caravantoozAnyone who has ever availed themselves of the Off-Off-Broadway experience in New York City, whether as a performer, a crew member or simply “one of those little people out there in the dark,” will truly sink their literary teeth into Caravan to Oz, a splendid history of one family’s journey into a most exciting period in the American theater in the Big Apple. Anyone who hasn’t ever availed themselves of the Off-Off-Broadway experience in New York City, whether as a performer, a crew member or simply “one of those little people out there in the dark,” will truly sink their literary teeth into the book all the same. And in any case, this two-hundred-and-seventy page tome laden with stunning photography, emerges as a wondrous history lesson even to those not necessarily theater-oriented. To be succinct, it’s nearly impossible to put down once begun reading. The book bears vague similarities to Edie, the smash recounting of Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, except that in this case the story is actually told by the subjects in question, along with additional input by such legends of the Off-Off-Broadway scene and the cultural world at large as Tim Robbins, Bob Heide, Robert Patrick, Crystal Field, Mike Figgis, Mark Lancaster, Ritsaert ten Cate, and the late Ellen Stewart.

The caravan begins its initial drive down life’s highway in the Westchester, New York enclave of Bronxville, where actor-writers George Edgerly Harris II (hereafter referred to as George Sr) and his wife Ann launched a family of six eventual children, namely and in order George Edgerly Harris III (hereafter referred to as G3), Walter Michael Harris, Frederic Joseph Harris, Jayne Ann Harris (today Harris-Kelley), Eloise Alice Harris (today Harris-Damone) and Mary Lucille Harris, hereafter referred to as Mary Lou. After the family relocated to Belleaire, a suburb of Clearwater in Florida, and spent several years there in which all six of the children proved themselves extremely adept at both performance and self-producing various extravaganzas, the family once again headed north and took up residence on the Lower East Side, slowly assimilating themselves into the world of Off-Off-Broadway which had already begun coming into its own ten or more years earlier with the advent of LaMaMa Experimental Theater Company, the Living Theater, and the Caffe Cino. By the late 1960s, Walter Michael (not merely an actor-singer but a very impressive and self-taught musician) had established himself as the youngest original cast member of the hit musical Hair on Broadway, while George Sr took a role in The Great White Hope and subsequently took the show on the road, and mother Ann assumed a featured part in the classic horror film The Honeymoon Killers, alongside Shirley Stoler and Tony LoBianco. G3, meanwhile, trotted off to San Francisco to find his own path and, aside from being reportedly the first person to stick flowers into the gun barrels of the police during the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury while living on a commune, also began exploring drag artistry under the name Hibiscus as a founding member of the pioneering troupe The Cockettes. Upon his self-imposed termination in Hair, Walter Michael also ventured to Northern California to join his big brother but opted for a more spiritual path, ultimately becoming a monk of the Holy Order of MANS (although he did eventually return to the theatrical fold after a fashion). Once reborn as the theater company The Angels of Light, the girls of the family along with their mother settled into a happy existence as literally the First Family of Off-Off-Broadway besides appearances on a triumphant tour of several European countries.

The story also has some disturbing twists and turns. Hibiscus ended up as one of the earliest-known victims to succumb to the AIDS crisis. It’s also notable that brother Fred offers no input to the book whatsoever, leaving a reader wondering exactly what his side to the story might be. The Harris Sisters, however, continued to find fame as a trio within the cabaret club spectrum during the 1980s and 1990s (occasionally making appearances with the renowned downtown actor-singer Bobby Reed), and the entire book is interlaced with lyrics written by mother Ann for such shows as The Sheep and the Cheapskate, There Is Method In Their Madness, and Sky High. It’s almost a little too much to take in upon just one reading, to realize exactly how incredible this superb family of eight managed to accomplish in one lifetime together. But by the last page, one can’t help but feel a sense of peace, as well as the hope that anything in life is truly possible given the right brand of dedication and talent.

Caravan to Oz is available by ordering here. Do yourselves a favor and grab a copy.


The first time I even heard the name Julie Wilson, I was twelve. I’d begun saving my allowance every month to make a trip to the old Disc-O-Mat record store in the city on 58th and 3rd because they sold Broadway albums for $3.99 apiece, so I’d buy three or four at a time. One of the first was Gypsy, and the liner notes explained that countless tours of the show had also starred such women as Mary McCarty (of whom I knew because I was a big fan of the TV show “Trapper John MD,” and I had no idea she was also a singer) and Julie Wilson, who I’d never heard of at all. So I just sort of put her name on a back burner and figured I’d get around to her eventually. I had a lot of learning to do, after all.

A few years later, in my late teens and when I started getting into cabaret proper, was when I really started learning exactly who Julie Wilson was and what she meant within entertainment circles. From what I could gather aside from her sensational facial beauty and perfect physique, she’d been somewhat of a big Broadway star and did a few movies, married a big Broadway producer named Michael McAloney and had two sons with him, went through a messy divorce, and all the while maintained a career as a major cabaret star at clubs like La Maisonette and The Persian Room. And was particularly known for wearing her hair in a beautifully-coiffed chignon with a gardenia attached over her left ear, much like Billie Holiday. Nice. But by the time I came along, apparently her voice wasn’t nearly what it had been in her heyday, and what she relied on most was talk-singing her way through the songs and managing to still thoroughly communicate the essence of the lyrics. By that point I’d still never seen her on stage, although I heard a few albums and honestly couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. That, clearly, was the naivete of a precocious seventeen-year-old who believes they know everything.

juliew02In 1990, I got my very first job as an entertainment journalist, for a magazine called Night & Day. And my debut assignment was covering the MAC Awards, which at that time was presented at Symphony Space. Receiving the Henry Luhrman Memorial Award that year just happened to be Julie Wilson. I didn’t know Hank (Henry) at all, he was before my time and had just died of AIDS sometime shortly prior. But in the course of her speech she revealed that she’d been in semi-retirement out of town and that it was Hank and his longtime partner Hilary Knight (best known for illustrating the “Eloise” series of children’s books) who had convinced her to come back to NYC and start over. Well, she started over but good; she got booked at the Carlyle and stayed three weeks. Bear in mind that up to this point I’d still never seen her perform on stage.

Well, I guess my coverage of the MAC Awards must have been pretty good, because three days later they had me sauntering off to the Ballroom to review Peggy Lee. Which was excellent. Then to the Duplex to review Judy Carne’s comeback show. Which wasn’t so excellent. Then I got wind of the fact that Mollie Taylor Martin (no relation to me) would be doing a show at Don’t Tell Mama that weekend, so I asked my editor John Hammond for clearance and he said yes. Mollie and I had done summer stock together on the Bucks County/Pocono/etc circuit in ’86. You can imagine my surprise walking into the club and literally smack into Julie, looking very beautiful with her chignon but no makeup and no gardenia and ordinary street clothes. She smiled at me, and I said, “Oh! Miss Wilson! Congratulations on the award the other night!” and kissed her hand. She said, “Well, aren’t you a gentleman! Although you look about twelve. What’s your name?” I said, “It’s Andrew Martin, but you wouldn’t know me.” She said, “Oh, but I do! You’re that new young man who writes the reviews. Are you reviewing our Mollie?” I said, “Well, yes. What brings you to see Mollie?” She said, “I dated her uncle for a time. Have you seen her perform?” I said yes, she and I had done summer stock together. Julie took my arm and said, “Well, then we have to sit together and you tell me all about yourself!” and steered me into the room to a table. But I didn’t tell her all about myself, because she did all the talking. She talked about how her older son (Mike) was planning to move into his first apartment on his own but she wouldn’t let him because it had no refrigerator, and how her younger son (Holt) was trying very hard to have an acting career and make a living, and the whole thing was frankly dizzying. So that was really the beginning of the beginning. We became friends and always had a wonderful time talking together. But she wasn’t like this “mega-star Julie Wilson person,” she was just Julie. And she was fabulous.

juliew03A couple of years later, at someone’s show at Eighty Eights (I can’t remember whose, I apologize), I brought my mother as my date (which I was wont to do when she was still mobile, because she loved going out to shows in the city). And Julie happened to be at the show, so we all had a drink downstairs afterwards. The meeting between Julie and my mom went off like a Roman candle. As many know, my mom was on TV a lot when she was a kid, so she and my grandmother were always running to coffee shops for snacks and stuff in between shoots, and there was this one day when they stopped in at (I think) Child’s around the corner from the Roxy. And of course Julie worked at the Roxy as one of the showgirls. My mom told Julie, “You know, this one day when I was eight or nine, you stopped in at the coffee shop around the corner from the Roxy and ordered a coffee to go. And I told my mother, ‘Mommy, I think that’s the most beautiful girl I ever saw in my whole life.'” Julie, of course, dissolved in peals of laughter when she heard my mother tell her this. So then, of course, THEY became great friends. In a lot of ways, Julie was like a second mother to me in that respect; if the three of us were hanging out at a show together and I said something to my mom in a snappy tone, Julie would say, “Andrew, don’t TALK to your mother that way!” and my mother would say, “Yes, you LISTEN to Julie!” So it was a lose-lose for me, but it was brilliant.

I was on my hiatus from cabaret during my marriage, we’re talking between 2001 and 2008, so other than occasionally attending a show if I had to cover something for New England Entertainment Digest or a similar publication, I really sort of kept my nose out of it. But I did know that Julie suffered her first stroke at that time. I didn’t see her again until the autumn of ’08 when I came back onto the scene, and even though she walked and spoke more slowly and seemed a bit feeble, she was the same old Julie when I ran into at Joan Crowe’s show at Metropolitan Room. And it was NOT like having to talk to an old lady who’d lost her marbles; she’d have suffered none of that gladly. Her first words when she saw me (even if a bit slurred) were, “Andrew, where’ve you been and how’s your mother?” God bless her.

juliew04She did a brand-new show in ’09 at the Met Room, and by then she couldn’t sing anymore at all; she performed the songs more or less as monologues. But even that was unequivocally brilliant and the utter essence of cabaret communication. I brought my cherished friend Alice Kane with me, and we had the most marvelous evening, slurping down Grasshoppers and watching Julie. Her eleven o’clock number, as I recall, was Brecht/Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny,” and by the time she got to the end of the final verse, screaming, “TAKE THAT PIPE OUTTA YOUR MOUTH, YOU RAT!!!” we were all absolutely mesmerized. THAT was Julie as only Julie could be on a stage, musicality or not.

The very last time we got to speak was (I believe) at the ’13 MAC Awards. The afterparty, specifically. I don’t know what prompted me to bring it up, but I asked if she knew that my then-husband and I had seen “Below,” a thriller that just happened to star her son Holt as the captain of a doomed submarine (my ex was crazy about submarines, don’t ask). She smiled and said, “You know, Holt brought me to the premiere. They treated me like a queen, which was very nice, and then the movie started. And it wasn’t very good. And then came THAT SCENE. You know the one, where he’s in the shower.” (There’s a scene where Holt is in the shower, fully naked from the back. Which for me was the best part of the movie, but I digress). She continued, “I was horrified. The lights finally came up when it was over, I slapped him on the arm and said, DON’T YOU EVER DO ANOTHER MOVIE WHERE EVERYBODY GETS TO SEE YOUR TUSHIE!!!”

Oh, my darling Julie. I can’t believe you’re gone today. Go with God, my sweet gardenia-bird.

elly01Elly Stone would most likely be the last person on earth to ever call herself a living legend, either publicly or privately. But she is indeed. And how. Best known as the definitive interpreter of the English translations of songs by Jacques Brel, finding fame as the star of the theatrical hit Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and the film version that subsequently followed (both with lyrics by her late husband Eric Blau and contributions by Mort Shuman), Stone today, at the age of eighty-eight, often refers to herself as “just another grandma in Manhattan.” And even with a career which, to date, has spanned nearly seven decades and from which she removed herself completely from the limelight some time ago, her fan base continues to grow by leaps and bounds completely and utterly unabated.

A Brooklyn native, Stone was an introverted, abused child who chose to escape within her own thoughts rather than interact with those persons surrounding her. Her vocal prowess, however, showed promise and she possessed a keen ear, and while a student at Junior High School 50 in Williamsburg, a teacher introduced her to a vocal coach named Lillian Strongin, who retains the distinction of being the person that would truly unleash Stone’s instrument as it was intended. Strongin, who Stone has always considered her true mother, helped organize her audition material for the famed High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello LaGuardia High School), where she was accepted as a voice major. After graduation, Stone opted to marry at the tender age of seventeen, divorced her first husband shortly thereafter, and began a lifelong residence in Manhattan, rarely ever looking back upon her outer-borough roots. However, after a foray into folk music, she would meet Eric Blau, at the time a published poet, who had written a campaign song for a candidate seeking election as Brooklyn Borough President; Stone was engaged to sing it. He later told an interviewer, “I thought she was kind of cute.”

Blau and Stone began a whirlwind romance very soon thereafter, and this was a heady time for her. She’d phased out of folk music and into theater, first as a standby for Barbra Streisand as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale in 1962, and then in Blau’s Off-Broadway revue O, Oysters! in 1964, by which time they were married and she’d given birth to their son Matthew. At this time, Blau’s friend Nat Shapiro (the head of International A&R for CBS/Columbia Records), introduced the two to the songs of Jacques Brel, which blew their minds. He also introduced them to Mort Shuman (a wunderkind composer in the 1950s of such classic pop tunes as “Save the Last Dance For Me” and “Teenager in Love”). Shuman was also a big fan. Jacques Brel, at that point, was only a star in Europe (particularly in Paris and his native Belgium), but the three saw a clear course. Brel was obviously as powerful an artist at the time as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and deserved adaptation into English. One thing led to another, and by 1968, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was opening at the Village Gate. What followed, aside from the recording of the original cast album, were productions in every possible corner of the globe and truly a worldwide miracle. As Stone says, “Not a day has gone by since the show’s inception forty-seven years ago, without the show being played somewhere on the planet.”

