July 16, 2009

Tea With Polly Bergen

When Polly Bergen was a fresh-faced girl in Maryville, Tenn., her older cousins regularly took her to the local moviehouse for Saturday double features. Her winning Shirley Temple routines in the amateur hour competition would secure the group free tickets to the second showing. Little did Ms. Bergen's cousins know that her early exposure to the spotlight would develop into a six-decade-long career as an Emmy Award winning actress, singer and entrepreneur.

"I was a very precocious child, I understand," Ms. Bergen said with a laugh.

Next weekend, one landmark Litchfield County event will benefit from her talents, from an extraordinary dedication to charity causes to an eye for chic headwear. As Honorary Chair of the 12th annual Tea for Two Hundred in Washington July 25, Ms. Bergen is championing the event's fund-raising efforts to benefit the Susan B. Anthony Project of Torrington and the Interfaith AIDS Ministry of Greater Danbury, as well as judging the hat contest.

The Southbury resident's connection to both causes is longstanding and personal. In the 1970s, Ms. Bergen joined forces with women prominent in the arts and entertainment world and those in state and federal government positions across the country in the Equal Rights Amendment movement. The group pushed for a constitutional guarantee that women be afforded equal rights with men under local, state and federal laws. Though the proposed amendment would not meet its two-year ratification deadline, the movement permanently changed the course of the national discussion on discrimination based on sex. The movement also served as Ms. Bergen's introduction to Susan B. Anthony, the iconic suffragist and civil rights activist, whom Ms. Bergen researched.

"She was such an incredible woman who worked all of her life for women," Ms. Bergen said.

The Susan B. Anthony Project in Torrington specializes in helping survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, prevention of such abuse through education and the overall promotion of women's independence. The organization offers legal and medical advocacy, counseling, emergency shelter and a transitional living program.

As for Ms. Bergen's experience with the HIV/AIDS campaign, her close friend and hairdresser was an early victim of the AIDS in 1979. Ms. Bergen became part of a women's group in Hollywood that raised funds for research. She remained active as the disease spread from impacting men to women and children.

"That was when people were really just recognizing that something was going on," Ms. Bergen explained. "They weren't even talking about AIDS in terms of the public."

The Interfaith AIDS Ministry works to generate community knowledge and awareness. The organization also provides spiritual, nutritional and physical support services for those living with HIV/AIDS and their families, in addition to acting as a public education resource.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health's HIV/AIDS Surveillance Program recorded 358 new cases of HIV and 387 new cases of AIDS in 2008. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the epidemic has caused 583,298 deaths in the United States as of 2007, with 571,378 Americans living with HIV/AIDS at the end of the same year.

"My commitment will go on from here," Ms. Bergen said of her responsibilities as chair.

Referring to her current status as almost entirely retired, she added, "For the first time in my life, I have the time to do that."

The local movie theater's stage back in Tennessee was just the first stop in her career. Ms. Bergen's father's job in construction moved the family with every project, until the last stop in California, near Los Angeles. She began auditioning at 15 and soon landed a gig as a society band's singer. Ms. Bergen worked her way from the opening act to the closer, singing in Las Vegas during the summer breaks.

Screen tests with legendary producer Hal Wallis gave her an entree into Hollywood. Between 1950 and 1952, she acted in three movies with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis-"At War with the Army," "That's My Boy" and "The Stooge." Her other notable films include the original production of "Cape Fear," the adaptation of John MacDonald's novel "The Executioners," and "Move Over, Darling" with Doris Day and James Garner.

Though she has appeared in more than 20 films, Ms. Bergen credits television with molding and polishing her acting chops.

"In those days, television really became America's teaching ground and proving ground," she said. "Several of us had our own shows and I was one of them."

"The Polly Bergen Show" ran from 1957 to 1958. The live show featured songs, skits and general variety fare. Before guiding her own program, though, she replaced one of the stars, Dorothy Collins, on "Your Hit Parade," a Saturday music show in which singers performed the week's most popular singles. Ms. Bergen also appeared regularly on the game show "To Tell the Truth" and the interview format show "Here's Hollywood."

"I learned my acting skills from TV," she said.

The arbiters agreed, giving the actress several nods of recognition throughout her career. Ms. Bergen won an Emmy for the portrayal of singer Helen Morgan while acting in the 1950s television series "Playhouse 90." She was nominated for her role in two ABC miniseries "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" in which she reunited with "Cape Fear" co-star Robert Mitchum as the wife of Captain Victor Henry. The dramas, based on Herman Wouk's novels of the same names, chronicled the events of World War II as seen through the lens of the military Henry family. The actress also received a Tony Award nomination for her lead role in the 2001 Broadway revival of "Follies" by Stephen Sondheim.

A break from acting to raise her three children proved to be an unexpected opportunity for Ms. Bergen to explore her business skills. Having been blessed with naturally beautiful skin, she never used much makeup until she discovered the need for a moisturizer. A chemist's concoction fit the bill, but Ms. Bergen soon found herself supplying all her friends with the wildly popular product. She started a company selling the moisturizer, Oil of a Turtle, on a small scale. The turning point came during an appearance on a talk show to promote an acting project which was suddenly defunct. Thinking quickly, she began talking about her skin care venture instead.

The brand exploded. Ms. Bergen created six new products and ran the company for 12 years before selling it. The business, which she jokes happened almost as if by accident, stirred her entrepreneurial instincts, which carried over to jewelry and shoe lines and three books on makeup and beauty.

Recently, Ms. Bergen has established herself as a recognizable face for yet another generation of television audiences. In 2004, she appeared on "The Sopranos" as Fran Felstein, Tony Soprano's father's mistress with ties to JFK. Throughout 2005 and 2006, she played the president's mother in "Commander-in-Chief," which styled Geena Davis as the first female president. Then, in 2007, Mr. Bergen received a call from long time fan Marc Cherry, the creator of "Desperate Housewives." Mr. Cherry invited her to play Stella Wingfield, Lynette's mother. Ms. Bergen appeared in several episodes from 2007 to this year and nabbed an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.

Reflecting on her career, she said, "I was lucky enough to move on to the next important thing naturally. The fact is I did high-profile things when they were high profile."

Since hindsight is 20/20, Ms. Bergen muses that perhaps she should have stuck with one medium, such as film or television or music.

"Depending on when you were born, you didn't really know what I did," she said. "Nobody could nail me down."

However, it seems that it is the blending of all her different experiences and successes that has created and nurtured her strength, giving nature and independence of spirit.

Gael Hammer and Gary Goodwin host the Tea for Two Hundred at their home in Washington Depot. Tickets are $50 each. For more information, call 860-489-3798, or visit the Web site at www.teafortwohundred.org.

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