Shirley Booth starred in Hazel on television. My mother watched it every week. I think she sort of identified with Hazel – middle-aged, plump, expected to solve everyone's problems big and small. There wasn't any real life crisis that could interfere with Hazel the maid's care and keeping of the Baxter family for whom she worked. No one was more adept at smoothing hurt feelings, praising childhood accomplishments or mitigating suburban social disasters like Hazel. Her secret? Offer them a shoulder to cry on and a plate of homemade chocolate fudge. I think my mother felt that if only life's hurts could be cured by fudge she'd be ahead of the game..
So when Shirley Booth arrived in our home town one summer in a stage play called The Desk Set, my mother was overjoyed. The play was to be performed for one week at our local summer stock theater, Famous Artists Playhouse. Murray Bernthal, the producer, brought touring shows to Syracuse every summer, usually with famous stars of yesteryear. Betty Grable, Ray Bolger, Sylvia Sidney, Hans Conried – all played Syracuse in their twilight years.
Famous Artists was located in a high school right down the block from our house.
The summer The Desk Set played, I was 16 and had signed on as a volunteer apprentice at the theater: painting scenery, gathering props and working backstage during the performances. I was lucky enough to be chosen to be Shirley Booth's "dresser" during the run of The Desk Set.
My only other experience as dresser to the star came earlier in the season when Jane, the costume mistress, asked me to help with a quick change: getting an actor named Barry Nelson from a business suit, top coat and fedora into a pair of pajamas while the audience sat staring at an empty stage. Jane and I would wait for him just behind the "bathroom door" of his "apartment". She was standing on a chair and I was kneeling because I had the bottom half. I slipped off his shoes and pulled down his pants while she tore off his coat and ripped his Velcroed shirt and tie up the back. We got him down to his underwear and into silk pajamas, slippers and back onstage in 43 seconds. The whole thing made for very interesting listening when Sister Robertine read aloud my essay on "A Fun Activity During My Summer Vacation" to our 10th grade English class. Her only comment was "I thought a dresser was a piece of furniture."
As dresser to Miss Booth I did just about any gofer job she needed to have done. That included walking her dog, a Pekinese named Muffles, unpacking her costumes, hanging them up and helping her with any tricky costume changes during the show.
The other thing I got to do was to watch every minute of her breathtaking performance from the wings each night. During a tipsy Christmas party in the 2nd Act, her character, Bunny, sat next to a young man playing a piano and sang Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me." Even at 16, I heard in her voice the middle-aged fear of being alone.
I used my credit at the box office to get my mother a great seat, on the aisle and down front, for the Wednesday matinee of The Desk Set. She was there by herself and in her usual way enjoyed every moment of the show.
The last night of the run – the night when The Desk Set company would move on to a new city – was Saturday night. My mother decided that she would make Shirley Booth a batch of fudge and I would present it to her after the final curtain. She had things all figured out. She'd make the fudge Saturday morning, let it cool all afternoon, cut it and pack it into a box that once held mints. I would bring it with me to the final performance.
My relationship with Miss Booth was OK. She was always polite but distant and I was very shy in her presence. I didn't know how she'd react to being handed a box of fudge and I didn't want to find out. I told my mom I didn't think it was a good idea. "What if she hates fudge? What if she's allergic to chocolate? I'll be so embarrassed!"
My mother simply waited for all of my objections to be voiced and then she said, "You know, I think I've been waiting for something great like this to happen all my life. Imagine giving Hazel fudge!"
So guess what? I brought the fudge. I was sent merrily off to the theater on Saturday night with a heavy octagonal candy box clutched in my sweaty palms.
After the show, amid the chaos of hammer blows, falling flats and cheerful cursing that indicated that "strike night" was in full swing, I knocked on Shirley Booth's dressing room door. When she saw me she smiled in her remote way and said she was just coming to look for me to say good-bye. Most of her makeup was packed and the costume racks had already been rolled on to the truck. I bent down to scratch Muffles' ears. His bed was gone and he was already wearing his little plaid traveling jacket.
"I want to thank you," Miss Booth said, "for all you've done for me and Muffles this week. I'm a tired old lady and I don't always take the time to get to know the young people who've been so helpful on this tour. I'm sorry I haven't been very chatty." She held out her hand for a shake and I began the presentation I'd been dreading: "Uh . . . Miss Booth . . . my uh mother is a major fan of yours, especially when you were in Hazel which she used to watch all the time. . . . And well uh, she thought you'd enjoy it if she made you some fudge from her own special recipe. You don't have to actually eat it or anything . . . . In fact if you want to just throw it away I'll understand . . . you're probably on a diet or have diabetes or something . . . not that you need to diet . . . because you're certainly not fat and you don't actually look sick or . . ."
At that point Shirley Booth interrupted my bizarre flow of words. "Will you stop talking and give me the fudge already? For gosh sakes, a person could starve waiting for you to finish!"
She took the octagonal box in both her hands, feeling the heft of it with a delighted grin. "Why there must be two pounds packed in here! Wasn't your mother a sweetheart to think of me?" she cried. "Let's try it shall we?"
She took the top off the box and bent down to smell the chocolate. Then she removed a big piece and broke it in two, giving me the smaller half. We both took a bite and Shirley sighed. "Lord, I haven't tasted fudge like this since I was in my twenties – that's way before you were born, young lady!"
And in the ritual breaking and sharing of my mother's fudge, we became friends. She broke another piece for us and told me how she got started in the theater over her father's objections and how she worked at Woolworth's perfume counter and took the subway home to Brooklyn each night. She told me her acting teachers said she probably wouldn't make it and how hard it was to find work.
"When I first started to pound the pavement in New York, acting jobs were as scarce as hen's teeth!" she declared. When I looked blank she gave my shoulder a playful shove and explained that people use that expression because hens don't have teeth. "If I lost an audition or got fired from a job I'd go home and make a batch of fudge to cheer myself up."
After we finished our second piece she reluctantly closed the box. "Tell your mom she makes better fudge than Hazel!" And then she laughed her Shirley Booth/Hazel laugh. The one we knew well from so many sessions in front of the television. I wished I could bring it home for my mom to hear. What I really wish is that I had had the nerve to bring her backstage so she could hand over the fudge herself. What a gift I failed to give her by being such a wimp. When I told her that Shirley Booth said she makes better fudge than Hazel she actually started to cry.
"What's your Mom's name?" "Eleanor" I said. Miss Booth took a gold pin shaped like a flower from her make-up case and handed it to me. "I was going to give this to you," she said, "but I think I'd like Eleanor to have it instead."
Then the stage manager appeared in the doorway and Miss Booth asked him if he had a camera. He got a Polaroid from his desk and snapped a picture of me, Shirley Booth and the fudge. She gave me a quick hug, picked up Muffles' leash and was gone. I pinned the flower to my tee shirt so I wouldn't lose it, and went out to help strike the set.