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Starcrossed

My time in Hollywood wasn’t one Celebrity encounter after another.  Although I went to school then and later with a couple of people who turned out to be famous, my personal experiences were of a more “jejune” variety…  that is, except for getting to see a hirsute (hairsuit?) Ed Asner  anchor one end of a tug-of-war for ABC at “The Battle of the Network Stars;” IN PERSON!

   In late 1979 we drove out to Pepperdine University in Malibu to witness this titanic contest of wills between ABC, CBS, and NBC.  It was a warm day, and given the number of Stars there, I was surprised there were not more people there to watch in person. The event itself was kind of geographically spread out so it was hard to focus on all the celebritude.  But, hey, there goes Gil Gerard and Erin Gray (maybe everybody from “Buck Rogers was there)!   My sister brought a camera (she was taking a photography class at Hollywood High) and we settled in to watch as Gregory Harrison of CBS began to dominate the contests.

Howard ran a tight ship at these events.

The event was the first of two that my family and I attended, this time was memorable because we got in pretty close and even saw glimpses of ourselves on TV when it broadcast later that year (my Mom was in a pre-Hillary blue pants-suit that was easy to pick out).  By this time, watching the broadcast, my head was already filled with months of everything Hollywood, and I cherished these sometimes chance; sometimes planned encounters.

My older sister worked at the Chinese Theater and saw quite a few celebrities; to her the experience could have become, one might think, commonplace.  But she never got tired of it either (seeing Celebs just made us go home and watch even more TV, like some research project we were all undertaking).

One day she badgered our little sister into going with her to work to “pick up her check,” when in fact she was really taking her there to meet Olivia Newton John, one of her heroes (“Xanadu” was premiering).  She also saw Stars like Kristie McNichol there at other times.

It was great knowing that when the Academy Awards were going on, everybody around the country had to watch on TV, but for us it was just a few blocks away (but, alas, we watched on TV too).  And the annual Christmas Parade was really awesome, chock full of celebrities riding in open cars on The Boulevard.  We saw Jamie Lee Curtis there once when Halloween was still being held over at the Hollywood Theater.  And don’t get me started on all of the Walk of Fame Ceremonies that were going on (usually while I was in school).

But there was another side to this business I’d never heard of, a Darker Side. For there was once a near-celebrity encounter that lasted all semester long.  It involved Typing Class.

Typing; typing and Mrs. Harrison.

Typing was the only County mandated class that I knew I would actually one day use in the world, unlike the others; cooking and sewing (I often thought the school system wanted to turn us all into 1950’s housewives).  The semester started off ok; I took my customary place in the back of the room while our new teacher came in.  She was a fairly old lady in her 40’s who seemed nice enough and promised all of us she would turn us into stellar typists, as long as we didn’t look at our hands while learning.

Very important, she emphasized.

It was the Fall of 1980 and I was about to get an early lesson in “too much information.”

About a week after the school year began, a suddenly ebullient Mrs. Harrison burst into the classroom while we were all waiting for the starting bell.  She had a secret, but she didn’t want to tell us.  And she actually did very well holding it all in for all of about 4 minutes.

“My daughter is on “Three’s Company!”

It was true, and not just in any capacity, she had the burden and the pleasure of replacing Suzanne Somers, whose walkout with ABC apparently hadn’t worked out all that well.

I was already a pretty good student but in the days after this bombshell it seemed that my fellow classmates and I could do no wrong!  She had previously gently stressed the importance of hand placement on the keyboard; I believed it was ASDF, JKL; or something like that (but I got her point).  We needed to remember where the letters were so we could type faster, focusing only on the paper scrolling out in front of us.

But for a while there she kind of stopped caring and she was just giving us all great grades.  She’d stay at the front of the classroom, beaming, proud, telling us how great her daughter was doing.  We were able to largely blow off the class.  I wondered if any of my other teachers had kids in “the biz” and how they were doing.  Could I get into those classes too?

Jenilee Harrison, nowhere near a phone

As the idea of “Cindy Snow” caught on and there developed a visible chemistry between her and John Ritter, our teacher’s daughter Jenilee stayed on the show the whole season.  I always thought it would be cool if she came in to visit her mom’s class but that never happened.

