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Life in the Big City

Parents who fear the pervasive influence of sin in the big city often ask me what happens to young girls from Iowa who come west to L.A. and try to make it on their own in show biz.

Do they eventually take to selling themselves on Sunset Boulevard for the money required to keep them in chicken noodle soup? Do they hire out as nude jugglers for private parties of debauching survivalists in the cultural wilds of Topanga? Or do they end up on the big screens of Pussycat theaters doing Dallas with Debbie?

To those questions asked by mamas from Allentown, Pa., to Sweet Home, Ore., I must answer yes, some young women without moral stability fall into evil ways in the big city. It’s hard to survive in a town filled with stars. But a few surpass even the most extreme limits of human decency and fall into areas of iniquity so bizarre they offend the most callous sensitivities.

Some, sad to say, shuck off the last protective cloaks of an Iowa upbringing and become Gong Show queens.

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Take Little Jeannie Roth. She came west eight years ago from Davenport, Iowa, where daddy’s contribution to culture was an ability to imitate bird calls. He’d sit out on the front porch on a balmy evening by the rolling Mississippi, start in with, “Let’s all sing like the birdies sing . . .” and then chirp and whistle bird imitations for an hour while mom put the finishing touches to a creamy tuna casserole.

Obviously impressed by all those trills warbled into the purple twilight, Little Jeannie decided that someday she’d go into show biz. She learned to tap, took piano lessons and became more than proficient on the French horn. She also studied journalism, a failing which, thank God, she was able to overcome.

During college she held a variety of jobs, not the least of which was an internship on the Washington staff of California’s former Sen. S.I. Hayakawa, who, among other scant achievements, knew how to tap dance.

Hearing that, Little Jeannie Roth, never short on moxie, induced him to join her in a shuffle on the Senate floor. Not only has the Senate been shuffling ever since, but that dance would, in a way, contribute to Jeannie’s utter lack of inhibition to perform before people with Gong Show mentalities.

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But it was a job at Disneyland one summer that turned her on to making it in L.A. She vowed she would return someday and tap dance to a television audience with a pizza on her head.

Has the dream come true? I talked with Little Jeannie Roth the other day in the tiny guest house she calls home on a nondescript street in Eagle Rock. The idea was to understand what motivates those whose visions of achievement revolve around the Gong Show, a program that draws upon Midwestern concepts of humor to entertain the masses.

Little Jeannie, who is 30 now, greeted me in the Mrs. Santa Claus outfit worn during her third appearance on the Gong Show, in which she sang “I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus” while dancing and kicking around a three-foot-high inflated replica of one of Santa’s little helpers. A midget on the sidelines clapped in rhythm.

“I just love the show!” Little Jeannie exclaimed with an ebullience sufficient to cause power surges in Third World countries. “It’s like a big party! And I get paid too! Point a camera and I go crazy! I love the people I meet! I love audiences!” She also loves exclamation points (!) and, with only modest encouragement, bounces about the room with a kinetic enthusiasm that is startling to behold.

The pay is important on the Gong Show. Little Jeannie makes $420 a show, plus another $700 if she wins. This helps augment money earned playing the French horn in local musicals, church productions and recording sessions, and she doesn’t have to dance with a pepperoni pizza on her head.

When she first came to Los Angeles, Jean Roth tested gin and sold women’s underwear (not at the same time) to keep alive. But never did she abandon the notion of someday becoming queen of the Gong Show, a title that nine appearances have certainly earned her. What now for the girl from Davenport?

“I’m such a fixture on the show that I even co-hosted it once!” Little Jeannie says. Then she adds with a sweep and a bounce, “Who knows what lies ahead?”

Indeed. I mean, indeed!

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