Her stage name was Wee Bonnie Baker, and she performed primarily throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s. She was a singer with a small voice, a voice that resided somewhere at the top of her throat and behind her nose. It was a child-like voice, but clear and sure; and she was best-known for the song “Oh Johnny, Oh” – with lyrics that made vague promises and was delivered with naughty innocence.
Wee Bonnie Baker stood about four-feet-eleven-inches tall on a good day, which is undoubtedly why I was chosen to represent her in our high school talent show in 1963.
This was a surprisingly renowned annual school-wide Varsity Show – drawing audiences from all the surrounding Chicago suburbs, packing the large auditorium for multiple performances. Its most famous yearly feature was the exquisitely choreographed dance line that seriously rivaled the Rockettes of the New York Radio City Music Hall.
Our 1963 show had a “Vintage Hollywood” theme, and I was plucked from the entire student body to portray Wee Bonnie Baker in this huge production and sing her famous “Oh Johnny, Oh.” Being short was apparently the only requirement. Although, quite coincidentally, I also have a very small voice that lives up in my head somewhere. And, living next to it was a hidden, extremely private, totally unspoken desire to be a singer (although I think my vision involved smoky nightclubs vs. big bands; I pictured small, intimate venues where people drank and talked around tiny round tables, rather than large auditoriums filled with anticipatory audiences and a full orchestra backup).
After woefully little rehearsal, and no effective direction that I can recall, I remember opening night with haunting clarity. My hands still get damp and shaky at the mere thought of it, even as I write this recollection more than five decades later. A span of fifty-four years has not lessened the memory of that terror and immobilizing embarrassment. My lips moved but virtually no sound came out. The bandleader looked at me with alarm, trying to hush the musicians to barely audible. But there I stood, emitting not much more than whispers and sweat. I have successfully blocked out the remaining performances. I’m sure they were equally painful for everyone involved. Why they let me continue, I have no idea.
Crushing as this experience was, I actually tried singing on stage again. Twice. The first time, I was supposed to sing “Where the Boys Are” like Connie Francis (seriously, Connie belt-‘em-out Francis), and the second time was a one-show-only folk-singing gig. People were kind. But I recognized the reality of it, and haven’t tried again since. I put aside my dream to sing brilliantly in front of a microphone for good and forever.
My current hometown church features a small group known as the “Water to Wine” band every month or so. And, recently, I’ve begun to consider: Could this be the one chance? The one time in my life when I could stand up – all four-feet-eleven-inches of me – and sing? Sing as I’ve never sung before? They said I could try. They let me come to practice.
I have a very good friend who was denied a place on the cheerleading squad of her middle school about the same time that I was claiming my spot in infamy on stage in my high school Varsity Show. She, however, was so determined to achieve her dream, she just “put on a poodle skirt and showed up anyway.”
She is my hero for that.
I suspect we’ve all had our moments of truth by failure. We stand up to sing, and the music just won’t come out. Or we jump our highest, and still find we don’t measure up or make the cut.
Another singer, Johnny Cash, once said (and, yes, the irony of the name “Johnny” does not escape me) “you never forget your mistakes, but you also don’t let them steal any of your energy or your time or your space.”
Perhaps I’ve now reached that time in my life when I can finally embrace that truth. Perhaps I can tap into my inner Connie Francis or the Wee Bonnie Baker that still waits in the wings, and just let myself go for it. Perhaps this time, I will put on my poodle skirt, grab a microphone, and just sing.