In this excerpt from “Growing Up Laughing,” the actress, whose father was comedian Danny Thomas, remembers the big role that comedy played in her family.
Chapter one: Celebrations Did you kill ’em, Daddy?”
“I murdered ’em, honey! I left ’em for dead.”
Dialogue from The Sopranos? No, just a call from my father, the morning after his opening night at the Sands in Las Vegas (or the Chez Paree in Chicago, or the Fontainebleau in Miami, or any number of other nightclubs around the country).
I didn’t realize until I was older how violent the language was for a profession that was so filled with laughter. It was life-and-death, all right — to all of them. But what a celebration when Daddy left ’em for dead. We were big celebrators anyway.
We celebrated everything in our family. My grandmother (the Italian one — my mother’s mother) never missed a holiday, and sent us elaborately decorated cards on every conceivable occasion, with all the good parts underlined, followed by exclamation points. Tucked inside the card was always a hanky and a dollar (or, as we got older, two dollars). What a character she was. She looked like a dark-haired, dark-eyed Sophie Tucker (her idol, by the way) and sang in that same kind of husky, raucous voice.
But Grandma did Sophie one better — she also played the drums. In her seventies, she was playing drums with her little band called Marie’s Merry Music Makers. In a beer garden in Pasadena. During the week she billed herself as “Danny Thomas’s Mother-in-Law.” On the weekends, to get the younger crowd, she billed herself as “Marlo Thomas’s Grandmother.” She was some entrepreneur, my grandma.
Of course, everyone tried to get her to act her age and give up the drums — or at least the beer gardens. My mother wished she would just retire to babysitting and making pasta. My father wished she was Bob Hope’s mother-in-law. I adored her.
In a family of celebrators, there is always work to be done, and the work was divvied up. My sister, Terre, was the cake committee (she still is, to this day). I, being the oldest — and having a bike — was in charge of buying the cards. I’d ride over to Beverly Stationers on Beverly Drive, where Gladys, the ever-present, ever-dependable proprietor, helped us pick out school supplies each fall. She was also the maven of the card section. Sometimes she’d have a few already put aside for me. I’d pick out something clever and funny for my card; something with a sweet princess and a loving message from Terre; and one with a picture of a lion or a puppy from little Tony.
One year on Father’s Day, Terre had gotten Bailey’s Bakery to create an elaborate cake with pictures in frosting of all the characters on Dad’s TV show. I had done my job of choosing a custom card from each of us, and after dinner the ceremonial opening of the gifts began.
My present was first. As was the custom, Daddy would read the card aloud, and since mine was always a funny one, we’d all laugh. If it was really funny, he’d read it aloud again, and the laughter would start all over.
Then came Terre’s card. Daddy read it aloud. Inside, the saying was beautiful — Hallmark had outdone themselves. It was about how Dad was “the best father in the world,” “caring and loving,” a man who would sacrifice anything for her, who guided her and who was always there for her. Quite beautiful. Tears all around. I was very proud. But then Daddy looked up from the card.
“Terre, do you believe all of this?” he asked.
“Yes, Daddy,” Terre said.
Daddy paused. “Because if you really believe what’s written in this card,” he said, “you’d do the things Daddy wants you to do, wouldn’t you?”
“Like right now. Where is your retainer?”
“It’s upstairs, Daddy.”
“Upstairs?! I didn’t spend my hard-earned money for you to put your retainer in a drawer upstairs. It belongs in your mouth!”
His voice rose. “I bought it for you so you would grow up to have beautiful straight teeth, with a smile to be proud of.”
His voice got even louder as his body began slowly rising out of his chair. Suddenly, the festive room had become very quiet.
Terre looked at me accusingly and said, “You couldn’t have given me the other card?”
Within seconds, the tense standoff in the room had dissolved into what was more customary under the Thomas roof: laughter.
This still makes me laugh.
And my father? She murdered 'im.
Chapter two: A kid at the studio
I sat on the lap of director Henry Koster for weeks. I was eight years old, and my father was filming a movie at Warner Bros. with child star Margaret O’Brien, who was nine. It was summer and school was out, so I went to the studio with Dad as often as I could. I loved the whole workday, which began with cueing my father on his lines as we drove to the studio. He’d tell me how well I read Margaret’s part, and I’d feel so proud and useful.
Then we’d get to the set.
And I remember watching as Dad and Margaret worked on the scene that we had rehearsed in the car.
And I remember wishing she’d fall over in a dead faint. And then somebody would shout, “Is there a little, dark-haired girl here who knows these lines?” And I could rush in and save the day.
It was so much fun for a kid to run free around the studio — wandering through the wardrobe and makeup departments, visiting other sets, going to lunch in the commissary and sitting next to a man dressed like a pirate or a cowboy.
But the best part was watching the filming from Koster’s lap. He would wave his arms around me as he directed the action. Then when the take was over, he’d bellow in his thick Hungarian accent, waving his arms, “Cut! Print it! Very good! We try it again.” He’d never say that the scene was bad. It was always, “Very good. We try it again.”
My Lebanese grandparents were visiting from Toledo that summer. My grandmother was a saint — but I didn’t like my grandfather. He was kind of mean, and I was scared of him. I can still feel the sting on my legs where he swatted me with a pussy willow branch because I was playing with a dog in his tomato garden.
Our dinner table was always a raucous affair, with everyone speaking over everyone else, telling stories and laughing. It was obvious that Grandpa didn’t like this kind of commotion at the table. He preferred kids to be seen and not heard.
One night, I was pushing my food around the plate, as always, so it would look like I had eaten most of my meal. I was a terrible eater.
“Finish your vegetables,” my father admonished.
“I see your children don’t listen to you,” my grandfather muttered under his breath.
Embarrassed in front of his father, Dad pushed his chair back with a loud scraping noise and stood up, looking as if he was going to spank me. I jumped up, shocked and frightened, and ran from the table.
“You’re being disobedient, young lady!” Dad yelled as he chased me around the room.
I ran right into the corner. He was coming at me. I was terrified.
Suddenly, I stopped, spun around, waved my hands in the air and yelled in my best Hungarian accent, “Cut! Print it! Very good! We try it again!”
My father literally fell over laughing. My grandfather was disgusted with all of us. And I had learned a good lesson: Laughter is the best way to get out of a corner.
Excerpted from “Growing Up Laughing” by Marlo Thomas. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Hyperion.