Sparkle, Neely, Sparkle! The Cult of Patty Duke By Mike Dereniewski. Think of iconic female celebrities who have devoted cult followings and names such as Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Diana Ross, Cher, or Barbra Streisand are likely to come to mind...
Think of iconic female celebrities who have devoted cult followings and names such as Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Diana Ross, Cher, or Barbra Streisand are likely to come to mind. While she probably isn’t in general public’s consciousness as predominantly as those listed above, there is one more lady who deserves a place on that esteemed list: Patty Duke. While her fan base may not be as large, she has a fiercely loyal following. She also had a starring role in one of the most famous camp films of all time, Valley of the Dolls.
Next Thanksgiving, bring up Patty Duke at the dinner table and most people will instantly start talking about "The Patty Duke Show." Grandma and Grandpa may bring up her most famous role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. And that one eccentric cousin will surely remark about her role as Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls (WARNING: Do this and there’s a reasonably good chance you’ll be in store for a reenactment of one of her iconic scenes from the film). Patty certainly has had an illustrious career, working in show business consistently from 1957 to the present day and is one of the most significant actresses of our time. She has been in over 70 movies, television shows and feature films, playing lead roles in the following TV series: "Amazing Grace" (an ordained minister), "Hail To The Chief" (the first female president 20 years before Geena Davis in "Commander in Chief"), "It Takes Two" (an assistant district attorney), "Karen’s Song" (a divorced literary agent), and "The Patty Duke Show" (playing identical cousins Patty and Cathy which inspired Laura and Maddie Palmer of "Twin Peaks").
To get a better understanding of Patty Duke the person, not just Patty Duke the actress, a short history is in order, however, it would take a novel to cover it in detail. From her bestselling book Call Me Anna, we learn that Patty Duke was born Anna Marie Duke in New York on December 14, 1946. At six years of age, her alcoholic father left the household, leaving young Anna and her siblings to cope with a manic depressive mother. Her brother, Ray, was in a production that called for his character to have a little sister so he suggested the use of his actual sister which is how Anna was first introduced to John and Ethel Ross who would later become her managers (and tormentors). Anna moved in with the Rosses, who had convinced Anna’s parents she’d be better off living with them. They renamed her "Patty" to sound perkier and told the eight-year-old, "Anna Marie is dead. You’re Patty now." While life with the Rosses was strict and regimented, they were cunning managers and trained her for nearly a year to audition for the role of Helen Keller for the Broadway play The Miracle Worker. Patty got the part, earned critical acclaim for her stage performance, and was the youngest child actor ever to receive Broadway Marquee star billing (having her name appear above the production’s title). Patty then reprised the role in the 1962 film, for which she earned an Academy Award for best supporting actress, making her the youngest person ever to win an Oscar at the time. She then made the leap into television, staring as Patty Lane and identical cousin Cathy Lane on "The Patty Duke Show." As a teenager, she was still living with the Rosses and under their control, being both a national celebrity and an indentured servant. She began using alcohol and prescription drugs to cope with their abuses, finally breaking free from them at age 18 by marrying one of the assistant directors of "The Patty Duke Show." When her TV series ended in 1966, she was anxious to shed her child star image and looked for more dramatic, adult roles. She thought she got the chance to do so when offered the role of Neely O’Hara in 1967’s Valley of the Dolls.
Looking over her immense body of work, it is clear that Patty is a versatile actress. She has attained many awards and honors throughout her career: one Oscar, three Emmys, two Golden Globes, a Star on the Walk of Fame, etc. While today many may think of her as the sweet, little ole granny type, in reality she has played many complex and controversial characters, with no genre off-limits, no subject too taboo.
If Patty absolutely had to be pigeonholed, she would probably fall under the opposite of the damsel in distress category. She has often played (especially in made-for-TV movies) a mother- or housewife-type who has been wronged, and must go to extraordinary lengths and/or fight impossible odds to gain justice and right that which has been wronged.
Beyond the screen, she is also well known for her activism. Patty is a political advocate for issues such as the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), AIDS, and nuclear disarmament. But, her most personal crusade is her role as an advocate for those suffering from bipolar disorder; her mission being to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness, and to let those suffering from it know that help is out there.
What’s in Back of the Sky?
