The Countess Somebody from Italy

I was thinking about skin cancer last night (I have it). And sunscreen. And that led me to recall my adventure in New York City, in 1984.

My play “Going Steady (and Other Fables of the Heart),” opened Off Broadway in the fall of ’84. Heady stuff for a first-time playwright. The publicist set me up for some appearances on local media, including “The Joey Adams Show” on the radio, Joey a former Borscht Belt comedian, now about 90. And there was “The Joe Franklin Show,” a daily talk show in New York City that was also syndicated.

Franklin taped five shows every Monday. I happened to be on the first segment. The other guest was Jack Klugman’s ex-wife Brett Somers, who was on a lot of TV game shows. During break, Joe told me he hadn’t realized there were no more male guests for the week. Would I be his “Ed McMahon” for the week? I would be expected to join in the patter and ask guests questions.

The second show featured Brooke Shields—teen Brooke Shields who was staggeringly beautiful. She came out, kissed Joe and then show-biz kissed me and sat and talked bout her current ad campaign for non-smoking. Posters depicted her with a smashed cigarette in her luscious lips with a slogan something like “smoking isn’t cool.” I felt my head bobbing at every syllable from Brooke’s mouth: Yes. Yes. Yes, Brooke. I remember her stage mother Terri standing behind the cameras and glaring (so I thought) at me. With good reason. I wanted to lick her daughter.

I can’t recall the third and fifth shows, New York celebrities, none of whom wished to commune with the playwright. But the fourth show—oh my god. The guest was Countess Somebody from Italy, a beauty expert who was hawking (of course!) a new book on beauty secrets.

Out walked Countess Somebody from Italy, on a cane. She must have been 90. She wore a long black dress, pearls, and a black hat and veil, her middle girdled tightly. I thought there was a chance that the countess might explode. I literally could not see her face—except for a curved line of bright red lipstick. She moved side to side, as if she might topple at any moment. Joe and I helped her sit. And I went into a panic. Would she want to lick me?

What question would I ask of the Countess Somebody from Italy?

Joe Franklin had partied with the countess. I think he might have visited her in Italy. I was sitting there, sweater and blue jeans, feeling like, oh, Countess Somebody’s gardener Eugenio. Thankfully, Joe was a pro. He asked her about moisturizers and wrinkles and healthy food for vibrant skin, and god knows what. And I was thinking, I’m off the hook. I was even daydreaming a bit—my play was opening in a few days; I was hot shit.

Then Joe Franklin, tearing me from my reverie, said, “Gene, what do you want to ask the countess?”

The black hat black veil turned in my direction; the red lipstick wound parted and waited. For show biz neophyte hick playwright Eugene Baldwin to ask a question about beauty.

I heard myself say, “I’m very pale.” The Countess nodded. Joe Franklin pursed his lips: More, please, pale Ed McMahon. “Hi-yo!”

“I’m very pale.” Pause. “I… I sunburn easily.”

Countess Somebody from Italy sprang into action, doing ten minutes about this pale playwright and what he must do to achieve beauty, Joe Franklin over her shoulder in total sympathy: you poor Midwestern boy who sunburns, oh no! (Would she have been pleased to know I had skin cancer 35 years later?)

Next up: “The Joey Adams Show,” with Joey mentioning my play once and proceeding to riff a stream of jokes about the Midwest, cows and corn, deliberately mispronouncing “Alton,” saying with a Yiddish accent “y’all” every fourth word, and a monologue about the Catskills.

Gentle Reader, I did not lick Brooke Shields. Oh yes: My play sucked.


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