My mother started taking me to New York City to see Broadway shows when I was a teenager. We mostly went when I was off from school or during summer vacations. Although New York City was only an hour's drive from our home, we hardly ever made the trip. My father thought New York was a very tough place, especially for women to go to on their own. Still, my mother and I loved the excitement of planning a special day together where we could have some important mother-daughter time and enjoy the experience of taking in the latest show and then dining at Sardi's, a place we had read about in the newspapers that was the most famous eatery in the theater district. It is a well-known hangout for the theater crowd, both actors and patrons.
We spent wonderful days together seeing everyone from Richard Burton in Hamlet to Sammy Davis Jr. and Lola Falana in Golden Boy. I hadn't yet been exposed to Shakespeare in school, so as a teenager, Hamlet was not easy to watch. Still, it was beautiful and spellbinding. I have never forgotten Richard Burton's massive presence on the stage. This was the first time I ever looked at an older man and thought he was sexy. Eileen Herlie, who I would end up working with years later on All My Children, played his mother, Gertrude. This particular production of Hamlet was done in all modern dress. I was speechless when Eileen crossed the stage in a full-length mink coat. She was an inspiration and so glamorous and elegant. On the way out of the theater, I somehow got swept away in the sea of people leaving the show. I was thrust up against a waiting limousine outside the stage door. My mother was trying to rescue me but was unable to reach my hand through the crowd. I turned to look into the window of the waiting car and there was Richard Burton sitting in the backseat with his arm around two young girls. I don't know why, but I thought one of them might have been Elizabeth Taylor's daughter Liza Todd. Mr. Burton looked so protective of those girls. He saw me peering through the window. We gazed at each other for mere seconds, but I was absolutely mesmerized by his very blue eyes. Although I wasn't so happy about being thrown up against his car, I was absolutely thrilled to have shared that moment with someone who was larger than life. When my mother took me to see Golden Boy on Broadway, I begged her to let me wait outside the stage door so I could catch a glimpse of Sammy Davis Jr. Even as a teenager, I recognized Sammy Davis as one of the greatest performers of all time. I wanted to wait so I could ask for his autograph. We stood outside that door for hours, but he never came out. As I turned to my mother to say that we could finally leave, Miss Lola Falana was standing right in front of me. I remember watching her dance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and now there she was! It was thrilling. I don't know why I always remember what people were wearing, but she had on jeans, an oversize crisp white man's shirt, and sneakers. She was absolutely gorgeous.
"You're Lola Falana!" I said. "I've seen you on TV!" I was a giddy schoolgirl.
She just looked at me, like, "Yeah, so?" And then grabbed my Playbill to sign it. She wasn't rude, just quick. It was in that moment and exchange that I said to myself, When I grow up and become a famous actress, I am definitely going to sign autographs!" I would never forget what it was like to be the wide-eyed girl full of hopes and dreams.
Our days of taking in shows on Broadway and spending time together in the city became a tradition that continued throughout high school and into my college years. My mother and I loved to see matinees and have lunch at Sardi's. The very first time we went there, Vincent Sardi, the owner himself, met us at the door. He was extremely pleasant to us, especially since he was used to more sophisticated patrons than we were. He personally escorted us to our table, which I thought was quite extraordinary—that is, until I saw where he was seating us. He stopped at the front table underneath a row of the very famous caricatures drawn of the celebrities who had eaten there. I didn't realize that this particular table in the front and center of the restaurant was a very sought-after place to be seated. At the time, I thought he didn't want his other guests to see the two of us. My mother and I were all too happy to be there, even if we thought Mr. Sardi was not. We had a very nice lunch. As we ate our meal, Mr. Sardi approached us and pointed to a table of well-dressed gentlemen who looked like Hollywood producers.
"I am sorry for the interruption. The gentlemen at that table would like to know who you are." He was talking to me. I was very flattered, although I had no idea why they thought I was anyone notable in this restaurant of notables. I was a mere "nobody" enjoying lunch in the big city with my mother. I wanted to be an actress. I was studying to be one, but at that time I was still a total unknown.
My mother and I continued to frequent Sardi's in the summers that followed. Every time we went there, we were greeted like old friends. Vincent Sardi was always so very nice to us. And, every time, people wanted to know who we were. One day, we were introduced to Marian Probst, who said she was one of the editors of something called the Celebrity Register, a chronicle of who's who in the world of entertainment made famous by Earl "Mr." Blackwell. Marian said she would like to include me in their next edition, which was amazing since I hadn't been professionally cast in anything yet.
I cannot explain what the draw was, but throughout my early life, it seemed that people had an instinctive sense that I was going to be famous. I can't say this with any authority other than my own experience, but from the time I was a young child, I always knew that performing was all I really wanted to do. I suppose there is some merit to the correlation between the image one projects out to the world and what the world sees. If you're lucky—very lucky—and you work hard, that portrayal can and often does turn into the stuff that dreams are made of.