Tiny Lee, the Teenage Queen/ memoir by Betty MacDonald

Betty MacDonald as a young butterfly

“Just call him every day!”  My mother repeats for the zillionth time. The him she’s referring to is Harvey Hudson, general manager and celebrity talk show host of my hometown NBC affiliate WLEE. I had interviewed for a job at the station and was waiting to hear if he would hire me. My mother convinced that to get into radio you had to be persistent, repeating, “Just call him every day!”  

It was 1956, I had returned home from college fully intending to leave for New York City as soon as I could get it together. In an attempt to save money to go off on my own I was languishing in typewriter tedium as a copywriter in the advertising department of Thalheimer’s, Richmond, Virginia’s largest department store. As the writer most recently hired, I was responsible for producing daily enough copy to fill a large format newspaper page featuring the bounty offered in the bargain basement such as 2 pairs sox 49 cents, 3 pairs panties 99 cents. The more experienced writers assigned to Designer Dresses, Housewares or the Children’s Department wrote a few flowery sentences for pages artfully filled with illustrations, while I was obliged to write a mind-numbing number of lines of boring 10-point text. Boredom was the least of my problems; I was profoundly inept. My typing skills hardly exceeded ten words per minute. When all the other writers packed up and returned to their homes at the end of the day, I could be found laboriously typing and correcting typos long past closing time. By the time I’d tossed my final botched copy into the overfull trash, put the cover on my typewriter and signed out, the store was empty of customers and employees, and the magic began! As I stepped onto the one escalator left running for my use, I arrived in wonderland, five floors of high-end merchandise and sparkling displays. I had the entire store to myself!

Enthralled by the musicals of the forties and fifties, I became Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and Cyd Charisse in Brigadoon. I pretended to sing in the rain with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds as I twirled through displays women’s fashion, children’s toys and luxury furniture.  I finally descending to the ground floor where a lone security guard at the door let me out. It may be noted by my unfettered access to endless retail bounty, that security in the mid 1950s was not particularly secure.

As glorious as my nights in retail wonderland were, my mom, aware of how miserable I was during the day, redoubled her efforts and continued to insist I call Mr. Hudson every day. 

It’s a mystery why my mother decided this was the way to get a job. As far as I know she had had only one paying job in her life. After high school her sister got her a job as a stenographer at Ezekial and Wyman, a local firm where she worked.  My mom never looked for work after that because she didn’t need to. She married my dad. The marriage came with a built-in job in the family business, a business she pretty much kept running for the next fifty years as peacemaker and liaison between the owners, my father, my father’s brother and their mother. The brothers were rarely on speaking terms with each other. My grandmother was adept at creating disharmony between her sons.

With little to go on, I followed my mom’s advice. I called Mr. Hudson every day and stalked him at his many public appearances. Impressed with my persistence and in need of a writer, he hired me as assistant to the chief of continuity liberating me from the drudgery of department store advertising hell. 

This job was perfect. As a theatre and broadcasting major at Boston’s Emerson College, I’d learned to write radio and TV commercials and present them on air. In my new position at the radio station, I knocked out a plethora of thirty and sixty-second spots. My poor typing skills no longer held me back. Because radio spots are short, there wasn’t a lot of typing involved.                                                                                                          

As it turned out I was an all-purpose hire. In addition to my writing duties, I replaced the receptionist when she went to lunch. From the reception desk operated the old-fashioned office switchboard with its tangle of wires, connectors and flashing lights.  I took great pride in of how capable I was to connect the caller with the called while cheerfully spitting out the tongue twister greeting: “WLEE, WXEX-TV Richmond’s number one top forty station. How may I direct your call?” 

Shortly after I was hired the communications goddess smiled on me when the station’s female on-air personality quit to get married. I was selected not only to replace the departing bride-to-be, but to adopt her persona, as well. Without fanfare or her fans suspecting, I slipped into the role of Tiny Lee, The Teenage Queen host of “Your Afternoon Hall of Hits,” sponsored by the Home Brewing Company producers of Climax Beverages. I hosted a request show that didn’t take requests. I read commercials and promos I’d written and improvised dedications on the spot.  Without missing a beat, I chirped into the mic, “This one is going out to Chip and Charlie, Sam and Sally, Mrs. Quimby’s Class at Thomas Jefferson High School and the entire varsity track team.” 