Patty Duke has taken on hundreds of parts in her career and, while she’s certainly portrayed plenty of characters to which she could relate, it is Valley of the Doll’s Neely O’Hara who paralleled Patty’s real life (at least during the first portion of her career). Neely started out in show business as optimistic, naïve, and innocent. While Patty started in show business at a much younger age in real life, she held the same virtuous ideals. As opportunities presented themselves to Neely, she grew as a star until her own fame and fortune corrupted her; transforming her into the cliché spoiled Hollywood starlet. Neely’s personality changed as she succumbed to alcohol and drugs (pills being the "dolls"), until she finally collapsed from a nervous breakdown.
Patty too went through strife as she matured from child star to adult actor. As a kid her career was completely controlled by the Rosses, from whom she pulled farther and farther away as she matured. When she finally broke free, Patty had her own bouts with alcohol and drug abuse, out-of-control manic highs, suicidal lows, and she too went through what was thought to be a nervous breakdown. However, for Patty it was not a breakdown but undiagnosed bipolar disorder which took years to discover.
Written by Jacqueline Susann in 1966, Valley of the Dolls, spent many years as "the best-selling novel of all time." The film version was intended to be a serious, dramatic portrayal of the celebrity life and its downfalls:
Patty Duke was going for her second Oscar; this film was Sharon Tate’s big break. There is this base of earnestness that comes through in the acting that informs the film’s aesthetic.
Because it was so over-the-top, the film was blasted by critics, and disliked (even hated) by those involved in creating it. Lamenting about the premiere of the film, which took place on a cruise ship in Venice, Italy, Patty recalls that the first problem was that the film ran too fast because of the generator, making the dialog too high pitched, and that "...the second problem was that they showed the movie."
American essayist, literary icon, and political activist Susan Sontag argued the merits of camp, describing it as the love of the exaggerated, glamorous, fantasy, which is not a natural mode of sensibility but decorative, emphasizing style at the expense of content. Village Voice columnist Michael Musto agrees, stating, "A camp movie is a movie that’s so hilariously over-the-top that you can’t believe it wasn’t a comedy... The best kind of camp [is] something that is not trying to be over-the-top and hilariously bad – it just is." And, referring to Valley of the Dolls specifically, "It’s a fashion show, it’s a musical, it’s a Hollywood exposé, it’s a horror movie, and it’s everything you could want in a movie... There’s abortion, there’s addiction, there’s terminal illness, and, at that time, these subjects had only been dabbled in by the popular culture. The critics said it was vulgar, glitzy, offensive, empty, shallow – duh? That’s why we love it."
Diehard fans converged on July 20, 2009 for Sparkle, Patty, Sparkle!, a gala tribute at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, to celebrate her career. The festivities included a screening of Valley of the Dolls, as well as a sizzling send up performance by drag queen Connie Champagne dressed as Neely O’Hara, on stage performing dialog and songs from the film. Fans made comments such as, "Valley of the Dolls is one of my favorite movies, absolute camp, I've seen it a zillion times," "If you want I can quote the entire thing from start to finish," "I can't even talk I'm so excited I got to meet her," and "I love her!" Clearly the film has a cult following, and clearly it is embraced because of its camp.
Fandom and Patty Duke
Fandom for Valley of the Dolls and for Patty’s character can be found anywhere from a Neely O’Hara MySpace page to her own "Sparkle Neely, Sparkle!" shade of Mac Cosmetics eye shadow. These items, and many like them – both official merchandise and fan-produced items – are part of what media scholar John Fiske calls the "Economy of Fandom." He ascertains that Fandom is associated with the cultural tastes of the subordinated formation of people, particularly those disempowered by any combination of gender, age, class and race. Official culture, like money, distinguishes between those who possess it and those who do not. Through their acts of accumulation (such as collecting signatures, first editions, scarce fan art, and objects of visual fandom) fans participate in, and help sustain, a cultural economy. Fans produce cultural discourse, contribute to and create popular culture through "carnivals of fan participation."
This is to say that the object of fans’ fandom (band, movie, actor, etc.) bring them together, uniting them into their own subculture; a special community in which the larger their collection, the "richer" they are amongst their peer fans. This applies not only to Valley of the Dolls and the character of Neely but to Patty Duke and her entire career.
