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I was 18 and didn't know enough to be scared when I got the call to come to New York City. All I knew was that I wanted to sing. Now I've learned what it takes to be famous.
"Take it slow and easy, honey, you're young. Don't ask questions; just enjoy yourself." That's the kind of advice I've been getting since I came to New York a year ago last August. I don't know yet whether it's sound advice. For one thing, I'm only 19 now. For another, I'm just beginning my career, even though I do have a recording contract, a regular job singing every week on a radio program and a major TV program more or less set for the near future. One thing I am sure of - if I want to be famous, I have to work at it.
I'm like most small-town girls who come to New York to seek their fortune - except in two ways. First, I had my job before I got here. I didn't have to hunt for it with the terrible feeling that I might run out of money and have to work as a waitress or something in order to eat.
And second, I haven't had to make many major decisions. I have advisers and managers at Columbia Records and on the Stop the Music radio show to guide me in everything. They've even sent me to the dentist! And like every singer or actress or performer, I have booking agents who tell me about openings and arrange guest performances.
If not for all these people, I might have been afraid to be in the big city alone. But one thing they couldn't take care of - although they tried hard - was homesickness.
At first I'd phone my family frantically long distance and sob, "You'll just have to move to New York."
"All of us?" Daddy would ask, trying to make a joke. I have three brothers and a sister, a niece and a nephew, a grandmother and sixty assorted aunts, uncles and cousins. The idea of moving that tribe to New York was enough to make me smile. Pop and my sister Alice would shush me and comfort me, and the next morning things would look bright again. I don't cry any more, but I still miss them terribly and my phone bills home are sometimes as high as $25 a week.
It makes me feel queer to realize it, but I'll probably never live in Avonmore again. That's my home town - Avonmore, Pennsylvania. There are less than 1400 people in the whole town. We had fifty-nine seniors in my high school graduating class, and that took in two townships. In New York more than fifty-nine people work on the same radio program I do.
Back home I was Norma Jean Speranza. Jill Corey is my show-business name - Jill after somebody's former girl friend and Corey for the coffee maker of the same name, only with an "e" added. That part was Dave Garroway's idea - it was on his TV show that I had my first job a little over a year ago. I didn't like the name in the beginning because it didn't seem like me. It was almost as though some other girl was getting all the excitement and fame I'd worked so hard for - but now I feel possessive about it, and I answer just as quickly to either name. My family still calls me Norma Jean.
My mother died when I was four. My sister Alice was fourteen then; she brought me up. I am the baby of the family. My father and brothers own and operate a small coal mine in Avonmore. They work hard, but they're independent and we were never poor. I don't remember my mother, but my family has always surrounded me with love and security. We're very close.
One night during my freshman year at high school - I was fourteen - I went to a school dance. I was allowed to stay out till 11 o'clock then, provided I told my family where I was going. I thought I had told them - I still think so - but apparently I hadn't, or else nobody was listening. That turned out to be the worst and the most wonderful night of my life.
It was my first time up close to a real live band. But I'd heard of Johnny Murphy's Dance Band and I'd met the vocalist through my sister-in-law. He asked me to sing a number.
At first I said no. I wasn't afraid exactly, but I'd never sung with a band and suppose I muffed it?
But finally I went up on the bandstand and the vocalist introduced me to Johnny Murphy. Then they started playing Echoes and I stepped in front of the microphone and sang. This sounds terrible, but I have to say it - I was good. I was plenty surprised too, because I'd never been really good before. I could tell what was happening because people stopped dancing to listen, and they had a surprised happy look on their faces. The band played Don't Blame Me next, and I sang that too. I can still see myself standing there in a yellow dress I'd bought for Easter. I was a little nervous but proud too, mostly proud.
Johnny Murphy leaned over and said under the music, "Come and see me during intermission." I nodded and went back to my date, but my heart sank because I knew that staying through the intermission would mean being out after eleven. I stayed though.
Johnny explained that his regular singer was going on vacation for a month, and he wanted to know if I'd like to fill in for him. I was so dazed that I hardly knew my date was there on the way home. I burst into the house making a lot of noise. It was late, but I was going to wake everyone up and tell the big news.
My oldest brother came flying down the stairs looking like a thundercloud. "Where in the world have you been?" he cried.
I was puzzled. "What's the matter? I told you I was going out."
"No you didn't, and dad's fit to be tied. He's out looking for you now.
