1. THE BRONX
Growing Up Allergic to Everything but Stickball
Marjorie Ward Marshall, my mother, was the first director I ever met.
Wearing an apron and teaching tap in the basement of our Grand Concourse apartment building, she was a Bronx housewife and a tap dance teacher you didn’t want to mess with. She ran a tight ship, and little girls never dawdled in putting on their tap shoes and costumes in front of Mom. She believed that dancing and performing were good for children because they gave them self-esteem and a purpose all their own.
My mother taught us that the best thing in life was to entertain people and make them laugh. The biggest sin in life was to bore people.
“Beware of the boring,” she said.
“What is boring, Ma?” I asked.
“Your father,” she said.
Mom was a born entertainer who thought performing was not just a hobby or even a profession but a way of living that was as essential as breathing or eating. She was a five-foot-six-inch slacks-wearing perky blonde with a dancer’s body and a comedian’s mouth. Mom was always “on” from her hyper-cajoling of her dance students to her late-night intensity when she would type out the songs, dance routines, and skits for her dance recital. I would be in my bed and still hear her typewriter as I went to sleep. Her typing sounded like rain. Always working, she would go to Broadway shows, steal the routines, and come back and type them up for her students to perform. I knew right from the beginning that if I could make my mom laugh, then I could make her love me.
If Mom had been born at another time in history, she could have become a stage performer or actress herself. Born in 1910, Mom just missed the feminism movement and was faced with raising three children in the Bronx during the 1940s. Her goal in life was to teach as many kids as possible—including her own children, Garry, Ronny, and Penny—to tap dance. There was Ronny, the middle child, and nice daughter Penny, the youngest child, whom my mother seemed to crown “troublemaker” the moment she came out of the birth canal. And I, of course, was the oldest child and the one who was always sick.
Mom’s students adored her because she was funny and irreverent whether she was charming your pants off or hurting your feelings. She commanded a kind of power and respect as a director that even Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese would find enviable. She could be encouraging to the students with talent, but spoke with a bite to those who didn’t show potential.
“You—the pretty girl with the fat legs. You should play an instrument instead of dancing.”
Or she might move someone behind the scenes altogether.
“Hey, Zelda, or whatever your name is. You have two left feet. You can pull the curtain for the show.”
Traditional motherhood duties took a backseat to the curtain, the audience, and showtime. Since we were always running low on milk, Mom invented the family drink “Pepsi and milk” to make our dairy supply last longer. When she didn’t have time to simmer and cook fresh tomato sauce, she told us that Campbell’s tomato soup with noodles was just as Italian as spaghetti. If we were rushing to get down to the basement to make our curtain calls, she might squirt ketchup on our pasta and call it a night. My mom could make us smile, laugh, and cry all in the same hour. On my birthday one time she said, “Garry is celebrating eleven years of being round-shouldered.” When my sister Penny had an overbite, she said, “When I want to open a Pepsi bottle, I do it with Penny’s teeth.” She taught us that to dwell on our problems was a waste of time and to make entertainment for others was supreme.
This did little to impress my dad. My father, Anthony W. Marshall, a good-looking suit- and tie-wearing art director and advertising executive who invented his middle name, Wallace, because he thought it made him sound more distinguished. Born Anthony Masciarelli, he looked like a character from the television show Mad Men. He liked to wear suits, carry a monogrammed briefcase, and drink martinis in hotel bars. We rarely saw him drink at home, but sometimes he would stagger in and look like he’d had a few too many someplace else. My father was not the kind of dad who would throw a ball in the street with you like the Jewish dads, Catholic dads, or even other Italian dads in our melting pot neighborhood. Throwing a ball might mess up my father’s tie. He didn’t talk very much but instead wrote us notes like “Sorry you had to get a tooth pulled. It’s over now.” When he did talk he told stories of business trips where he met men who were working on a new device called television. He traveled for business to Florida and California and brought home oranges for us. For a long time my sisters and I imagined that both states were filled with fruit instead of people. He instilled in us the idea that there was a world outside the Bronx and that we should set sail for it as soon as we were old enough.
I was born November 13, 1934, Garry Kent Marshall, and we lived for most of my childhood along the Grand Concourse. First opened to traffic in 1909, the Grand Concourse was modeled after the Champs-Elysées in Paris. It was four miles long and populated by Jewish and Italian families when I lived there. My apartment was in a five-story building, with empty lots on either side. We were on the first floor. It was called Argonne Manor and housed mostly Jewish families and my family. We were Italian and Christian. Most of the other Italian families lived on Villa Avenue across the street. Because I was Italian, I fit in both neighborhoods easily.
My address was 3235 Grand Concourse. My favorite number has always been thirteen, and the numerals of my Bronx address added up to it, too. Like my father, I was given an arbitrary middle name, Kent, to give me dignity. My first name, with the rare two-r spelling, came from a sportswriter named Garry Schumacher. My parents didn’t know him personally, but my mother liked the spelling.
My happiest moments of growing up in the Bronx were when my mom would bring home a new sports magazine from the candy store. I would jump out of bed and grab it from her. Then I’d rip the front cover right off and tape it to my bedroom wall. I would reposition myself comfortably in bed and look up at all of the athletes who floated above me like heroes and angels.
