Fun in the South

Romper Room

In 1968 we moved to Ocean Springs, a beautiful, sleepy little town on the Gulf of Mexico. We bought our second home, a white brick split level located on Rusking Avenue - just across the street from where John Ruskin, the famous English poet, was to have penned some of his famed poetry. The oak tree, named after him, was at least 500 years old and was laden with silvery Spanish moss. Michael was four and Greg was two. What adorable boys they were - so active and interested in live, they were.

Bud was a surgeon in the Orthopedic Department at Keesler Air Force Base and we had many, many friends among the physicians and their wives stationed there. We moved in during July. It was hot as hades and Greg was terribly ill upon arrival. He had the most acute dirreah. Everything went through him. In those days there were no Pampers and our furniture had not yet arrived. As there was no washer I would wash his diapers in the downstairs toilet. We all slept on the floor in the dining room until the furniture arrived, almost five days later.

Jimmy graduated from Yale that summer with a MFA & architectural degree -- I have a good picture of Mother, Jim & me at this event - J. with his cap & gown.
Mom & I go to graduation and she is miserable because daddy had died the year before and he would have been so proud. Jim is living in Paul Rudolph's
house with Frank and they open an Avant Garde art gallery there. It was really something. Andy Warhol came to the opening with his friends and Diva. Mother was appauled at their lack of manners. "Never again", she exclaimed to me later.

I put the boys in Holy Angels Pre School and started Modeling for Gayfers, etc. On a holiday I met Dr. Bob Gillis in Chicago at the old Glenview house and saw the old Glenview neighborhood. He later joined us in New Orleans where we had a special dinner at Victoria's Station which was an old railroad car that had been converted into fine dining.

I really began my sailing career in the South. I started sailing with Jimmy Kennedy & Gary Branham on the first Hobie cats ever built and bought "Super Chicken I" a Hobie 14 #337 in 1969. I had had a moth earlier when Harvey Weilss, an Atlanta plastic surgeon, gave me his boat when he left Keesler. It eventually sank, which is why I bought "Super Chicken l"

The late 60s were the end of an era. I FINALLY stopped protesting the war and took up civil rights. The music also changed about this time with our enjoying rhythm and blues more than ever before. Jimmy Buffet hung out on the coast and we would often go to see him at one of the many clubs on the strip.

Bud and I found ourselves in suburbia - he loved it and built a beautiful swimming pool for us at the rear of the house - along with a double car port. This was the site of many get togethers, BBQs and parties. We had a huge one there the night of the moon landing and I know it will all stay in our minds forever.
On August 17, 1969 Hurricane Camille hit the coast as a #5 storm with a 33' tidal wave. 250 people died and so many of our friends lost their homes. I was in Baltimore at the time, visiting Nancy Claster of Romper Room and settling in on plans as to how I would be the Romper Room teacher. I really had a hard time getting a plane into the coast as everything was closed due to damage. I finally flew into Atlanta. Sara, Bud's mother, flew down to meet me and we drove to Ocean Springs. There we found a house full of water and debris along with three mighty sick boys - Bud, Mike & Greg. We drove them to Jackson, MS, where they recouperated for three weeks with one of Bud's patients, Shed Hill Weeks, who had a great farm and trout pond in Madison, MS. They loved it.

Sara and I then headed back to Ocean Springs where we spent the next month cleaning up the mess and comforting friends who had lost more than we. It was quite a time. I was to go through another nine hurricanes in my life - Frederick, Elena, Hugo, Luis, Marilyn, Bertha, Lenny, Gordon and Opal. Holy Cow!

The ABC Studio had been completely destroyed so another location was found on DeBuys Road - right down the street from where Bud's office would eventually be located. As Romper Room only took a couple of hours each morning, I kept Mike & Greg in Holy Angels. They hated it though so I later took them out and put them in public kindergartens.