While all of this was transpiring, Stone was working diligently into the late nights in the studio after getting off stage at the Gate to record her first album, the self-titled Elly Stone, which emerged on CBS/Columbia. Although not a commercial success, the record did include several translations of Brel that weren’t included in the original show (among them “My Childhood” and “Song for Old Lovers,” interpreted from “Mon Enfance” and “Chanson Des Vieux Amants” respectively) as well as the extremely-poignant “Alexander’s Song,” a tribute by Blau to his father, who made a living as a New York City taxi driver. Her large cult following rushed to purchase copies, and it still remains a favorite among her fans. Several selections on the recording were developed in tandem with orchestrator/arranger Ralph Affoumado, and Billboard Magazine referred to it as “one of the best undiscovered albums of the year.”

Once freed from having to star in Brel on stage as a full-time occupation (by 1973 the show had closed at the Gate and moved to the Astor Place Theater with a cast that featured Teri Ralston among others), Stone set about a separate career as a concert artist. She’d appear with a full band in venues ranging from Lincoln Center to The Bottom Line from that point on, as well as such out-of-town locales as Wolf Trap, and recorded a second album, Spirit of ’76, as a celebration of the Bicentennial year. Here, while Brel interpretations were again evident, she and Blau worked with David Frank to develop such songs as “Mr. Williams” (for which Stone herself wrote the music), “Soft Shoe Routine,” “Snows of Fifth Avenue,” and “New Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Old Soldiers in the Chinese Restaurant” (both with music by the aforementioned Affoumado). Again, among her fans, the record sold like hotcakes. However, a year or so earlier, she and Shuman (and Joe Masiell) were cast in the film version of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which also featured a cameo by Brel himself. It has been a cult hit for years. And, she’s never seen the film.

Her last appearance on the legitimate stage came in 1977 at the Astor Place, in another Blau musical called The Cockeyed Tiger. But he started creating a new work and consequently stumbled upon composer/lyricist Elliot Weiss, who had only recently graduated from Juilliard and had written the music for a short song cycle. Blau wrote the lyrics and entitled it The 104 Bus. It premiered in 1982 as the second act of one of Stone’s concerts at The Bottom Line, and featured such vocalists as Joseph Neal and Kitty Hendrix. Later, when Stone premiered a concert at Symphony Space in ’83, it emerged as her opening act.

It was shortly thereafter that Stone drew the professional veil as a stage presence for the most part, and expanded her work teaching voice. She’d inherited valuable manuscripts that Lillian Strongin had inherited from her own teacher, William Earl Brown. These were the sayings and teachings of Giovanni Battista Lamperti, the nineteenth- century master, whose name is synonymous with Bel Canto. He and his father, Francesco Lamperti, are still revered as being among the greatest teachers of all time. Stone feels that in teaching and editing the manuscripts for publication, she found her calling.

She has also directed quite a few legit stage productions of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris for over the last three decades, including one at Town Hall in 1983 which starred Karen Akers. Another most notable of these was in 1986 at the Beacon Theater, where the show opened with her singing “My Childhood” as an unannounced surprise on the first night, and drove the crowd to stupendous ovation. And there was her handling of the twenty-fifth anniversary production of the show at the Village Gate in 1993, starring Karen Saunders, Gabriel Barre, Joseph Neal and Andrea Green.

Though Elly Stone will never confess to having no regrets, she does look back on her past with nonchalance. “It’s life,” she says. “All I did was live it.” And live it she has indeed. Thank goodness.

Image  —  Posted: March 7, 2015 in Broadway, Cabaret, Culture, Entertainment, Film, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,

godspellexpI’m writing this piece in the first person, which many know I’m not usually wont to do. It simply isn’t my way as a journalist, because I was taught that the best way to express reportage was to keep oneself out of it completely, other than being the mechanism that moves the narrative along on its literary way. But this time around, I have no choice. As many know, in the late fall of 2011, I saw the publication of my first book, All for the Best: How Godspell Transferred From Stage to Screen. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, this was borne from an article I wrote here on The Andrew Martin Report earlier that year. At the same time, an author named Carol de Giere was also very hard at work on a book of her own, entitled The Godspell Story: Inside a Transformative Musical (presented by Scene 1 Publishing) which, unlike mine, covered not merely the way the book transferred from a stage musical that began as a college play and became a worldwide cultural phenomenon before a cult film, but every possible aspect of the show from its earliest germination to how it’s viewed today. De Giere, it should be noted, is quite possibly the globe’s greatest expert on the work and life of composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (her previous book, Defying Gravity, is also a masterfully academic glimpse into the career of this wonderful creator of musical theater for Broadway and beyond). And as such, besides including Schwartz to supply an in-depth Foreword, she has, through almost-unfathomable research, managed to create a tome that could best be described, pardon the pun, as the definitive Bible of the entire Godspell journey. I should note that I was among those persons singularly honored to be interviewed by de Giere for her project and I’m thrilled to have my book listed in the Bibliography as a resource. But this is, for me, small potatoes compared to the privilege of reading the book and soaking up such voluminous knowledge, to which I and so many others were so previously unexposed. Reporting from the very first nanosecond of the show’s development by John-Michael Tebelak in 1970, de Giere wondrously illustrates Godspell‘s conception and the winding path it took from Carnegie-Mellon University to Cafe LaMaMa to the Cherry Lane Theater to a planetary success which continues to this day. She has left absolutely no stone unturned, not merely by dint of her in-depth interviews with members of the original company and the creative team (including profiles of those who’ve since left us, including the late great Lynne Thigpen). But this doesn’t even begin to describe what the book delivers, namely an entire and oft-staggering treatise which at times can leave the reader gasping for air. DeGiere’s attention to detail is overwhelming, and whether the reader is a newcomer to the show’s flock of die-hard fans or a longtime member of same, it all transpires to be most brilliantly educational. In point of fact, Carol de Giere and The Godspell Experience are but two of all good gifts around us, sent from heaven above. So thank the Lord. Thank the Lord for all his love. And purchase a copy!

Reading IS Fundamental!

Posted: August 29, 2014 in Uncategorized
Steve Bluestein

Steve Bluestein

Sometimes, when you’re an actor, you get an invitation to appear in what’s known as “a reading.” This is where a playwright arranges for a space for a new script of theirs to be performed in front of a crowd (usually a hundred or slightly less) just to see how it flies with an actual cast speaking the words, hear how an audience enjoys it and, hopefully, end up with some prospects for it to eventually be produced in a theater. There are two types of readings; one is a “staged reading,” where it’s actually directed as a play on stage, and the other is a “script-in-hand reading,” where the actors actually read right from the script. I’ve done dozens of both over the last thirty-seven years since I’ve been in this business of show (for my sins), and I pretty much always enjoy myself when I’m asked (mostly because I don’t need to audition). But nothing prepared me for how much I would love taking part in the reading of How To Kill Your Mother Without Really Trying (a comedy by a resentful son), a wonderful script by my pal Steve Bluestein, at Chelsea Studios in mid-August.

Now, let me start by saying a couple of things about Steve (or Blue, as I call him affectionately and which I have no idea whether he likes or not because I don’t recall him ever acknowledging it one way or the other, but I hope he doesn’t mind). This man is not only a legend of comedy (he started at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles when he was fresh out of college, became a founding member of the Comedy Store Players which eventually morphed into The Groundlings, plus has opened for so many major concerts all over the world that it would be impossible to list them all, and has written two incredible books, It’s So Hard to Type With a Gun In My Mouth and 49 Shades of Blue-STEIN). Blue may well be the most neurotic, desperate, brilliant genius I have ever known, and for me that’s saying a lot. Here’s the other thing; I already knew the play because Blue and I had an idea to try to get it into the Fringe Festival in the summer of ’13, and we had some great ideas, but they turned us down. Which made neither of us particularly happy. On the other hand, I knew that this play was as prodigious as anything that Neil Simon or Paul Rudnick or Woody Allen or Charles Busch ever wrote.  So I held my breath and hoped for the best.

Carole Ita White

Carole Ita White

Which is why it was rather surprising, back in May, to hear from Blue and have him ask, “I want to bring How To Kill Your Mother… into the city this summer for a script-in-hand reading, and I’d like you to play the nerdy blind paramedic who gets the girl at the end. Will you be available?”  I said that I’m sure I would, but I wasn’t sure how he’d like me to play it;  since it has a gay theme, should I play it gay? He replied, “Absolutely not. I want you to play it like Arnold Stang.”  And this is embarrassing to admit, but even with my encyclopaedic knowledge of culture and entertainment, I didn’t know much of Arnold Stang. So I did some research, looked up a couple of sketches Stang did with Milton Berle, and said, “OK, I know exactly what he wants from me. I can do this.”

THEN I found out who I’d be appearing with. They included Carole Ita White, the daughter of Jesse White (aka The Maytag Repairman), who made her mark as the evil Big Rosie Greenbaum in a recurring role on “Laverne and Shirley” for several seasons; Isabel West, who’s guest-starred on a million sitcoms including a memorable episode of “Mama’s Family” when Mama competes as a contestant on Jeopardy; Mark Boyett, who’s worked on every TV show under the sun; Ferrell Marshall,  who also has a ton of credits under her belt, and Ivy Austin, who’s done oceans of voice-over work on “Sesame Street” and other Muppet productions. I don’t even have an IMdB listing, for God’s sakes. So it was instantly a case of, “What the hell am I DOING here with these people? I don’t even have a freakin’ UNION card!”

Ivy Austin

Ivy Austin

But I swallowed the fear and said, “OK, you know this role. You know what to do. So just do it, hopefully everyone will appreciate your work, especially Blue, and if he doesn’t, and if they don’t, they’ll tell you how to do it better.” I should add that it’s the smallest part in the play, which is fine, because it’s a great part no matter what, even if he’s only in one scene in the first act and one later on in the second. So we got to the top of fifth scene in Act One, where the audience sees me for the first time. I said the opening line, “Name of the deceased?” in my very best Arnold Stang, and the entire crew at the table completely burst out laughing. That’s when I knew this would be smooth sailing. Interestingly enough, after that rehearsal, Blue gave us all a general note which was, “I would like most of you to try to belt a little more, because some of the lines are getting swallowed and the audience needs to hear them. This doesn’t apply to Andrew.”

Mark Boyett

Mark Boyett

We had a great second rehearsal the next day, and what struck me was how very complimentary and ego-free everybody was besides being so talented. I don’t know if I’ve ever had this experience before in the theater, to be truthful, and I’ve been doing this for nearly four decades. This was a total and complete team effort; each of us wanted to be the best we could be and were cheering each other on at every turn. And I’m not much of an athlete, so it was really spectacular. There was just such an absence of, “Look at me! I’m the BEST one!” and we were all just so supportive of one another.

Ferrell Marshall

Ferrell Marshall

Then came the reading. Two readings, actually. One at 3 PM and one at 6. I still can’t believe how many friends showed up, or the fact that we were packed to the rafters. Afterwards, Blue came up and said to me, “You were fifty times funnier than I ever could have imagined. It was perfect. I didn’t know you were capable of this kind of performance.” I said, in all honesty, “I’m just so happy you gave me the opportunity.”

So…anyone want to back an Off-Broadway run? Just don’t replace me in the role, please.

startingover01By the earliest part of the century, the producing team of Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray had pioneered a revolutionary new form of televised entertainment, which would become known as the “reality show.” Their initial success came with MTV’s “The Real World,” in which a handful of teenagers and young adults of different backgrounds and geographical foundations would be thrown together to live in a mansion for several months, learning how to get along with each other plus, along the way, lose their prejudices and resentments while coming of age. After several seasons, the two felt confident enough to try a slight variation of the same formula on network television (in this case, NBC), as a daytime show called “Starting Over.” This wasn’t merely “The Real World” for grownups; six women of different ages and circumstances would be brought together to live in a mansion in a Chicago suburb, but this time each had a specific goal for how to start her life over and, through daily sessions with life coaches Rhonda Britten and Rana Walker, would graduate when her goal was fully realized. At that point, another woman would enter the house to take her place and the entire household dynamic would change. Millions of devoted fans were mesmerized daily by the women’s interactions and the exercises employed, and the show ultimately became the first reality show to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class Series. After the premature passing of Ms. Bunim in January of 2004 at the age of fifty-eight, and the risk of lawsuits because neither life coach was a licensed psychologist, the second season found the show moving to a mansion in the Hollywood Hills and also employing Dr. Stan Katz to give the women more professional guidance. It was at this time that Ms. Walker found herself replaced as a life coach by Iyanla Vanzant, in a move that came as an unpleasant surprise for so many viewers who’d become attached to Rana. The third and final season took place in a mansion in the Southern California enclave of Reseda, and wasn’t renewed, although the show’s online message board remained up and running for a significant amount of time (and often with a great deal of controversy among its members) before NBC/Universal ultimately pulled the plug.