I was awed. My father had never been mad at me before; he'd always
been the gentlest of parents. The rest of the family assembled and
I blurted out my news about singing with Johnny Murphy. They all
said, "Don't tell Dad tonight. Wait till tomorrow." Then the
front door slammed so hard it jarred the house and Daddy came in.
He saw me, and without a word he put me over his knee and spanked me, big
as I was. It was the first and last spanking I ever had. I
went to bed sure that my chances for fame and fortune were gone.
But the next day my father was wonderful. I don't think I've ever loved him more. Somehow we were seeing each other for the first time as people and it made us better friends than ever. I told him about Johnny's offer, and the way he looked at me I think he was a little bit proud too.
He said quietly, "Wait till he calls and we'll see." Johnny had said he'd discuss the job with Pop in about a week. Well, he did. When Daddy was sure I'd be taken care of - like one of the boys from the band bringing me home every night - he said I could do it.
Johnny asked me to stay on regularly when the month was up and I held that job for three years, right up to the day I left for New York.
It was the best thing that could have happened. I had a firsthand glimpse of the world and yet I was sheltered because the band took awfully good care of me. I learned that people sometimes drink too much and aren't always as nice as they seem, and that they can call you "sweetie" or "honey" without really meaning it - they just don't know your name.
Then one day a man at a radio station about twelve miles away from Avonmore called me and said, "I heard you sing last night. How about making a tape recording for me? I'd like to send it to Mitch Miller."
"Who's Mitch Miller?" I asked.
He explained that Mitch Miller was the boss of Columbia Records popular music. I was pretty excited. I went to the radio station the next day - it was hotter than anything - and stood in a box like room and sang Since My Love Has Gone. People kept going in and out, banging doors and talking, and there wasn't even a piano - I sang without any accompaniment. I thought the radio man must be crazy. I went through the song twice and then went home. I wasn't hoping for anything or counting on anything. I was so naive about the record business that I didn't know what to expect even if by some miracle this Mitch Miller person liked my voice.
A few days later Mitch (He doesn't like to be called "Mr. Miller.") telephoned.
"I'll pay your fare to New York," he said, "if you come here and audition for me."
"With music?" I asked. I didn't much like the idea of singing without accompaniment.
"With music," he said.
"Well," I agreed, "okay, but my sister will have to come too."
"All right, I'll pay your sister's fare too, but why does she have to come?"
"Because I'm only 18," I explained, and he has told me since that he nearly dropped the phone. You see, I sound a lot older when I sing, and he thought from just hearing my voice that I was maybe 24 or 25.
Alice and I flew to New York. I think she was more excited than I was. It hadn't occurred to me yet that the trip might change my whole life.
The building we went into on Seventh Avenue was an old one and I wasn't very much impressed. I didn't know enough to be scared.
Mitch came out and shook hands with us and took us to a studio where I sang for him. It was all pretty businesslike. Mitch thanked me for coming and said I had a wonderful voice and he would send me a contract. As soon as we were alone, Alice hugged me and told me how proud she was. But I still wasn't excited - it all happened too fast.
When the contract came, we signed it - I really mean "we" because of course I'm not of age and Daddy had to sign the papers too. Then we got a hurry-up call to come back to New York and audition for the Dave Garroway television show. This time I was excited and scared; television was real to me.
The other girls who tried out for the job didn't make me feel any better. They were all glamour queens. They wore cocktail dresses and mascara and there I was in the same gray wool dress I'd worn on the train. Lipstick was all the makeup I had ever used. I didn't sing very well, either.
I waited three hours to find out who had been chosen. Finally, a Columbia Records man came and took me into an office and sat me down at a desk. He made a speech - something about how people have to work hard for their big chance and I mustn't be disappointed if I didn't work out. Then he said, "Well, honey, the job is yours!"
I was wonderfully happy that day. I didn't know about homesickness then. But I learned. One afternoon after I'd been in New York five days I was feeling so lonely I thought I couldn't stand it. So I called Columbia because they had said, "If you need anything, let us know. Don't hesitate."
Kay Marine, one of Mitch Miller's secretaries, answered. I didn't know what to say. She knew what was wrong and she did the talking. "Look, why don't you have dinner with me tonight?"
I met Kay at her office and she took me home to her apartment while she changed. I looked around at her place and thought how wonderful it was to have your own apartment and to know your way around in a big city.
