Part 1:Secretary to Performer
by Toni Perrine
posted July 4, 2009
Also below is Part 2: Bellydancing & Clowning
An inspirational story by Toni Perrine – a lifelong performer
…Personally, what Life has taught me is to laugh, dance, sing and have fun any chance I might have. I should not wait for opportunities to come my way, but create them as the moment inspires me. I can cultivate my interests into inspirational meaningful experiences to share with my friends and family. Most importantly, life does not always turn out the way we expect. However, that is no reason to prevent your dreams from coming true.
I am Toni Perrine, but I was born Pamela Young on August 1, 1925 to Harry and Muriel Young. My mother was a stay at home mom who enjoyed playing piano and singing while my father was a traveling salesman. My only sister, Beryl Young, was fourteen years my senior and she taught Ballroom and Classical Greek dance in a large dancing school. All of us lived in Brighton, Sussex, England. I remember Brighton as a fun seaside town where royalty used to spend holidays.
Amongst the picturesque castles, there were many nightclubs and shops for people to visit and enjoy while on vacation. In addition to the exciting city life, there was plethora of arts and theater as well to indulge oneself.
Since Brighton was a seaside town, there were huge piers to accommodate boats and fisherman. These piers, far larger than any of the piers seen around the southern California area, provided a scenic space for afternoon dance performances, pageants, bands and dancing.
Unfortunately, I was sick and frail as a child and did not have the opportunity to start school until I was approximately seven years old. I remember being terrified (but excited) to finally get to school. On the first day of class, my mother walked with me to school, but after that, I walked alone. On my walks to school, I admired the uniforms of the high school students at Aven-Dale College. However, I never had the opportunity to attend the same high school I passed daily on the way to St. Anne’s Primary School. The school system in England is different from the school system in the United States. I remember sitting in one classroom, while the different teachers moved from class to class, teaching various subjects such as French, history, geography, English and mathematics. (I particularly enjoyed geography.) However, I found history boring because all that was required was to memorize the dates of when kings and queens lived, died and married. In addition to my classroom activities, the school also offered outside activities like tennis for us children to play.
My real passion, however, came from extracurricular activities outside of school! My true love was performance. My mother’s love of music and singing, combined with my sister’s career as a dance teacher, inspired and sparked my interest in the performance arts. I performed regularly in big pageants and shows the school produced. I was formally trained in the dramatic arts and various kinds of dance including ballet and ballroom dancing, and ultimately, I was being groomed to take my sister’s place in the dance school as an instructor. In addition to all of my activities, I would sneak away to the Brighton ice-skating rink where I would watch lessons. Eventually, I taught myself how to ice-skate with the aid of books from the library.
I was a self taught ice skater because the muscles used to ice skate are not good to develop for ballet, and dance teachers would have discouraged me from skating.
Near the onset of the World War II, I was forced to leave school because of financial reasons. However, I was determined to follow my passion. During this time, father cautiously warned me that I was too focused upon one area, and he encouraged me to "place two irons in the fire". After passing my matriculation exam to earn my degree, I enrolled in a course that taught me short hand and typing, and I paid for that course with no assistance from my parents.
Shortly after passing the secretary trade school course, I procured her first job utilizing my new skills in an accounting office at fifteen years of age. Even though I could take shorthand at one hundred and twenty words per minute and type at sixty-five words a minute, I did not fully understand the workings of the office, and clearly, I was miserable! My boss and I came to the conclusion that office work was not my true calling, and I moved on after a short period of time. This happened around the same time the war intruded on Brighton and changed the whole face of the city.
I recall the bombs dropping, learning first aid and being huddled up in different businesses in town to watch over things. Sadly, after the onslaught of the war, many plans in my life changed: my sister moved away with her husband, and I no longer received training at the Brighton Dance Academy to teach dance.
With my teaching plans cut short and my distaste for office work still clearly in mind, I turned my attention to the stage. Since I was unable to get up to London to finish formal training, my mother helped me get into a touring musical production called The Lisbon Story. In this production, I worked primarily in the chorus, singing and dancing. This performance ran for approximately three months. However, I noticed that whenever I was in a musical production too long I longed to act. So when The Lisbon Story tour ended, I joined a repertory theater company in New Castle, England. This theater put on a production approximately once a week, so while one play was running, they would be rehearsing and memorizing lines for the play the following week. Not surprisingly, I found this to be superb training! I was able to indulge my passion for singing, dancing and theater easily in England because every small town and city had a large theater associated with the area. So when I would tire of one discipline, I would audition for jobs in the other. After touring the theater circuit for a while, I decided to try my hand in another one of my many interests. I found myself in Paris and auditioned for a spot in the Cirque d’Hiver.
This show was part ice show and part circus. I learned the routines and won a spot in the chorus.