Now, ten years after the program’s debut season, it’s interesting to revisit several notable house guests from that time. In Season One, fans were introduced to (among others) Karen Knox-Cox, a voluptuous blonde from Alabama who had made her living as a designer of costumes for exotic dancers and adult films and was looking to transition into something more mainstream; Teresa Temple Crone of Cincinnati, who was dealing with addictions and debt besides middle-age malaise, and Audrey Tucker, a mixed-race single mom originally from Indianapolis now transplanted to Atlanta to raise her young son, and seeking a career as a singer-songwriter in country music. Season Two found fans greeting Sommer White, a young woman from an affluent suburb of Dallas who had recently undergone gastric bypass surgery; Kim Bookout, a devoted wife and mother of two from a very wealthy marriage in Colorado; Sinae Van Haastert, an eighteen-year-old college senior (yes, really) from Southern California who was coming to grips with legal blindness from an albino-pigmentation difficulty;  Arizona native Renee Panis, who came from an extremely dysfunctional family background and dealing with a sexual molestation issue from childhood: Allison Stanley, a former actress from Charlotte, who had just gotten into remission from cancer and dealing with the after-effects of intense chemotherapy and radiation,  and Bethany Lynn Marshall of North Carolina, who was coping with amnesiac issues from encephalitis. And Season Three found audiences acquainted with Jill Tracey, a former radio broadcaster who found herself adrift on the rocky shores of personal failure. It should also be noted that Maureen Jacobs Goodman, who was the very first woman to graduate from the house in Season One after making the transition from Chicago bartender to standup comedian, returned briefly to the show in the second season after a tragic house fire, and then in July of 2010 succumbed to a fatal cardiac arrest at the age of sixty-nine while babysitting her youngest granddaughter one night. In any case, The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more honored or privileged that they’ve collectively granted us a group interview, to share a glimpse of their lives ten years after the very first episode.

ANDREW MARTIN: How did you first hear about the show? Was it already on the air, were you already a fan, did you just happen to see a casting notice for it, etc?

Karen Knox-Cox

Karen Knox-Cox

KAREN: I was rhinestoning a costume and the TV was on (I always work with the TV on in the background), and a casting call commercial came on. A voice asked, “Do you need to change your life?” I looked up, and answered to the TV, “Yes, I do.” The commercial continued to say, “If so, come to the Wynfrey Hotel, next Tuesday,” between certain hours. It was a very quick and to-the-point commercial. I was watching the midday news, and I guess I just got it on the brain, because the next day I watched the midday news again, but there were no more commercials. That commercial ran again the next Monday, so I called the hotel, and they confirmed that the casting call was on Tuesday. So I made plans to go. I started on my way, and came really close to turning around, telling myself that I was too old to do reality TV. In fact, I actually pulled off onto an exit, but talked myself into following through just to see what it was all about.

TERESA: A good friend of mine, Carolyn, called and said, “Hey, there’s this show I think you would be good on.”  She helped me make the tape and send it in. The show hadn’t aired yet.

AUDREY: I was working at a spa.  A co-worker heard me singing, and she asked me if I wrote songs? I said yes, and she mentioned there was a casting for a new show that I would be perfect for. Reluctantly, I went. We arrived as they were finishing up for the day and they squeezed me into the last group. I guess I made a good impression. (Laughs)

SOMMER: I was preparing for gastric bypass surgery when auditions for Season Two were announced. I was working as a talent agent and disliked reality TV, because I felt like it was taking jobs from my actors, so when one of the actresses suggested I audition, I was not all that keen. I started DVRing the shows, figuring I’d check them out while I was recovering from surgery, and I’d just see how I felt. By the second episode I was hooked on the show, but still not sure I wanted to be ON it. After two weeks at home, recovering, I’d caught up on all the missed episodes, and was ready to put myself out there and audition. What did I have to lose, and why not take a chance to be a part of something so life-changing?

SINAE: I was already a fan of the show when I heard about the casting call. During college, my mom would tape the Season One episodes, and on the weekends I would watch it. I was really interested in PJ’s story. My mom was the one who heard about the casting call, and it happened to be near my university so we popped in. I really didn’t think anything would come of it, but I was wrong.

BETHANY: After losing my memory in December of 2000, it had taken so much time to adjust. Encephalitis, the infection that had hit my brain, had left me with such severe headaches that it was hard to be up and work for long periods of time, and I had found that watching TV had become one of my favorite pastimes to not only pass the time, but to learn about the world taken from my memory and to also be a pain reliever; it took my mind off the constant nagging headache. I became a HUGE fan of “Days of Our Lives” and “Passions,” mainly because of the never-ending intense story lines, and ESPECIALLY when “Passions” broke up a power couple by means of TOTAL AMNESIA. I felt like I wasn’t alone in the world. I finally had a friend that I might could relate to, someone that might understand me. I had a hard time understanding what part of television was real and what was not at this time, specially because I was an amnesiac. And if you ever saw “Passions,” you know it was crazy! Needless to say, I never missed an episode and watched it to the end every day, so I could have someone to relate to. Well, one day I left the TV running, and heard a girl named PJ talking about how she could not even look in the mirror. She had such a negative self-image that she truly hated herself, didn’t/couldn’t look at herself. Having those exact feelings, I got hooked on the show.

Renee Panis

Renee Panis

RENEE: I was a big fan of the first season the show was in Chicago. I had lived there back in 1997, and have always been a fan of the city. I worked mostly nights, so I had my days free. I’m a big reality show junkie, and I became transfixed by all the women’s stories. It was then that I saw on one of the episodes that they would be holding a casting call in Scottsdale, which is twenty minutes from where I was living.

KIM: I was laying in bed with my two daughters and the show came on. It was the end of Season One. My girls were getting close to leaving home for college, and I had lost my identity. I had been a wife and mother for so long that I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I said to my girls, “I should start over.” I know it sounds weird, but I knew I would be on that show. And
on Mothers Day, the girls took me to a casting call here in Denver as a surprise gift.

ALLISON: The show was on air in the second season when I auditioned. I had not seen the show and didn’t know anything about it. I saw an advertisement on TV and I thought, “Why not? What I have got to lose?” I was in the middle of radiation, I  was bald, and burnt pretty badly.

JILL: I used to listen to the show on the radio, actually! Our NBC affiliate broadcast on the radio, so after I’d lost my job at the radio station, I was working for one of advertisers who used to book me often, and I would listen to the show. I was really intrigued by Towanda Braxton and Iyanla’s relationship, or lack thereof, and that’s how I got hooked watching it.

AM: What made you think you’d be a proper candidate to apply for the audition/interview process?

ALLISON: I had CANCER! I needed a chance and a prayer to start over. I didn’t know what to expect, and normally I would be too fearful to take the chance. But the advertisement seemed like it was just going to be a great opportunity, and I didn’t want to pass it up.

JILL: Well, my life was a mess. I didn’t recognize it anymore, and I needed help pulling the pieces of me back together. I would listen and watch thinking, if I could just TALK to Iyalna, I bet she could help me get my sh*t together

BETHANY: I had never heard of the show before that moment in Season One. A couple of weeks later I saw that you could send your life story in on a five-minute video for casting, to see if they could help you. So I made a video and sent it in. They called me within a week, and flew me to Los Angeles a week later. It was the first time I had ever been out of my EXTREMELY small town. In my mind, everyone is exactly like me; you can’t remember before age seventeen either. But at the time, I had gone to multiple doctors, been on numerous medicines to stop the pain of the brain infection, nothing had helped, and it only just made me unhealthy and unsure of myself. I was fed up to the point of giving up. I had a family that loved me, but I didn’t love myself and didn’t know how. That was all this show talked about, and I felt like if anyone could teach me how, it was Rhonda.

KIM: I was going to the audition for a different reason than what I was picked for. I thought I would go on to figure out what to do about the empty-nest syndrome, and what my purpose in life was. Because I had seen the show, I thought it would be a good coachable problem, as many women deal with this and it was not talked about a lot.

TERESA: As I said in my initial tape to them, I had all kinds of problems, but my foremost problem was my debt. I had completely breezed through the hefty retirement account that had been part of my divorce settlement, and had maxed out credit cards to boot. I was fifty years old, and in worse shape than I was when I was forty after the divorce. I needed to start over and change my life.

SINAE: I honestly didn’t really think I would be that great of a candidate for the show, but I thought it would be really fun to see the auditions.

RENEE: I was a bartender for ten years, and believe I’m very outgoing and have a spunky attitude. But most important, I wanted to tell my story. I had a very on-again/off-again relationship with my dad. After high school, it just got worse. I knew I had always had issues with abandonment, I could never hold relationships with men, and I had a mother who put my brother on a pedestal my whole life. I always felt like the “black sheep.” So I thought that a lot of women could relate to my story. It wasn’t until later on in the show, that a whole lot more issues arose from the exercises I began doing.

SOMMER: I had no idea if I’d be ‘right’ for the show or not. I only knew that I was so unhappy, and so lost, that I had no choice but to try. And if I was going to try, I had to be willing to put it ALL out there, and I mean everything.

AUDREY: The funny thing is , I never thought I was a good candidate until the process really started rolling. As I began to understand the concept, I figured that it couldn’t hurt anything.

KAREN: Most people I met thought being a costume designer for strippers was interesting. So I thought the show would find it interesting as well. As far as being a proper candidate, well…I had my own self-doubt. I almost didn’t show up there for a moment; I wanted to turn around and go back home. But curiosity prevailed.

AM: What was the audition/interview process like?

Sinae Van Haastert

Sinae Van Haastert

SINAE: It was madness! There were so many people in the casting call that it was standing room only. We each filled out some sort of info sheet, and then we got called back in groups to do an interview. We sat in groups and each person discussed their story.

KAREN: We were interviewed in groups of between eight and ten women, sitting around a table. The casting agent, Sara, just spoke to each of us and we had a story. Sara pulled two or three of us into another “classroom,” and asked us to fill out this book-like form. It did take a while to fill out. All of a sudden the double doors flew open, and Sara was scampering toward me. I didn’t look up, but she walked up to my desk, and at that moment I knew two things. I saw her little feet and I knew that a) I was going to be on this show, and b) Sara wore a size four to four-and-a-half shoe, but bought size five shoes because that’s all she could find. She asked me back to be filmed the next day, and the filming was emotional. I cried and was so embarrassed. Sara asked me why I was so emotional, and I told her that I felt like something was happening. She gave me a big hug and assured me that I was right. Something was happening here. The following Wednesday was in Los Angeles, in front of the producers. We were filming, and I shared the story of the casting call, meeting Sara and knowing that I was going to be on that show, and that Sara wore a size four shoe. When those words came out of my mouth, I heard what sounded like metal trash cans being thrown around, with footsteps scampering down a hallway. The doors flew open, and it was Sara saying, “Oh, my God, I have a size four foot and have to buy size five shoes because I can’t find fours anywhere. How do you know that?” I answered, “It’s what I do as a costumer.” I truly believe that shoe incident had something to do with me making it onto the show. It validated me.

RENEE: I remember picking out my most fabulous outfit. I was number one-fifty in line, and. I was shocked by the turnout. You first had to fill out several forms, and write about what brought you to the casting call. They did all the first interviews as a group interview. I was the last to go in my group, and I recall immediately crying once I started talking about my dad. Production then dismissed everyone but stopped me, and asked when could I meet for a second interview and have time to fill out more paperwork. The next day, I met with another producer and sat in a hotel room answering more questions. That was a very rough day for me, because I’m a BIG cryer. The questions were very personal, but at the same she made me feel really comfortable.

AUDREY: The process was long, drawn-out and nerve-wracking. There were lots of videos and questions. Hours of questions. Pictures. Physicals. And flying back and forth from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

ALLISON: When I got to the hotel and saw all the hundreds of women auditioning, I got really scared and almost didn’t go through it. And, I saw a beautiful woman standing up front talking to us about her experience on the show. She sang a country song for us, and had her CD. It was really good, and she relaxed me so much that I bought her CD. It turned out to be Audrey Tucker!! Once I was in the room with others auditioning, I was at ease. I cried with people as they told their stories, and I made them laugh when I told mine. I used humor, and still do, to get through some of the most difficult of times (although now I do that authentically) Still, I felt like the moment I walked in to the room with the other women I was calm, and I felt like it was the most natural thing I have ever done. I believe it was divine intervention; a God thing. I was becoming a tool for God to share my story to others, and I had no idea what that meant.

TERESA: A few weeks after I sent the tape, I received a call from Bunim-Murray that they wanted me to attend a live casting call in Indianapolis, about ninety miles away from Cincinnati. I drove there and went in with all the others to the first interview. They asked me to come back the next day (Sunday), and they did a recording. It just proceeded from there. It is a very extensive process. Flight to Los Angeles, medical and mental assessments, the whole deal, before you are told you have been accepted to the show.

SOMMER: At first it was nerve-wracking, but fun. I made a few friends, and one of them even made callbacks with me the next day. It was kind of ‘us against them’ for about five minutes. Then it got real. It was scary to be so honest about my life, but on some level, it was my first step in the process. It was freeing.

JILL: LONG!!! Oh, my God, it went on for months! I went to the interview in April, and I didn’t walk into the house until August. I quit my job in May, and didn’t want to start another and have to leave it in less than ninety days, because somehow I KNEW I was gonna get this shot. I knew it.

KIM: I had never been to an audition, so for me it was exciting. However, it was a lot of work and stressful. There was all the paperwork, a lot of questions, and a lot of interviews. It was a process of elimination, and as the hours went by, the process was harder and the women in the group became smaller. I was there from seven until nine PM. They told me if I didn’t hear from them that night, I didn’t make it. I didn’t even get down the elevator and they called and said I made it.

Bethany Lynn Marshall

Bethany Lynn Marshall

BETHANY: It was a TON of questions and a HUGE contract. It was so awesome to fly to LA. I had never (in my working memory) flown before. They picked me up in a limo with a driver holding my name at the airport. I felt so important! They asked a billion questions, and asked them again. Then they sent me a contract that was between sixty and seventy pages long, which signed away every right I think I ever had. And the next thing I knew, I was in Los Angeles walking up to the house.

AM: What was your reaction when you learned you’d been cast on the show?

