Monday, May 4, 2015

In tribute to Ellen Albertini Dow, 1913-2015

Ellen Albertini Dow, then 85, performs
The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight"
in the 1998 film The Wedding Singer
In the spring of 2006, as I was researching my book on The Golden Girls, I was lucky to get the chance to have lunch with Ellen Albertini Dow, a frequent guest star on the show but perhaps best known to the world as the "Rapping Granny" in Adam Sandler's 1998 film The Wedding Singer.

Ellen, who died earlier today at age 101, had an extraordinary life, from her beginnings as the daughter of immigrant Italian parents in Mt. Carmel, PA, through her Ivy League education at Cornell University, her long and loving marriage to fellow actor Eugene Dow, an early vocation in New York and Los Angeles as an esteemed acting teacher, and finally, beginning only in her 70s, a successful career in TV and film.

At 92, Ellen drove herself that day in her zippy little car to Cable's Restaurant in Woodland Hills, where she was clearly a regular presence and favorite customer.  We talked about The Golden Girls and so much more, and she shared with me the behind-the-scenes story of just how she came to perform the Wedding rap for which she'll always be beloved.

My husband Gene went with me to the auditions for The Wedding Singer, way up in Chatsworth, on a beautiful, sunny day.  I had already done Sister Act 1 and 2, and I study and read music.  Gene and I had prepared the song "'Til There Was You," and so when they asked me to sing I was ready.  I sang it without accompaniment, and they loved it.  They said, "We have to have you come back tomorrow and read with Adam Sandler."
Adam and the director Frank Coraci had gone to NYU together, and they were like two teenagers when they were together, laughing and cutting up.  They were funny, but actually they annoyed me when I was first there, because I was trying to concentrate on my song.  For a while at first, we would rehearse scenes, and I would always just be singing "'Til There Was You."  But then, one day, they said "We have an idea."
They hadn't thought of it at the beginning, but now they started wondering if it would be funny to have an older woman perform a rap song.  Well, I had never heard of rap!  I had no idea what it was.  I'm not sure, but I think I remember they gave me a cassette tape beforehand of this song, and set up a date to go to a sound studio on Santa Monica Boulevard to record it.  Well, thank God for Sister Act, and for Marc Shaiman, whom I adore,  because now I had experience in the sound booth.  
There I was with the headphones on, and they start playing "the hip, hip a hop, and you don't stop, a rock it."  Frank and Adam were there, going over it with me.  Well, rhythm isn't something that bothers me, because I've danced all my life.  So I asked the guys, "May I move to it?"  And once I got started, they couldn't believe it.  My husband was up in the booth, and he told me later they came over to him and said, "Can you believe this?  She's getting it right!"  My husband knew I would, and just acted really cool about it.    The next day, we did a table read of the script, and I hadn't realized that I'd amazed them.  But Adam Sandler announced to everyone, "Ellen got it!"  I remember everyone laughing and applauding.
When we shot the scene, I didn't want to lip synch.  So I performed the whole song again, even though I'd already recorded it.  There was something about these people, and about Adam who was so very very nice to me, that made me feel comfortable.  So even though this was a whole new thing for me, I asked them if I could do some little movements I'd worked out to go with certain lyrics.  And it just worked.
"Rapper's Delight" was so different for me, and I still don't know any other song of rap, or know anything about any other rapper.  But the song has stayed with me.  "And I'd like to say hello, to the black, the white, the red and the brown, the purple and yellow."  I still sing it often, if I need a little lift.

-- Ellen Albertini Dow, March 15, 2006 

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