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Melissa Explains It All
Tales from My Abnormally Normal Life
By Melissa Joan Hart, Kristina Grish
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Melissa Joan Hart with Kristina Grish
All rights reserved.
CHAMPAGNE WISHES AND CLAM-FREE DREAMS
Actors often joke that show business should be called "the broke business." Us Weekly only writes about celebrities who've made it big enough to have massive homes, designer clothes, and swank personal lives. But most entertainment people actually struggle their whole careers to succeed in music, movies, or TV — only to end up as background artists, stand-ins, and piano men at their local pubs. Lucky for me and my family, my career started rolling at four years old and hasn't stopped since. In fact, it helped rescue us from being broke, rather than caused it.
I come from a long line of blue-collar folks who pride themselves on their hardscrabble work ethic. Dad was a twenty-year-old cabdriver in Northport, New York, when he met my mom and got her a job as a cab dispatcher at the age of sixteen. Four years later, when they got pregnant with me and decided to have a shotgun wedding in the backyard of my grandparents' house (I guess all that "free love" of the '70s came with some consequences), Dad had just started working with his brother Charlie, breeding clams and oysters at Charlie's shop on Long Island. Every night, Dad came home from work in his dirty T-shirts and cut-off jean shorts, with grime under his fingernails and smelling like low tide. But Mom didn't mind at all. She knew what it was like to pound the pavement, too, since she occasionally sold trippy tie-dyed baby tees at street fairs, and after I was born, spent the next ten years either pregnant or breastfeeding my siblings, Trisha, Elizabeth, Brian, and Emily, all while managing our acting gigs. Mom and Dad were also following in their parents' footsteps. Dad's mom, Ethel, worked as a phone operator to support her four children when her husband died just weeks after my dad was born, and my mom's father was a plumber, willing to build or fix anything for anyone to help support his wife and kids. So from a young age, I was aware that you had to work hard to pay for the things you needed or wanted — and for what your family needed or wanted, too.
My parents never let on about any financial stress or struggle when I was young, though times were hard with a baseball-team-size family and seasonal careers, at best. In fact, my mom almost didn't take me to my callback for Splashy, my first acting gig, because the thirty-dollar train ticket was too expensive. She changed her mind when my manager convinced her I'd make good money if I got the part. But I always felt secure, since we had a house, a car, and food on the table. I never had a reason to feel that other people's lives were better than mine.
My parents did a good job helping us feel happy and safe, so I'd have had to look really close to see how frighteningly broke we were, though the signs were there. For instance, every night Dad dropped his pocket change into a five- gallon water jug in his closet, hoping to save up for his dream boat, a Bertram yacht; Mom routinely dumped it out to give us milk money and pay a neighbor to cut the lawn (the jug never got more than a quarter full). We ate simple homemade meals mostly made with clams, since Dad brought them home from work for free. (To this day, Anthony Bourdain himself couldn't convince Mom to touch a slimy mollusk, in any recipe.) Even at Christmas, when my siblings and I made really long wish lists, thinking Santa was our ticket to rake it in, we were fed the super-confusing line, "Pick five things. Mommy has to pay Santa for the presents." But it really wasn't until the owner of my dance school called me out for wearing torn ballet tights for the third day in a row, in front of all the other girls in their new Danskin wardrobes, that I realized how bad things were and how upset it could make me. Her words stung, especially since I took dancing very seriously and didn't want to be judged for anything but my skill. At least we were able to pay for my classes, and when they exceeded our family's spending limit, this same owner let me student teach the four-year-olds on Saturdays to pay for an extra day of pointe lessons. The little ballerinas called me "Miss Melissa" back then, as I taught them to jeté across the studio. I was only ten years old.
Acting and modeling were mainly how I contributed to the family pot, though it never felt like "work." To this day, I have no clue about how much money I made on a commercial, guest star role, or any other gig until well into my Clarissa years. All I remember is that at an early age, I booked a lot of jobs, partly because Mom rewarded me with toys when I did. By the end of my eight-year commercial acting career when I was twelve years old, which nicely corresponded with the age I outgrew plastic figurines, I'd acquired over a hundred Barbies, plus dozens of Strawberry Shortcakes and a bunch of My Little Ponies. Holidays may not have been lucrative, but working sure was.