TERESA: I was elated. I was just excited to be part of something new like the show as a chance to change my life, working with real professionals. I felt like it was going to be like “The Real World” with other women who had goals.

RENEE: I was opening the bar and setting up for the night. I was actually watching the new season of the show while I was working, and I had thought that I wasn’t going to be cast because the season had already started. But when I saw a California area code on my phone, it sent chills down my back. I screamed and yelled, and started crying, of course. I immediately sat down with my proprietor and asked him if I could take a leave of absence. We were very close, he knew how much I loved the show, and he was aware of me applying. He said of course, and wished me the best of luck.

KIM: I was really excited and happy, yet scared and nervous about putting my life out there for the world to see. I was also worried about being on TV and how it would change my life; leaving my home, husband, kids, friends etc.

KAREN: As I’ve said, I really felt I’d be chosen. I just felt it, from the beginning. And I was happy and scared, and sad and curious, all at the same time. I was ready, and open for some kind of change.

SINAE: I was a little bit mortified when I heard that I was going to be a cast member. When I got the call, it had only been a few days since the casting session. I had to go into the Bunim-Murray studio twice after I got the call to do on-camera interviews. In the second interview, they asked if my mother could also be a cast member, but she declined the offer.

ALLISON: I was excited and nervous. During this entire process, I kept forgetting how really sick I was. I think the first real thing I had to deal with was to see if my doctors would release me and let me go out to the West Coast to film. Once I got the clearance, it just fell into place. I didn’t really know how to feel, because everything in my life was already turned upside since I was told I had cancer. It was surreal from that moment to the audition. and as I boarded the plane for Hollywood.

AUDREY: I was out when I received  the call from the producer, but her message told me that they loved me and wanted me to take part. It was very exciting but also scary, because I don’t think any of us really knew what we were signing up for.

BETHANY: FEAR. Everything happened so fast. Even though it was between four and six weeks before I got the official call, I NEVER thought they would pick me to be on a TV show. And I thought it would be shot in Chicago, like Season One. I could NOT believe I was going to be living in the Hollywood Hills, and I was so scared to live on the other side of the country from my parents. WHAT IF I LOST MY MEMORY AGAIN while I was out there? I would never be found, or find my way back to the people that had taken care of my for the past three-and-a-half years. I was petrified, but had pushed it this far and knew I had to see it through.

JILL: Hallelujah!!! I was sooooo ready to go. I just felt like this really was the beginning of turning my life around in a direction I would pursue the rest of my life.

Sommer White

Sommer White

SOMMER: My VERY FIRST thought was “Oh, f*ck! What am I going to tell my boss?’” (Laughs) She wasn’t a fan of reality TV either. I think that thought came first because there was never a question of whether I’d take the opportunity or not. There was no choice for me; that was my path. I just needed to know if I had a paycheck to come back to.

AM: How difficult was it to pack up and relocate to the house?

SINAE: Well, Season Two was filmed in Southern California, and I’m a Southern Cali native, so it wasn’t a big deal for me to pack up and leave for the house. We did have some restrictions on what we could and couldn’t wear (no logos and no stripes), so before I left for the show I had to get all new shirts.

SOMMER: TEARS! So many tears! I don’t know why; I knew I was going to eventually be coming home, but I guess it was just scary to think of leaving my comfort zone to go across country and get uncomfortable. On TV. With strangers. Big time nerves! I was also so excited and hopeful, though. I just knew I was stepping into the next phase of my life, and that is pretty cool knowledge to have.

AUDREY: Moving was very difficult. I had a young son, so arrangements had to be made. I also packed so many things that I shipped luggage. But I didn’t have any trouble acclimating to the house. I slept well, and felt relaxed.

RENEE: It was NOT hard to pack up and leave!! The only thing I was worried about was how many clothes to bring!!!

KIM: I was scared! I didn’t know what this was going to look like, where we were staying and with whom. But I was also excited about having a new adventure!

TERESA: Well, at the time I was pretty broke, so my dad, who was still alive and living on the family farm, sold some of his Angus cattle from the herd, and that gave me the chance to pre-pay my bills for when I would be gone. My youngest daughter was eighteen and had a boyfriend (now her husband), and he was with her, so she wouldn’t be scared living alone in the house we rented in Indian Hill from Marge Schott, who owned the Cincinnati Reds at the time. It was a tiny place, and very secluded. I had kept lots of stuff from my former married life, in a place four times the size of that house, and I had a real clutter problem. I could have been on the show just for that problem, really. I was a real hoarder. I have reformed now, thank God.

JILL: I had been packing really since May, so I was pretty ready to go once I got the word.

ALLISON: It was not difficult, because I had no expectations. I hadn’t really seen the show, and everything in my life was pretty unreal, as my thirty-something life was suddenly changed when I lost my left breast and spent my days receiving chemo, and having needles stuck in me daily. Coming into the house seemed like a piece of cake.

KAREN: Difficult? It took me sixteen days to move across the country. And I’d do it again anytime!

AM: How soon did you find yourself assimilating with your other house mates? And once you had already been a house mate for some time, how awkward was it when somebody new came in to take her place?

AUDREY: Well, I am and always have been a social butterfly, and I didn’t feel any tension from the others unless it was forced. I don’t have problems getting along with people, all types of people, so I hated that the show didn’t really want to capitalize on that. They would’ve preferred everyone to be at odds to create this drama that people couldn’t wait to watch. I felt like it was always the one with open arms for any newbies as well. I didn’t want anyone to feel weird or uncomfortable.

TERESA: I immediately loved my housemates. Andy Paige was the first person who stood out to me. She was so beautiful! I found her very sweet. The first day was awkward, as it seemed they were all so situated and comfortable,  and when I entered the house and there were all those camera people and microphone people, and it felt funny. It soon became common, and you forgot they were there sometimes. That is a faux-pas, because you can surely do and say things you don’t think about until later.

BETHANY: I used to be very quiet and not talk very much (which is hilarious, since that’s all I do now). With each roommate that entered the house I learned something new, and they all taught me to speak up if you wanted to be heard. And that I had a story, a cool one at that. Before, I had only seen myself as someone with no past, nothing to talk about and therefore a nobody. Why would anyone new want to interact with me? I stayed quiet and watched everyone else. These ladies taught me how to interact with people from all over the United States, with movie/soap stars, musicians and more.

ALLISON: I loved the women in the house. I was one of the last women to come onto the show, in the second season. I was new, and replaced a very well-liked gal (Renee). All I knew was I came in wearing a red hat with red lipstick and a red blouse. It was bold and I got behind the mask of RED as long as I could. Still, the women were warm, supportive and funny.

RENEE: It didn’t take long to adapt to the cameras. Getting de-miked every time you had to go to the bathroom was kind of annoying, and you couldn’t talk without a mike, so that was frustrating. It felt good not to be the new kid once a new houseguest arrived, and it was always heartfelt to hear about another woman’s story. We were a family, so it was like getting a new family member every time.

Kim Bookout

Kim Bookout

KIM: I think it was easier to be the first ones in the house, in Season Two. We all bonded quickly, because we were all in the same boat except for me and Deborah. But honestly, I hated when new people came in as it always created drama. However, it did also support me in change and growth. I also hated when people left.

JILL: Jessica and I hit it off immediately, and I hit it off with Allison as well. Lisa, TJ and Christina took a little longer, but TJ was my greatest challenge. And our friendship helped me grow the most for sure.

SOMMER: Oh, man. I’m not sure anyone else took as long as I did to make allies. I have never watched but a few of the shows once I was on, so I’m not sure how long it took the other women, but I feel like all my original house mates basically hated me for a long time. Sinae and Jenn were the first to come around, albeit cautiously. Then Mo (Maureen) came to join us and things really changed for me. Aside from the fact that I felt like I already knew her; she already knew what we were going through, and how we would come out on the other side. She saw my pain, and helped me understand it, and understand why everyone was reacting the way they were. I will never forget that kindness. As for how I reacted when someone new came in…well, after my experience, I wasn’t about to be a jerk to them, or even stand-offish. It wasn’t in my nature in the first place. I can’t say I was close with every one of them, but I gave them all a fair shake.

SINAE: It wasn’t really hard to get into the groove of the house. I was blessed to get a great roommate which made things much easier. The only person who left the house before me was Deborah, and it wasn’t awkward when she left. When Deborah left the house we were all pretty bummed that she had given up on her journey, but because of tension that had arisen during her stay, we were also relieved. After she left we spent the day at a paintball range getting out some of our frustrations. The show didn’t air our wild day of paintball and I wish they had, because it was one of my most memorable moments in the house. You should ask the other ladies about that day!!

AM: Without naming names (unless you’re comfortable with that), were you particularly happy with your roommate(s)? Why or why not?

SOMMER: Boy, Andrew, you just WANT to stir some old stuff back up, don’t you? (Laughs) Well, first there was Kimmie. Since no one in the house liked me at first, lets just say we didn’t see eye to eye. We were all learning to be true to ourselves, and leave old behaviors behind, and now I can see that both of us were just practicing that on each other, and since we weren’t very good at it, we struggled. We just had a nice long chat on Facebook this past February, and I can say that it’s likely the first genuine conversation we’ve ever had, and I really enjoyed it. All of our other interactions were colored by what was happening in the house, or what we felt was done to us in the house, so there was always an edge. That’s gone now, and I hope one day we get to sit and chat in person again. She always did crack me up. Then came Nay (Renee), and in her I found a sister. Jenn was the first sister I found in the house, but it was an entirely different relationship when the person you shared a room with was like your twin in so many ways. I continue to adore her today, and hate that we haven’t seen each other much in recent years. We sure knew how to find trouble in the house, and that talent did not fade as we had adventures after graduation. The night of the supposed ‘break-in,’ she and I were out on our patio after the crew had left us, hollering and tossing some kind of fruit or something from the tree by our room, down to the neighbors in the house way below us, who were having a party. They kept trying to get us to climb over the fence and come down, which we wouldn’t have dared to, but to this day, I still think that neighbor was Leonardo DiCaprio, and that was quite tempting, as I’m sure you can imagine. Don’t ask me why I thought that. With the kinds of neighbors we had, I may have just figured, why not? (Laughs).

KIM: It’s no surprise that Deborah was my first roommate, and we did not exactly bond. She told me she sleeps naked and snores, so get over it and deal. I was frankly scared of her, and did not want to see her sleeping naked next to me. (Laughs) I was very uncomfortable. She used my things without asking, and we were in a small room with twin beds.

Allison Stanley

Allison Stanley

ALLISON: I was lucky enough to have three roommates/sisters during my time on the show. The first was Bethany. Who would have thought that two women from the same state, living thirty-five miles from one another, would end up being best friends? Bethany and I had some similarities but we were very different. She always said she was the country version of North Carolina and I was the city version. The producers tried to pin each of us against the other; they knew she was sad that Renee had left, and everyone kept telling me how Bethany didn’t want me as a roommate. That first night, when the lights were out, she whispered to me, “They want us to not like each other. That’s not going to happen.” I whispered back, “You’re right about that!” I went to bed with a smile on my face and relaxed to know I met a true friend. The next roommate was Layne. She was so good to me, and was my caretaker. Iyanla said her role was my midwife. Layne is a beautiful soul inside and out; she took her job caring for me seriously, and I will never forget her for it. I needed her much more than she needed me. We kept up for a while after we left the house, but I fell short on our friendship. I think that I was honestly fighting for my life, and didn’t have the capacity to take on a lot. I hope she is happy; she deserves it and is lovely person. My last roommate, on Season Three, was Lisa. She was not a fan favorite, as many people could not identify with the fact that she was given many things in her life and didn’t have to work very hard. And she was forty years old and did not know how to grow up. I found her to be a raw, pure being, who was willing to do and try anything for the greater good, and I loved her. She worked really hard, and made great strides during her time in the house. She was eccentric, and good to me. I learned a lot from her and how she blended into the sisterhood

AUDREY: As I stated earlier, I typically get along with anybody and everybody, so when this fake drama came up between me and Karen, it kind of threw me for a loop. I was confused and slow to learn that it was being orchestrated to create must-watch television. If we knew then what we know now, I could’ve given them one hell of a show. Like many other reality shows, they love drama. I tried just to be real the only me I know how to be.

BETHANY: My two roommates were Renee and Allison. Even though when we aired with editing, and all the fun TV magic while we were on air for months, I actually only lived out there for eight or nine weeks. Renee was my first roommate, and even though it took me some time to open up, I would say she was probably my first best friend/person I ever learned to trust outside of my own family. I came to love her like my own sister. Five weeks later, when she was taken from me, “earned her wings and graduated,” I was devastated. It did not matter who they brought in the house, because I was not going to like them. In walks Allison from Charlotte! North Carolina!! Forty-five minutes from my own home!! Even the producers, when they took me into the confessional for the first few days after Renee’s departure, would prompt me to say things beginning with, “Renee is gone and even though Allison is here I….” and leave that ominous sentence for me to start and finish. However, mine and Allison’s smart, fun-loving Southern charm saw through the game, and in a matter of days we bonded. And we are still best friends today.

KAREN: My roommate was Teresa.. I loved her then, and I love her now! We keep saying we’re going to plan a trip to Florida together…maybe we’ll get it together one day! I felt close to most everyone in the house, even the ones that production pitted against each other.

TERESA: My first roommate was Kimberlyn, and I really liked her. I felt badly when she got kicked out of the house. Then next was Karen, of course, who is my homie, and I love her dearly.