I raised the boys with "new age" philosophy all of their lives. The outdoors is our church and the sea is our prophet. The boys grew up on the water and always had a slew of boats, surf boards, skis and other assorted water sports gear. Although it sounds as if they were spoiled, they really weren't. This was just a way of life then - all the kids lived this way. Designer clothes had not yet been invented and brand names didn't matter. They were just as happy in an old skiff as they were a new Monarch.

I become great friends with Mary Mahoney and Mary Joe Steinberg who owned the Purple Lantern, a great gift shop next to Mahoney's Cajan Restaurant. Once the boys were in school, we enjoyed lunch together every day with our very own Rat Pack - Joe Creel, DJ Venus, Tommy Kennedy and Suzanne Bell - in Rueben's room at Mahoney's Restaurant. We met for lunch every weekday and I never met a nicer group of guys.

Mother moved to Greensboro to live in a condo near her sister Sue and of course, I helped her move. She still cried all of the time and I honestly believe that when she died of heart failure four years later it was actually from a broken heart. She never got over daddy's death.

We visited Matt & Carol, Joe & Mimi Lawlor in Clearwater. I almost drowned when a16 Hobie overturned with the Ruthie & Al Johnston during storm 3 miles out at sea. Had I been wearing a life jacket my life would have ended as the sails came over on top of me and I would not have been able to dive deep and swim underwater to clear them. Another NDE in my life!

When Romper Room moved to DeBuys Rd in 1970 I was really glad as it was a much better studio in a brand new building. Bill Collins was my camera man and Al Todd was Mr. Music. I spent three years doing this and truly loved it. I wore clothes from Austin's every day and even took them on holidays. I had to pay the cleaning bill of course!

On my 30th birthday friends Jane Hamilton & Paulina Taquino give me a surprise birthday party at MY house. Everyone came dressed in black with veils covering their faces. My birthday cake was naturally large and chocolate. Bud came home early and took me out to dinner. It was a really nice day.

That summer the yacht club built a new building on front beach. The old one was too badly damaged in Hurricane Camille to be repaired. I really took up sailing and later kept my 14' Hobie Cat, SUPER CHICKEN, on the beach between the club and the Ocean Springs bridge where I sailed a lot in Back Bay -Mike & Greg spent 6 weeks in Muncie with Sara & John while I toured Europe with Mother - Spain, Italy, France. It was a wonderful trip and so special because we did it together - just the two of us.

I began making specialized paintings from "Miss Nancy" for children's rooms which I sold at the Whistle Stop with Ruth & Dave McFall. I also start sailing in the summer races at the Gulfport Yacht Club. I also took over the Youth Sailing Program, taking them to New Orleans for regattas where they sailed with friends of mine - Bart Jancke and Buddy Freidricks, U.S. Gold Olympic Sailors from '68 Olympics in Mexico. We sailed in many regattas together until Buddy died in '81.

Bud had a single orthopedic practice on Division Street but soon met entrepreneurs, Bobby Bell and Harry Clark. Together they planned and started the Gulf Coast Community Hospital & Medical Center. I become best friends with their wives Suzanne & Millie. I had the opportunity to attend an art auction at the El Conquistador Hotel (very exquisite in those days) in Puerto Rico to buy art for the lobby. The airport was really bad in those days causing the leader of the group to have a complete panic attack, but not nearly the attack that physicians were later to have caused by the questionable business practices of the group.

Mother thought that she would fare better if she returned to her home town of Greensboro, North Carolina. Her older sister Sue was also a widow and Mom had visions of their reliving their youth together. Was that ever an eye opener. The last thinghHer sister Sue wanted was for Nan to move into a condo where she lived as she had bought a bright red Cadillac and was having a ball driving around the east playing in duplicate bridge tournaments and entering ball room dancing contests with younger men, most probably gay. At the time, we thought gay was what you were at the end of a party. This was a great affront to mother's "sensibilities" as her friends were very "Old South" f stately rich women who played bridge and lunched all day, smoking like smokestacks. I loved my Aunt Sue. She was a real character and was extremely generous to her family. Her oldest son, Christy (C.C. Fordham, Jr. M.D.) became chancellor of the University of North Carolina after being Dean of the Medical School for many years.