In fact as the weeks wore on Mrs. Harrison was starting to change.  She went from happy to a little distant.  Something was clearly bothering her.  She stopped talking about her daughter, or really, talking at all.  She was also beginning, for the first time, to scrutinize our typing.  We did not like this.

Then she catapulted to grumpy and then to downright mean, even slapping our hands off the keyboard at times!

Abandoning her earlier laissez-faire attitude, she then started to make the kids with the “Mr. Zogs Sex Wax” (the best for your stick) t-shirts (THE hot item of 1980) turn them inside out.  Apparently she was getting to be a prude as well.

She grudgingly (though we weren’t asking) started to confide in us; it seemed her daughter had become “too busy to call” and she was very upset.  This turnaround seemed to happen pretty fast and my fellow students and I speculated that it was likely precipitated by one bad incident.  We never knew for sure.  Well, I wasn’t learning to type, it didn’t really matter to me (or Mrs. Harrison) before, and now we all had to suddenly catch up!  Mrs. Harrison’s stress oozed out and though I felt it too, I still kind of wanted to learn something here.

From little bits of info, there became a torrent; she would, every morning, recount her frustration with trying to reach her daughter, to no avail.

“Oh, she’s too big and famous for me now!” was her favorite exclamation.

And for this all of us were suffering.  She had, in her own eyes, quickly gone from proud and beaming to unloved and forgotten.  And we had gone from kindly solicitous, giving her reassurances; to hunkering down and blocking out her words.

“Don’t look at your hands!”

She hadn’t really mentioned that in weeks.  Oops.

Later, whenever I’d hear her say that, I’d think about Ms. Somers and her selfish insistence on getting more money and a bigger say in the show the previous year.  Because, you know, it could all be traced back to her, really.

“Thanks alot Suzanne!” I slowly typed with two fingers.

“I SAID DON’T LOOK AT YOUR HANDS!”

Soon it became not so much about not learning how to type, but more about trying to calm down this person, flying around the room and glaring at our hands.

“DON’T….LOOK….AT…..YOUR…..HANDS.”

The worst was turning on the TV late one December night to watch the latest installment of “Battle of The Network Stars” and seeing, you guessed it, Jenilee Harrison herself, right there by the pool cheering on the ABC team.

With her appearance on “Battle” I knew Jenilee had truly arrived in the Star Stratosphere but this knowledge brought me no joy.

For I knew this couldn’t end well, and indeed it didn’t.

We may have survived, but we almost all, surfers, gang members, and nerds like me got D’s that semester; and by then I was ready to bring on sewing class (where I actually produced a cool little skateboard pillow with fabric footprints sewed on!).

And thankfully the sewing teacher was not William Katt’s dad.

I happily turned back to my more innocent celebrity encounters, attending an auction with Jane Fonda here or seeing a taping of “Silver Spoons” there (“Silver Spoons” taped right next to my school plus it had Erin Gray!).  One time my sis literally bumped into Elliott Gould on Hollywood Boulevard and we all got a kick out of hearing about that.  Another time, hearing a commotion, we all ran downstairs to watch Cheryl Ladd film a scene for a TV movie, right on Wilcox Avenue.  It never got old.

It just didn’t.

We celebrities and regular folk would see each other and then part ways, no longer was there any chance of getting stuck in a claustrophobic room full of typewriters and an unwanted Celebrity Mom.

A year and a half later, when I was getting out of Junior High, I heard Carol Burnett was going to do some kind of dedication in our yearbooks.  She had attended the school years ago (and had also been an usher at my favorite theater, the Pacific) and she did do the written dedication but she wasn’t at the ceremony.  I assumed she must have been as wary of the gangs and the neighborhood there as I had become.  Or maybe she too was avoiding Mrs. Harrison.

1 reply
  1. Laura
    Laura says:

    Hollywood can really bring out the “evil daughter” in some people, huh? Now you look at your hands AND type with two fingers! Love this story!

    Reply

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