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Having lived in Palm Springs from teens until 15 years ago (1980-2003), I learned what a small town it was, especially as to running into celebrities. Not only was my brother's mother-in-law Bob Hope's cook, but from 1985-1990 I worked Guest Services at a private resort that catered to celebrities. (I often spoke with Ralph Bellamy, who was a friend of the owner.) Later I worked for the city magazine, where celebrities were among our article subjects, advertisers, and subscribers. Among my good-sized collection of celebrity autographed photos, several are of those featured in these musicals. For me, meeting celebrities seemed an everyday occurrence.

In late 1990s I volunteered with Sunday afternoon Bible study services at an upscale Palm Springs retirement home. After our piano player could no longer volunteer, Roberta Bowen, a lady in her mid-70s, crossed paths with the lady leading our services. Learning a piano player was needed, Roberta volunteered to fill in. Through this, I became acquainted with her.

At the time I met her, Roberta had been doing benefits throughout Southern California. Mainly in Palm Springs, where she was involved with music for the Palm Springs Follies. She also performed at the Mizell Senior Center in Palm Springs, where I came as her guest to a performance. Roberta had been an entertainer since childhood, where she went by name "Bobbie Bell" (Bell being her maiden name). She showed me her copy of the May-June 1931 "Who's Who Children's Casting Directory," which had her photo at age 9 and of other childhood entertainers she personally knew from same agency, such Dawn O'Day (later known as Anne Shirley).

Roberta was very close friends with Frances Gumm (who later changed her name to Judy Garland) and Mickey Rooney. Mickey was a year and a half older than Roberta, while Roberta was 3 months older than Frances (Judy). Mickey was the one in their circle who started calling Roberta "Ding Dong"--a play on Roberta's last name of Bell--and the others followed suit. They went to the same child acting school together. Roberta, an accomplished pianist from childhood, was hired to be Judy's piano accompanist during their school years.

There was never a dull moment for these young friends, all in their early teens. Young "Bobbie" was the model student and Mickey was a prankster. One day, in Bobbie's hearing, Mickey told Judy his plans of skipping class and asked her to also skip, so they could go to their favorite soda shop hangout. Bobbie tried to convince them not to skip class. But they finally convinced her to meet them at the hangout, too. Skipping class, Bobbie showed up at the meeting place. Only to find Mickey and Judy weren't there!! She raced to class, horribly late of course, and discovered her two friends hadn't skipped class after all, but were there in their seats like angels, studying. 

To rehearse their acts, and test what material would go over well with an audience, Bobbie and her circle of friends played at "Sawtelle."  This was the Sawtelle Veteran's Home in Los Angeles, where most of their audience were elderly. Of all Bobbie's numbers, the old men loved her rendition of "My Hero." (Note: I've not been able to locate this song. As far as I can tell, this was not 1908 "My Hero" from "The Chocolate Soldier." Unless, perhaps, a parody song based on it? Roberta told me the song was about a girl who had visions of what her perfect future mate would look like, her "hero"; then ended up with a physically imperfect guy, looked like something the cat drug in, but to her he was still her "hero.") Bobbie was sick of singing this song. The old soldiers would always ask her to do an encore. This time, they were no different. Mickey told Bobbie she *had* to do the encore, the audience expected it. So, reluctantly, Bobbie began singing the encore. But this time, in midst of her song, the audience began bursting out laughing, holding their sides. As the laughter increased, Bobbie was on verge of tears and felt like running off stage. Why were they laughing at her? What had she done wrong? It was then another friend tapped her on the shoulder and she looked behind her. There were Mickey, Judy, and others of her group. Mickey was lying on the floor, eyes closed, with a lily in his hand, as if he were a corpse. One of the girls was the grieving widow; another girl "consoled" her. One of the other boys was the "preacher" directing the funeral.

As I had experience as a writer, Roberta wanted to hire me to assist with her autobiography. Besides being autobiographical of her childhood and adult life, including that of a WWII military wife with MIA husband, its theme was her friendship with Judy and a pact she and Judy had made as teenagers. Roberta often invited me to her Palm Springs home, where she shared stories of her early days as a performer. She gave me copies of four cassette tapes she'd recorded, telling each era of her autobiography, along with 12 typewritten pages of a preliminary sketch.

Roberta wished the book to be called "Four a Year." One day, still young teenagers, Bobbie sat at a table with Judy and Mickey at a hangout. Though they'd all been quite jovial, Judy suddenly got serious. She took Bobbie by the arm and wanted her to make a promise. Then Judy detailed the pact they were to have between them. If Bobbie died first, Judy would do a certain number of benefits in her memory. If Judy died first, Bobbie would have to do that number of benefits in Judy's memory. But Bobbie didn't want to do this. It was morbid. They were young teens, just starting life. Judy persisted with her request. Mickey turned to Bobbie and said to the effect of, "Ding Dong, go ahead and promise her. She won't let you rest until you do."  So, Bobbie promised.

Fast forward to June 1969. As 47-year-old Roberta was hearing news of Judy's death, the phone rang. It was Mickey. The first thing he said was, "Ding Dong, you've got a lot of benefits to do." Roberta made good her promise. She did at least four benefits a year, and finally in 1990s finished the promised quota. But she didn't stop there. Years after, she continued doing benefits in memory of her friend Judy.

After we met, Roberta's health was in further decline. For some time she'd been unable to eat solid foods, but still had health enough to do performances. Before long, however, she stopped her performances and had to cancel our meetings at her home. Eventually she told me she was scrapping plans for the book, as her health had worsened. From then on, I'd get her answering machine when I called to see how she was, and eventually lost track of her. Later I'd discover she'd passed away in 2000, less than two years after we'd met.

I still have her tapes and typewritten preliminary draft. Roberta and her husband had a son who, I believe, lived in Los Angeles. I was never able to contact him to see if he'd want me to continue his mother's (posthumous) autobiography. So her story is still unfinished.

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