Mother visited Jim and Frank for Christmas in New Haven that year. She took him a needlepoint vest which she has spent months making and he hated it. Oddly enough it is one of my most favorite possessions. I love the way it is designed and the fact that she made it for him. It was during this time that she discovered that Jim was gay and I really don't think she ever got over it as she had heart problems worse than ever after that. Homosexuality had not become mainstream in those days and I think she was worried about what people would "think."

It was a good Christmas with the kids. They are now 5 & 7 and are in school. They ride their bikes together. Very pleasant.

1972 -
Bud moves his practice to the Gulf Coast Community Hospital. I run the P.R. Campaign for the name. We party a lot.
Mother has another "heart spell". I go to Greensboro where Her doctor tells me that although she does have angina most of her problems are in her head. She cries a lot. I don't know that she knows about Jim & Frank.
Easter weekend Mother visits us in Ocean Springs. We had already planned to visit Joe and Mimi in Houston and ask her to stay with Mike & Greg. She says that she doesn't feel like it. I then hired a sitter to sit with her. We go on to Houston (mother will be visiting with us for several weeks and our trip to Houston was just for four days). We party with Joe and Mimi. Sat. morning we get a call that Mother is in the hospital. We fly home. I am furious as I feel it was a "control item" on her agenda. She wanted for us to be with her over Easter since Daddy was dead. She didn't understand that we had really planned this trip. We have one of the only fights I can remember since I was a teenager. (I had been drinking on the plane & Bud was no help at all). I am so angry that I take the phone off the hook on Easter morning because I don't even want to talk to her. At 10:30 a police officer comes to the door to get me and take me to the hospital. Mother is dead. I am shocked, furious, sad and guilty. It took me years to work this one out. Even now, 25 years later, I still have mixed emotions. Anne Marie said that she really got one up on me. David said that it was not my fault--she really did have heart trouble. Somehow I allowed an autopsy - locked bowel syndrome.

Bobby Bell stepped in and made all of the arrangements. Bud and I flew, with her body to Greensboro for the funeral. Jimmy flies in that night. We all go out for dinner after the "extended family" leaves when Jimmy tells me that he had "some legal problems" at Yale four months before Daddy died. It cost Daddy over $10,000. In those days homosexuality had not yet come out of the closet. Although I loved and understood Jimmy, I never forgave him for telling me this the night my mother dies. Tennessee Williams would have had a ball with this story.

The rest of the summer was spent in settling Mother's estate. Knowing that Jim would lose her diamonds (which were left to him) I kept them knowing that he would only cash them in. Although he held this against me at the time, he forgave me years later, after Frank had gone, not only into bankruptcy losing all of Jim's inheritance, but into jail for the great stock swindle of the mid-70's) Jim had taken all of mother's best antiques (we're talking about beautiful pieces here) and later had them stolen and sold by Frank, who needed money. The three pieces that are left are with Kathy, Jim's lawyer in New York. I gave her the sofa when Jim died and she is keeping the chest and velvet chair for me.

I also decided to change jobs this year. I left WLOX and Romper Room and went to work for General Electric Cable. They had just purchased the entire national cable network and had to produce local origination. I was hired to do a program that we entitled Southern Outlook. It was a terrific job and I loved it. I worked closely with August Taconi, a gorgeous younger technical guy who was in charge of all of the camera work and Bob DeMaria, an Italian from the Bronx who thought Southerners were from no-wheres-ville. What a trio! We had various young men and women working with us as we would go out on location to film our 30-minute segments. I produced five 30-minute shows a week on location and also did all of the interviewing. By the time the FCC rescended the cable laws in 1976, we had taped over 700 programs and had won two first place awards for the state of Mississippi and a 1st place national award. I went to Washington to receive the awards and was never more proud. We had put in a lot of work and it was most gratifying to be rewarded for it.

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