It's impossible to ask Shelley Bruce, "What's your average day like?" "There's no such thing," she says. "I like the fact that I rarely have a day that is 'planned.' It changes on a dime. And I love it that way. I've learned that life is too short, and we all need to make time to have fun. Even if that means dropping everything at a moment's notice, to grab dinner and jump in the hot tub." She laughs. "Some of the most amazing things in life happen at the most unexpected moments."
Shelley Bruce is perhaps a most unusual Broadway legend, but a Broadway legend all the same. Though known best as the young lady who would replace longtime best friend Andrea McArdle in the title role of "Annie" at the Alvin Theater in 1978 (after a year of originating the highly-featured role of orphan Kate), she made her professional New York theater debut Off-Broadway in "The Children's Mass" in 1972 at age seven, followed shortly thereafter by a role on the daytime drama "Love Of Life." 1976 would find her making an initial Broadway bow in "The Innocents," based on Henry James' "The Turn Of The Screw" (in which, initially, she served as standby to Sarah Jessica Parker, later an "Annie" castmate and her eventual successor in the role), which starred Claire Bloom and was directed by Harold Pinter. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed that Ms. Bruce had the world on a string; she was starring in the beloved musical by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, making guest appearances on television variety shows of every sort, serving as a spokesperson in commercials and magazine print ads for RCA TV ("My hair is auburn, my dress is bright red, and my dog is sandy brown. If you don't see these colors clearly..."), and even being brought to the White House to perform for both Presidents Carter and Reagan and a host of such dignitaries as Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford, not to mention too many celebrities to count and endless personal appearances. She even completed a featured role in the film "The Burning" in 1980, which starred Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens. Fate, however, stepped in when Ms. Bruce was barely sixteen, at which time she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her career officially on hold for at least the next eighteen months, Ms. Bruce fought a valiant battle against the disease and mercifully found herself in remission by late 1981. She attempted a comeback in Walter Willison's ill-fated musical "Broadway Scandals Of 1928," but then turned to rock music, singing with a few different bands before settling in with the group One Trak Mind, and living a civilian life quite contentedly. Today, Shelley Bruce is alive and well and "just a suburban Jersey soccer mom," as wife of almost twenty years to her husband Ray, and mother of seventeen-year-old son Michael ("He's graduating high school this Friday, and I'm so proud of him!" she says) and twelve-year-old daughter Nicolle ("I can't believe she's starting seventh grade!"). On the professional side, she runs a successful business selling candles and has returned to school to garner a degree in Criminal Justice, but keeps her creative juices flowing by occasionally singing with the annual deck party reunion of One Trak Mind and an occasional Saturday night out with friends. And we couldn't be happier that she's granted this interview, the first full-length glimpse into her life in over two decades.
Her road to success in "Annie" began in the role of Kate but also as a standby for the lead as well as the role of little Molly (played at the time by future television and recording/composing star Danielle Brisebois). "But I had already gone on for Andrea when she was on vacation, so Mike Nichols and everybody knew I could handle the role. It was kind of assumed I would take over when Andrea left the show," she tells me, "but you know how showbiz is. You never know for certain that you've got the part until you sign on the dotted line. But one thing led to another, and it happened. And I have to say, opening night was great!!! Lots of flowers and telegrams, and tons of fun." And it's no secret that a host of celebrities would visit the theater to see Ms. Bruce's performance. "Sammy Davis Jr. actually came when I was on as understudy," she tells me, "and THAT was awesome. We also got to meet Michael Jackson. When he still had his Afro," she chuckles. "And Henry Winkler was great! He sat on the stage with us afterwards and talked all about theater and performing. I also remember Muhammad Ali dipping me back and kissing me. THAT was cool. And Paul and Linda McCartney came, and the next day we all had boxes of Godiva chocolates waiting for us."
Naturally, as with any Broadway show, a new star taking over the role and others taking over roles leads to change. Soon after Ms. Bruce took over for McArdle, Alice Ghostley took over in the role of Miss Hannigan, for which the late Dorothy Loudon was awarded a Tony. Did Ms. Bruce have to make a huge adjustment on her own part to a new actress as her tormentor? "Well, the neat thing about a major character change is that it actually can refresh a show," she says. "The new actor finds his or her own moments, and it actually makes it somewhat of a different show. And as an actor in a new role yourself, it makes you step up your game to react to it." The same could be asked in this case about Sandy, the dog who became famous for his role in the show; did he have to make a major adjustment to Ms. Bruce after McArdle's departure? "Oh, Sandy actually went into a depression when Andrea left," she tells me. "He really missed her."
