Last week, actress Jillann Gabrielle performed a one-woman show about Hedda Hopper's life called, "Hedda! A Musical Conversation" at the Palatine Library. Gabrielle's performance and the show were fabulous.
Back in the mid 20th century, Hedda Hopper was a powerful player on the Hollywood scene.
In the days before "TMZ," "Entertainment Tonight" and waaay before the advent of social media, Hedda's syndicated gossip column "Hedda Hopper's Hollywood" appeared in newspapers across the country, including the Chicago Tribune.
Hedda could make or break a career, much like Harvey Weinstein (before the sexual abuse charges), and if you were lucky enough to snag a mention in her column, it was gold.
Watching Gabrielle's performance brought me back to a time when my friend, the late Betty Shure, and I did just that: We got our names in Hedda's column!
In the early 1960s, Betty and I became BFFs. We were two square-peg preteens, a pair of oddball mischief-makers, drawn together by our passion for Broadway show tunes, chasing after movie stars and making phony phone calls (No Caller ID back then.).
I dreamed of becoming a famous actress. Betty, a Hollywood columnist. For hours at a time, the two of us would pour over movie magazines, including "Photoplay" and "Modern Screen," to learn the latest scuttlebutt.
It might sound strange that two 7th grade girls would be obsessed with Hedda Hopper, long past 70 by then, but we were. Today, some might call us stalkers although we were pretty harmless ones.
Our pockets stuffed with change we'd saved up from our allowances, we'd walk the half mile to the nearest payphone (because we would have been in BIG trouble with our parents if we called from either of our homes. Long distance calls were expensive back then.) and dialed Hedda's office in California.
Trying our best to sound like adults, we passed on our anonymous "tips" based on what we surmised from reading the magazines. Sometimes, we'd see our "tips" in Hedda's column stated as facts. (Talk about fake news.)
Hedda didn't like to fly; she preferred taking the train. We heard she would soon be traveling by rail from Los Angeles to New York, with a short stop in Chicago. We planned to be there when she arrived.
We brought her a gift--an "Oscar," which was actually a trophy I'd won at day camp, which sounds ridiculous, but it was made of silver-colored metal and didn't look half bad.
We glued a piece of cardboard to the trophy's stand, on which we printed "World's Best Columnist." When we spotted Hedda getting off the train, we ran over and handed her the Oscar/trophy.
A Tribune photographer caught the moment. The next day a picture of the three of us appeared in the newspaper.
The following year, Betty and I graduated from grammar school. That August, we spent a week in California with Betty's mom and her brother, Marty. We toured Disneyland, rang Rosalind Russell's doorbell (We loved her as Rose in the movie "Gypsy."), and yes, we saw Hedda Hopper.
Hedda was always seen donning a large, ornate hat so we made her one. Betty had the brilliant idea to take an old hat and cover it with Hedda's columns.
The hat didn't fare well on the trip out West, but we smoothed out the creases in the paper, scotch-taped the tears and headed into Hedda's office, where her snooty secretary gave us a nasty look.
But Hedda appeared in a flash, delighted with the hat, and if I remember correctly, us. I don't recall how long we chatted with Hedda (probably, not more than a minute or two), or what was said, but Betty and I were in hog heaven, having had accomplished our important-to-us mission.
It was hot and humid the day we arrived back in Chicago, and the windows were open in my family's first floor apartment, central air an unknown in our 'hood.
As I got out of Betty's parents' car, her Dad lugging my suitcase, I could see my mother reading the newspaper in the living room of our first floor apartment. As I got closer, I heard her screaming,"Judy's in the paper! Judy's in the paper!"
Yes, Hedda had put our names in her column (My name was Judy Gerstein back then). I doubt my mom had ever been prouder of me.
It would be my last encounter with Hedda Hopper. That fall, Betty and I entered high school and developed other interests. Hedda died just three years later.
By several online accounts, Hedda Hopper was known to have spread some vicious rumors during her career and many Hollywood bigwigs despised her.
Still, she gave Betty and I our 15 minutes of fame along with a story I'm still telling decades later. For both of these things, I'll remember Hedda Hopper as fondly as I do roller skate keys, penny candy and "The Beverly Hillbillies."
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