JILL: Jodi and I have had the longest friendship. Jessica and I are still great friends, but we surely don’t see each other as often as we’d like. The passing of Kim was very difficult, because she and I didn’t get along AT ALL, and I knew she was really damaged. Clearly the show was her last attempt to get help

SINAE: I enjoyed all of my house mates for what they had to offer. Each of my house mates holds a special place in my heart, and we will forever share our experience of living together on the show. Not all the times were great, but for the most part we had a terrific era with each other. I had a great time getting my nails done with Towanda, shopping with Jennifer, eating with Kim, playing cards with Sommer, bonding with little Chloe, and hanging out in the hot tub with Josie.

RENEE: Sommer and I had an instant connection. We both had worked for Outback Steakhouse, and could finish each other’s sentences. We had to have been sisters in another life. I have never met anyone like Sommer. Her outlook on life really made me think about what I was capable of. I think our connection may have got us into trouble from time to time, but after the show I would visit her in San Diego, and she was my date for my brother’s wedding. When Sommer left, God graced me with an angel. Bethany was a breath of fresh air. Her Southern accent is what got me. I’m a sucker for an accent! She was the little sister I never had. She was so young, and came from another place and family that you only read about in books and or see in a movie. She taught me a lot about just living and being THANKFUL for what I have. Her story alone is so intriguing; you always wanted to know more.

AM: What would you say was your favorite or easiest exercise, either individually or as a group?

KIM: On one of the first days we were there, Iyanla took us to a park and asked us to write down one thing we wanted, on a small sailboat. I wrote, “joy.” She asked us to put our boat in a small lake (the point of the exercise being that what you put out in the universe will come back), mine top-sized, and Jennifer went in the water to turn my boat back over. Iyanla stopped her and asked me, “Why are you allowing someone else to be in charge of your joy?” She made me go back in and handle my own life. It was an “a-ha” moment for me.

ALLISON: I had a great really easy day palling around with Candy, as she was given a day of beauty. I got to share with her as she got a makeover, and we got to do a bunch of “girly stuff.” That was right up my alley, and she hadn’t experienced much of it. It was easy for me,  and I had so much fun. Not to mention I got to reap some of the benefits; I got a whole new make-up line that day!

BETHANY: I had two favorites. One was being dropped off in the middle of LA and being told to find my way back to the house on my third day, with no knowledge of what a taxi or a bus or any city amenity was or how to use it. AND IT DIDN’T EVEN AIR!! (Laughs) Cassie cried that day because she was so worried about me getting home. I love her. But I digress. My other favorite was when Vanessa and I had our Rebel Day. Vanessa had grown up with such a strict training regimen in gymnastics that having fun, or doing something against her parents’ wishes, had never been an option. If I had ever rebelled, I didn’t remember it, and I sure hadn’t thought to do anything left of center since I had lost my memory. We got tattoos (fake, of course, although I have real ones now because of this day), and we wore leather. We rode Harleys all day, and played pool with bikers. I LOVED IT, and it let me know that rebelling doesn’t mean being bad; it showed me that I can break the mold. I don’t have to be a certain way all the time. I can dress how I want and be who I want to be. I can wear my five-inch heels with a Dallas Cowboys jersey anytime I want. I’ve even worked for CrossRoads Harley-Davidson in Wilkesboro for the past three years. That exercise still lives with me today.

KAREN: Love, love, loved ALL of them!!! I mean that, loved all of them. Each one was a challenge, and I tried my best, with each and every one.

SINAE: I think my favorite exercise was learning how to use a taxi. If I had never learned to use a taxi, I would still be dependent on other people for transportation. Now that I live in Bangkok, I use a taxi every single day.

TERESA: I guess I would have to say our Halloween party. It was pure fun!

RENEE: For me this is hard to say, because there were so many. The one that hits closest to home was volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. I never knew much about it, but seeing the children and their families was heart-wrenching. Even though these kids were facing a terminal illness, they all seemed so happy and hopeful about life. It made you think that you should not take life for granted. We made cookies together, and played basketball. I got to meet the parents, and we’re so thankful for help that the Ronald McDonald house provides.

SOMMER: The first one that comes to mind for me is the Def Poetry Jam night. The night was a success, and it felt like we were a family, all laughing and enjoying each other. That was a great exercise.

JILL: Easiest and fun was probably was when I was tied to TJ and had to go to the hookah bar. And when Jodi and I went to the bar to find dates.

AUDREY:  My favorite would’ve been singing in the subway, or on the corner for strangers. I still approach my music without any fear. I also loved the day at the radio station. What a joy to say I have done that!

AM: What would you say was your least favorite or most difficult exercise, either individually or as a group?

KAREN: My least favorite, I would have to say, was the “letting go of the balloons,” to let go of the issues between my mother and me. It did not work!!! We still have no relationship. But I was able to let her go, when she didn’t even give me a phone call after my husband Bill passed away. Now, that action, or lack of action, spoke volumes to me.

KIM: I actually had two least favorite. One was having to wear sweats on Melrose Avenue with no makeup or jewelry on, and having to walk up to complete strangers and tell them all the things I had done in my life that I judged as being bad or wrong. I was terrified and didn’t want to do it. The other was meeting with my sister. (Laughs)

JILL: My most difficult was my baggage, which led up to Mabel. That was life-changing for me.

ALLISON: The hardest thing I had to do was clean up the refrigerator on Season Three. Iyanla made me clean it spotless, and I took great pride in it. Once I showed it off, we went to another location to discuss the process. When I came back and passed by the fridge, it was dirtier than before. Vile and filled with rotten molded items. I immediately started cleaning it again. Iyalna got in my face and yelled, “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO STOP CLEANING UP EVERYONE’S MESSES??” I was paralyzed.  She stayed in my face until I SHOVED her away. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I SHOVED IYANLA VANZANT. Trust me, it was not a comfortable situation. But it was one that changed my life!

RENEE: I had two also. One was the day Iyanla put me in a giant-sized birdcage. I sat in that cage for like five hours. I couldn’t leave, and I had to ring a bell for a house mate to bring me food or take me to the bathroom! I’m still having flashbacks about it today!! I also hated walking around Hollywood and Highland with a sandwich board around my neck in front of the Jimmy Kimmel show! That was embarrassing!!!

Teresa Temple Crone

Teresa Temple Crone

TERESA: It was Bulldog Boot Camp. I was NOT in shape. I weighed one-hundred-eighty-five pounds when I went on the show. Ten weeks later, I weighed one-sixty-five. That’s how active we were. Plus, I think the stress of being always ‘on’ can take off the pounds. I ate better, too

SOMMER: Seriously, I don’t think I can pick one. Having to introduce myself and tell my story, drawing a picture of myself on the wall, screaming into the canyon just to prove I could do it for myself, our trip to the beach as a group, the scarlet letter exercise…they were all hard. That’s why we had to do them. I can’t pick just one.

SINAE: Oh, my God. Hands down the worst exercise for me was when we had to paint all our mistakes on our bodies at the beach. First of all, I hate the beach. Second, I was mortified to admit to all the horrible things I had done in my life up to that point.

AUDREY: Hmmmm. Least favorite would be to entrust someone else to set a budget for an outfit to perform in, and then trust them to either make it or put it together. Who does that? I knew how I wanted to look, and didn’t feel like the person assigned to help me had the expertise to style me the way I preferred. Needless to say, I chose an outfit that I brought from home. Oh, well, fire me!!

BETHANY: The first was anything involving dancing. I’m a terrible dancer, and having to dance on national television was truly a “greatest fear” kind of thing for me. The other was the day they were trying to help Candy and me with how we saw ourselves, and stripped us out of all our clothes and forced us to try on lingerie. I am not a lingerie model, but my big butt has now been seen on national TV in a bra and lingerie. I got nothing out of that exercise, because all I could see were the cameras staring at me.

AM: Were you ever surprised by how lengthy (or how quickly) it took you to reach your graduation process? Why?

JILL: Lord, it took me the longest EVER (well, next to Allison) to get to graduation. (Laughs) I mean, they had to go get Della Reese to be my judge, and take me to court to get me to graduation!!

AUDREY: No. You pretty much know how you are doing throughout the entire process. As long as you are making progress, you can pretty much tell if you were going to graduate or not.

KAREN: I lived in the house for three months. At first I had no idea it could be that long. Then I liked the idea of living in a mansion just off the lake in Chicago. Then I got a little bored with it, and wanted to go. And in the last few moments, saying good-bye, knowing you have to leave the house, and production “un-microphoning” you, that was sad. So sad, and I wanted it back. We all know that without a microphone, we’re not a star. It was nice being a star, if only for three months.

KIM: I thought because of my issues I would be on for a while. I did not think I would ever be able to mend the relationship with my sister, so I was actually surprised I graduated sooner than I thought I would.

TERESA: I was surprised it took so long, but it seemed like my problems were difficult on many levels to resolve. How do you get rid of thousands of dollars of debt in a short time? Steve Rhode was my money coach, and in the end I met with Dave Ramsey to set up a payment plan.

BETHANY: It was hard to keep up with time while in the house. I entered sometime in October, went home for Thanksgiving, came back and finished filming. Talk about REALLY messing with my head. We were in the swimming pool the day before Thanksgiving in seventy-degree weather, with no leaves changing in LA. I flew out that evening, landed in home in forty-degree freezing cold wind and rain, and beautiful fall foliage everywhere. I had no clue how long I had been gone. It seemed like years at that point. When I graduated and went home, I felt like I had just started. The process was grueling. My daily headaches and migraines react to stress, and my body felt like I had been beaten when I got home and truly realized everything I had been through, in the short amount of time I had accomplished it in.

RENEE: I had just gotten back from being home for Thanksgiving. I had re-packed all my stuff and literally two days later, I graduated. I felt ready, but at the same time, you adjust to this life and you don’t want to go home. But at the same time, you want to use the tools and skills you just learned, and use them in the real world.

SINAE: I really gave every exercise a hundred percent, so I am not surprised that I graduated first in Season Two.

ALLISON: Well, again, I graduated twice! I think the first season I was on, I was merely just truly there to survive, and I didn’t know that until a couple of years after. The second season and I was a few weeks out of serious surgery; I had a right mastectomy, full-cut hysterectomy and tram-flap reconstruction surgery on both my breasts. I was not healed well when I returned. I was tired and weak. The good part about that was I was vulnerable enough to remove the mask, and get to know truly how to be vulnerable. But the bad part of that was I was no longer the “little darling” of the show. I was vulnerable, and I had a tough time pulling through. The coaches tried everything to get me to see my strong, capable, authentic self. It took much longer than anyone expected, but I got there. I graduated.

AM: What were the most positive lessons you took away from the house when you returned home?

SOMMER: For me, there were three. First, Iyanla telling us that people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. And that none were more or less important than the others. She wanted us to realize that we shouldn’t be angry at people when they move on, it’s part of the life cycle, and it makes room for new people to come in. Second was Rhonda’s lesson that every decision we make is truly a choice. Even when we don’t feel like there are options, there are, and you must take control and choose. And then, own your choice. And third is to be true to yourself. You are the only person who has to live with you, and being comfortable with who you are, the decisions you’ve made, and the results of those decisions, is SO FREEING. I learned that one after getting kicked off the show in Season Two, before I returned to graduate in Season Three. So many people were so full of opinions about my choices and my life, and frankly, how much I sucked. I had to learn that I am who I am, and those people don’t actually KNOW who that is, so I can’t get upset about their statements or reactions. That led me to realizing that I’d been living a half-truth with those close to me too, pretending I was OK when I wasn’t, or going along with the group even if I didn’t feel like it. So I stepped into my truth with them also, and next thing you know, the people who were left were the ones who were genuine, and I understood what it felt like to be really loved for myself. I just couldn’t see that until I was first able to love myself enough to share that girl with the rest of the world.

BETHANY: I also have three, but I put them in terms of past, present and future. The past is that I didn’t lose my memory. It was taken from me. It was not my fault or my doing. I cannot control what a viral infection like encephalitis does to my brain, but I CAN pick up, shake off and truck on from here. The present is that if I don’t love myself and take care of myself first, I can’t ever show love to someone else, or truly smile from a place of complete happiness inside myself. I learned to look at myself in a mirror, and love that person. If I’m going to live everyday like I may not have a memory tomorrow anyway, then why not take risks and enjoy life? And for future, you don’t go to school because you know everything; you go to school to learn everything. These three things are what I live by, and truly were my post-show accomplishments of which I am the most proud to have come from!

RENEE: I’d say that just being in a relationship with my father again meant the world to me. I was a better listener, and for the first time in a long time, I had goals again. I applied to the Art Institute of Phoenix, and finally felt that I could succeed in a scholastic way.

KIM: I am the captain of my own life, and I can manifest and create the life I desire. I am a powerful manifester, and can tap into the universe and create the life my soul intended If you don’t like what you are doing, you can make another choice. I am powerful and do not have to live in fear. I can start over any time I choose. I let my past go, forgave myself, and live in the moment.

JILL: Wow. The egg timer, which helped me learn to pause and think fully before I speak. The obstacle course, where I did the same thing I always did; take a shortcut. And Mabel of course, too .

ALLISON: Life is precious. You MUST live every day in the present. Being authentic will pull you forward. Learning not to judge anyone was another top gift. As Ms. Iyanla said, and I quote her all the time, I am not my brother’s keeper; I am my brother. So true!

TERESA: The power of female friends, and their effect on your life. I found out how impactual a group of strong and loving women can be. I still have not been able to recreate it fully in my own life today.

KAREN: By far, the most positive lesson learned was to dream. Our dreams, our desires, our underlying goals, should be taken seriously and we should go after them, every time an opportunity comes our way. No matter how old we are, and no matter, how many times we’ve tried in the past. Dreams keep us alive and makes us human; it makes each of us our own unique human being.

