One day in middle school, in one of the boys-only classes1 one of the guys was going on about some actress he really had the hots for. Several of the other guys agreed. And then a general discussion of other actresses that guys thought were hot got rolling. I don’t remember any of the actresses in question. I remember that at least a couple of them were on shows that my family never watched, so I had only the slightest idea who they were.
Eventually one of the guys turned to me and asked which actress I thought was hot. It was asked in a fairly challenging tone of voice which clearly communicated that the topic of the conversation was shifting to What-stupid-thing-can-we-get-him-to-say. It’s one of the more subtle forms of bullying, asking the kid no one likes a question that to the ears of an adult who might be listening sounds like an attempt to include you in the conversation, but all the kids know that this is really just another test. Can you come up with an answer that isn’t going to result in derision and teasing?3
I knew where this was going, and I knew no matter what I said my answer would be wrong in some way. But ignoring the question could go even worse, so I quickly scoured my brain and said, “Doris Day.”
Even I was a little surprised when that name came out of my mouth.
Which isn’t to say I wasn’t a Doris Day fan, I was. She’d been starring in movies for a couple of decades by that point, and for four years in a row in the early sixties she’d been ranked the number-one box office draw and earner. Not the top woman (she held that distinction for a total of 10 years), but the top star, period. She had played in serious films, and a few thrillers, but she was best known for romantic comedies and musical comedies. And those comedies seemed to be shown almost constantly on afternoon TV throughout the sixties and the first half of the seventies.
At the time when this conversation happened, she was in either the last season or had just ended her successful prime time TV series4. So she was definitely a famous actress at the time. But, while she was more than pretty enough to pull off all of those romantic roles, she had always played extremely wholesome and virginal characters. The persona and image projected in all those films and shows was never something that a bunch of hormone-addled adolescent boys would call “hot.”
So, of course, my choice was met with merciless derision.
A few years before my embarrassment in school for naming Doris Day as an actress I thought was hot, The Doris Day show had been the cause of another one of my embarrassments, though for a much smaller audience. The theme song of her show was Ms. Day herself singing “Que sera, sera” which had been a big hit for her in the 50s and, oddly enough, had been a song she sang in Hitchcock’s 1956 thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much. The first season aired when I was in second grade, so I was probably about 9 or 10 when this earlier incident happened. I was singing the theme song of Day’s show rather enthusiastically and had no idea anyone other than my little sister was within earshot. The problem was, I completely misunderstood the lyrics of the chorus. The first verse and chorus go like this:
“When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother
What will I be
Will I be pretty
Will I be rich
Here’s what she said to me
“Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Que sera, sera”
I didn’t know that the phrase “que sera, sera” was supposed to be Spanish.5 So, I thought the lyrics were, “Kay! Sit down! Sit down.” Because Kay, obviously must have been the narrator’s name in the little story the song tells. And I also thought the third line of the chorus was, “The future’s not out to sea.” Which is quite a mangled metaphor.
I suspect I thought the line was about the sea because this song was featured prominently is several other Doris Day movies after The Man Who Knew Too Much, including my all-time favorite, The Glass Bottom Boat.
Anyway, I had no idea that my Dad had come back home, and he heard me singing the song, and asked me what the hell I thought I was singing. When I answered, he told me the correct lyrics, and suggested I should learn to listen better. And what was I doing singing a girl’s song, again?7
The Doris Day Show8 was an interesting9 phenomenon. Wikipedia begins its description by saying it was most famous for abrupt cast and format changes. When it began, Day was playing a very recently widowed mother of two (named Doris Martin) who moved to her father’s ranch somewhere “near” San Francisco. That first season it played as a typical family sitcom, with a fish out of water flavor, as Martin and her sons tried to adjust to living in a rural community after living in big cities. About a third of the way through the first season, the actress playing the housekeeper left the show to take over a role on another sitcom on the network because the actress playing the other character had died. The grandmotherly caucasian housekeeper vanished one week to be replaced by a middle-aged hispanic housekeeper named Juanita without any explanation within the show, and never a mention of the previous character again.
In the second season, Day’s character had taken a job in San Francisco as a secretary to the editor of a magazine and she commuted from the ranch every day. Most of the family-oriented plots went away along with most of the rural setting’s recurring characters, to be replaced by office comedy and a whole new urban cast of supporting characters.