While I loved the idea of winning a job, I never worried too much about losing it, for money reasons or otherwise. I liked acting like a goof during auditions, letting nice women do my hair and makeup, and then shooting the commercial, TV show, or movie with encouraging and creative people. Some of my favorite shoots were also very kid-centric and involved junk food, which helped — like a Twinkies commercial at seven years old and a Life Savers Fruit Flavor spot at eleven. In this last one, I played paddleball and checkers with giant Life Savers and kids I knew from the audition scene. (Nobody you'd know, unless you followed kids' commercials.) We did this wearing neon outfits and eating rolls of sticky Life Savers, so I basically rode a major sugar high for eight hours, while dressed like a young Debbie Gibson. What kid wouldn't love to spend her day like this — plus take home the clothes every once in a while?
As soon as they could gurgle and coo, my other four siblings began landing jobs, too. In their own ways, they helped our family pay the bills, and if Mom was shlepping one of us into the city for auditions, she figured she might as well give my siblings the option to join in the fun. My sister Emily's ultrasound was even used in All My Children for a pregnant character on the soap (our agent knew about Mom's baby bump and passed along Emily's first "head shot" to the producers). Once she was born, she was supposed to play the baby, but production moved up the shoot date, and since Mom wasn't due for another twelve weeks, she couldn't save the job, short of a scheduled C-section. My siblings and I collaborated sometimes, as when Trisha and I did a Tylenol commercial playing sisters. One of our most fun family performances was a silly little Showtime movie my mom produced many years later, in 1996, called The Right Connections. It starred me, Elizabeth, Brian, Emily, our two-year-old sister Ali from Mom's second marriage — and believe it or not, MC Hammer. We knew it wouldn't win us an Emmy, but it was a blast to be on set with family, cracking jokes and doing our best white-kid rap with Hammer. By then, the guy had blown most of the fortune he'd earned from his music career, and if that wasn't embarrassing enough, here he was being upstaged by my two-year-old sister in a cable movie.
* * *
Like anyone, my parents were always trying to move up in the world, so they moved a lot when I was young — first from a friend's converted garage when I was born, then to a condo, and finally to the ranch my dad still lives in. This last house was on a dead end, with only five other homes on the block, and the street was close enough to the railroad that the house shook like an old roller coaster whenever a train passed by. The surrounding woods made it feel like we owned more property than we did, especially in the winter, when the whole neighborhood came over to ice-skate on a nearby pond they thought was ours. (We never corrected them.)
I was in my twenties when my friend Joe, who also grew up in Sayville, teased me about literally living on the "other side of the tracks." This was when I realized that my family raised us in the less affluent area of a rich town. We swam in other people's pools and admired their beautiful homes and pesticide- rich yards. I also coveted their wheels. My sisters, friends, and I played a lot of MASH, a game that's meant to predict the home, spouse, number of kids, and car you'll have as an adult (MASH stood for mansion, apartment, shack, house). This is how I learned about luxury cars like BMWs, Mercedes, Jaguars, and Porsches — all of which made my MASH list, and as an adult, turned out to be the order in which I owned each one. But back then, my parents were often on the outside, looking in. It's hard to keep up with the Joneses when your Oldsmobile doesn't burn rubber.
By contrast, my childhood BFF Nicole, who I met in second grade, also lived in my town but seemed to have it all. She was sweet, gorgeous, and an only child — an enviable trifecta, even for a confident actress with awesome siblings. Because her Dutch-born mom worked for an airline, and her dad was a football coach during the school year and a lifeguard on Fire Island in the summer, Nicole traveled a ton — Paris, Hawaii, Holland — and had a boat. In the summer, she'd invite me to the beach, where we'd sunbathe on her skiff and eat butter-and-Dutch-chocolate-sprinkle sandwiches from a real picnic basket. What a difference from the PB&J my own mom threw in an old Macy's shopping bag when we hit the shore.
