, I learned that hearing that sound was, for me, something akin to oxygen.
When I was not quite four, I figured out that somebody, somewhere could be amused by my antics. I'll always be grateful to Art Linkletter for that.