While a large collection of Patty Duke memorabilia is most certainly valuable monetary-wise, it has more meaningful value to the fans, as do things like a vast knowledge of Patty’s career and life, a personal response by her, and the ultimate prize imaginable – meeting her and even getting to know her on a personal level.
Bill Jankowski "began, with permission, The Official Patty Duke Webpage and, soon after, The Official Patty Duke Mailing List and Official Patty Duke Newsletter" and has "spent literally thousands of dollars on websites such as eBay and in stores around the country on photos of her and other collectables." He adds, "Plus flying to see her at various locations is not cheap. But to me this is a love I cannot put a price tag on." This is a sentiment and situation to which I can completely relate, having nearly identical experiences (although not quite up to Jankowski’s level).
In addition to collecting, texts and items produced by the fans themselves become a commodity. Sanctioned endeavors such as Jankowski’s Official Patty Duke website and my not-so-official Patty Duke Fanzine are produced by Jankowski and I to "share the wealth" of our Patty Duke fandom, allowing us the opportunity to participate in, help sustain, and even elevate Patty Duke culture, by sharing our personal objects of visual and audible fandom. Fiske sees fandom as "an activity that might fill a ‘cultural lack’ – it does not ‘replace’ or ‘substitute’ other communicative acts, but it does compensate for a perceived shortfall of cultural capital." Embarking on these projects not only helps define these individuals within the fan community, but creates labors of love meant to add Patty Duke and her lesser-acknowledged accomplishments to pop culture’s greater cultural consciousness. Fiske also states that, "fans do not write or produce their texts for money; indeed, their productivity typically costs them money... fan texts are not produced for profit." This applies to the Official Patty Duke website, and certainly to The Patty Duke Fanzine (1999-2006) for which I spent untold thousands of dollars reprinting Patty Duke articles and putting out records of bands covering Patty tracks or doing a cover of a Patty cover.
Patty Party in Spokane
Aside from interviewing Patty herself, there could be no better way to summarize Patty Duke fandom than to allow her fans to tell their own tales of fandom in their own words. What follows is my "Patty Party in Spokane" article (mostly unedited, to preserve original text) which was first printed in The Paper Tiger fanzine which currently appears on The Official Patty Duke Webpage.
"Back in the early ’90s, insomnia led me to watch ‘The Patty Duke Show’ religiously on Nick At Nite. It slowly, but surely, got way out of control. Before I knew it I was collecting everything Patty: videos, posters, pictures, books, records, and oddball items like board games, paper dolls, and more.
"Flash forward a few years and I’m working on a play at school. The director is a serious jerk and I end up being a props guy/stage hand. I basically had to wait for hours to hand people props off stage during the show; all those hours with nothing to do. I decided to kill time by photocopying some of my Patty pictures and articles to compile them into a little fanzine. It really started off as kind of a joke out of the boredom, but turned into a great excuse to ask some of my favorite bands to cover Patty songs!
"Along comes 1999 and [Bill Jankowski] sends out an email about the latest Patty happenings. I find she’s going to be in a play, The Glass Menagerie, in March over in Spokane, Washington. I flip.
"A couple of months before the play opened I called the theater to see if I could get tickets and was told I’d have to wait until they went on sale for everybody. The day they went on sale I kept calling all day long from work, but the line was busy. I started to freak, thinking I wouldn’t get tickets. I went home and kept trying. By the time I got through, there were only 15 minutes until closing time. It turns out there was only one ticket left for each night of the last two performances. I barely made it!
"The play is running and I stumble upon a review from a Spokane paper. I wrote the author of the article to see if he could give me the contact info to try to get an interview with Patty for my radio show. He’s wondering why a college station in Detroit would send someone all the way to Spokane to cover the story and I have to explain that it’s not a station sponsored event – I just happen to have a show, am a big fan of Patty’s, and was hoping she’d do a promo.
"He sends me the info for the theater and I think no more of it. I call the theater but don’t have much luck setting something up. I leave a lot of messages though! I plan a big two-week spring break trip to see the play plus visit friends in Seattle and San Francisco.
"March finally arrives and I’m off to Spokane. I fly in and get a taxi at the airport. During the ride the guy asks me the usual taxi driver stuff, and it turns out he’s from Michigan too, so that’s a little wacky. When he finds out I’m there for the play, he comments that the play is a big deal and there are people flying in from all around the country to see it.
