Remembering Penny - By Caren Garber Gorenberg
Winter 2019 - Vol. XXVIII, Issue CIII
Editor’s Note: We were all saddened to hear of the recent tragic loss of Penny Marshall, famed Bronx actress, producer, and director. Marshall played Laverne on the ‘70s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley”, receiving three Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress. She then went on to direct and produce a number of highly successful films, including “Big”, the first female-directed movie to gross more than $100 million domestic box office. When we received this story, we knew we simply had to publish it. Please enjoy in honor of Penny’s lasting memory.
I was saddened to learn of Penny Marshall’s passing. Although most people knew her through TV and movies, for me it brought back a flood of childhood memories. I spent many happy hours taking dancing lessons at her mom’s studio located in the basement ballroom of their apartment building on the Grand Concourse (3235). As a traditional rite of passage, hundreds of mothers brought their kids to her studio for lessons in tap, acrobatics, and a smidgen of ballet.
Known as MMDC (Marjorie Marshall’s Dance Club), Penny jokingly referred to it as My Mother’s Dirty Cellar! After my first year of lessons, Marjorie invited me to join Penny and the rest of her premier group, the Junior Rockettes. They were modeled and named after the precision dancers at Radio City Music Hall. From age 9 until 19, I continued performing and taking lessons.
Penny and I attended J.H.S. 80. I was a year ahead. Among other people who attended during those years, Ralph Lauren (nee Lipschitz), Robert Klein, and Calvin Klein also went on to illustrious careers. This big red brick building with a large surrounding cement courtyard wrapped in high chain link fence mirrored many big NY neighborhood schools of that period.
During those years, our classes ranged from kindergarten all the way through ninth grade. The school had an excellent reputation. Pearl Thaler was the Principal. I guess she was a mere mortal, but she struck terror in the hearts of the student body! Assistant Principals Henrietta Birnbaum and Barry Schacter were far less intimidating. Looking to verify some information for this article, I was surprised to learn that after 90 years, the school has been turned into a middle school, has had its name changed, and has suffered a downward spiral mired in controversy.
Directly across from the school was “The Parkway”, the favorite outdoor gathering place for generations of local kids. I spent many an evening walking from my building on Knox Place to hang out with friends for a few hours. With a rail to sit on, kids gathered in distinct clusters, separated and identified by age, attire, and “adventurousness”. We all knew who the hot-shots were. The very few older guys who had cars had those distinctive American ‘50s cars that are now classics. You could identify who was there by noting the cars parked out front for the evening.
The Dancing School gave numerous benefit recitals during the year. Many of them were for The Bronx March of Dimes. Marjorie’s son Garry was an accomplished drummer. If he happened to be in town, he’d join in and play the drums, elevating the ensemble performance to a whole new level. Marjorie’s mother, Mrs. Ward, sewed our costumes. After she lost her sight, Mildred Roth became our costumer. We took our turns being measured for new outfits, but I never gave a thought to how much work that actually entailed.
I loved Marjorie. Sitting and playing an upright piano with a menthol cigarette and her favorite Yoo-Hoo drink close by, she accompanied the dancers, from the littlest ones up through the teenagers. Incredibly multitalented, she often wrote the songs that we sang in our shows. She loved Broadway. After attending different musicals playing in Manhattan, and with perhaps a bit of a photographic memory, she would return inspired with new ideas and routines for us to learn.
Saturdays were the best. In my teen years, the Junior Rockettes had their lessons at leisure, beginning at about 10:30am. With very few time constraints, we’d arrive in the morning, rehearse and learn new steps, and munch on snacks from our favorite nearby grocery store, Penzer’s.
Marjorie arranged for us to perform in some surprising places. One of my earliest recollections was dancing at an event at the Hotel Delmonico. Another was a dinner honoring Heavyweight Boxing Champion Hurricane Jackson. I believe we dressed somewhere in the kitchen near the soup. Once, we went to a lawn party in Westchester with our tap shoes…a lawn party! With no piano, yet not to be deterred, Margie accompanied us on a kazoo. We entertained troops at various military bases around the Metropolitan area. Someone help me: I might be wrong, but if I remember correctly, we went up to Sing Sing in Ossining, and we danced! And with an acceptance ahead of her time, in high school we danced at a review called “Midnight in the Village” down in Greenwich Village.
In earlier years, Ed Herlihy was a familiar voice in movie newsreels. He was also the host of TV’s “Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour”. We auditioned and were accepted for that program. Schlepping our hat boxes filled with costumes, shoes, and makeup, we’d gather at Mosholu Parkway and take the subway downtown. Penny, by the way, had motion sickness and always had to face forward on the train.
You might recall the jingle, “You don’t have to go to uni-versity / to know what you should do when you are thir-si-ty / Drink Hoffman’s, Drink Hoffman’s / Hoffman’s is the finest when you’re thir-si-ty!” We got to sing along with the other performers and were even permitted to drink some warm Hoffman’s Ginger Ale! Afterwards, for a treat, we ate at the nearby Horn and Hardart Automat, putting our nickels into the slots and being rewarded when the glass door popped open with our selection. Yum!
We auditioned and were accepted for TV’s “Ted Mack Amateur Hour”. To vote for your favorite, you could call in or send a postcard with your vote to Box 191, Radio City Station. Because of the dancing school, we had a built-in number of voters. We were three-time winners on the “Amateur Hour” and got to perform in the finals at Madison Square Garden! It was incredible to run around in that vast space before the show. A little singer named Jo-Jo Vitale was the grand winner. He sang “That’s Amore”, a Dean Martin favorite. As a side note, we were also used occasionally as “filler” on the “Amateur Hour” under various different names if an act couldn’t show up!
