I've always wondered why I loved spinach so much. As a kid, I remember my mom always nudging me to eat the green stuff on my plate. My favorite color was Forest Green in the box of 100 Crayola crayons. And I was anemic for a while, so I desperately craved those iron-rich, leafy greens. Then, when I took my first trip to the Caribbean, I intuitively ordered callaloo, a distant relative of spinach. I often find myself gobbling up all the spinach "cousins," from Italian escarole to Greek horta to Swiss chard to Brazilian collard greens to now-trendy, American kale. But there is yet another intriguing link in the spinach mystery. Her name is Sheila MacRae.
When I heard the news this week that the actress -- and most recent Alice Kramden -- died at the age of 92, I immediately flashed back to my brief gameshow stardom. When I was 13, I was a teenaged guest on the popular TV gameshow Password, a Goodson-Todman production, with host Alan Ludden. The celebrity guests were Soupy Sales and Sheila MacRae, two of the most gracious, elegant and eloquent TV stars I ever met, before or since.
I remember every detail of my gameshow debut, taped on December 12, 1966, from my sky blue wool dress to my matching headband, my long dark hair parted down the middle à la Franco Zeffirelli's Juliet. Since these were pre-VCR days, there was only way to preserve it. On the day it was broadcast, my father snapped still photos right off of the RCA TV screen.
My charming guest star teammate, Sheila MacRae, wore big round eyeglasses which added a savvy, feminist look to her Hollywood face. The obsidian black frames contrasted with her soft blonde hair, styled in a bouncy '60s flip. A blend of Gloria Steinem and Mary Tyler Moore, she had magazine cover girl looks, yet she was anything but arrogant. Instead, she was sweet, down-to-earth and optimistic. She spoke to me kindly before the show to make me feel at ease. Right before my starstruck eyes, MacRae's two-dimensional TV screen image expanded into a real live three-dimensional woman. She came to life as a mother of four and a caring person.
During the game, she gave intelligent, one-word, snappy clues and told me she admired her adolescent partner: me. Her celebrity status never alienated me; if anything, it inspired me. Patient and exuberant, vibrant and humorous, she treated me completely as a whippersnapper partner -- up to her par and as an equal.
Flash forward to today's female celebrities (Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Garner, to name two) who fuss about the paparazzi and the very fans that keep them popular. Both Soupy and Sheila made time for the photographers and the TV audience members. Sheila walked around, mingling with the teenagers and their parents at the CBS TV studio taping.
Sheila was calm, encouraging and even complimentary. She took the time to talk to me after the game was over, congratulating my word smarts. After all, I'd won $700 and a Singer sewing machine.
I told her how my family always played word games. Every summer vacation in Cape Cod, the Bermans dragged out the packet of green and white plastic squares; Anagrams was their game/drug of choice. My father had been a cryptographer during World War II, and my mother taught Gregg and Pitman shorthand. We did crosswords, anacrostics and word puzzles way before you could spell the word SUDOKU.
But still, with all the word play DNA I'd inherited, and all the word game experience, I was still a 13-year-old girl with TV jitters. Despite Ms. MacRae's experience on Broadway (Guys and Dolls), TV (I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners) and her social status (Frank Sinatra proposed to her; Henry Fonda had pursued her), she became my best friend for a day.
She wanted me on her team. She wanted me to win. Unconcerned about her own ego, about having to look smarter than a teenager, she played to make ME win. Unencumbered by the all-too-familiar female competitive "she can't be smarter than me" and "I gotta be better than her" syndrome, she played to support me, not to beat me.
It was Sisterhood at its best. Forget the mean girls attitude. Unlike those glaring, insecure gals who want to outdo one another and just can't bare to lose, Sheila MacRae impressed me with her eagerness to team up and win together. Forget the age difference. Two females -- one adult and one adolescent -- bonded by brain power. She made it clear that wisdom and beauty can win out. True, it was just a daytime gameshow, but she took the challenge head-on and pounced. She struck me with her class, pizzazz and wit.
And one more thing: Hats off to Sheila MacRae's female camaraderie. She sparkled with intelligence and shared a dynamic energy which I carry with me to this day. Yup. It was that energy which brings me back full circle to the green vegetable mystery. When she gave me the final clue, the word I had to guess -- the Password -- was SPINACH.
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