We went to a fabulous steak house to dinner. I had never been in a place like that. One wall was red brick and one was white stone and a third was covered with framed pictures of celebrities. The waiter gave us menus as big as the side of a truck. I didn't know what half the things were and everything seemed terribly expensive.
Midway through the meal - sirloin steak and all the trimmings - I got up the courage to ask, "What if I go out with a boy to a place like this? How will I know what he can afford?"
She didn't laugh. She said, "If he takes you to an expensive place, he'll have enough money to pay for it. Just to be sure, you can always ask him to order for you. Or ask him what he's going to have, and if he says, 'I think I'd like the roast beef,' and it's the most expensive thing, you certainly don't have to order Spanish omelette."
"Not that it'll ever come up," I said. "I don't see how I'm ever going to meet any boys to go out with."
That did make her laugh. "Listen, in your business you'll meet too many men, not too few. Just remember you can learn almost anything you need to know by watching other people. And if you're really in doubt, ask. Nobody knows everything."
The watching part has been easy - there's so much to see. Asking is harder for me; I'm still shy about admitting my ignorance. Like tipping the man who does my hair. I went to him for months before I found out it was customary to tip a hairdresser and that poor man never said a word.
I look back at that funny little girl from the country and I can hardly believe it was I.
One thing I began to learn right away - fame doesn't just happen. A career like mine isn't mine alone. It has to be planned, promoted, arranged, worked at by a great many people besides me. Everything I do, even to the way I wear my hair, is weighed against my career. Will it be good or bad or me?
I found out I had a lot to learn if I wanted to be famous. One of the first things, surprisingly, was to learn to sing. Mitch sent me to a singing teacher. I had to go once a week and I just hated it. I'd sing maybe ten songs and not more than three quarters of one song would please my teacher.
Then suddenly one day after this had been going on for five months, I got with it. I found myself singing ten songs and every single one of them was right and I understood what he'd been trying to tell me. You sing from the back of your head and throat, not from the front, and it's no effort at all. Every note just floats out. When I finally understood, I felt nine feet tall and now I love my singing lessons.
Mitch Miller decides what songs I am to record and how often. So far I've done six. Not long ago I did one called Should I Tell? and on the other side is A Goodnight Kiss Is a Good Night's Work. And I've just recorded two more: I'm Not at All in Love from the Broadway show Pajama Game and Edward, a song by Bob Merrill, the man who wrote Doggie in the Window.
I'm told a week or so in advance when I'm going to make a record and then I'm given the music and lyrics. A piano player runs through the song for me a few times so I get an idea how it sounds, but my job mostly is to learn the lyrics. That part is easy for me; I just sing the song a few times around my hotel room and then I have it.
The day of the recording session I arrive at the studio fifteen minutes early and sing the song to myself without a piano. The orchestra comes in and we go through it once or twice - and then cut it. It takes about an hour and a half to record two songs. I am paid union scale wages for the time that I'm recording, and whatever else I earn depends entirely on how many records are sold. I'm paid royalties on each one.
I take dancing and acting lessons too. These help my stage presence. I've been walking all my life, but I found out that isn't enough. I didn't know how to walk gracefully or to turn around and sit down and get up again gracefully, either. Charlie Andrews, the producer on the Garroway Show where I first worked, noticed it right away and sent me to a dancing teacher. I was a little hurt at first, but I'm learning that it happens to nearly everybody. Anyway, it isn't personal. The people who tell me what to do aren't criticizing me because I don't know anything. They criticize my performance because I'm part of a show that has to look good all the time.
Like Ray Boege, the man who did my makeup when I went before the TV cameras. The first time I was so excited I babbled. He said, "Shut your eyes . . . open your eyes . . . lift your chin . . . shut your mouth - shut your mouth.
I was indignant, but I finally realized he wasn't being nasty; he was just trying to get the lipstick on straight or the shadows around my mouth right.
I've made other mistakes. One night I was posing for some photographs and I was a little miffed, because it seemed to me I never had any free time any more - I'd given up an exciting date to have those pictures made. I flared up at the photographer over some little thing and Lloyd Leipzig, Columbia Records' publicity man, walked over and said very quietly, "Simmer down a little, huh?"
"It's my life!" I cried
"Not entirely," he said flatly.
That shut me up in a hurry. "What do you mean?" I asked.
"I mean, honey," he said deliberately, "that the cost of a career like yours is inconvenience, patience and willingness to give yourself. Other girls pound typewriters and punch time clocks. You have to pose for pictures and rehearse long hours and make appearances when you're asked. You serve the public, it doesn't serve you. Never forget that."