Audrey Tucker

Audrey Tucker

AUDREY: Well, I learned that faith without work is numbness. You have to move your feet or lose your seat. I would’ve sat on this forever if I hadn’t been forced to share it with the world. I still have much more to offer, and I will never stop writing music

SINAE: I think it is easy to say that the best thing I learned while being on the show was to be independent. But in retrospect, independence wasn’t the most important lesson I learned. The most important thing I took away from the house was knowing that every human is broken in some way. We are all damaged goods. No matter how broken and damaged we are physically or emotionally, we still have the capacity to love and be loved

AM: What were the most negative lessons you took away from the house when you returned home?

TERESA: Without going into detail, don’t ever get drunk on a reality show.

SINAE: I don’t think I learned any negative lessons from the house. There were things said in the house at times that I have replayed in my head from time to time, or seen when people have posted an episode online, and those things have affected me negatively. It is hard to have something said about you and for that thing to be public. The things that were said and done on the show aren’t just public, but they are more or less set in stone, because the episodes are replayed around the world, posted on forums, uploaded on YouTube, and chatted about on message boards.

ALLISON: Well, it was very hard to go from being the darling to being thought of as a fraud. Viewers and sisters had a hard time with me being so sweet and thought it was fake. But it wasn’t. I was just unaware of how to be “present.”

RENEE: Nothing really. It was hard to see the episode where I admitted to being molested. You wonder what people there think about you, but so many other’s went through what I went through.

SOMMER: There is no such thing as a negative lesson. That’s actually entirely what the house was about. Had you asked me in the first few weeks, and even maybe months after I was kicked off of Season Two, I might have had a different answer. But as time went on, I realized that everything that happened occurred for a reason. And I learned and changed because of it. I wouldn’t change a thing.

KIM: You have to remember that this was one of the very first reality shows. They did not have any after-care, and did not tell us what it would be like to come out of the house. The message boards were brutal and very mean!! Yet, when I went in public, people ran up to me wanting autographs and pictures. It was very confusing, and I am sure people on reality shows now are more prepared, or at least know what to expect.

KAREN: I have only one negative feeling about the experience. The show won an Emmy in Season One, and if production and the life coaches deserved an Emmy, then so do the members of the cast. The show was not about life coaches; it was about women making changes with the help of life coaches. And if the life coaches deserve an Emmy, then so do the cast members. I truly believe we deserve our Emmys!

BETHANY: I learned to never trust a producer! (Laughs) I learned that everything on TV is edited. This little country-bumpkin didn’t understand that when she went to the big city. The nine weeks I lived in LA were the greatest of my life. I learned more than I could ever express. But the five months I was airing on TV and watching how dramatic everything was, and what they did and didn’t show, all while reading the online message boards, were the worst months of my life. I almost reverted back to the low self-esteem and sadness that preceded the show. All of that was part of the growing process. It made me stronger emotionally. My dad has a Master’s in Counseling, and I had him to help me make it through. If you saw the show, then you know. It should have been me helping him. They made him look terrible, and I think that is what hurt me the most. This was the man that had done nothing but get me help when I was literally lost the day my memory left; the man that had done nothing but support me and guide me back to health. He was the one person the show chose to tear apart because, at least it seemed to me, he is a Southern Baptist minister, and dramatizing him that way made for a good storyline. He never worried about, or harbored, hard feelings. I did, until he helped me see that the only person it was hurting was me.

AUDREY: Oh, where to begin? Don’t trust television. Really, don’t. Don’t read message boards or blogs either. It was sad, yet enlightening. I hated that things were staged, and manipulated to make people act certain ways. I know my spirit, and hated that they could try and alter that by making us act and react to certain situations. But I met some wonderful people, and I will always remember the entire experience.

JILL: I can’t say there were any I didn’t learn.

AM: Where has life taken you today?

ALLISON: I am well! I am ten years cancer-free. I am working for a production agency as an event producer, and I get to travel and work on some really fun events.

RENEE: Today I’m living in California, a place where I always wanted to live. I’m close with my brother, sister-in-law and nieces. I’m a supervisor with H&M in Orange County. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in ‘08, and in August of ‘13 went into remission. Life has thrown me MANY curve balls since the show, but I still use the tools and skills and reach out to my friends, family, and fellow cast mates for anything and everything.

KIM: I had hoped if I helped one person, it would be worth it. I am now a minister and life coach. I have a coaching and ministry business called Majestic Ministries and Coaching. I now support others to step into their majesty. I work with a church, lead spiritual workshops, and speak to others in a small group setting and lead retreats. I am still getting along with my sister, and while it hasn’t always been easy, we both are dedicated to our relationship. And I’m in the process of writing a book, which will be coming out at the end of the summer.

TERESA: Thanks to the direction of my life coach Rana Walker, I barely salvaged my LSW (I had to take continuing education while on the show, just to make the deadline to renew my Social Work license). I was able to then take the exam for Licensed Independent Social Worker, since I have a Master’s Degree. I was able to do a lot of contract work then, which worked with my crazy schedule at the time. I had a lot of interesting experiences with clients.

Jill Tracey

Jill Tracey

JILL: Wow. Everywhere and back to one. I lived in Los Angeles for awhile, then Atlanta, and now I’m back in Miami. My mom got sick, so I came back to care for her, and now she’s in an assisted-living place and doing well. I am back on the air at the same station where I started on FM,, and I’m living with my two lovely furkids; Princess, my mini schnauzer who is now six, and Lola Duberry, a Pitbull/Dachshund mix I rescued last year who is two. I host “Love, Life and the 411” on the radio, and I write a column for, I’m working on a new show called “What Women Want!” and I host and produce events under the “Jill Tracey Presents” moniker. And I am slowly starting a lovely floral business called Miss Tracey’s Fabulous Flowers. You know I stay busy!

AUDREY: I am a recent affiliate with SESAC as a publisher and a writer. It is exciting, and this is an invite-only organization, so I am honored to be a part of their organization. Good things will come from this

BETHANY: Before the show, I worked at Iredell Memorial Hospital in Statesville, NC. That was it. Since then, I put the advice into action, and this amnesiac took every kind of class possible at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. And ended up speaking on my graduation day as a featured speaker. I graduated without remembering a day of elementary, middle or high school. I worked thirty-five or forty hours a week while in college, and was in an honors fraternity, Phi Sigma Pi, where I made a lot of amazing friends that I still have today. After being a nanny of four beautiful Deslauriers kids for a couple years, Allison (my roomy from the show) helped me get a job with one of her friends in Greensboro at RLF Communications, working in Public Relations. I fell in love with it! Monty Hagler helped me realize my passion. I had never in all my life known that work could be fun. I had only ever just worked to work and pay the bills. I started learning everything I could about marketing and public relations. Not long after graduation, I found my calling as the Director of a program called First In Families, that worked with individuals with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries, that needed help getting their name out and letting people know they were there through Barium Springs Home for Children, all the while continuing my marketing, sales and public relations by joining up with CrossRoads Harley-Davidson in Wilkesboro, NC. Talk about FUN!! There was NOTHING boring about this job!! Riding Harleys, filming, taking photos, cool events, hot bikers…I LOVE it. If a Harley starts up, I’m drawn to the noise. A couple months ago, I took the biggest risk of my life; a job came available with Ripley’s Entertainment in Myrtle Beach. NEVER imagining I had a chance, I threw my resume in the pot and “believe it or not,” I GOT THE JOB!! I am now THE Sales and Marketing Representative for the Grand Strand for Ripley’s Entertainment in Myrtle Beach! Had I not learned to take risks, this would have never have happened, and I would have been FAR too afraid to take the leap of moving my entire life to another state for a job. I have not been even the smallest bit nervous or afraid that Ripley’s will never call me again, and I am trucking on with my life. What a change from the girl that went on that show ten years ago, with seven years of sales, public relations and marketing experience, that would have never come had the show not kicked me into gear and encouraged me to follow my dreams and find my passion!!

SOMMER: Ten years is hard to sum up, but the bottom line is, I’m happy. I have a career I love, I’ve gotten to move to different places, have lots of adventures, and make friends all over. I was lucky enough to win a skin removal surgery a few years after graduation, and that was another life-changing journey, similar to my time in the house. I have never heard of any other contest like that, nor have I since, so I have to believe that was part of my destiny. I marvel at that part of life sometimes. Thanks again to Rhonda, for teaching me how to CHOOSE how to look at every event in my life. I get to make what I want out of it. I can’t stop smiling when I think of how different living life that way is, compared to my past; living life as a spectator, waiting for it to happen to me.

KAREN: After the show, I stayed in Chicago for eighteen months. I made a few movies, but mostly worked retail to pay the bills. I then moved to Cincinnati, and stayed with Hannah for a few months. But, I missed my kids, and wanted to come back home. I am now out of the costume business, and back in retail as a salesperson for Le Creuset cookware!. I have to say, I am just as passionate about Le Creuset as I was with costume design. I love my job!

SINAE: I think this is a fairly complex question for me. When I was on the show I was only eighteen years old, so I hadn’t established my place in the world. Since then, I graduated from University, worked in Hemodialysis, moved overseas to run a clinic on the border of Myanmar and Thailand for Karen refugees, changed my career path, got my Master’s Degree, and became a teacher. I am currently teaching kindergarten in Bangkok. I’ve been here for the past three years, and it’s been a great experience. Next year I am moving to Kuwait, where I have accepted a two-year contract as a kindergarten teacher. While I’m in Kuwait, I’ll finish up some post-graduate certifications, and then begin my Ph.D.

AM: Is being a “Starting Over” guest something you would recommend to other women if such an opportunity existed today? Why or why not?

BETHANY: As long as they have a strong constitution! (Laughs) You have to be able to withstand everything that comes once you leave. I would recommend the house and exercises to everyone. I would not recommend the internationally-syndicated show that continues to air even today, if you can’t take the consequences. The public and avid fans have been for the most part extremely nice, but we have had very negative experiences as well. I would say just be prepared if such an experience ever came available again.

SOMMER: That process was perfect for me, but I can’t speak for anyone else. If you are willing to expose your sensitive areas, and be open to hearing things that hurt, and then be willing to get thousands of e-mails from strangers telling you how to live your life (as if they know you), then yes. DO it. As hard as ALL of those things are to go through and read, each of them is a different lesson, and you’ll be a better person for them all.

KIM: Yes!! Everyone I talk to wishes it was still on and so many people want it to come back and want to watch it. It changed my whole life and I am sad it is not on anymore. So many people felt it empowered them as a viewer. It was a positive show and experience.

KAREN: I think the show should be back, on the OWN Network. It’s a perfect pairing of show/network, because of what Oprah stands for. I would so recommend other women to go on the show, if it was still available. Women need empowerment in every way possible., and if the show did come back, should it be limited to just women?

SINAE: I think, for me, it was a great experience. I know it isn’t for everyone, and if it existed today I would tell other women to proceed with caution. Anything you say or do on TV goes with you to the grave.

RENEE: Yes, I would recommend being on the show to every woman. The life coaches, as well as Dr. Stan, are amazing people to work with.

TERESA: Oh, absolutely! Nothing keeps you honest as much as being on a show where your life becomes an open book. I have no more secrets, Folks. It’s amazing what people say about you in the blogs and message boards;  I’ve even been called a kleptomaniac, and I can truly say I have never stolen a thing in my life! At the same time, it’s liberating, because debt and losing your house to foreclosure are such dirty little secrets. When they are out, you just get stronger just by knowing everybody knows. And so what?

ALLISON: It WAS hard. And it took a lot out of all of us! Still, it is a gift to have been part of the experience and I am blessed for that. I do recommend it. But it is not easy, and comes with responsibilities.

AUDREY: I can only say maybe. The person needs to have thick skin, and be an independent thinker. It is truly not for everyone. The mental strain could really ruin a weak-minded person. I also don’t think that it is for goals that you can work on without the help of national TV. I truly needed exposure. Some of the other goals were kind of strange. I understand goals like weight loss , insecurities, etc, but Kimberlyn’s goal of learning to drive was odd to me.

JILL: YES!! LORD, YES!!! It’s the best thing I ever did for myself!

AM: Was Maureen’s sudden death a few years ago particularly shocking to those of you who knew her? Particularly heartbreaking? Why?

(from left) Maureen Jacobs Goodman, Towanda Braxton, Jennifer Lord, Kim Bookout, Josie Marie Harris, Sommer White

(from left) Maureen Jacobs Goodman, Towanda Braxton, Jennifer Lord, Kim Bookout, Josie Marie Harris, Sommer White

SOMMER: If my other friends in the house were my ‘sisters,’ Mo was my ‘mother.’ I still hear her advice in my head. And when I found out I was moving to Chicago, well after Mo had passed away, it was bittersweet. I could have had so much more quality time with her, if only the opportunity had arisen sooner. She single-handedly changed my experience in the house, and in doing so, she changed my life. I’ll never forget that. One day, early on, when I was crying (shocking, I know) and didn’t know if I could continue in the house, she told me to be strong. She said that I would leave the house, and get an e-mail one day and probably more than one, but at least one. And it would be from someone who said I changed their life; that my strength in sharing helped them get through something overwhelming. And she said as soon as I got that e-mail, it would all be worth it. I’d know I made it through all the struggles, not just for myself, but for some stranger out there. And if there was one, there were fifty. And we had to be strong for that, right? As soon as I got that e-mail, I called her. She was so right, and I miss her so much. And I will always have a special place in my heart with her name written on it.

AUDREY: It’s very sad and heartbreaking, and just shows that we never know how much time we’ve got. I’m glad she made her mark while she was here, and she put many smiles on many faces. RIP Maureen.

KIM: Yes, she came back on for Season Two, and she and I kept in touch. I found out she had died shortly after I had talked to her. She had a hard life, and a lot of loss. I do know she never got over the death of her family members, so I pray she is with them now and at peace!! She was a wonderful person!! Very funny and strong!!

