I was at the mercy of my turbulent family life. Like many children, my imagination allowed me to slip from the bounds of my dysfunctional family and invent another world to inhabit. Make-believe was a lovely place to be, and I could control it. It seemed as if I had always wanted to be an actress. Mom was encouraging, but no one pushed me into it. I took it upon myself to stir up some action, Andy Hardy–style, and started to put on plays in our garage using blue chenille bedspreads for curtains. All the neighbors came, and the kids on our block played the various parts.
Mercifully, my mother soon realized I was a budding performer and enrolled me in the San Diego Junior Theatre, an annex of San Diego's Old Globe. In my first play, I was surprised to be cast as the prince in The Princess and the Caterpillar. A boy! Why a boy? I was only seven, but it bothered me. Wasn't I pretty enough to be the princess?
Meanwhile, the more I performed, the more my father smiled and tapped his knee, in a kind of excited fashion. It was a good sign. But I had to be careful about that tapping. It might turn into a ticking time bomb.
At about the same time, Daddy took me to see the movie The Red Shoes. As I watched Moira Shearer dance herself into feverish abandon in the film, she quickly became my new idol. I was under the spell of her magical red toe shoes. It pitched my romantic temperament into high gear, and that was when I began to take ballet lessons. Ballet would become a consuming passion—especially in my teenage years—and a lasting influence in my life. I started classical ballet at age seven and continued to study dance for the next ten years, and even after I graduated from high school.
Not surprisingly, I developed a schoolgirl crush on my ballet teacher, Irene Isham Clark. She cut quite a striking figure with her long silver hair cascading down her back, well past her waist. She would put it up with exotic-looking combs during class. Irene Clark was not at all like the typical La Jolla matron. She was an artiste. She conducted class by tapping an ornately carved cane with a silver tip like a rhythmic metronome to the count of Les Sylphides.
Then came the day when this ballet goddess broke my heart. When I was seventeen, Irene told me that I would never become a classical ballerina. She thought I would make a better comedienne. Although I was crushed, she turned out to be right, and I just had to live with it. But all those years of devotion to dance didn't go to waste. By my midteens, the ballet classes had shaped a near-perfect body.