When I grew up and actually moved across country to begin my career in show business, it seemed at once inevitable and unbelievable that I found myself in some of the strange Hollywood places I did. At no point in my career did I experience the the tingly twinkle of Tinseltown time travel more than during my too-brief but very pleasurable tenure with songwriter Bruce Roberts who, like me, is a connoisseur of kitsch but, unlike me, has the rolodex to back it up. What this means is that he gets invited to lots of parties and actually knows people when he gets there. Connie Stevens’ birthday party was one of our most wonderful, surreal outings. Bruce was very friendly with Connie’s daughter Joely Fisher (who sang on the Lethal Seduction/Dangerous Kiss Suite, the gayest song of all time) and that may have been how he came to know her mom. Or, for all I know, Connie recorded one of Bruce’s songs. The main thing is, we were on the list — and what a list it was.
“It was as if Robert Osborne’s TCM Cruise had somehow run aground in Connie’s backyard, only better!”
Connie Stevens from Beverly Hills was born Concetta Rosalie Ann Ingoglia in Brooklyn. She was discovered by Jerry Lewis and became a Warner Bros. contract player in the late 1950s. Among her many accomplishments: Connie was a big recording artist, (who can forget her 1959 hit “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb”?); the star of TV’s Hawaiian Eye; a Match Game regular; a paramour of Elvis Presley; the spokesperson for Ace Hardware (“Ace is the place with the helpful hardware man”); wife of singer Eddie Fisher; a successful businesswoman as the creator of the Connie Stevens Forever Young cosmetics line; and, in the 1990s, owner of the Connie Stevens Garden Sanctuary Day Spa in West Hollywood (I’m thrilled to say I had an opportunity to visit the spa before it closed and can report that it was, in fact, quite relaxing).
While Connie Stevens’ backyard birthday party (held on August 8, 2000) was a typical night out for Bruce, it was a real thrill for both me and my then-assistant Nick DiFruscia who tagged along. That evening was so over-the-top with famous stars from Hollywood’s golden days that I went home and wrote down every detail. The diary entry has helped me recall the night in vivid detail.
The arrival was very dramatic. Picture this: we wended our way through Beverly Hills up to Delfern Drive and pulled into the mansion’s circular driveway. We were escorted into the house, through the foyer and straight out into the birthday girl’s very large backyard, which looked like a jungle safari, only instead of wild animals milling about it was the cast of That’s Entertainment! It was like Robert Osborne’s TCM cruise had somehow run aground in Connie’s backyard, only better, because I didn’t have to compete with Mr. Osborne to speak with anyone. I immediately recognized the opportunity to mingle with Connie’s friends as a final, fleeting chance to meet so many of these incredible people and really get my Old-Hollywood mojo going. Here is a portion of my journal entry that night verbatim:
Spotted: a corpulent Merv Griffin. When Bruce went up to him and said, “Hi, Merv, I’m not sure if you remember me, but…,” Merv smiled, interrupted him with “of course, of course, your Bruce Roberts the songwriter,” and began singing in full voice, “I write the songs that make the whole world sing!” Neither Bruce nor I had the heart to tell him that he was confusing Bruce Roberts with Bruce Johnston, and that Bruce Roberts didn’t write that song that made the whole world sing. Bruce and I both agreed later that the anecdote was worth far more than what would have been, at best, a rhythmically awkward a cappella rendition of “Enough is Enough!”
Also seen: Red Buttons; Jerry Vale; Tony Martin and statuesque wife Cyd Charisse (still very beautiful and, oy, those legs!); Dianne Carroll (serving big glamour); Michele Lee (again!—third time in two months—Bruce must be on the same circuit as Michele Lee, which is either very good or very bad, depending on your perspective, obviously for me it’s the former; Esther Williams and her amazing false eyelashes, (so big that they were probably invited separately)—I told her that I loved her autobiography, even though I hadn’t read it yet, but I really, really, would; socialite/diet guru Nikki Haskell (deliciously pretentious but so sincere that I find her irresistible—She: “I’ve just gotten off the plane from the South of France;” Bruce: “who’d you see there?” She: “oh, just everyone, you know, Princess Caroline, Joan Collins!”…what??); something that from a distance looked like a gargoyle smoking a cigar but as you grew closer turned into Milton Berle, who apparently does not let the fact that he is now shaped like a question mark , confined to a wheelchair, and unable to speak prevent him from getting his partay on); Uncle Miltie’s lovely wife Lorna, who was super friendly and must have the patience of a saint; David Brenner; one of Miles Davis‘ wives—not Cicely Tyson, the other one (Bruce reminded me she is also the hostess at Hamburger Hamlet so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Miles Davis might have been much better at the trumpet than he was at the stock market), Tab Hunter, who is gay and the nicest person ever and lives in Santa Barbara with his boyfriend; Diane Ladd (Laura Dern’s mother), who told me all about her exercise regimen (for some reason in a moment of gayman-nesia, I thought she was another actress, Shirley Knight, the whole time we were speaking, which actually had no discernible affect on our ability to bond); Norm Crosby and so many more I can’t even remember! In a strange Hollywood coincidence, the facade of Connie’s house was used in exteriors for the film version of Postcards From The Edge, which was written by Carrie Fisher who used to be Connie’s step-daughter!