Often I would turn on the radio, lie in my bed, and listen to the Yankees baseball game. I’d dream about my hands-down favorite player, Joe DiMaggio, and the day when I might be able to have a job that I could do well, too. There were many baseball players who were just as famous but who didn’t impress us, like Billy Martin and Ted Williams. To be able to make a living playing a sport you loved was what made Joe our favorite. I didn’t know what job I might be destined for, but my dad told me it better be something I could do with a headache or a toothache, because the whole family agreed I was not destined for good health. As a child I was often sick, plagued by some ailment or allergy, or my ability to hang on to a perpetual sniffle or wheeze from one winter to the next. My baby book read like a list of the greatest diseases of all time. I once heard a doctor say that if we didn’t move to Arizona, I might die. I packed my bags. The next day I woke up to see if anyone was packing their bags. No one was.
“Dad, when do we leave for Arizona?”
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. We can’t afford it.”
I thought they were trying to kill me.
Despite being sick all the time, I seemed to be destined for a career in show business. My mother sent my three-year-old baby picture to a contest in the Bronx Home News. I won the prize for cutest kid in my age division, and received a check for fifteen dollars. This encouraged my mom to think I could go on to become a child model. I auditioned and got cast in a milk commercial. Unfortunately, I spit up all over the director, and my modeling career was short-lived.
When I was five years old my parents gave me a drum set for Christmas. My mom played the piano, and Dad played the saxophone badly. But that Christmas morning I remember we all played together and I thought it was the greatest day ever. We were a band, and I imagined us practicing and performing as a family band for years to come. Unfortunately, Dad never played the saxophone with our band again. That Christmas morning remains imprinted in my mind as one of the few times we all got along. In general my dad thought entertainment was a waste of time and did little to support my mother’s dance studio or our performing aspirations.
Dad’s ambivalence, however, did not stop my mother or us. One day Dad was at work and Mom had a show to put on but she didn’t have a babysitter. Her mother, Margie, whom we called Nanny, used to watch my sisters and me when we were small. She was an Irish-German rail-thin brunette with a mild New England accent. As we got older, Nanny became blind and refused to go to the doctor. Without her sight it became difficult for her to mind us and us to mind her. Sometimes Penny would sneeze and then trick Nanny by saying, “It was Garry.” The girls blamed me for many things because I was often too sick to put up a fight. With all of my sneezing and wheezing and pneumonia not once but twice, Nanny didn’t know how to help me. I once fell down in the street and hit my head, and she said, “I’ll give you a dollar if you stop bleeding.” Her reluctance to go to the doctor helped make me a hypochondriac. Nanny didn’t even know what to feed me because I seemed to be allergic to everything under the sun, including the sun.
I was lying in bed one day, covered in compresses and trying to feel better, when my mom came into the room.
“Get up. Let’s go to the cellar. You’re going to be in the show,” she said.
“But Mom, I’m sick. I should stay in bed and get better,” I said. I was six years old at the time, and I carried the perpetual smell of mustard plaster.
“Nonsense. Nanny can’t watch you anymore and I have a show to put on. So let’s go,” she said, pulling the covers off my bed.
“But Mom, I’m too tired to stand up and dance,” I begged.
“I know,” she said, getting fresh clothes from my dresser.
“Then what am I going to do down there in the cellar?” I asked.
“In the dressing room?” I asked.
“No. Onstage. You’ll play the drums,” she said.
“But Ma, I just started the drums. You know I’m not very good yet.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll follow my lead on the piano,” she said. “You’re smart and quick. You’ll learn.”
So we would sit onstage and she would play the piano with one hand and pat me on the back with the other. That’s how I learned to keep a steady rhythm.
I became the official drummer for the Marjorie Ward Marshall School of Dance. I would perform in the basement and then travel with the troupe when they did shows in other towns and churches around New York. My mother didn’t join a church based on religion. She joined whatever church had the biggest stage to dance on. Our religion was entertainment. Going to church to pray or even to read the Bible seemed secondary to delivering a great joke and making people in the congregation laugh out loud.
Ronny and Penny were reluctant performers, too, but none of us had a choice. Acting was the family pastime. However, I soon found that I liked playing the drums. Mom was right. They were a good instrument for me because they came with their own seat. From the security of my drum set, I would watch show after show of dancing, skits, and humor, and I noticed something quite amazing: Some of the skits my mother wrote got laughs and some did not. When they got a laugh I felt happy and proud for her, but when they didn’t get applause I tried to figure out why. By the time I was seven years old, I was getting the hang of things. I figured out that the point was to induce them all to laugh, not just a few. If a skit didn’t work, I would try to rewrite it for her to make it better. With tissues stuffed up my sleeves and a drumstick in each hand, I was becoming a self-taught producer right there onstage. I didn’t know it then, but I was also figuring out just how I might be able to make a living while sick, seated, and nauseous.
When I wasn’t playing the drums I tried to get my energy up to play baseball, basketball, or stickball. Otherwise, I spent a lot of time in my bed feeling too sick and too skinny to do much of anything. I lived in 1-H, and I made friends with a boy named Gideon Troken, a dark-haired short kid with glasses, more interested in girls than playing ball, who lived in 1-O. He was the first intellectual I ever met. He read a lot of books, went to Hebrew school, and knew how to play the piano. He even taught me to play chess. He suggested I start collecting stamps because it was something I could do from my bed that would be worldly and important. He told me that for some small countries, stamps were the biggest export and advised me that I might make some money to fall back on from stamp collecting if my life didn’t turn out. In exchange, I took him around the neighborhood and introduced him to some of the guys, who befriended him instead of beating him up because he was a friend of mine. I never got beaten up because I was a wisecracking jokester. I could make a bully laugh before he delivered a punch.
Excerpted from My Happy Days in Hollywood by Garry Marshall. Copyright © 2012 by Garry Marshall. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.