My Hero Sang a Racist Song
The drawer of the DVD player slides into place, closing the door on the stresses and strains of my day. A recliner embraces my world-weary muscles, as I flip the handle on the side and pop up the footrest. I snuggle under a blanket, a crockery bowl of still-warm popcorn in the crook of my arm. Movie time. Across the television screen, opening credits announce Liza with a Z, a 1972 song-and-dance television special. The star and her chorus line are probably coiled just off stage, anticipating their cue.
I know that feeling.
At thirteen, I tagged along with my parents, when they took my big sister to audition for The Pirates of Penzance. After Big Sis finished, the pianist turned to me. “You’re up next.”
My step-mom pushed me forward, in that parental way that makes it clear you have no choice. After I do-re-me’d and fa-la-la’d for the pianist, he nodded. “Okay, you’re in.”
I didn’t even know what in meant.
I was cast in the chorus.
Theatre people enfolded me like fairy godmothers. Costume fittings made me look beautiful. Rehearsals made me sound beautiful. Performances made me feel beautiful. The cast and crew were witty and chatty. They were the in-crowd, and I was one of them. For the first time in my scrawny, scared-of-my-shadow (and yours, too) life, I let down my guard.
Every night, we daughters of the major general posed behind the curtain, positioned for our entrance. Every night, a Penzance sister would wink at me with a thumbs-up.
Liza and me. Waiting for our cues.
I crunch a mouthful of popcorn and tuck in the blanket to ward off a draft. On the television screen, dancers inch sideways across the boards, in top hats and tails — knees and toes turned in, then out, then in again. Fingers splayed, alternately hunching and rolling their shoulders. Signature Bob Fosse choreography. Liza’s probably warming up backstage, an image that shoots a jolt of happy through my toes. I windshield wiper my feet in place. They want to dance.
In college, modern dance was the only class I showed up for on a regular basis. Every time I crossed the threshold, the studio welcomed my bare feet back home. I padded over to my place, the floor an expanse of wood warmed by sun pouring in through a skylight. Like the other girls, I wore a bright-colored leotard and footless tights, leg warmers bunched around my ankles. We were in uniform, right down to our sweatbands — mine holding back my Afro. One after another, we glided past our instructor, our parade reflected in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I admired the graceful arc each of us carved, as she swirled on command, head tilted and outstretched arms curved ever so slightly. Under the studio’s beamed ceiling, shyness lifted. I watched the other girls. They watched me.
Liza and me. Dancers.
Snug beneath my blanket, I anticipate my hero’s entrance. The only thing better than sexy Bob Fosse choreography is Liza Minnelli performing it. She slinks on from stage right, squeezed shoulder to shoulder with the others in the front row, her precision movements identical to theirs. She’s just another cog in the machinery. Except — against a corps of black-clad hoofers, Liza sports a red minidress. It caresses her curves from squared shoulders, past nipped waistline, to a stopping point just below her bottom. I’m worried an inadvertent kick will reveal her underwear. I’m a little titillated too; no matter how high she kicks, her undies never show, and I kind of wish they did. God, that dress is short.
Back in 1972 — the same year Liza made the television special — a red mini hung in my dorm room closet. According to my best friend, the dress spent more time on the dance floor than in the closet. A sleeveless bodice cinched my waist and was attached to a gathered skirt, which draped modestly to my knees. Well, it had draped modestly to my knees at the time step-mom had bought it for me. After I went off to college, I shortened the demure frock to barely past don’t-bend-over. In street clothes, I shuffled, tripped, and kept my head down, but when I slipped into that little red come-hither — Lord have mercy. In smoky party rooms, pounding bass ignited my signature shoulder pump. As I thrust and spun to the throb of disco, silk swished against my hips. God, that dress was short.
Liza and me. Red-dress flirts.
Between numbers, Minnelli shares stories with the audience, a bowler hat tilted to accentuate her fake lashes. Her expression slides from sexy to demure and back again. Wide-eyed innocence and breathy inflection — the spitting image of her mother, Judy Garland. Any minute, I expect the Cabaret star to start calling for Auntie Em. Which makes me weepy, like the time Uncle Al told me, “You’re the spittin’ image of Catherine.” My mama. His proclamation had validated my membership in our tribe. He’d handed me a ticket to belonging.
Liza and me. Carbon copies of our mamas.
Liza grew up on movie sets. Her mother performed in musicals directed by her father, Vincent Minnelli. The last one, Till the Clouds Roll By, came out the year Liza was born. Judy Garland might have been pregnant at that premier, walking the red carpet in a sparkly maternity outfit. When Liza was three, she had a cameo in Garland’s movie, In the Good Old Summertime; and an old photo shows four-year-old Liza posed at her mother’s side on the set of Summer Stock. Liza’s younger sister Lorna debuted at eleven, the sisters singing Christmas carols on television’s The Judy Garland Show. Lorna built a musical theatre career, and Liza’s brother Joey Luft was also a singer.