The only hit I remember spinning on Your Afternoon Hall of Hits was the “Theme from Picnic.” The truth was I didn’t actually spin anything. In blatant gender discrimination, females were not allowed to touch the controls or turntables. I was totally unfazed when a male engineer was assigned to take on that manly job. In the years before the Women’s Movement of the sixties, I was clueless and not enlightened enough to object. There’s no question I could have easily engineered the board and operated the turntables myself, after all, I had no trouble learning the intricacies of the switchboard, but I was happy to have someone else take care of all that technical stuff. I had plenty to keep me busy creating commercials and ad-libbing requests. Besides, I like having other people do stuff for me.

Well known for dramatized commercials, the station relied on comic voices and attention-getting sound effects. I was delighted to become the on-air voice of all the females, all the children and all the talking dogs and cats as well as grumbling garbage cans, expiring carburetors and impacted septic systems. It was my dream job at least for the time being.

My radio career reached its peak when I was cast as the voice of the little hula dancer pictured on the container of the first pre-squeezed orange juice to be sold in supermarkets, a brand-new product our city was selected to test market. As Miss Tropicana I wrote and recorded my lines in a breathy, seductive Betty Boop voice: “Oo…oooh don’t squeeze me. I’m Miss Tropic-Ana, so sweet and so pure!” The product was a hit.  I started getting fan mail. 

In the evenings I joined the cast and crew for the first season of the newly built ultra-modern Theatre at the venerable Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. In a production of The Petrified Forest, I was cast as Gabby, the role Bette Davis played in the movie. Rodger Mudd, a local newscaster who became a well-known anchor for NBC News, reprised the Humphrey Bogart role of Duke Mantee. I was happy to operate lights and sound and stage-manage on other productions in a season which included Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor, and Laurence Housman’s Victoria, the Queen.

The theater gave me unrestricted access to the museum after hours.  During rehearsal breaks I wandered into the galleries and danced through the marble corridors among priceless paintings and sculpture as if I were in a movie. Just as in my former nights in the department store there was no apparent security.

$37.50 a week was my top salary at the radio station where I had my own show, wrote copy, recorded commercials and made personal appearances. A $10 bonus for creating the voice of Miss Tropicana delighted me. It was the first check I’d ever received with “talent” written in the memo space.

But all was not well. As time passed, an ongoing dispute with my boss at the radio station was heating up regarding my inability to get to work on time. I couldn’t believe Mr. Hudson didn’t value my ability as an artist enough to overlook my being a little late in the morning.  “I quit!” I proclaimed leaping to my feet in twenty-two-year-old fury. Simultaneously his celebrated baritone rang out: “You’re fired! 

Stunned, I hadn’t thought about how he would react, but after the initial letdown I realized getting fired set me free. The job in broadcasting had seduced me into remaining in my hometown for much longer than I’d intended. Afraid of being stifled by the small-town culture I’d been born into, I weighed my freedom against an offer at one of the city’s two television channels to develop a show. But with the big city calling, I turned my back on the TV position and took the night train to my new life in New York City.

Writer/actor Betty MacDonald contributed to the writing of and performed in TMI’s “What to Expect When You’re Not Expecting.” Her essay “Before Roe v. Wade” appears in the anthology Get Out of My Crotch! Her work is included in the anthologies 80 Things to Do When You Turn 80Open House, and the recently released Better with Age. Betty has read frequently at Spoken Word, a monthly gathering of writers and readers in Kingston, NY, and at TMI Project events in Rhinebeck, Woodstock, Kingston, NY. She presented her essay “First Love” for Read650 at the Cell Theatre in New York City. She performed “First Love” again for Read650’s Best Of event at Vassar College. Her Read 650’s Mother’s Day presentation, “Daughter of Twins” is available on YouTube. Also, on YouTube her reading of her essay “Not Jewish Enough” from Read650’s event Jew-ish. Betty hosts Words Carry Us, a series of Livestream readings from Green Kill in Kingston, NY.

For more than 35 years, storytelling has influenced Betty’s work as a performer with Community Playback Theatre, an improvisational acting company in the Hudson Valley.

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