When I was 14, Shauna Weisman discovered me doing the "Mashed Potato" at a sock hop and mirrored me, move for move. Shauna was a blonde 16-year-old Jewish American Princess with a Mustang, a big allowance and no curfew—all the advantages of a broken home. When I mirrored her "Watusi," she asked me to do a go-go routine at an event with her. She'd pay me a third of whatever she made. I was thrilled.
We watched "Hullaballoo" together and choreographed a whole routine. She gave me her old pair of go-go boots and loaned me a sailor dress. With her platinum pixie and my auburn ponytail, we'd be a great team. Daddy took a stand against it ... until I told him I'd make $20 an hour more than babysitting. "Be home by midnight, dear," he revised.
My dance career began at a bar mitzvah where we were hired by Phil Spector. He was managing African-American girl groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes, and figured us wholesome high-school white girls could help them cross over to a wider, whiter audience. Within a year, Shauna and I were shakin' in cages at Yale University mixers, getting lots of R-E-S-P-E-C-T from Ivy League guys, and at local clubs. The crowds, the money and the rooms got bigger and draftier, our skirts shorter and skimpier, but our exhibitionism kept us warm. We had a great ride, until I graduated to study theater arts at college and retired.
After three years, my sentence to a dreary dorm room and drama history taught by dilettantes on tenure was driving me nuts. I was 20 and broke, so I decided to make my go-go comeback. Motown had made me more money than Moliere ever would, so one Friday, I carried my bag of costumes on the train to NYC. I hiked up a crooked, creaky staircase into the Phil Franco Dance Agency.
The cigar smoke was so thick in the outer office, I could hardly make out the pictures of tassel twirlers and belly dancers yellowing on the walls.
"Somebody out there?"
"Hello, Mr. Franco? I'm the dancer? I have an appointment."
A wizened little man behind a desk, phone and stogie gestured to me to sit.
"What can I say … the dame got sick." He's checkin' me out. "Who the hell knows, cramps, a cough—she can't make it. OK? Substitute? Puh. In 2 hours? I can't line anybody up that fast. ... Ahh, screw you, too!" He slammed the phone down.
"How do you do, Mr. Franco. I'm the dancer from ..."
"Had go-go experience?
"Well, yes. I danced at Yale, at a double Sweet 16, and study dance at college."
"You free for a job tonight? Pays $40 an hour— 3-hour minimum. One-night guarantee to start. I take 10 percent and tips. My word is your bond."
He scribbled a booking slip and dialed simultaneously.
"Now, you're very wholesome, I would want to preserve that."
"Oh, me, too."
"Morty? Darling? You're in luck. Gotcha uh girl. Seven o'clock, she's there. Treat her nice … college kid, OK?" He shoved the paper at me. "So, here's whatcha do: You go to Port Authority right down 8th Avenue here, take the five oh five to Passaic, N.J., ask the driver to drop you at the bowling alley. Ya climb over the esplanade, call this number from the pay phone in d'ere and they'll quick come pick y'up."
"Oh, thank you. I'll do a good job, I promise!"
An agent and a job on the first try? I bussed and climbed and clambered and called and a wise guy in a souped-up Caddie fetched me. He drove me to Morty's—a large truck stop diner/bar/pool hall off the Pike. It was so dark inside I could hardly see the bartender.
"Hello. I'm the dancer. Where's the dressing room, please?"
He pointed down a darkened hall.
"The one john—down the hall."
Urinals have always nauseated me, especially with those blue scent dispensers staining the inside. I stepped into my sailor frock and white boots for my first dance set in years. The bartender shoved my bag under the register.
"Here's nickels, pick your tunes on the jukebox, climb up on the bar and do your thing." I chose from the meager selections, struggled onto the too-narrow bar.
I couldn't locate my cool to "Hang On, Sloopy." It wasn't available in a room devoid of atmosphere, amplifiers or interest from the customers. Shauna's steps weren't going to work; my half of the "Hully Gully" could catapult me into the onions, olives, lemons and limes.
"I Wanna Hold Your Hand" was up next. I couldn't find a feel, so I pantomimed the words.
Ten lousy songs later, an older man in a summer suit came in, ordered a whiskey sour and sat at my feet swirling it, smiling up at me. Finally. An audience. I'd use the suited man to awaken my muse's moves. But then ...
"Hey, Bitch. I'd like to poke in those tights. Show us your stuff, skinny. You look hungry. Want something to eat? Bite my dick burger—nice and rare."
Hurt, I climbed down and asked the bartender: "Please ask this man to leave!"
"No?! I've never been treated this way in—"
"Hey, what you want me to do? It's Morty. He's the owner—10 years. You been here two hours. Why don't I just give us all a break and bounce you instead?"
"I can't go! I have a contract."
"I'll get you a lift to the bowling alley."
"Please! I've never left a job early or been fired from anything in my life."
"OK, OK. Suit yourself … you're done at 10, though."
I flop-sweated as never before, while Morty's inebriation and imaginative insults intensified.
Sniffling in the bathroom on a break, I noticed a sign on the wall, itemizing the fire law limits, naming the proprietor: Morty Weisman. Very familiar.
On "Volare," he started in again.
"Hey Pussy, nice pulkes ya got there. Take off that wussy fuckin' outfit and dance on this …"
I called to him: "Excuse me, sir—are you Shauna Weisman's father?"
He sobered up.
"Huh? You mean from New Haven?"
"Yes," I yelled above the din.
"She's my niece. My brother's kid"
"She's a very nice girl. Good dancer, too."
"Uh huh. You her friend?"
"From high school. We did dance jobs together. I'll call and tell her we met."
Mortified, Morty slunk away. Relieved, I basically swayed 'til the awful night ended. My brand of go-go had gone-gone, degenerated into dirty dancing while I was evolving as an actress. Shakespeare had endured for millennia. It was time to get better at that.