I was always in the lookout for a new exciting role or gig. One day while looking through the paper, I saw an audition for a circus performer. I tried out for the position and landed a spot in an acrobat troupe. In the meantime, while staying in a friend’s apartment that was on tour, a phone call came in for a lead role in an up and coming play. In my friend’s absence, the agent requested that I come in and audition for the part. I went to the audition and got the lead role. Since this was potentially my big break, I kindly told the circus I would not be able to perform with them. I felt if I could make a name for myself I could get to the United States. Sadly, the musical only ran for a few weeks before the financial backing fell through. Disappointed, I went back to the circus to ask for my old job back. Luckily, they still needed some performers. The Cole Brothers Circus sent another female performer and me to the United States to join the troupe in Kentucky at the Louisville Racetrack, on the Queen Mary.
While in the circus, I filled in wherever I was needed. Along with acrobatics, I rode the elephants and even once performed in the Spanish Web. The Spanish Web was a precarious stunt in which I was suspended from my ankle or wrist by a rope and swung around in a circle at a dizzying height with no safety net.
I only performed with the circus for one season, which ran from March to October. During the season they traveled all over the East coast and the Southern states, sometimes hitting up to two cities a day! All the performers were allotted one bucket of cold water a day, food, and a bunk on the train. When the season came to an end, I made the brave decision to stay in the United States on my own. I paid the owner of the circus for half of my boat ticket home and said goodbye. When the rest of the troupe headed back to England, I traveled with one of the vendors north to Chicago. He was always a gentleman, and all I had to do was help him sell his merchandise along the way. Once they reached Chicago, he brought me to the YMCA because it would be a safe place to stay while I got my bearings.
I worked a variety of jobs, singing in nightclubs and bartending, before developing my next marketable act. Since I was a formally trained ballet dancer, I combined Pointe with Exotic dance. Mind you: this was not stripping—but a beautiful and suggestive dance set to piano music.
With my new act in place, I was able to perform and travel to various places in the United States like Boston and Florida. Eventually, my agent was able to book a five-week engagement in Panama. While in Panama, I was promoted as the “English redheaded beauty”. I performed regularly in Kelly’s Ritz and wore beautiful costumes. In Panama, I noticed money was everywhere. I was hard pressed ever having to pay for my own meal in a diner because someone always picked up the tab for me. One night a drink was spilled on my dress, and I was handed a fifty-dollar bill for the dry cleaning. My five-week contract turned into a one-year adventure in Panama!
After I left Panama, I headed back to Europe and toured with another ice skating show in Germany and France. I did that for approximately a year before coming back to the United States. This time I moved to Las Vegas where I met my first husband, John Right. He was a card dealer, and I was a dancer. After a whirlwind engagement we were married, and I was twenty-seven then. Soon after our marriage, we had two children, a boy and a girl. After four years of marriage, John and I drifted apart, and our marriage ended. However, I continued living in Las Vegas and worked on a variety of different jobs.
One of my jobs was at The Globe Health Studio every other day, where I taught women’s exercise classes, trained people how to use the exercise equipment and ran the front desk. The days I was not working at the health club, I worked at a restaurant called The Rocking Horse. Both jobs provided me with freedom and flexibility to work and spend time with my children. While the restaurant was slow, I could picnic and swim with my children. As soon as business picked up, I would attend to the customers and then return to my picnic. Regularly, working during the day and performing in nightclubs, being afforded these luxuries was not something upon which I could rely.
As time passed, I began traveling again, made another short trip to England and (unhappily) eventually found myself in Texas, where John Right popped back into the picture and "rescued" me. He took the children and me from Texas to California to settle by the beach. Though we did not exactly make it to the beach we did settle in California. We established residence in the San Gabriel Valley where I found work managing the Gym and Swim Health Club. I also worked as a waitress and bartender, and eventually, I became involved with the theater again. John drifted out of our lives again, but I continued living in the San Gabriel Valley. In 1968, I met and married Bill Perrine. Through the course of our marriage we moved to South El Monte, bought property, and laid down roots. The kids went to school, and I worked in a music shop and continued performing.
One of my critically acclaimed roles came during my time in South El Monte. A playwright, John Stewart, wrote a stage adaptation of Sunset Boulevard with me in mind. I played the lead role of Gloria Swanson, who was an older star living in the past. This was an excellent role, and I stole the show. A published critical review of the show touted me as “true star”! The critic stated, "Toni carries the play with high emotional gusto." and "Toni Perrine IS THE PLAY". Life happily continued until my husband, Bill, passed away in 1980. I found myself at a new crossroad of life.