The awesome party was made more awesome because Bruce was on a first name basis with everyone, including—remarkably—Milton Berle. However, owing to Berle’s unfortunate infirmity, I had no way of knowing if Bruce’s familiarity was reciprocated. Toward the end of the evening, Connie ended up in a homo-klatch with Bruce, her Grease 2 co-star Tab Hunter, and myself, owing, no doubt, to the stereotypical (though completely true) fact that when it comes to matters of concern to a glamorous star, the rapt attention of a small group of gay men is immeasurably better than intercourse. She breezily regaled us with stories, the most memorable of which concerned a secret about her amazing home.
Connie told us that she had bought the house many years ago from Sonja Henie, the famous Norwegian ice skater who became a huge star at 20th-Century Fox in the 1930s and 1940s, and was to the ice what the aforementioned Esther Williams was to the water. Connie told us that back in the day, Sonja missed Norway so much that she had a mural of a pastoral Norwegian landscape painted on the walls of the attic and it was still there! Well, I looked at Bruce and Tab and Nick, who looked at me, and we all four looked at Connie together and, bless her heart, we didn’t even have to ask because Ms. Stevens intuitively understood the pavlovian homosexual response to having imparted a factoid that simultaneously encompassed deep Hollywood history and an architectural secret and immediately dispatched a helper to take us on a private tour of her attic! Hallelujah! As we were walking toward the house, Connie shouted a parting coup de gay: “Enjoy yourselves boys and don’t mind the clutter—I have every costume I’ve ever worn up there too!” We looked at each other and someone shouted back, “Oh, don’t worry Connie, we’ll manage just fine!”
So up the steps we went; several flights, then a smaller staircase and POW! SEQUINS! She wasn’t kidding—every costume she ever wore. Though Sonja Henie’s Norwegian murals were quite lovely and I respected Connie for preserving them, what chance could they really have to be admired when competing with what appeared to be a glittering twister ripping through Bob Mackie’s studio, circa 1977? We stayed up there “oohing” and “ahhing” for ten or fifteen minutes—about as long as we could without risking the hostess sending out a search party.
What a joyful end to one of my most-memorable nights out in Hollywood.
Trust me, dear readers, there is no greater cure for the blues than a few glasses of champagne and a field trip to Connie Stevens’ attic.
That reminds me: speaking of food and libation, I unearthed two vintage Connie Stevens recipes that prove her hostessing skills extend far beyond famous guests and house tours. I couldn’t decide between her stuffed artichokes and what can best be described as an “exotic” recipe for Danish Cheese Buns With Fruit and Cheese Platter, so here are both. Let it not be said that I stood between any person and Connie Stevens’ Danish Buns!
*Incidentally, though it took several more years, I did make good on my promise to read Esther Williams’ autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, and I promise you it was absolutely a first-rate Hollywood autobiography, as is Tab Hunter’s autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential.
You may also enjoy:
Do It Debbie’s Way! A Tribute to the Unsinkable Miss Reynolds and Her Superb Multimedia Exercise Program
CONNIE STEVENS’ STUFFED ARTICHOKES
2 cups bread crumbs (Progresso herb Italian, if available)
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
Cut off the artichoke stems very evenly so they stand up alone. Cut off the top fourth of the artichoke leaves; spread the leaves so they resemble a rose and wash them; turn the artichokes upside down to dry.
In a bowl, mix the remaining ingredients except the olive oil. Pour a little olive oil over the mixture to make a paste. Put some of the paste mixture in between every leaf and layer of the artichokes.
With a little water at the bottom of a large pot, steam the artichokes for approximately 1 hour; add additional water as it evaporates.
If you have any mixture left over, don’t throw it away. Fry it in a pan and give it to your dog (Editors note: I did not write that, ostensibly Connie Stevens did — I personally don’t recommend feeding fried food to dogs unless you want them to throw up Connie Stevens’ Stuffed Artichoke Paste all over your davenport!)
CONNIE STEVENS’ DANISH CHEESE BUNS WITH FRUIT AND CHEESE PLATTER
2 egg whites
3.5 ounces grated Gruyere or Cheddar Cheese
Vegetable oil, for frying
Dash celery salt
Assorted sliced cheeses, for serving
Assorted sliced fruits, for serving
Beat the egg whites until stiff. Add the grated cheese and paprika. Form into buns. Using a spoon, carefully place them in a pot of hot oil and fry them until they become golden brown. Lay them out on double paper towels; sprinkle with celery salt. Serve hot on a tray surrounded by the slices of cheese and fruit.
Yields 4 to 6 servings.