To know my best friend Elisa Casas is to know how she feels about the 1970s sitcom One Day At A Time, which ran on CBS from 1975 to 1984. Very contemporary in its day, the Norman Lear comedy chronicled the lives of a single mom and her two adolescent daughters. Though I feel Elisa bears a physical resemblance to older daughter Julie (Mackenzie Phillips), Elisa always identified more with the spunky younger daughter Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli), certainly in no small part because she had gorgeous hair. I’ve always appreciated that Elisa remembers every episode of the show by heart, but more than any other thing, I love how Elisa worships the way the show’s top-billed star, charismatic Bonnie Franklin, could laugh and cry at the same time. Though Bonnie made it look effortless and downright cathartic, laughing and crying at the same time credibly is extremely hard to do as you have to be intensely filled with two things that are oppositional. Though life is filled with dichotomies like this, to laugh and cry simultaneously on cue—is nearly impossible and, in my humble opinion, the sign of a highly skilled actor.
The backstory behind the epic Bonnie Franklin video I made for Elisa’s 35th birthday in 2001 is, in itself, an exploration of dichotomies. Here is that story, along with the video itself, which I had transferred to a digital file at great personal expense, and—at least in terms of cost—could have justified another birthday gift in June, but I detest parsimony in any form, especially when it comes to tap dancing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the late 90s I was living in Los Angeles. Sometimes amazing things happen there that would never happen in New York, like the chance to see Bonnie Franklin perform in an intimate cabaret called the Gardenia in West Hollywood. In Manhattan, you could wait a really long time and still not have an opportunity to see Bonnie Franklin’s club act!
It so happened that my friend Andy Jacobs was visiting me that particular week, so I worked Bonnie’s gig into the itinerary for his visit. Andy was the perfect person to go with me as he was and still is always up for anything weird, adventurous or of a historical nature, and Bonnie’s club act was all three.
Though at the time I wasn’t sure why, we rather cheekily decided to sneak a camera into the show to videotape Bonnie’s gig, which proved to be a prescient choice, especially as I ended up seated right next to an amazing, overly-made up lady with long french-manicured nails and proceeded with nothing more than her martini glass, cocktail rings and fingernails to put me in a trance every time she applauded, which was often. Here is a picture of those nails:
Like Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, Bonnie stayed all night and sang ’em all: new ones, old ones, and everything in between! I clearly remember a plaintive take on Carly Simon’s That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be, a wise and wistful interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now and some song about “Hap-hap-happy Feet,” which did not feature the expected guitar or sax solo but—in a feat that evinced mastery of old-school, show biz razzle dazzle and spacial relations—instead featured Bonnie’s thrilling execution of a full-out tap dancing sequence on a piece of wood no bigger than the size of the One Day At A Time clapperboard. Genius!
I really loved that Bonnie found a way to work her love of tap into a club with a stage the size of a postage stamp. What I didn’t know at the time, was that before Bonnie was a television star, she was a child actor and later, a Broadway dancer, even earning a Tony nomination for her performance in Applause in 1970. She probably deserved an award just for having to listen to Lauren Bacall sing eight shows a week!
As if the chance to see Bonnie Franklin in such a small room wasn’t enough of a reward in itself, the star was generous enough to let me briefly interview her on camera, despite the fact that we had not asked permission, were not credentialed as “press,” and she didn’t know who we were. Maybe Bonnie was just glad to be in front of the camera again.
Perhaps it was kismet, but just around the time of Bonnie’s engagement, I was at the flea market on Fairfax and found an instructional tap dancing video Bonnie had made in the 1980s called I Hate To Excercise, But I Love To Tap. Apparently, Bonnie had attempted to tap her way onto the 1980s exercise video bonanza by teaching lazy couch potatoes who loved One Day At A Time how to direct their feet to the skinny side of the street. As she repeatedly gushes in the video, “I’ve never seen an unhappy tap dancer!” and Bonnie does, indeed, seem very happy whenever she is tap dancing. I think Bonnie had another reason for her tap dancing passion: it was the secret to how she managed to turn that smile upside down. When I found the tap dancing, I had an a-ha moment and I knew exactly why God meant for Andy to videotape the Gardenia show.
My favorite moment with Bonnie, preserved in the video I subsequently edited, concerned me and Elisa’s favorite episode of the show, the one where Ann Romano—Bonnie’s character—was having a 36th birthday party. On that unforgettable show (at least to us), Bonnie/Ann is feeling tremendous conflict about aging and being on her own. She is alone in her bedroom giving herself a pep talk in a mirror and—that’s right—laughing and crying in that inimitable Bonnie Franklin. Who hasn’t felt this way? Elisa and I had talked about that very episode for many years and I was completely over the moon that Bonnie remembered it took time out from chatting with people she actually knew to talk about the show. Personally, I have been trying to laugh and cry at the same time for about thirty years, but it has only happened a few times by accident and not ever when I could have won a strategic advantage for having pulled it off, like to win a fight, or to impress someone with my forbearance in the midst of a great emotional challenge.
After two long afternoons in the editing room, I cut the footage together with the band Suede’s Can’t Get Enough and emerged with an “All-tapping, All singing, All Bonnie” eight minute opus! Though it is too long, I think it holds up quite well, though not as well as the episode of One Day At A Time when Annie turns 36.
This was my special gift for Elisa. In the course of making it, I formed a strangely intimate relationship with Bonnie Franklin, the tap dancing dynamo who never fails to remind me that life is full of dualities, like the inextricable relationship between comedy and tragedy, the essence of Bonnie Franklin’s singular ability to show us mirth and pain together.