This seems to be a fairly frequent experience lately: I come across some photos or memorabilia and I’m transported back to that time in my life.
It was spring 1962. The Woman’s Club of White Plains announced a musical revue would be held October 26 and 27 for the benefit of The St. Agnes Hospital Building Fund. Today, as I gaze at these photos, I’m celebrating the 57th anniversary of that very successful benefit and my first and only step into “entertainment.”
The original book, lyrics and music for “Surburbia” (not to be confused with Tracy Beckerman’s Lost in Suburbia) were written and composed by Broadway notable Herb Sweet especially for this major production. Noni Donaldson, Club ways and means chairman with an extensive theatrical/musical background would produce, direct and choreograph the show.
Several of my friends and I went to the try-outs; maybe we could snag a bit part or sing in a group. The theme of “Suburbia” was observations and actual experiences living in the suburbs, from commuters, neighbors, busybodies and kids to Stanley and Judy, a young couple in love. Noni was awesome. She was a petite dynamo with fiery red hair styled in an elegant chignon, and she wore tons of gold jewelry, especially chunky charm bracelets. But the piece de resistance: she drove a huge red Buick convertible!
At the try-outs, Noni went down the line, choosing her actors for the different roles. She came to me, stood back and looked me up and down.
“Can you sing?”
“Yes, I can. I sang for years in the school choirs and was never kicked out.”
“You are my Judy,” she said, making a notation in her ever-present gold binder. I was speechless! Moments later, she came back and introduced me to a tall, handsome man.
“Meet Jim. He is your Stanley. You two will have speaking roles, a couple of songs and you’ll be married in the finale.” Period. End of job description.
Such excitement! My friends had landed smaller parts and were gushing over their “star” buddy! Why, even one of White Plains Police Department’s finest, my brother, Jack, would make an appearance. Wow, I was going to be one of the leading actors in this wonderful story. And, how about this: I could wear my wedding gown—it still fit (back then)! How many ladies get to wear their wedding gown four times: wedding day, a dress rehearsal and two performances of a show?
Rehearsals were brutal. There were times when I cried from exhaustion and frustration, I wanted to give up. My husband was supportive and encouraging; he took care of our two-year old toddler when Mommy dragged herself in after a three-hour rehearsal. I will say this about Noni: if you had an ounce of talent, she would pull it out of you, often painfully. She yelled and pushed me, and when I was ready to call it quits, she smiled and kissed my cheek:
“Well done, my Judy. I knew you could do it.”
Singing and acting in the two performances was a fantasy come true; professional make-up, colorful costumes and wedding apparel, a Broadway band, stage sets and narrator (Dan Donaldson, TV personality, and Noni’s husband) and, of course Noni in gold lame’ and fabulous jewelry.
There was a camaraderie and genuine affection among us; we had been family for several months. Our connection was never more evident than when we sat in the auditorium on October 22 during rehearsal and heard President John F. Kennedy announce his decision to enact a blockade around Cuba. The silence was deafening; then with a collective sigh, we held hands and prayed.
“Suburbia” was a huge success. We played to a full house each night, and a sizable donation was presented to the Building Fund. After the final performance, we celebrated at one of the local country clubs. It was difficult to get off this heady, crazy ride, but it was time to get back to our normal every-day lives. Jim’s wife told me she could finally stop washing black hair dye from the shower curtain; “Stanley” had been touching up his graying sideburns! I have tenderly saved Herb’s sheet music, cast notes, newspaper clippings, programs and professional photos taken during the performances. This is my very own trip down memory lane! Priceless.
Sadly on February 8, 1965, Noni Donaldson perished aboard Eastern Airlines Flight 663 when it crashed near Jones Beach. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if St. Peter heard her charm bracelets as she danced her way toward the Pearly Gates!