The first time I saw the movie, Gidget, I was hooked on Sandra Dee. Not only did I think she was cute and spunky, but she ended up with Moondoggie. And who wouldn’t want to end up with James Darren? I’ve seen the original Gidget movie so many times that I’ve lost count of just how many times. And even to this day, although I have the DVD, every time the movie comes on TV, I can’t help but stop whatever I’m doing and watch it again. I found out I wasn’t alone in this weird addiction when at a recent concert I overheard a woman confessing to a friend the same thing–only she admitted to knowing the movie’s dialogue verbatim–whereas I can only paraphrase it. Oh, and by the way, headlining that concert, was none other than James Darren, looking as gorgeous as ever, which has me thoroughly convinced there’s a Dorian Gray painting somewhere in his attic, aging by the minute, as I’m writing this.
By the time I was old enough to move to Hollywood, Sandy had reached early adulthood and her promising career seemed to have come to a complete standstill. Either because the parts weren’t there for her, or she had decided to become a full-time mom to the son she had with Bobby Darin. Whatever the reason was, I missed seeing my favorite actress on the screen–and the chances of ever seeing her in person seemed even less of a possibility. And outside of being mentioned in a song from the movie, Grease called Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, it was as if she had disappeared–or at least she had from the Hollywood scene.
It wasn’t until the early nineties that Sandra Dee, now in her late forties, resurfaced into the public eye by making the cover of People magazine and sharing with the world the story of her childhood sexual abuse. Later that same year, she made what many thought, including myself, a comeback to acting when she did a play at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills called Love Letters. Co-starring with her was another teen idol by the name of John Saxon. The two, many years earlier, had shared billing in the movie, The Reluctant Debutante. It was heartwarming to found out that the two were being teamed-up again. And I became ecstatic to learn as a birthday gift, I was being treated to the play. Finally, I was going get to see Sandra Dee in person. And what was even nicer is when I spotted James Darren in the audience. How sweet was that? Moondoggie there to lend his support to Gidget. Because I was on a date, I was forced to behave…no ogling in public, I could only admire Mr. Darren from afar. Darn it! I work so much better when I’m on my own. But I did have a seat close enough to the stage to see that although she was now older, Sandy still had a sweet face and the sparkle that she had possessed in her eyes during her youth was still there.
Even though her performance in Love Letters got rave reviews, she once again disappeared from the limelight. It wasn’t until 1994 when her son, Dodd Darin wrote a book about his mother and father’s life called, Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, that she came back onto the scene. The book was well written and gave a true account of his parents’ lives, including his mother’s sexual abuse, eating disorder and her bouts with alcoholism and depression. He also wrote about his father’s drive to live every moment of life as if it was his last (the result of overhearing a doctor telling his family he probably wouldn’t make it to adulthood, due to a heart ailment).
When I got word, that Sandra Dee was going to be at a book signing with her son at Brentano’s bookstore at the Beverly Center, I was thrilled, but not really certain she would show up. But I was wrong. They were both there for the signing and to greet their fans.
Like all good mothers, she stood in the background and let her son enjoy his moment of glory as an author. And Dodd, like a good son, seemed protective, loving and respectful of his mother. It was obvious, together, they were a team.
Sandra Dee at the book signing was in her early fifties. She had led a difficult life, but there were no telltale signs showing in her face. And when I talked to her, she was just as down to earth as the girl next door, who was now grown up. I’m sure she had heard it a thousand times how much her movies had impacted a young girl’s life, but when she heard it from me, she pretended like she had never heard it before. Happily, I walked away with my dual autographed copy, signed by mother and son, of Dream Lovers and enjoyed the rest of the afternoon over lunch with my own mother, who I had dragged with me to the signing. At last, I had met my girlhood idol and the real Gidget.
I’ll never forget the day Sandra Dee died, it was on Feb 20th (2005), which coincidentally happens to be the date of my own sister’s birthday. We were on our way home from celebrating when the news came across the car radio. I didn’t cry, I didn’t gasp in shock, I just kind of went numb. The way you do when you hear of the unexpected death of an old friend–one you hadn’t seen in a long time, but still considered them part of your life. The news is so surprising you can’t immediately register your emotions. I will always feel sad about her passing, but luckily, I can say, “Look at me, I met Sandra Dee.”