Without a doubt Marjorie’s grandest coup, however, was attempting to get us an audition for the “Jackie Gleason Show”. Now we were talking Big Leagues! Approaching choreographer June Taylor, she was told that no one appeared on the show without the approval of Jackie Gleason himself. Marjorie returned some time later and said that Mr. Gleason had approved. June choreographed a clever number where we were dressed in the same fancy costumes as the June Taylor Dancers. Then we were hidden in hollowed-out pillars set up on a short flight of stairs. June’s girls danced up the stairs on one side, and we emerged and danced down on the other. We were shorter, so it was a great optical illusion! Since the show was “live” with a studio audience, we had to remain waiting inside the pillars until the number was on.
The day of the show, we roamed the rehearsal studio with our autograph books, hounding anyone we could find. That week, “Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs” was a guest. And of course Art Carney was a regular, along with the rest of “The Honeymooners” cast of Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph. Perhaps this is urban legend, but my recollection is that when Jackie Gleason arrived, he wanted to know who those kids running around the studio were, hair in pin curls, and autograph books in hand. When June confronted Marjorie, she said, “Mrs. Marshall, you’ve got a lot of guts!” I still have my tattered autograph book from those days.
Marjorie and June became friends. We also got to know her sister Marilyn, who was far less intimidating to us. We took occasional lessons at the stylish June Taylor Studios in Manhattan, and we were invited to perform a second time the following year for the season finale of the “Jackie Gleason Show”. Years later, Marilyn married Jackie Gleason.
When it was time to think about high school, I took the admission tests for Performing Arts (now La Guardia) and Bronx Science. The rigorous dance agenda test for Performing Arts required several hours of group participation, as well as an individual performance. Marjorie helped me prepare my tap solo. I muddled through the group exercises at the ballet bar where most everyone else was fully outfitted in the appropriate garb: matching leotards, tights, etc.
After over sixty years, my recollections are a bit vague. However, I will never forget that after we moved on past running leaps and turns across a large room, it was time for individual solos. Changing into my tap shoes with their sophisticated jingle taps, I clanked all the way to the judges’ table, handing them my accompanying recording to play. The others performed ballet or modern pieces; I was the only one doing a tap number. I made a lot of noise! I was delighted and more than a bit surprised a few weeks later when I received the letter informing me of my acceptance. Shortly afterwards, I was accepted at Science as well. With a bit of vacillation, and with my parents’ input, we decided I could keep on dancing while attending Science.
In high school, I began working at Dancing School as an assistant. Thanks to that job, I always had some pocket money and a built-in resource for babysitting! I’m pretty sure the going rate at the time was 50 cents an hour. The little ones loved having their “teacher” take care of them on a weekend day or night.
Continuing my education at the convenient and striking gothic Hunter College uptown campus (now Lehman College), I scheduled all my classes in a row so I could walk to work at Dancing School nearby. Marjorie always had a sandwich waiting for me while I changed into my dance attire before I began working with the students. I loved performing and enjoyed teaching.
During high school, Marjorie introduced me to Camps Onibar and Geneva. Located on an idyllic spot in Lake Como, PA, this brother/sister camp was a different world from my cement sidewalks upbringing in The Bronx. As a young woman, Marjorie had attended years before. I met my future husband, Dick Gorenberg, on July 2nd, 1957, the very first night the boys came over. He was a Guest Waiter at Onibar. Penny was at camp too. I was the Dance Counselor, and Penny often helped out. We performed together on occasion. We spent wonderful summers there. Dick and I were married in 1962 when I graduated from college. At a reunion held at the camp in 1990, Penny and I reunited and performed once again. It was fun!
I kept up with Marjorie through letters. She moved to California where Garry had a string of great successes. Penny followed, making a name for herself in her own right. Many years passed. We had four wonderful children. Marjorie visited once and brought autographed pictures of Penny and Garry for my kids. My youngest son said, “I never believed that you really knew Penny Marshall until her mother came to visit us at our house!” During those years, my husband opened a successful GYN practice in Gainesville, Florida, retiring in 2015 after 43 years.
In December of 2006, my routine chest x-ray revealed a lung mass. Following scans, biopsy, and an NY consult, surgeons removed my right upper and mid lobes, but the cancer had spread to my left lung. The shocking diagnosis was stage IV lung cancer, with a grim prognosis and a 15% five-year survival rate. I have been incredibly fortunate. After my traditional chemotherapy failed, I had genetic testing and was placed on a daily targeted drug that has mostly kept the cancer at bay.
In 2009, I met Bonnie Addario, a lung cancer survivor whose foundation is dedicated to supporting and educating all patients, caregivers, and the public about this #1 cancer killer. Inspired by her, in 2010 I began Run Amuck with the Duck here in Gainesville, FL, a 5K walk/run raising funds for the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. Our 10th annual event is scheduled for March 2nd, 2019.
So now, after all these years, Penny and I ended up with another common bond. We had been in contact occasionally. We spoke for a long time in 2009 after she was diagnosed with lung cancer and brain metastases. She fared remarkably well after treatment. We visited her in her home in Hollywood. With her well-known celebrity, I approached her and she graciously agreed to do a television Public Service Announcement that we have aired locally.
I’m grateful to her and sorry to know she’s gone. She will be missed by many.
Remember the fun we had, friends
Remember the singers sweet
Remember the dainty dancers
And don’t forget though we never meet
That we like to entertain you
And now that we are through
We hope you’ll remember us, friends
As we will remember you.