I probably haven't had a career long enough to really understand that yet
Another thing I did that I shouldn't have was to go out every night in the week, once I began to be asked for dates. I didn't go out much right at first because I didn't meet people I wanted to date. The men I met were mostly too old or not my kind of people. I missed going out on dates.
And then I did meet some people I liked - an actor and a musician and some singers - and I began to go out. I got so I was staying out till three or four o'clock in the morning even the night before my television show, and that's really terrible. Rehearsal on Friday started about 10:30 in the morning and went right through till the show was off the air at 8:30 at night without any real let-up. Of course I didn't have to sing all the time, but I did have to be there and act responsible.
Well, one morning after a big night I was so tired I could hardly see. The lights seemed too bright and my head throbbed. I had to take two aspirins to keep going. I wasn't fooling anybody, though. One of the producers took me aside and said. "Let's settle down, honey, and have a career?" All producers seem to talk to you in questions, but you get the idea. What he meant was, "Settle down or else - " I was scared and since then I've been sensible about dating too often.
One night I got my first real look at fame - and it made me stop and think. It happened this way. I'd been in New York about three months when I was asked to make a guest appearance on the Eddie Fisher show. Eddie asked me to go out with him after the show. Naturally I thought it was the biggest thing that could happen - going out with Eddie Fisher, the idol of at least a million girls my age. About eight o'clock we left the television studio. A big crowd of Eddie's fans were waiting. They pushed and shoved and waved papers for Eddie to autograph, and the first thing I knew I was separated from him.
I kept saying, "Pardon Me . . . Excuse me . . . May I get through, please?" but everybody just kept on screaming. Finally Eddie rescued me and we managed to get into the cab and drive away. He looked mussed up and I felt sorry for him.
"It must be hard having all those people pawing at you," I said.
"Yes," he agreed, but they mean to be friendly."
I began to see then that fame has disadvantages. But later at the theater during intermission people came up quietly and presented programs or slips of paper to be autographed. Eddie signed them and then handed them over to me, saying, "Of course you want Miss Corey's autograph too," which will show you what kind of person he is. I loved writing my name down and I felt happy again. I'd like being famous, I think.
Last June the television show where I was singing went off the air for the summer and never resumed, so I had to get a new job. It scared me a little, but it wasn't as hard as I expected. My managers and agents told me where there were openings and by the middle of August I had my present spot on CBS Radio's Stop the Music. I missed the television show at first; so many of those people had helped me, I felt close to them. But the people on Stop the Music were every bit as wonderful - Bill Cullen, the m.c., Ray Bloch, the orchestra leader, and Jack Haskell, of all people, who had sung on the same TV program I had. Right away I felt I belonged there.
During the summer I appeared in a few night clubs and sang on Star Night at some midwestern baseball parks with Perry Como, Julius LaRosa, Patti Page and "King" Cole. We traveled in a private train and I loved it. I stayed in Chicago for a week and was featured vocalist during that time on the Don McNeil Breakfast Club.
Now here I am in a New York hotel room with pale blue walls and a private bath and a closet so full of clothes that the door won't shut. I have 25 dresses - I've never had 25 dresses before; it's wonderful - and nine pairs of shoes and four coats.
There are times now when I go along for weeks at a stretch thinking I've jumped over just about all the basic hurdles and then - wham! Something happens to show me how young and insecure I am still.
Not long ago I did a guest spot on a TV show. The next day I was grabbing a sandwich where I often eat lunch and the counterman was telling me he had seen the show.
"You were terrible, kid," he said cheerfully. "You kept frowning when you sang. You didn't look happy."
"It wasn't a happy song," I said. "It was a blue song."
"Yeah, but you looked as if you hurt some place."
That really got me. I was so upset I went back to my hotel and paced up and down in my room trying to to figure out what made him talk like that. The funny part is, if a producer or director, someone who really knew, said I was bad, I wouldn't have been insulted. Why should I care about the opinion of a counterman? I don't know, but I did care. I cared a lot and I knew that as long as I could get that troubled and not really know whether he was right or wrong, I wasn't half as adult and confident as I usually think I am.
I remember something Jean Andrews had said to me shortly after I came to
New York. She's the wife of a TV producer. She said: "A smart
girl can pick up the surface tricks in a week; real understanding takes
time." I'm beginning to learn what she meant. I have a lot
to learn before I'll be famous.
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