"I get to my hotel, just a few blocks from the theater, and give them a call still hoping to hook up a little interview. When I tell the lady on the phone that I had called a while back from Detroit trying to set up the interview, she gets all excited and says, ‘No, you’re not, really? We had bets in the office to see if you’d really come out here or not!’ I think this is pretty odd, wondering why they’d care at all. Then she says that she read about me in the paper! The guy who did the play review wrote a little story in the Spotlight section about me coming to Spokane. I didn’t even know! Then it hits me that the cab driver must have read that same story, and he was referring to me! Wacky!
"I’m something of a local celebrity because I’d been in the paper and I feel all cool about it. I go to the theater about three hours early, hoping to set something up. I name drop the lady on the phone’s name and the door person lets me in. I’m hanging out in the lobby and meet the director, the producer, and an actor or two in the play. They relay my request to Patty, and I’m told she’ll see me the next night, after the final run.
"I hang out in the lobby with nowhere better to go, and people start showing up. It’s so weird because I’ve seen Patty’s husband and adopted son in magazines, on TV specials and talk shows, and recognize them as they walk up to the theater. It’s show time and I’m just in awe. I’m in a row close to the front and right there on the stage is Patty! Oh, my god! I could go on and on about just that in itself, but this story is going to be way too long anyway, so onto intermission...
"During the break, everyone is yappin’ away, talkin’ about the play, Patty, and other local stuff. I hear a guy’s voice and it sounds familiar. I’m wondering who the hell I’d know in Spokane, and when I turn around its Sean Astin! He was there with his wife, just checking out his mom’s play. He was really chatty, so I didn’t get a chance to talk to him. I did, however, overhear that Mack[enzie, the Astins’ other son] couldn’t be there because he was auditioning for some production Spielberg was doing, and Spielberg himself requested for Mack to audition. Not that I would have had the guts to actually do it, but I kept making myself laugh (almost out loud, all by myself in a large crowd mind you) thinking about going up to Sean and saying, ‘Dude, your mom!’
"That was the exciting stuff the first night. The second night though...
"I went early again just because and talked with the producer again. She was very nice. This time I was seated in the back of the theater. On my left there was a grandma, granddaughter, and the mom. I heard the grandma say that she read that someone came all the way from Detroit to see the play. I can’t believe the hype. I couldn’t resist mentioning something, so I told her that that guy was me. She was like, ‘Oh no it’s not,’ then BOOM! I bust out my Patty Duke picture book of over 150 Patty pictures to prove it. Grandma, granddaughter, mom and I are chillin’ with the Patty pix until the play starts...
"I see the play a second time and now I’m really nervous because I’m gonna meet Patty at the end of it. When it’s over, she is saying her thank yous and talking to people afterwards. I’m waiting patiently on the other side of the theater and the producer spots me. She can tell that I’m nervous and helps me out by pulling me over there and introducing me to Anna. At first, I was totally speechless; a total goober! Someone saved me by calling her away which gave me a minute to compose myself. By the time she came back, the crew had begun striking the set, so she led me to the lobby where it was a bit quieter. She needed a smoke break so we stood outside and chatted. She was so cool and down to earth! When we went back inside, she looked through my picture book and was amazed at all the pix I had. Many of them she had never seen before and some things that I had she hadn’t seen in a long time because they were destroyed in a fire. She hung out with me for about an hour and a half looking at those pictures and telling me little stories about a lot of them. To be honest, I don’t remember most of what she said because I was so star-struck to be sitting there with Patty Duke!
"After looking through the pix and talking a bit, she signed a few things, did a promo for my show, and took a few photos (including the awesome one of her with the original Patty Duke Fanzine!), gave me a flower, a kiss on the cheek, and sent me on my way.
"When it was all done, I walked back to my hotel, totally geeked beyond what words can describe. It was a total party: A Patty Party."
- Balch, J. (1960, January). A miracle named Patty. Theatre Arts, XLIV(1), 26-29, 86.
- Patty Duke rose to nation-wide stardom for her portrayal of Helen Keller in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker (for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role). Well before the film, she had gained recognition and respect in the theater world, playing that very role (which is really what started her on her path to stardom). This is the earliest interview of hers that I could track down. In this interview, we get to read about Broadway theater life from a 10 year old Patty Duke. This is a great source for my paper because it provides a snapshot in time before the Academy Award, before her own sitcom, before her tumultuous professional life was revealed to the public.