Some of those performers in the show went onto stardom and superstardom on Broadway and beyond. These included the aforementioned Danielle Brisebois and Sarah Jessica Parker, as well as Jenn Thompson (co-starring in the film "Little Darlings" with Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol, and the sitcom version of "Harper Valley P.T.A." as the daughter of Barbara Eden). Was Ms. Bruce ever surprised at the subsequent achievement of these or other castmates? "Well," she muses, "I think everyone, more or less, gets what they want out of this business. The people who have gone on to greater careers really wanted it. They moved heaven and earth to make it happen, never giving up their goals. Unfortunately," she adds, "Laurie Beechman (who originated the role of A Star To Be in "Annie" and went on to greater glory as a Broadway star and cabaret personality) was taken away from us much too soon. What an amazing talent she was. And an even more amazing person," she concludes.
Of course, as would be customary, all sorts of personal appearances were the order of the day. Besides variety show appearances all over television such as "The Mike Douglas Show," countless telethons for Jerry Lewis' MDA and other charities, and endless commercial spots not to mention a highly-lauded HBO Christmas special in 1979 in which Ms. Bruce and Reid Shelton ("Annie"'s own Daddy Warbucks) sang a gorgeously-delivered "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" with Sandy in tow, it wasn't unusual for her to be flown into shopping malls and other such public spaces to say a few words and sign a few autographs. "It always amazed me how many people there would be, at all the publicity outings we had," she says. "Just when you thought there couldn't possibly be anyone else left who wanted to see an appearance by Annie, there would be a mall full of people just waiting for you to arrive." She chuckles. "One of my favorite appearances was in Hicksville, Long Island; I was flown in by a glass-bottomed helicopter!"
"Annie" would eventually become a film, starring Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters, Ann Reinking, and Aileen Quinn in the title role. What were Ms. Bruce's thoughts about the project? "Oh, I think Aileen did a wonderful job," she tells me. "But what many people didn't realize at the time was that the movie didn't really resemble the show. It was much more like the comic strip." By the time the movie was released, she was long done with the show but an integral part of it's history. What, therefore, does she think today, when she hears someone sing "Tomorrow" on a show such as "American Idol" and absolutely butcher it, or even in a karaoke bar? She smiles and admits, "I have a sensitive ear, so regardless of what anyone is singing, going off-key is a cringing moment for me. But," she says, "I do think it's great to see that no matter how much time goes by, people still love "Annie" and really enjoy the songs."
However, it was right about the time when the film was emerging that Ms. Bruce learned of her leukemia diagnosis. "I was sitting in Dr. Hoffman's house, my pediatrician at the time," she says, "because she had called as soon as she got the reports of my blood work from that afternoon. It was as if they were talking about someone else the entire time." Faced with this fate, her immediate outlook wasn't positive." At the very beginning, my thought process was, leukemia = cancer = death. But it wasn't until the doctors sat me down and explained what they were going to do, and the success they have had with the treatment, that I realized that this wasn't a death sentence." One doctor in particular, the recently-departed and sorely-lamented Lois Murphy, was a specialist in pediatric oncology as well as a close personal friend of Dr Hoffman. Ms. Bruce completely credits these two doctors with being largely responsible for her survival.
Additionally, it was at this time that Andrea McArdle showed her true colors as Ms. Bruce's best friend, visiting Shelley every single day in the hospital and going out of her way to spend extra time on Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as Ms. Bruce's birthday. To this day, they're still best friends; McArdle even refers to Ms. Bruce as "my mall-hopping buddy" for all the happy trips the two take together to shopping centers now. Conversely, McArdle's mother Phyllis and Ms. Bruce's mother Marge are as close as sisters and have been since their first meeting. What accounts for the longevity of this dual friendship? "Oh, well," she smiles, "Andrea and I met at an audition when I was seven and she was eight. We just became instant friends, and have remained so ever since. We actually have what I call half-birthdays, because our birthdays are exactly six months apart. And it just so happens that our moms' birthdays are only one day apart." She chuckles. "Some people are just meant to be friends, I guess."