SINAE: I didn’t know Maureen personally, but she took my place when I graduated from the house. I watched her during Season One, and I was really saddened to hear of her sudden death. I think it is a reminder to each of us the life is fleeting, and in the blink of an eye it can all be over. Rest in peace, Mo. And thanks for all the laughs!

TERESA: Oh, my gosh, I miss Maureen. I got to meet her several times, and we kept in touch when I left the house. I was such a shock. I still haven’t taken her e-mail address out of my roster, because I just can’t.

ALLISON: I was sad to hear of Maureen’s passing. She was such a funny and kind lady. I did not know her well, but enjoyed corresponding with her over the years.

BETHANY: It was heartbreaking for me because she was part of the family, and I knew her from watching her on the show. Allison and Rhonda told me about her passing. I did not know her, and had never met her, but still hated it for her family all the same.

JILL: Neither, but I’m sorry to say I didn’t know her very well.

KAREN: I was not lucky enough to meet Maureen in person, but we did speak on the phone once. She invited me to come down the bar she was working in. In Chicago. I told her I would, and I never made the time. I do regret that, because if the truth be told, she and I were kind-of kindred spirits. We both wanted to do standup comedy, and I still say one day I’m going to do it. I wish I had made the time to meet her in person.

AM: Is there still a sort-of “sorority” feeling among the women who appeared on the show, whether or not you were all in the house together at the same time?

JILL: Yes, indeed!

TERESA: I can’t speak for others, but I believe there is. I remember telling one of my housemates that the only people that know what it was really like are those of us who went through it, and that is a kind of bonding feeling. I wish everybody wasn’t so spread out. I would love to see Karen again soon. Facebook has really helped to bring a lot of us together.

KIM: Oh, yes! I still talk to many of the women, and am close to a few. I know we all shared the same experience, and feel a bond because of that.

KAREN: The sorority still exists! Of course we all have our lives, all in separate states. But we all love Facebook!

SINAE: I can’t speak for cast members of other seasons, but I feel the first group of women in the house on Season Two have a special bond. We don’t talk often, but we do keep in contact. I am always happy to see Facebook posts from my fellow house mates. It is great to see that everyone is doing well!

ALLISON: Yes! It is a SISTERHOOD! We ARE sisters!!

AUDREY: Not to me. Once again, people think they know you but they don’t. If we managed to get together more often, I think we would be closer. Just my opinion.

BETHANY: Yes, I would say so. I’ve always wanted to meet the rest of the girls. If you’ve ever watched the show, you feel like you know the house mates, and I feel the same way. Having been one, I know how it feels. We all relate, because we are the only people in the world with this strange experience in common. I love my roommates and my house mates, even the ones I haven’t seen since leaving the show.

RENEE: I still stay in contact with Sommer, Bethany, and Jaclyn through Facebook.

SOMMER: I think that varies from person to person. Enough time has gone by that most of us are just living our lives, and when we have occasion to think of the others, it’s with fondness. And with some, sisterhood. Since most of us have never met people with whom we weren’t in the house, it’s a little difficult to feel a sisterly bond, but I’m CERTAIN that if we ever all got in a room together, we’d be thick as thieves. I can’t imagine not knowing some of these ladies, even if it is just via social media.

AM: Where do you see yourself five years from now?

BETHANY: A director at Ripley’s Entertainment. And dating a very hot man, or at least decent-looking, who loves me so much that he can’t stand it. And still taking risks, and loving life.

AUDREY: I hope I am receiving awards for Songwriter of the Year everywhere. I still feel like something big is around the corner for me. I’ve paid my dues, and put in so much footwork. The time is now, and I’m glad I never gave up! I will live and die writing country music!

RENEE: In five years, I just want to be happy and healthy!

ALLISON: I see myself successful, happy, cancer-free still, and married. YES. MARRIED. (Don’t get too excited ; I am not dating right now. I believe Boo-Boo is still coming my way!)

JILL: Running my businesses.  And helping ordinary women just like me do extraordinary things!!!

SOMMER: Who knows? Taking chances, being prepared, and leaping when I see the opportunity. That’s all I am sure of.

KAREN: Five years from now, hmmm. I work for a wonderful company, and hope to still be with them and retire with Le Creuset. And I hope to find love again. I like being married, and I’m still young, so yeah, I’m looking for husband number four!!

SINAE: I think in five years I will be back from Kuwait and in Thailand teaching. I think in the next five years I will be ready to start a family of my own and settle down, and Thailand is definitely home now. In the next five years, my mom will retire and it would be great to have her close to me when she does. I have my fingers crossed that my mom will retire in Thailand and take a full time job babysitting her grandkids!

TERESA: Good question. I see myself with several published books, living in Florida in a beach house and driving a red Mercedes CLK convertible. I recently published my first fictional book, but when I received the paperback and proofread it, there were hundreds of typos. I don’t know if it was auto-correct or what, because I proofed it before I sent it in, and I know it was fine. I took it off the market, and am still trying to correct the typos. I hope to make it available for a fun summer read. It is called “Murder on Indian Hill,” and it really is entertaining if I say so myself.

KIM: I see myself continuing to coach people and continue my own personal growth. My daughters are both married and my oldest is expecting our first grandchild. I pray my book supports others and I can continue to be a example to others. If I can start over so CAN YOU!!

And there we have it. A remarkable group of women who not only managed to start over, but are still doing so ten years after the fact of being part of television history. Please continue to follow their individual journeys.

Bobby Banas (left) in "Let's Make Love, alongside Marilyn Monroe

Bobby Banas (left) in “Let’s Make Love, alongside Marilyn Monroe

A certain clip on YouTube recently went extremely viral on the Internet, showing a sextette of dancers in 1964 on Judy Garland’s weekly CBS Sunday night program engaging in an energetic routine to the novelty song “The Nitty Gritty,” as voiced by Shirley Ellis (also well-known for her recording of “The Name Game”). Featured front and center was a young male dancer, whose dark hair and black button eyes made him an immediate standout, aside from his impeccable rhythm and the fact that he was tearing into it like his last meal. His name turns out to be Bobby Banas, and besides how brilliant he was in that particular performance, before and after that he’d already made featured appearances in such films as West Side Story, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and as one of the chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins, besides being known as the boy who kissed Marilyn Monroe in Let’s Make Love and a plethora of television appearances, which included a famous episode of Get Smart! He’d also made his first initial click in Peter Pan on Broadway with Mary Martin and the subsequent television version on NBC. Banas later became a much-desired choreographer as well as dance teacher in the Los Angeles area, and counted numerous notable names among his students. He’s mostly retired now from the world of terpsichore, but occupies his time as a Rosarian (an expert on rose blossoms). And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more thrilled that the gentleman, now in his very early eighties, found the time to grant us an interview.

ANDREW MARTIN: When you were growing up, did you always know you wanted to be a dancer? Or was it simply that you started in dance classes in any way reluctantly and eventually people came to see that you had a genuine talent for it? Where did the passion for it really begin?

BOBBY BANAS:  I must say that I didn’t know I wanted to be a dancer at that time. It wasn’t until 1941, when the war broke out. Both my parents decided to take jobs, and since they were both from Pennsylvania, my dad became a Military Chief Inspector for the steel mills in McKeesport while mom became a propeller inspector for Curtis Wright in Erie. They were wondering about what was to become of my sister and I, of course. Well, it so happened that our grandmother, dad’s mother, was widowed and lived on a small farm in Windber. Dad thought he could help his mother financially and that it would be a great place for us to grow up, and he and mom visited twice a month. And there was a dancing school in town. So on one of dad’s visits, he went to look it over and to see if Sis and I could take dance lessons. Well, that was the beginning. The teacher’s name was Agnes Shontz, and she taught just about everything; ballet, jazz, tap, acrobatics and ballroom. I guess she thought Sis and I would be a miniature version of Fred and Ginger. So Sis wore a beautiful pink gown, and I a black tuxedo, and we danced to Strauss waltzes at parties, weddings and recitals. It was fun. And as we got better at it, she taught us some lifts and spins. At the same time, my grandmother was a heavy churchgoer and she was Russian Orthodox, so we were obliged to go. I eventually became an altar boy for four years and thought of priesthood. But on Saturday evenings, the church had social gatherings at the church hall, and I was blown away when all of a sudden the music would get loud with accordions and violins and balalaikas. The crowd would start to chant when a couple of dancers headed for the room, flip-flopping, knee-spinning, jump-splits and coffee-grinders. I started jumping up and down and couldn’t stand still, because I wanted to join in. It seemed like every clan in Russia was there doing a ritual dance. When the last group finished, everyone in the room grabbed a partner and it was polka time. One Sunday on our way to church, as my Sis and I were walking through town, I heard this unbelievable sound of voices and hand-clapping. I stopped, and it was a storefront with painted windows, so you couldn’t see inside. Once again it was though I was struck by lightning. Here were these voices intoning, “Bless me, O Lord, Hallelujah!” in an infectious pounding rhythm, and my body responded as though someone had taken control of my limbs. I started to dance spontaneously. My sister was saying “Robert, we’re going to be late for church!” and I barely heard her. But I turned and reluctantly headed in her direction.

AM: I understand that your first real dance job on Broadway was in the chorus of Peter Pan at quite a young age. What was that experience like and what were the standout moments? Conversely, how did it differ from doing the television version later?

BB: Well, first you have to understand what led up to that. After the war ended, Dad headed to LA to search for a brother of his. He didn’t have luck tracking him down, but he fell in love with the weather and sent for all of us. Sis and I started dance lessons again, but she became interested in boys and completely lost interest in dance. I continued on, got a scholarship with the Michael Panaieff ballet school and also a scholarship to Hollywood Professional School. I was going to continue theater and dance at UCLA when I graduated, but I attended an audition for Carousel at the LA Civic Light Opera and got cast as Enoch Snow Jr. Then Kiss Me Kate, Annie Get Your Gun, Brigadoon, Plain and Fancy, and then Peter Pan. Which went to Broadway, and I loved being on Broadway. We played at the Winter Garden for six months, and then Mary Martin got tired, so we closed and did the TV version. But it could only be shown once, as NBC couldn’t get the rights to re-broadcast it at the time. They did eventually, though, and it still gets shown, which makes me happy.

AM: You did so many films as a dancer at the beginning of your career for which you were uncredited. Do you resent that at all? Or was it just sort of, “all in a day’s work?”

BB:  Well, I started in film and television in the 1950s, where first I did a lot of rock’n’roll movies for the producer Sam Katzman. As far as TV, I did Danny Kaye’s show, Dinah Shore’s show, Milton Berle’s show,  “Hollywood Palace,” and “Hullabaloo” later, and then even later I was on a special with Lindsay Wagner and a bunch of others. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. I worked all the time. And yes, it was unfortunate to sometimes not be credited. But I will say, Steven Spielberg always went out of his way to credit everybody. I was in both “Hook” and “Always,” and he was very generous about giving credit. At the time I was starting out, getting credit didn’t really matter to me. All I wanted to do was dance. But looking back on it now? Sure, I should have been credited. We all deserved it.  

AM: Can you describe what the experience was like of making West Side Story? How did you feel when it won the Oscar that year?

BB: West Side Story was a big boost to the cast members. Having worked with Jerome Robbins twice before, in both Peter Pan and the film version of The King and I, I felt confident that I had a good chance of getting the job.  But when I saw a lot of unfamiliar faces at the casting call, I figured he’d brought all of his Broadway cast members and this was a publicity stunt. After getting five auditions and getting picked with some other local guys, I was proven wrong about that. Up until the awards came out, I thought it was just another musical. Boy, was I wrong. All the doors started to open when you said you’d been in West Side Story. I was getting jobs right and left, and that’s when I started to choreograph and teach.

AM:  What was it like to work with Marilyn Monroe on Let’s Make Love, and did her death have a profound effect on you?

BB: Working with Marilyn Monroe was a dream. But to be choreographed to kiss her, at the end of the dance number…oh, I thought my heart would explode. What was so funny was, during the end of the dance number, she grabbed me and Alex by the hair before she was to swing around one of the poles. Well, I had a lot of pomade in my hair, and after grabbing it she flew around the pole and lost her balance. She turned to the director and said, “I think someone has too much grease in his hair.” OOPS! So they sent me to makeup to wash my hair. I returned, and the number began again. Now the end was approaching, and I was supposed to kiss her, so I hit her lips with mine but slid across her face. So I turned to the director and said in a low voice, “I think someone has too much grease on her face.” To which they both laughed. Of course it was sad to learn of her death. I felt the same when I learned about Natalie Wood. Both had unusual circumstances and questionable facts about the truth.

AM: Can you describe what the process was like of making Mary Poppins?

BB: Mary Poppins was a delight to work on. All of us sweeps were hired on a higher rate for the stunt-like dancing we were to be doing. DeeDee Woods and Marc Breaux were so nice to everyone, it was more like a family and made everyone feel at ease. I also worked with DeeDee on Li’l Abner and she was a gem there also. It was a lot of fun, with a lot of very energetic dancing originally choreographed by Michael Kidd.

AM: Do you have any one film performance of yours that you’d consider your very favorite of all?

BB: I guess I’d have to say working with Marilyn Monroe. I became the envy of all the other male dancers because of the kiss. but it was a great experience to work with Jack Cole, who gave me a lot of strength and posture to better my dance technique.

AM: Is it at all surprising that the clip of “The Nitty Gritty” from the Judy Garland show has gone so viral recently? What do you remember most about doing that show? And was that your choreography?