Bellydancing & Clowning
At fifty-seven years of age, at a new crossroad in life, I decided to try a new form of performing: I learned to Belly dance! Not surprisingly, I was able to again start performing in nightclubs and restaurants with my new talent. Approximately around the same time, I met the next love of my life, Richard. I had been persuaded to go to a local bar for a drink where I caught sight of a handsome man playing the piano. We became fast friends and eventually started dating. Richard and I never officially married because I would lose the Social Security benefits upon which I relied for part of my income. However, we were together for another thirteen years.
Soon I became interested in another field that would send me traveling all over the world again. The same day my grandson, Max, was born, I headed down to a “clown club” meeting at Oasis in Lakewood, California. Oasis is a center that provides different types of classes for mature adults.
After attending my first clowning meeting, my interest was sparked.
The clowning club group performed in churches, nursing homes and hospitals. I became so involved in the group that, eventually, I became the vice president of the club. After gaining experience in the club, I decided to start clowning more professionally. In order to participate in the most optimal training, I invested in a clown camp getaway in La Crosse, Wisconsin, that was run by Richard Snowberg. I realized the training was expensive but invaluable. Eventually, the clown camp troupe went to Japan to participate in Clown Expo. After this experience, I had the training and talent to call myself a professional. My new career was born.
In 1998, while I was still living in the San Gabriel valley, I went out to dinner with my family to the El Torito Restaurant where my friend Linda was working as a clown that evening. As the evening wore on, Linda brought to my attention that there was a clowning opportunity available in Taiwan, and there was a space available for me—if I was interested. I at first did not take the offer seriously because the troupe was leaving in a couple of weeks. However, the more I listened the more interested I became. I decided to take Linda up on my offer and was off to Taiwan in less than two weeks. I already had a passport and now had another professional opportunity to work as a clown. My work in Taiwan lasted approximately three months.
After working in Taiwan, my interest in travel was rekindled. In 2001, a close friend, Dottie, and I decided to take a vacation to see the many sights of China. Specifically, they wanted to travel down the Yangtze River before it was permanently dammed up and the opportunity was lost forever. Unfortunately, on one day of the trip I became very ill and stayed in my hotel while the rest of the group left to tour a mosque. Upon arriving home, Dottie turned on the television and saw the airplanes fly into the World Trade center in New York. Since the newscast was all in Chinese, initially Dottie and I thought that the broadcast was a movie. Later in the evening, our group found out what we had seen was, indeed, a horrible reality! The date was September 11, 2001.
The rest of the itinerary for our trip was changed. Our tour group was stuck in Shanghai for an additional five days trying to get home. However, the stay was not as unpleasant as it could have been. I found the Chinese people to be extremely kind, compassionate and empathetic. They viewed September 11 as a horrible sad tragedy and did all they could to comfort our tour group. The group’s tour guide took them under his wing and arranged for half price hotel rooms so they would not be stuck without somewhere to stay. He continued to stay with them until it became absolutely necessary for him to leave. During the time the group and I were waiting to leave, I decided to write a poem to lighten the mood and immortalize the people on the tour as well as the sights they had seen. The tour guide enjoyed my poem so much he decided to publish one of the verses in his promotional pamphlet. Here is my published verse:
Three gorges are beauties that nature has given,
Along the Yangtze Rivers where people are driven,
In boats so supreme—they go up and down stream,
and soon, it will be a forgotten dream.
Zoom, zoom, zam! It’s a dam!
Finally, the group was able to fly safely home to the United States. Two years after my holiday in China, I received another job offer to work in an amusement park in China as a clown. The tour was called Window on China, and I happily accepted the job.
After spending the last thirty years in the San Gabriel valley, I was ready to make another move. The home in which I was living was in need of repairs and its furnace was broken. My daughter, son in law and grandson were all now permanently settled in the San Diego area, so I decided to move to Carlsbad, California. I packed up my life, sold my property, and settled closer to family and friends. In no time, I was involved locally in the arts again.
I still clown professionally, have taken up magic, Belly dance, recently performed in Fiddler on the Roof and made an appearance as Mrs. Claus in a local parade. Undoubtedly, I will continue to follow my dreams and aspirations wherever they may take me.
I want my ability to pursue my dreams and passions to be an inspiration to others. When I become interested in something, I chase it with unbridled enthusiasm and passion. My whole-hearted commitment to develop a myriad of personal talents has opened up a lifetime of travel and unique experiences many would be hard pressed to accomplish. Instead of being discouraged by set backs, I turn the bumps in the road into opportunities to try something new. My ingenuity has allowed me to be the driving force in my life—instead of letting life roll over me. Perhaps this is a lesson many of us need to learn in life.
Personally, what Life has taught me is to laugh, dance, sing and have fun any chance I might have. I should not wait for opportunities to come my way, but create them as the moment inspires me. I can cultivate my interests into inspirational meaningful experiences to share with my friends and family. Most importantly, life does not always turn out the way we expect. However, that is no reason to prevent your dreams from coming true.
Ready for more?
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