Then in season three, Day’s character and her sons moved into the city (presumably because she got tired of the commute), grandpa out in the country pretty much vanished, and even more city dwelling supporting characters were added.
Season four was the weirdest one. The sons vanished, and are never, ever, ever mentioned again. Day’s character is no longer a secretary, she’s now a staff writer on the magazine, and has a long career as a reporter behind her. Most of the in-office cast were replaced, but most of her in-city neighbors remain (and none of them ever mention the mysteriously vanished sons, either). The show’s focus had switched to romance and the trials of a single woman trying to make it on her own. Despite the way the network tried to frame her character as a swinging single in promos and such, Day (who had been made executive producer and given creative control at this point) obviously wanted to keep her wholesome image.
Her ratings were slipping, but they were still good enough to continue the show, if she had been willing. Which she wasn’t.
I had at least one more weird Doris Day moment after these. It was many years later, when I was with my (now ex-) wife. This was during the time that I had been persuaded that maybe I wasn’t gay but was actually bisexual10. My wife surprised me one day by asking, rather out of the blue, who was the first actress I’d had a crush on as a kid. Even though I had had such disastrous results with this answer in middle school, I said “Doris Day,” yet again.
Again, I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I knew full well by that point that I’d never had a crush on Doris Day.
But I knew that my wife (even though she knew me as bi and we frequently talked about guys we both found sexy) didn’t want to hear me talk about my childhood crushes on actors. At that moment she was looking for an actress. It was a test, again, though a different one. As I said, the facade was becoming more and more difficult for me to believe, and this was only one of a several questions that had come up where she was specifically trying to get me to talk about women I found attractive. I said “Doris Day” that time because, when put on the spot like that, she was the first actress I could think of that I could truthfully talk about watching when I was a kid.
I loved Doris Day movies, yes, but like many a gay kid before me, my obsession was more about identifying with her or her character. She was being romanced by the likes of Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, or James Garner all the time. Of course I wanted to be her!
1. The school was small enough that there was only one Physical Education course for each gender of each grade, so every day we had one period where all of the boys were in P.E. while the girls were in one of the classroom subjects, and another period where all the girls were in P.E. while the guys were taking the same classroom subject the girls had taken while we were in gym. The other classes were mixed gender2.
2. In eighth grade I very clearly recall that it was Math that was our non-mixed gender subject. But it wasn’t in 7th grade. I have a lot of memories of the 7th grade math class, which was definitely both guys and gals. But I can’t remember at all what class wasn’t such a mix. Weird.
3. It’s a trick question. When you’re the nerdy faggot that nearly everyone teases and harasses, no answer you come up with will be acceptable. In this case, if I had responded by mentioning one of the women the other guys had already mentioned, they’d claim I just named her because one of them named her. If I named someone none of them thought was hot, I would be teased for picking someone lame. If I pretended I didn’t have a favorite, that would just confirm the whole sissy/faggot paradigm much of the previous bullying had been predicated upon.
4. Her television series did not get canceled. She had only done the series because her late husband had signed her to a five-season plus several variety specials deal without telling her just before he died. And her late husband and lawyer had squandered her millions in a series of monumentally bad business deals (not to mention several “loans” from her funds to the financial advisor/lawyer that were never paid back) and left her deeply in debt. She couldn’t afford to fight the contract, and she needed a steady income until her lawsuit against the financial manager was settled. So she worked the five years minimum specified in the contract, and even though the network really wanted a renewal, she said no and retired from acting.
5. It isn’t really Spanish. The words are from the Spanish language, and they do literally mean “that which” and “will be” but the
phrase “que sera, sera” isn’t a grammatically correct construction in Spanish. The words can be pronounced the same and mean almost exactly the same thing in Italian, but they would be spelled “che sarà sarà.” And they would still be grammatically incorrect. The song creates the notion that the phrase is an old proverb from one of those countries. The phrase is an old proverb, sort of, in the sense that a lot of English novels in the 17th and 18th centuries have characters quote it and claim that it is either an old French, Spanish, or Italian proverb. But it never was in those languages6.
6. Or at least it wasn’t until Day’s 1956 recording became an international hit.
7. Thank goodness my folks had divorced and we’d moved 1200 miles from Dad before I discovered Victor/Victoria, eh?
8. The TV show which aired from 1968-73, not the radio show which aired from 1952-53.
9. Interesting in the mind-boggling and bizarre senses of the word.
10. It was a delusion I was having trouble selling even to my self, let me assure you!