One of the most touching, oddest autographs in my collection, is from Shannon Bolin. If you know the name at all, it’s probably because she played the housewife in “Damn Yankees.” That was my connection to her, although she released two albums, “Rare Wine” (a collection of obscure Broadway songs, many cut from famous musicals) and “Songs for Patricia,” a collection of Alec Wilder songs waxed for Riverside.
I happened to notice, among a seller's hundreds of items for sale, a 3x5 card on Ms. Bolin. It was only a few dollars. Who would know her name? I did, but what made me take a crowbar to my wallet,was the inscription. Usually (check eBay and you can confirm it) she either signed “Best wishes” or personalized it “To…” whoever. Here, she wrote: “Enjoy the rest of your life.”
What prompted such a remark? Who was the person who got this autograph in person or by mail, and why did Shannon respond in such a way? We’ll never know. Almost all the autographs I have came from personal contact with the celebrity. In this case, seeing the inscription had me wishing I'd known Bolin. Now, I could sort of pretend I did. I became a bit wistful about Bolin’s most famous song, the plain and plaintive ballad of loss called “There’s Something About an Empty Chair.” Sure, I'd enjoyed it as I had almost all the songs in "Damn Yankees," but now it was even more poignant.
In the musical Shannon plays a dowdy wife whose husband suddenly disappears. He's made a deal with the devil, and joined the Washington Senators as powerful superstar “Joe Hardy.” Bolin’s voice, distinctive but not beautiful, very much suits this heartfelt and mournful lament.
The co-writer of "Damn Yankees" was Jerry Ross (nee Rosenberg). "Damn Yankees" was the second hit musical for him and his partner Richard Adler. "Pajama Game" premiered in 1954. "Damn Yankees" arrived in 1955...the same year Jerry died. He died November 11, 1955 of some freak bronchial problem. He was just 29. Richard Adler tried but couldn't find another composer to bring him Broadway success.
Also in 1955 Shannon recorded “Rare Wine,” which included her take on Alec Wilder’s "The Winter Of My Discontent.” Wilder’s song probably is better suited to someone with a haggard voice, or perhaps an Annie Ross type, who would act out the lyrics with emotion. Stlll, Shannon does a good job here, even if her very “ordinary-ness” was probably a reason she never became a rival to Clooney, Page, Billie Holiday, or other contemporaries. She wasn't exactly a cover girl ala Julie London, either.
Shannon’s first name was Ione, which was pronounced, quite literally I guess, “I-one.” She was born on 1/1/1917. (She died 3/25/2016 at the age of 99). She said that being named 1one demonstrated her parents’ “South Dakota humor.” If she’d had a brother, what would her joker parents have done with that? Name the kid Jackpot Bolin? Her parents were the non-novelty named Gracie and Harry Bolin. Shannon was her middle name.
Shannon’s career began on radio during World War 2, and in 1944 she was accepted by the New Opera Company in New York. She worked in both modern operas (“Regina” and “Barbara Allen”) and in musicals, including “Take Me Along” and “The Student Gypsy.” She was one of the "Damn Yankees" cast members fortunate enough to appear in the film version. Gwen Verdon was reluctantly allowed to star as “Lola,” even if one of the film’s directors grumbled that she was “ugly.” The pre-"Martian" Ray Walston, absolutely essential as “The Devil,” was second choice to Cary Grant, who declined it.
Despite a hit show and movie, Shannon didn't pursue her show business career. She was a wife and mother. She was married to Milton Kaye, who did very well for himself as a pianist and a composer. Milton accompanied the violinist Jascha Heifetz in concerts, and played in the NBC radio orchestra of Toscanini and other classical greats. It was said that he didn’t like the pressure of a solo career, and preferred supporting others. He’d had a taste of the pressure back in 1935, when he premiered Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #1 for American audiences, and in 1945 when he made his Town Hall debut (doing a lot better than, say, Harry Chapin’s mythical “Mr. Tanner”). He would sometimes perform a solo concert at Carnegie Hall or other venues, but wasn't in competition with Rubinstein or Horowitz.
A rather humble Jewish guy from Brooklyn, Kaye also composed TV music for everything from the daytime quiz series “Concentration” to the early “Rootie Kazootie Show" which featured a freckle-faced baseball playing puppet. He even found work as a radio announcer, especially at New York’s classical station, WQXR. Once her daughter Jeanne was grown, Shannon did take acting roles now and then. Circa 1980, she was in the forgotten “If Ever I See You Again” and the even more forgotten horror film “The Children." Milton was active in music till the end. In 2006, at the age of 97, he was playing some Beethoven and Bach in the apartment he shared with Shannon, when he found himself feeling ill. He died a short time later, of pneumonia. Their only child was already gone, not out-living either of her parents. Shannon Bolin did make a few films circa 1980 She may have been faintly known to passersby for a commercial she did for the awful restaurant chain Denny’s. She was one of the “Corlick Sisters,” the fictional bickering duo that would quarrel about the joint, and call it “Lenny’s.” No doubt Ms. Bolin had a few people stop her on the street and ask, “Are you Ms. Corlick??”
Four years before Milton died, the duo of Mr. and Mrs. Kaye appeared in commercials extolling the eternal value of De Beers diamonds. In the 30 second spot, a young couple are walking in Central Park, thinking about diamonds, no doubt, or running off into the bushes near Strawberry Fields for a quick fuck. They walk past an elderly couple, and look back with amused respect. How nice to grow old together, like Shannon and Milton, and have that bond affirmed by wearing diamond rings.
From the baseball diamond of “Damn Yankees” to the diamond of a De Beers TV commercial…here’s to Shannon Bolin (and her husband). Below, one track each from “Damn Yankees” and “Rare Wine.” Download them, Sport, and you can become a Bolin ally.
SHANNON BOLIN Winter of my Discontent Instant download or listen on line, no ads, no pop-ups, no Zinfart password.
SHANNON BOLIN There's Something About an Empty Chair Instant download or listen on line.