- d..., m. (2000). Patty party in Spokane. The Paper Tiger, 1(2), 1-4. Available from http://www.officialpattyduke.com/miked.htm
- By request of The Paper Tiger’s author, the creator of The Patty Duke Fanzine recalls how he initially became infatuated with Patty Duke, the reason for creating The Patty Duke Fanzine, his experience travelling from Detroit to Spokane, Washington to see Patty Duke perform in a play, as well as meeting and hanging out with her after the final performance. This piece is essential to my paper because it provides intimate knowledge from a dedicated fan of Patty Duke’s. Originally published in The Paper Tiger zine, the article also appears on Patty Duke’s official webzone.
- Drukman, Steven (2001, December 01). Oh, you beautiful dolls. American Theatre, (10), 7, Retrieved from http://elibrary.bigchalk.com
- This short article serves as a secondary source of information for my paper. It provides historical context for Valley of the Dolls, specifically several statements that speak to its "camp" status, citing Sharon Tate and, of course, Patty Duke.
- Duke, P., & Turan, K. (1987, August). Call me Anna: The Autobiography of Patty Duke. New York: Bantam Books, Inc.
- As a young child, Patty Duke began her career under the tutelage of her domineering managers, John and Ethel Ross, who coerced her parents into letting her move in with them, which gave them full control of not only Patty’s career, but of her. Although she is an Academy Award winner, three-time Emmy winner, and former President of the Screen Actors Guild (among other accomplishments), both her professional career and personal life have been filled with controversy and strife. There is much more to this classic American talent than the perky teeny-bop image most remember from "The Patty Duke Show."
- Duke, P. (Performer) (2001). Valley of the Dolls [Television series episode]. In Burns, K. (Executive Producer), Hollywood Backstories. American Movie Classics.
- Fiske, J. (2011). The cultural economy of fandom. In E. Nathijs & X. Mendik (Eds.), The Cult Film Reader (pp. 445-455). New York City: Wiley Blackwell.
- In this article, John Fiske presents his definition of "fandom," and what this means in terms of the economy of popular culture.
- Huestis, M. (Producer) (2009). Sparkle, Patty, sparkle! A gala tribute to Academy Award Winner Patty Duke Live in Person! [Theater, 16MM]. Available from www.sfstation.com/sparkle-patty-sparkle-e588731
- On July 20, 2009, at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, diehard fans of Patty Duke converged for an evening devoted to celebrating Patty Duke’s career. This video documents her in-person interview with comic extraordinaire Bruce Vilanch, fabulous career clips, a screening of Valley of the Dolls, sizzling send up performances by Connie Champagne as Neely O’Hara and Matthew Martin as Helen Lawson, Patty’s meet-and-greet with her fans, and more.
- Jankowski, B. (2003, May). Love letter to Anna (Patty Duke). Patty Duke Fanzine, 1(4), 6, 16-21.
- Bill Jankowski runs Patty Duke’s official webzone (www.officialpattyduke.com).
- Johnston, L. (1974, September 24). Jacqueline Susann dead at 53; novelist wrote ‘Valley of Dolls’. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/7x4wjfd
- McNeil, A. (1996). Total television: The comprehensive guide to programming from 1948 to the present. New York: Penguin Books
- This is a comprehensive guide to all of Patty’s TV appearances (up to the date of publication), which include show synopsizes and career info.
- Musto, M. (Commentator) (2001). Valley of the Dolls [Television series episode]. In Burns, K. (Executive Producer), Hollywood Backstories. American Movie Classics.
- Parkins, B. (Performer) (2001). Valley of the Dolls [Television series episode]. In Burns, K. (Executive Producer), Hollywood Backstories. American Movie Classics.
- Romano, R. (Narrator) (2001). Valley of the Dolls [Television series episode]. In Burns, K. (Executive Producer), Hollywood Backstories. American Movie Classics.
- Sontag, S. (2011). Notes on "camp". In E. Nathijs & X. Mendik (Eds.), The Cult Film Reader (pp. 41-52). New York City: Wiley Blackwell.
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