Little Trouper

Little Trouper

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom

Little Trouper

Supposing you have tried and failed again and again. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down.
~Mary Pickford

“I can’t do this anymore, Mom.”

“Yes, you can.”

“I’m twenty-eight years old.” I started to cry. “I’ve been at this forever. I just want to come home.”

“No,” she said. “This was your dream.”

“Please, Mom, please tell me to come home.”


By the age of twenty-eight, my mother had already been married for six years and had four children.

Before settling down, her dad had wanted his only child to become a doctor, but she dreamed of being a dancer and was having a rough time in pre-med. She left college to drive trucks for the Army in World War II.

She headed west from Ohio to Los Angeles to stay with her grandparents, work in her uncle’s store near the Army base, and wait in Schwab’s to be discovered, as Lana Turner is thought to have been. She took ballet lessons four nights a week, and on weekends she poured punch and coffee at the USO club. And she danced. All the soldiers wanted to dance with my graceful, beautiful mother.

She had one audition, for Earl Carroll’s Vanities. The audition notice specified “Showgirls, minimum height 5’7”. Mom was barely five feet tall, but she knew she couldn’t miss. She looked like Barbara Stanwyck, and danced like Rita Hayworth. She spent three weeks’ salary on a new outfit, had her nails done in a swanky salon and worked for hours on her hair and make-up. She got off the bus in Hollywood, and glided into the dance studio right on time.

“Too short. Thank you, next!”

Years later, when she told me that story, I could see that the wound had still not healed. “They wouldn’t even let me dance....” She had never gone on another audition. Not ever.

My earliest memory is of watching a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie on TV with my mother. I was still learning to feed and dress myself when I knew I would squander my life on Busby Berkeley’s vision of heaven. Nothing would stop me. Like Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street, I was a little trouper. I would never give up. Not ever. No sacrifice was too great if, at the end of everything, I could be up there under the lights when the curtain opened.

At twenty-three, I left Los Angeles and moved to New York City to attend Juilliard. A bathtub squatted against the wall of my one-room apartment at the top of a five-floor walk-up near the East River. A steam radiator hissed in the corner. The toilet gurgled in the closet under a cracked tank, which dripped orange-brown water stains down the peeling wall. Under the century-old roof, the ceiling leaked filthy rainwater all over most of my belongings whenever the precipitation lasted more than an hour.

The area had once been a charming district called German Town. A large number of pre-war Germans had stayed in the neighborhood for reasons of poverty and rent control. Their big activity each day was getting indoors before the twilight onslaught of marauding youths.

I learned not to wear a watch or carry a purse. I learned to drape something ratty from the secondhand store over my better clothes. I learned to strike a careless pose and whistle a happy tune. Gradually, my middle-class reticence dropped away and, though only five-foot-three, I began to have confidence in my ability to defend myself. And confidence is a good thing to have, if you’re an actor. Showbiz is not for the faint-hearted.

Sometimes I played hooky and braved cattle-call auditions for touring shows.

“Best eight bars, we’re running late. Thank you. Next!”

“The face is okay, but God! That hair...”

“The voice is okay, but God! Who dressed her?”

“Too short, thank you. Too tall, thank you. Next! Too plump, too thin, too young, too old, thank you, next. Next. NEXT!!”

But I was a little trouper. Nothing would stop me. I would hang in there and give it all I had. I decided if nothing had come of it by the time I was thirty-five, I would do something else.

Years passed. One evening, it all came crashing down. It had rained all day, and the roof was leaking pretty badly. I had placed pots and pans around the room to catch the water, and draped a tarp over my bed.

I was rehearsing in front of the full-length mirror for yet another humiliating audition for yet another stupendous part I wasn’t going to get. Dirty rainwater dripped on my head. All of a sudden, I couldn’t kid myself any more—it was hopeless. I knew now that Busby Berkeley’s heaven was a cruel hoax. The childhood fantasy that had been my lifejacket slowly deflated and I sank, drowning in years of accumulated rejection.

I had promised myself I would hang in there until I was thirty-five. I was only twenty-eight. I had seven more years of this.

I dialed my parents’ house.

“I can’t do this anymore, Mom.”

“Yes, you can.”

“Please, Mom, please tell me to come home.”

There was a long moment of silence.

“No,” she said. And she hung up.

I ran a tubful of hot water, lit some candles in a memorial to the career that would never be, and took a look in the mirror at the face that would never play the Palace. A trick of light from the burning tapers, and a silent movie seemed to flicker....

I strutted my stuff in ostrich feathers and shimmering sequins....

Broadway audiences fell at my feet, conquered by the magnetism of my personality and the gossamer gown....

As I blazed up the Great White Way, Fred Astaire materialized, and we danced in each other’s arms....

Music up. Curtain. Thunderous applause.

This was New York City, the Promised Land where a little trouper like me could make it on sheer guts and raw talent! I had promised myself I would hang in there and, by God, I would!

Six more months passed while I took acting classes and singing lessons, and went on audition after audition. And by the time I was twenty-nine, I was singing principal soprano roles at New York City Opera, and playing leads off-Broadway.

When I made my Broadway debut, my mother sat next to my dad, eighth row center. I stopped the show with my big song. Over the cheers, I could hear her screaming, “Bravo!! Bravo!!” In my dressing room afterwards, she said the words she had been waiting thirty years to say.

“To try, and fail, is to know that at least you tried. To fail to try is to never know what might have been. Never give up on your dream. Not ever.”

In the decades since, from time to time I have been tempted by disappointment or heartbreak to throw in the towel. Then my mother’s words lift me up, face me toward the horizon, and give me the courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other for as long as it takes. Or forever.

~Penny Orloff

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