BB: I can’t BELIEVE what has happened with the “Nitty Gritty” clip. Several years ago a friend said he had a copy that he found somewhere. He gave me one, I looked at it and put it away. I didn’t think it was anything to get that excited about, and that was that. Then I guess someone else found a copy, and posted it on YouTube. Then someone else posted it on Facebook and the sh*t hit the fan. I was getting e-mail and calls, and questions about who was which dancer besides me, and all types of remarks wanting to know what type of dance it was. Yes, it was my choreography and my own interpretation of the song. Peter Gennaro was the choreographer for Garland,  but he had to go to New York that week for some reason and his assistant didn’t have any idea what to do with the tune, so the director asked me to come up with a dance and that was the result.

AM: I’m told that when you were teaching, one of your students (who adores you) was my pal Tracy Nelson. What other notable students have you had, and what do or did you enjoy most about teaching?

BB: I just started to teach and I enjoyed it so much. I started the Bob Banas Musical Dance Company, with young kids and older ones. We performed at City of Hope, the World Martial Arts Competition at the Sports Arena,  Rug Concerts, the Hollywood Press Club, the opening of shopping centers, and so many other venues. I’ve done lectures at different universities, I taught at the Dick Grove School of Music, and I’ve done a lot of work with disabled children. Some other students I’ve had were Cher, Barbara Hershey, Susan Clark, John Travolta, BarBara Luna, Charmian Carr and Bruce Lee, to name a few. Teaching is like giving back, helping and encouraging those who wanted the thrill of performing on stage with music and lights before a live audience. Some had the talent to pursue further, but for some reason had other dreams. But they took with them the great experience of having done it. And there were a few that went on to become professionals.    

AM: Obviously the world of theater-dance had lost a lot of wonderful people in the last thirty years. Who of your contemporaries do you miss the most? And who do you still treasure most as friends?

BB:  It’s so hard to name those dancers I worshiped most. I always thought Gene Kelly was great, but never had the chance to work with him. I did get to work with Bob Fosse and loved his work, Jack Cole had a great style, and I loved studying ballet with Michael Panaieff.

AM: What is an average day like for the Bobby Banas of today?

BB:  Well, I’m a professional Rosarian now, taking care of people’s roses. One of my clients is Debbie Reynolds, with whom I’ve been privileged to work on the movies Say One for Me and How the West Was Won besides The Unskinable Molly Brown. Usually I’m up at 5 AM to start with a client in Malibu, then off to Westwood, Beverly Hills and Studio City. My busiest time is just after New Year’s, when I get to prune all the roses back and prepare them for dormancy. Then in spring I get to revive them and prepare for the first bloom. I’m always at a nursery buying supplies, and checking out the new rose additions for the coming year.

AM: What advice would you offer to the average young man of today, no matter how talented or not, who wanted to try to make it as a dancer?

BB: To become a dancer today, I must say, is totally different from when I started out. Hip-hop and acrobatic tumbling seems to dominate the dance scene now.  The show “Glee” kind of represents the old style along with some hip-hop, but they add vocals to make everybody a triple threat. It does represent Broadway and in musicals in film and television, but in my day I had to study ballet, tap, ballroom, primitive, modern, acting and jazz. Now, it seems, if you can throw a back-handspring or a few coffee-grinders, you can call yourself a specialty dancer. Granted, any precision group dancing can be as effective as well as someone who spins on his head. Break dancing and hip-hop qualify as effective, of course. But I’d rather see West Side Story, Carousel, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Mary Poppins.

And who wouldn’t? Bobby Banas is a national treasure. Please check out his rich legacy of dancing on film.

whetstoneA friend and I from here in New York frequently visit Brattleboro a few times a summer, but we’d never been to Whetstone. Last night, we were set to meet an old friend of his from school and the friend’s wife and his son/her stepson. We would have gone to Three Stones but they’re closed on Wednesdays, and La Marina was booked, so we all went to Whetstone. Well…

The first issue was the parking. There was none available in the full lot. At 6:10 on a Wednesday night. Which we took as a sign that the place must have been packed to the rafters because of the food and ambience. So we all parked on Main Street and walked back. It was a surprise, therefore, to discover a nearly-empty dining room by the bar. OK. Well, we sat down, and after about fifteen minutes our waitress Thea arrived. Lovely young lady, filled our waterglasses (even if she had to go back for a second pitcher to fill two of them) and handed us the menus. It all sounded very appetizing, both the food and the beers. My friend and the wife ordered North Coast on tap, which they both seemed to enjoy. The friend and the son had Cokes, which I guess even Whetstone can’t ruin.

Then came appetizers after a half-hour. I had the Caesar, which was OK at best; I’ve had better and I’ve made better. My friend had Duck Nachos, which were palatable but would have been more so if the duck wasn’t served in tiny morsels. Wife had Drunken Mussels, which she enjoyed well enough, and onion soup, which was also so-so. Friend had a Whetstone Salad and son had a side salad, both of which they said were fair. At this point, another bright-eyed young lady named Krissy appeared, informing us that Thea’s shift had ended and she would be our server for the remainder of the night. Fine, no big whoop.

Entrees began to arrive thirty-five minutes later with my friend and his friend’s overly-sauced Eggplant Parmigiana, and then Krissy dropped the tray carrying son’s Cioppino and wife’s Mac and Cheese. Wife ended up with it all over her purse and son had blue cheese dressing on his legs. Waitress apologized and ran for more portions after setting down my Alligator Tacos, which survived the spillage. I love alligator, but only tail and only well-deep-fried. The alligator was raw. I mean, more raw than Eddie Murphy’s standup act in 1987. When she finally appeared again with a cheery, “How IS everything?” I told her I wasn’t the type to complain, but there was no way I could eat this, to which she apologized and asked me if I’d like them to cook it a little more. I said no, I think I’d like something else. She disappeared again, and about twenty minutes later an owner appeared and apologized, they were comping us for the raw gator and anything else I’d like to order. So I ordered a very simple flatbread pizza. Krissy tried to convince me to get something more expensive since it was on the house, but I said no, a flatbread pizza would do nicely. (I might have ordered the steak, but I’m sure if I’d ordered medium-rare it would have arrived well-done). She brought it twenty minutes later along with son’s Cioppino and wife’s Mac and Cheese. Well, the pizza was as scary as anything you’d get at Amy’s Baking Company in Scottsdale AZ; burnt bottom, doughy middle. Yuck. Wife more or less enjoyed her Mac and Cheese, but kiddo HATED the Cioppino, which was served in a very spicy (and watery) Fra Diavolo-style sauce on a bed of wide noodles.

Half an hour later, Krissy returned to ask us if we’d like dessert. I opted for Gelato, which I figured was safe. The only flavor they had was vanilla, not my first choice, and it was good enough, but I was perplexed by the presence of the whipped-cream topping. Kiddo had the Pint of Mousse, a mix of milk chocolate and white chocolate mousses in a pint glass, which he seemed to like. Everyone else ordered coffee, which was watery and substandard.

I might give this place two stars if it wasn’t for the fact that I accidentally left my sunglasses at the table when we left, and when I went back to get them, they’d vanished. Nobody had seen them, nobody knew where they were, and I’m sure somebody’s wearing them right now. Probably Krissy’s boyfriend, since we barely left a tip.

I give this place maybe a year at the outset to still be in business, unless Gordon Ramsay can work a miracle. Don’t go until then.

ethelsingsEvery once in a while, one happens upon an evening of theater that might be described as “a most unlikely formula.” So it goes at the heavenly Off-Broadway theater Walkerspace, at 46 Walker Street in TriBeCa, with Joan Beber’s new two-act piece Ethel Sings, directed by Jules Aaron. A superb play-with-music, the title initially makes one think of a one-woman evening showcasing the career of Miss Merman, possibly embodied by Rita McKenzie or Kristine Zbornik,  when it’s actually a riveting slice-of-life drama depicting the marriage, trial, conviction and ultimate execution of the husband-and-wife spy team of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (Hence the play’s subtitle, Espionage in High C).

For those unfamiliar with modern history, we’re shown a true behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Rosenberg marriage and the raising of sons Michael and Robby, as well as their foray into Communism and eventually selling bomb-making secrets to the Soviets. The trial that ensued was one of the most sensational stories of the early 1950s (with prosecution by a young Roy Cohn and defense by Manny Bloch, who would die of a heart attack not long after the couple was executed). We also see the curious dysfunction of Ethel’s family the Greenglasses, including her very uninterested mother and both the brother and sister-in-law (David and wife Ruth), who turned key evidence against Julius and Ethel. Add to this that Beber has chosen Joan of Arc (Ethel’s personal heroine) as a sort of Greek chorus to help move the action along, and all of the brilliant musical compositions (ranging in a variety of styles) make this truly unlike anything the New York theater scene has experienced in many a moon.

The actors herein are not merely a top-notch team of thespians, but a true ensemble.  As Ethel, Shelby Kocee could not be more perfect, embodying a woman alternately defiant but vulnerable, cunning but oblivious, and above all else completely in love with her husband at all times. Dan Sykes similarly brings spectacular passion to his portrayal of Julius. Ben Goldsmith (who also composed the string music and provides the guitar accompaniment) and Ross Alden provide performances as the Rosenberg sons Michael and Robby, and are never less than utterly purposeful. As Mrs. Greenglass, Julia Silverman does a job that is never less than riveting. Alan Aymie’s David brings just the right touch of odiousness to the character, and Penny Peyser (in her triumphant return to Off-Broadway after nearly forty years on the Coast in film and television) is equally sensational as Ruth. Manny Bloch, interestingly enough, is portrayed by Greg Mullavey, who most remember as husband Tom on the 1970s Norman Lear series “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” and proves himself equally at home on a stage as in front of the camera. And as Roy Cohn, Richard Chassler’s work borders on other-wordly; there are moments it’s almost possible to forget that we’re watching an actor. Rounding out this incredible bunch is Stasha Surdyke as Joan of Arc; she’s a lithe beauty with definitive presence who simply owns every moment of her time on stage.

Producers Linda Toliver and Gary Guidinger (who also designed the impeccable sets) have also chosen the best crew imaginable, including  Max Kinberg on sound design (and music), the lighting by John Eckert, and Michele Young’s costumes.

Ethel Sings: Espionage in High C will continue to run at Walkerspace through Sunday, July 21st. This most unlikely formula would have a much longer run in a just world.

marieannIt was an unusually-warm Wednesday night in April of 1990 when your humble reporter stumbled into the now-defunct Broadway Baby, a wonderful piano bar on Amsterdam Avenue between 79th and 80th Streets on the Upper West Side, and met singer Marieann Meringolo for the first time. There was already scuttlebutt about her; she was known for having the potential to become the likes of another Jane Olivor for her incredible vocal precision and carriage on a stage. Like the aforementioned, she wasn’t exactly the prettiest peach on the tree (although undeniably glamorous) and in fact was quite aloof and somewhat mistrustful of someone she’d just met for the first time. But when she sang…oh, when she sang…she transformed instantly into a Botticelli angel. It was a mere two seasons later that she had a bonafide cabaret hit on her hands with the brilliant Wonderful, Wonderful: The Songs of Johnny Mathis in New York City besides Fire Island and beyond, and has since gone on to phenomenal glory in the arena whether at Feinstein’s with a wonderful evening of the music of Michel Legrand, or her Ladies tribute concert honoring the ouevres of such giants as Streisand and Warwick. However, it is with her most recent offering, Orchestrated!, which features her alongside a seven-piece band replete with lush ornamentation including a full section of brass, that the lady has completely come into her own as a major cabaret star with which to be reckoned. In point of fact, if this show doesn’t cement her success and elevate her to the stardom previously achieved by someone along the lines of the late Nancy LaMott or Eva Cassidy, there is simply no justice in this world. Yes, it’s THAT good.

It should be noted right off the bat that the majority of Meringolo’s selections mostly comprises material she’s done in previous shows, which (as she explains, are being done because while she’s been making her most-recent living as a headliner on cruise ships, are showcased with a full orchestra in tow, and she wanted to bring the beauty of the sound to the cabaret world) are really not the sort of catalog that others might choose to bring to a new cabaret act. This, however, is no obstacle to the miraculous Meringolo; it’s material that might otherwise crumble in the hands of a lesser-accomplished artist and yet somehow she’s owning every moment. In the more-than-capable sight of musical director Doyle Newmyer, she manages to take such songs as “Thou Swell,” “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “Fever” and “I’m a Woman” and transform them instantly into personal anthems. And a favorite old standby of hers, “Italian Menu,” is rendered into genius. More than this is her tribute to Dionne Warwick in a medley of no less than eight songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and a tribute to Streisand that features a coupling of “Where Is It Written?” and “I’m the Greatest Star.” And Meringolo does include new music, notably two tunes by Marsha Malamet, “Crazy Love” and “I Am Blessed.” In point of fact, she couldn’t possibly have gotten any single element of the show more pointedly correct. It was certainly no secret in the nightlife world that she was already on a path to greatness, but Meringolo now possesses a maturity previously unwitnessed, not to mention an ability for sustaining an important note in a song, that trumps every possible ace .

And then there’s the band. Oh, goodness, where to begin? Aside from the aforementioned Newmyer, she’s got the legendary John Loehrke on bass, the brilliantly-animated Ayodele Maakheru on guitar, Sipho Kunene doing a wonderful job on percussion, Richie Vitale blowing on the trumpet, Jonathan Kantor on alto sax (who is REALLY outstanding), and the terrific Charlie Gordon on the trombone. The fact that JP Perreaux is loaning his eye to technical direction is merely the icing on the cake.

Marieann Meringolo and Orchestrated! will return to the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, on Friday, August 2nd at 7 PM for one night only. Run. Do not walk. And run QUICKLY!!!