Upstairs was where heaven was.
The chorus girls always brought me up to their dressing room. They talked with me; they patted my cheek and combed my hair. They were affectionate. I was like a pet. When they had to change costumes, they would say, Okay, Allie, turn your back now. While they changed, I stood with my face against the wall where their costumes were hanging. My face was buried in their silk clothes, and the smell of their sweat and perfume filled my nostrils. I heard the sound of their clothing sliding on and off their bodies. All of this was far more interesting for a three-year-old than you might imagine.
But I wasnt only the dancers pet; I was a plaything for the whole company.
When I was six months old, the comics thought it would be funny to bring me out in a high chair in a schoolroom sketch. As they told me this story later, all the great comics were in this sketch: Red Buttons, Phil Silvers, Rags Ragland. I dont know now if all these comics were actually in the same sketch; the story must have grown with each telling. They said they put a school bell in front of me on the high chair, and totally by accident, I would manage to bang on it every time one of them was getting to a punch line. You upstaged the greatest comics in burlesque, they told me.
When I was two, the company was playing a theater in Toronto. A photographer from the Toronto Daily Star came backstage, and my father got the idea that if he posed me in a way that made me look as if I were smoking a pipe, the paper would be sure to print the picture and the burlesque company would get some unusual publicity. They dressed me up in my woolen suit and posed me gravely holding a pipe with tobacco in it. They seem to have invented a new name for me, too. I was born Alphonso DAbruzzo, but that day I was Alphonse Robert Alda, Ali for short. The newspaper printed the picture and ran a story under it that, sixty-seven years later, is a gold mine of information on how not to raise a child.
child of two smokes pipe
once broke mothers nose
Alphonse Robert Alda, at the age of two years and three months, finds solace from worldly cares in a briar pipe.
I dont remember my mother ever telling me I had broken her nose, so this may have been invented to demonstrate how big and strong I was or maybe to account for a slight bend in her nose she wasnt fond of. As for smoking, according to the myth dreamed up by my father, I had reached up and taken the pipe out of his mouth a year earlier. My mother was quoted as saying theyd hoped Id get sick and never smoke again but that I liked it and had continued to smoke the pipe. Then they invented a specialist from New York whom they said they had consulted. He told us, my mother was quoted as saying, provided moderation was shown, the smoking might not do Ali as much harm as the psychological aspect of denying him. This bit of invented psychology looks even stranger when, later in the article, she says: We dont believe in pampering children. All you have to do to stop him if he starts to cry, which is seldom, is to tell him not to be a baby.
So, lets review this. Youre two years old. You watch naked women shake their tits five times a day. You never get to cry or act like a baby. But denying you tobacco would be psychologically unhealthy.
At the end of the article, my mother tells the reporter how much I like to act.
He wants to be an actor like his daddy, she said. Watch! Ali, she asked, what would you do if a man were chasing you with a big stick? The little fellow spread himself against the wall, his face and eyes depicting horror and fright.
Excerpted from Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda Copyright © 2005 by Alan Alda. Excerpted by permission of Random House, 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.
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