I grew up backstage. Dad was an actor and teacher from the time I took my first bow in Pirates of Penzance. After Big Sis’s lead role in Pirates, she became a professional singer, who performed all around the country and Scotland, too. My brother and uncle became actors with movie credits — my brother also a director, producer and drama professor. I basked in reflected glory, a celebrity because I was somebody’s daughter, sister, and niece. The performance bug bit me late in life, transforming my book reading into a Broadway production, me center stage as star and scriptwriter, my sister singing, my niece acting, and my brother producing and directing.
Liza and me. Show-biz sisters.
The television flickers. As I shift to find the sweet spot, the recliner gives a bit, in recognition of its important role in our shared hour of bliss. Liza twirls across the boards, all the while her singing voice as nimble as her body. I want to leap up, dance straight to the current writing project waiting on the laptop, certain the essay will become a critically acclaimed memoir. My idol’s performance proves everything’s possible — if I’m willing to work my butt off. She’s made it big with her creativity; I can make it big with mine. I’m mesmerized by her razzle-dazzle and high on buttery popcorn fumes, but writing will have to wait. I’m sticking with Liza till the end of her show.
The outside world does a slow dissolve, while I tap out show tunes against the arm of the chair. There’s only the music, the dancers, and me.
A costume change puts our headliner in black knickers and tights, straight out of Charles Dickens. A weird outfit, but hey, the seventies were not known for classic fashion. And, damn, Liza pulls it off. The stage darkens to a fuzzy spotlight. She shakes her head, ruffles her hair. When she looks up again, she smiles at me, her features melancholy. Wow. She rearranges the molecules in her face to catch every fleeting mood. She oozes into a ballad, low and mournful. I snuggle under my blankey.
As the piano moans minor chords, I turn to mush, in sympathy for those eyes, sad as a lost puppy’s.
The wistful camera moves in for a close-up of her porcelain cheek and slicked-down sideburn. Her eyes are moist, her voice honey. “Mammy …”
My jaw drops open mid-chew.
Did she say mammy? I squint at the television, because you can hear better when you squint. My ears are convinced by the dreamy music, and my heart can’t help responding when she bats those lashes, heavy with loss and —
“My mammy …”
She did say mammy. My gut clenches, but I refuse to believe the message being telegraphed. Surely, my gut doesn’t know anything about Liza’s intention. Any second she’ll reveal the song is a joke. She’s making fun of minstrel shows. This is a sophisticated New York City satire. I command my body to stay in neutral until all the evidence is —
Liza Minnelli in black knickers turns into Al Jolson in blackface.
I hurl the bowl at her face, leap from the chair, and slam the television onto the floor. “I hate you!” Smashing glass rings in my ears, as I stomp the shattered screen to bits.
In my mind, that’s what happens.
In reality, I sag. Limp as the blanket. Gaping at the traitorous television, as popcorn dribbles out of my hand. My soul floats out the window to safety, leaving behind a shell of Dawn-shaped skin.
The tune speeds toward conclusion. Liza drops to one knee, belting out the final notes, arms wide. “… my ma-a- a-me-ee.”
A thunderous ovation follows her bow.
I trusted her. She’s my show biz sister. She loved me.
… and me?
God, when I think about it, even my white step-mom had fantasized herself as Scarlett O’Hara. Had the fantasy included being clucked over by a shoe-shine-black, bandana-wearing slave, like Scarlett’s Mammy? “I says I gwine with you … and gwine I is!”
Liza flashes a crooked Judy Garland grin. I’m nauseous. Maybe Judy Garland sang “My Mammy,” too. Did the daughter inherit the song, as Scarlett inherited the slave?
I cannot reason out why Liza’s waxing lyrical about her mammy in Alabammy, Southern California being the farthest south she’s ever lived. Born to Hollywood royalty. Spent her childhood on movie sets. Grew up to become a quintessential New Yorker. I assumed a cultural sophistication to match her edgy haircut.
The television’s flickering images mock me. They know what will follow: friends will tell me it’s just a song; Liza didn’t mean anything. Of course it’s just a song. I’m a deleted verse. Of course she doesn’t mean anything. I mean nothing. Friends will expect me to remain a faithful fan. My dancing feet say yes, a fan forever. My gut says hell, no.
My bottom lip stiffens as I sink into suspended animation, blindsided by the myth of myself as human.
Look at Liza, taking her bow, gazing into the camera. Her eyes shine with affection.
Liza and me.
We dance. Me, hopping to the snap of a whip.
We wear red. Me, sporting a bandana over shameful naps.
We act. Me, delivering the expected line: Chile, dat sho nuff a purty song.
Liza and me. White girl and mammy.