Drew’s Friendship Folio Volume #2: Shelley Bruce

Posted: May 1, 2011 in Broadway, Culture, Entertainment, New York City, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized

When I was a child in New York City in the 1970s, newly-bitten by the showbiz bug and consumed with the inexplicable need to become not merely a performer but a star, I found myself in a constant state of unending awe and abject jealousy over anybody in my age group who happened to be working on Broadway. And more so if they were in a Broadway smash. If they were actually starring in a Broadway smash, my combination of adoration and contempt was multiplied tenfold. Oh, sure, I was attending children’s classes after school for musical theater technique and loving each and every minute of it, but the simple truth is that I didn’t want to just be studying it, I wanted to be doing it on a stage somewhere. Money and fame were the furthest things from my mind; I just wanted to be a star. So it stood to reason that I would have absolute fascination with Shelley Bruce, who started out in the original cast of Annie as orphan Kate, and then later took over the title role when her best friend Andrea McArdle left the show in ’78 a year after opening. Every aspect of her stardom was what I burned and yearned for; she wasn’t just on stage for eight shows a week, but she got to do commercials and make personal appearances and occasionally show up on TV shows. And of course she deserved every blessed moment of it, because she was and is a great star. But at the same time that I was a devout fan and wished that maybe one day soon I could be just like her, I felt feelings of envy that, frankly, scare me in retrospect.

Then, as many know, in the very early 1980s, the shoe dropped and she was diagnosed with acute leukemia, very soon after she played the role of Tiger in the horror film The Burning. She was front-page news in New York for the better part of the next two years; it seemed that everybody wanted to know how she was doing and if she was OK.  And I spent a great deal of that time praying for her recovery, and imploring God to forgive me for ever having a jealous thought about her. Her wonderful team of doctors (spearheaded by the legendary pediatric oncologist Lois Murphy, whom she credits almost completely for saving her life) got her into remission, and she’s never had a recurrence. As soon as she was well enough to work, she accepted a co-starring role as Ruby Keeler in Walter Willison’s Scandals of 1928 at O’Neal’s on West 43rd, but the show turned out to have some insurmountable difficulties and was definitely not one of the hits of the season. Her last true visibility, other than a mid-leukemic performance as part of the PBS special Broadway Plays Washington at the Kennedy Center, also came with the publication of her book about the Broadway experience and leukemia, entitled Tomorrow is Today. Shortly thereafter, Shelley completely ditched public life and settled into what has been her existence for over twenty years, as wife, suburban soccer mom (to her wonderful children Michael and Nicolle). sometime business owner, sometime bookkeeper for a company, sometime singer for a local rock band where she’s lived in Jersey for over two decades, and recently returned to school to pursue a degree.

I realize that if by now you’ve read this far down the page, you may be wondering how she and I became friends. Well, here’s what happened: in ’08, I had the not-so-bright idea to bring back CaB Magazine, my former publication that ran from 1991 through 1998, as a website. It went pretty well at the beginning, and I got to interview a bunch of really fascinating people, including Sharon McNight, Jim Caruso, Luba Mason, Lennie Watts and Rebecca Parris, besides writing some of the most self-satisfying reviews and feature articles of my career. One night while I was taking a break, I logged onto MySpace (I wasn’t on Facebook yet and I don’t think she was either) and just for kicks, I entered the name Shelley Bruce into the search engine. What came up was a page decorated with photos from Annie and also some clips of her rock vocals. Thinking, as I usually do, that I’d never know the answer unless I asked the question, I wrote a little note to her Inbox saying I was a lifelong fan, I was also a journalist besides being an entertainer, and would she possibly be interested in my doing an interview with her? She wrote me back immediately, saying that she was absolutely flattered, she hadn’t done an interview in years unless it was strictly Annie-related, and to send along the questions so she could answer them and e-mail me her replies. Which I did, and which she did. I wrote what I would like to think was an incredible interview with her, and we e-mailed back and forth a few times after I published it, just sort of checking up on each other. And then, I found Facebook a few months later, in the late summer of ’08.

It would be an understatement to say that I was merely happy that she found me and sent a Friend request, which I naturally accepted. But I cannot possibly describe the joy of the first night she got a hold of me in IM and said, “Can I talk to you for a few minutes? I really need to talk to a friend right now.” I wouldn’t have dreamed of anything less than letting her bare her soul, of course. For the next ninety minutes, she took me into her confidence about things I never dreamed we’d discuss, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we were anything less than dear friends after we said goodnight. From that point, things have grown exponentially. We IM as often as we can; we keep each other posted on what’s going on on our homefronts, both the good and the bad. But, let’s not forget, she and I had still never met in person.

That changed completely in November of ’09. I have this other dear friend, whose name I needn’t mention because some of you know who he is, who, in ’99, hit the New York Lottery for a fortune. So he decided, in ’09 on the tenth anniversary of his lottery win, to throw one of the most incredible parties ever staged on God’s earth. He graciously offered me an invitation for me and a guest, and my first thought was, “I want to bring Shelley to this. It’s high time she and I meet anyway, and I’m sure she’d love to be able to dress up and come into the city and have some fun.” So I asked if she wanted to come, she said she absolutely would, we helped plan her outfit so it would match mine and look really snazzy, and we went. And it was a magical evening, not just because of the wonder of the party itself but the fact, and I even told her this, there I was sitting on a couch talking to the Shelley Bruce. To which she laughed and said, “Drew, I’m just me. I’m just a suburban soccer mom. Who is having a very nice time out with a good friend, at a party I will never forget.” That was, needless to say, the right answer.

In May of last year, I took Shelley to the MAC Awards as my guest. And that was an equally-magical night for a number of reasons. Nearly everybody at the event usually knows who I am, so a lot of people come up to the table to say hello, and I got to introduce Shelley right and left. And word got around within minutes that “Andrew Martin’s sitting over there near the entrance of the room, with that girl from Annie who had leukemia.” So we had a lot of traffic coming to the table. But among the traffic were people I only knew vaguely and Shelley knew really well, like Lee Roy Reams and Lucie Arnaz.  She and I repaired to the afterparty at Don’t Tell Mama, had a swell time, and she got in her SUV to drive home to Jersey.

Since then, but even before, Shelley and I were and are thick as thieves. More than anything I have in my life with my dearest friends, I think she knows that I will never, but never, betray a confidence she’s placed in me. And I know that I can rest assured of the same thing on her part. So until she and I have a chance to once again unleash ourselves as a duo on an unsuspecting public, please know that my friendship with her is just as luscious apart from one another, as it is when we’re hanging out together. And so it hopefully always shall be.

  1. Stephan says:

    As always, a wonderfully happy and moving article. Kudos!!

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