While she was fighting the disease, however, came the call for Ms. Bruce to make an appearance in "Broadway Plays Washington." Staged at the Kennedy Center and taped for nationwide release on PBS, the show was hosted by Debbie Reynolds and featured such Broadway luminaries as Pearl Bailey, John Raitt, Chita Rivera, Melba Moore, Larry Kert, Beatrice Arthur, Barry Bostwick, Ann Reinking, Ken Page, Charlotte Rae, Robert Morse, Christine Ebersole, the late Lynne Thigpen, and in a special appearance, all four of the young ladies who had played Annie, namely Andrea McArdle, Sarah Jessica Parker, Allison Smith (best known later for portraying Jane Curtin's daughter on "Kate and Allie"), and Ms. Bruce, with composer Charles Strouse accompanying all on piano. Ms. Bruce was excited but tentative. "That was my first public appearance since being sick," she tells me. "I was so nervous, and so worried that my voice wouldn't hold up." Hold up it did, however, and her performance of "Maybe" proved a triumph. It was also during this performance that lyricist Martin Charnin, who provided the narration, compared Ms. Bruce to Little Orphan Annie herself for having "a heart of gold and a fast left." Does Ms. Bruce agree with that assessment? "Well...I guess that's true," she says coyly. "I will move heaven and earth for my friends and family. And yes, when I get to my breaking point, which takes an awful lot, I have a fast left in many ways," she smiles.
Finally in remission in the mid-1980s, since then she hasn't required strenuous testing for suspect attributes of the disease. "I now go for yearly checkups just like anyone else," she says. "I don't exactly remember when all the heavy stuff ended, but I would guess around the five-year mark, and I feel terrific." It should be noted that Ms. Bruce has been disease-free since that time. And a new show found it's way to her, the Off-Broadway musical "Broadway Scandals of 1928," which, alas, was not a resounding success when it premiered at O'Neal's. "Oh, that show was so crazy," she says. "We went through three leads and lots of mayhem to get that show up and running. It was the first show I had done since being sick. But," she adds, "I had the perfect hairstyle. My hair was just starting to grow back in, and I looked perfectly 1928." She also wrote her memoir, "Tomorrow Is Today" at that time, following an in-depth autobiographical article in People Magazine."That was at the request of Dr Lee Salk," she tells me. "He thought it was something I needed to do not only to help others, but to also help myself deal with such an emotional experience." The question remains, will she ever make a new comeback on Broadway? "It would have to be the right project," she says mysteriously. "I've learned to never say never!"
A short time later, she ditched "the boards" for a more stable life singing with One Trak Mind (her friend's band), and as wife to hubby Ray. "We met through mutual friends, at the beach," she informs me, "and at first we didn't really like each other." They started dating a few months later, got married, moved to a small town in her native New Jersey, and it was a matter of time before she gave birth to Michael and then Nicolle. "My two kids are by far my greatest accomplishment in life," she says proudly. "They are my constant joy, and I am so proud of them both. They are both amazingly giving, sensitive people with hearts of gold." Does it ever phase them that once upon a time, when she was their age, their mom was a Broadway star loved the world over? "Oh, no," she smiles. "They are completely unaffected by that. To them I'm just Mom, who's there when they need me."
She does keep busy by doing the bookkeeping for an air freight business, and running her own PartyLite business, a candle company where she throws parties similar to Tupperware. "What happened was," she informs me, "I just attended a party one night, I liked what the girl was saying about being my own boss, and being able to work around my kids' schedules. As far as the work, I get to go hang out with a great bunch of ladies at every party, and share beautiful candles and accessories. It's a great business to be in." She's also completing a degree in Criminal Justice. "I went back to school, as kind of a joke, just to do something," she says. "I decided that I wanted a degree, and when I looked around, everything I liked and did was related back to CSI type activities. I love puzzles and figuring things out, I watch every "CSI" and reality crime show, so I figured, what the heck. I don't know if I'll ever put it to any use, but it is a goal I would like to achieve." She still gets together occasionally with the rock band One Trak Mind, however, and jumps in every chance she gets on tambourine and backup vocals with Say Uncle, a friend's band in Northern New Jersey. "I LOVE working with a band," she tells me. "There's a certain freedom to singing what you like, and being in charge of your own performance."
Things came full circle for Ms. Bruce in spring of '07, when a thirtieth-anniversary reunion was conducted at Gallagher's Steak House (the site of the show's original opening night party in 1977) for all the surviving original cast of "Annie." For the first time in decades, she was rubbing shoulders once and again with Danielle Brisebois, Robert Fitch, Edie Cowan, Diana Barrows, Sasha Charnin, and so many others besides her dear friend Andrea McArdle. "The reunion was an amazing experience," she says. "Every surviving person associated with opening night was there, and it was magical." As a special treat, she brought out her Gypsy Robe (pictured right), which is usually presented to the most promising ensemble member of a Broadway musical. "My Gypsy Robe was a parting gift to me from the cast when I left the show," she says. "Getting it out for the reunion was my mom's idea, and it was a great one."
Finally, at the risk of asking, what does the future hold for Shelley Bruce? "I have no clue," she laughs. "But I can read my tarot cards, and get back to you on that."
We can only hope that she will. In any case, one can be sure that Shelley Bruce's tarot deck is most certain to turn up The Star as its anchor card.