Nicole always got a kick out of spending time with my huge, loud, and crazy family, as I envied that Nicole got all her parents' attention and could travel on a whim, since they were a small unit. Meanwhile, my family's vacation splurge was to a corny Poconos time-share at a family ski resort, once a year. My siblings and I thought we were rolling with the homies because we had a "vacation home." After a day on the slopes, we put on our swimsuits and dove into a deep, cherry red bathtub, which we called our "hot tub." We spent hours splashing around and talking about how many times we skied Renegade, the only "serious" black diamond run on the mountain. Years later, my sister Trisha and I went back to the resort during her college winter break and couldn't believe what an anthill Renegade really was. Another surprise: that our tiny "hot tub" only fit two kids, much less five.
As a grown-up, I live on the right side of the tracks, in a well-off coastal suburb outside Manhattan, not so unlike the one I grew up in. I'm not oblivious to the similarities, or the fact that I upgraded from my childhood. But the life my parents gave me offered a perspective I'm grateful for and that some of my neighbors lack. I can see the value of making my boys share a room (in a six- bedroom house), wear hand-me-down clothes, and learn to fix a bike chain and a clogged toilet. So I don't regret my beginnings, because they helped me become a grounded mom, wife, and friend. They also helped me appreciate pool-hopping. Why deal with all that time, money, and maintenance when you can slide on your Havaianas and head to the neighbor's?
By the time my brother was born in 1984 (my mom's fourth child), my siblings and I had found our showbiz grooves — commercials, modeling, voice-overs, soap operas, miniseries, feature films — and thus, began upping our collective finances. And as it worked out, around the same time, Dad started a construction business that began making good money, so our lifestyle got much better. He built an addition to our house, which went from squishing six people into three bedrooms to seven people into four. We only added a second floor and whirlpool tub in my parents' room, but it felt like a mansion. With more gigs coming in, my parents could also put away some of our earnings for college and weddings for the four girls.
The income my siblings and I made now helped with fun "extras" like trips, better holiday presents, and other comforts. Suddenly, Santa was a little more generous, and the shrubs outside our house were full of twinkle lights, since we could afford a higher electric bill for a month. We started trading our Poconos time-share for upgraded locations in Breckenridge, Colorado, and Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. If we wanted a new bike, we bought it ourselves. I could also afford to start collecting Franklin Mint Shirley Temple dolls, though I paid in installments. The irony is that now that I have money, I get them free from fans for my birthday.
One of my proudest moments as a kid happened when I was about eight years old, and I asked my dad to build me a clubhouse in our backyard. I was big on naming and forming clubs at the time, which I blame on my love for Romper Room, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Grease's Pink Ladies, and I was constantly trying to get neighborhood girls to join. I clearly remember my dad saying, "Sure. If you get three national commercials, I will build you a clubhouse." Perhaps this was our equivalent of "Get straight As, and I'll take you to Baskin-Robbins." I also think Dad was placating me so I'd leave him alone and let him watch his beloved 60 Minutes, but he shouldn't have doubted the Hart work ethic.
Two months later, I had shot those three commercials, and though Dad was floored — he thought the challenge would take me a year to complete — the man sure did deliver. In just a few weeks, he built me a towering room on stilts, six feet off the ground, made from cleverly reclaimed goods from our yard. He used our old greenhouse roof, complete with skylights, and turned an upside-down picket fence into the clubhouse's exterior walls. Though the place could use a remodel and a fireman's pole, it's still around and has withstood tough hurricanes and rowdy sleepovers with screaming, giddy girls. It will always be my oasis in the sky.
* * *
I know it's easy to assume that the Harts had a Toddlers & Tiaras situation going on, with parents who got work for their kids to give their own lives purpose and cash flow. But that wasn't the case. Mom and Dad weren't like Joe Simpson or Kris Kardashian-Jenner, who've been accused of using their kids as a bullet train to success and to making their own situations better. For us, acting was something my siblings and I wanted to do, and Mom made it happen. We were a pretty lively bunch, and acting let us ham it up in front of an audience that gave us more attention than our parents did when we performed dance routines in the living room. What began as entertaining a little girl's dream became a family business, with the perk that the residuals from one national commercial covered an entire year's worth of mortgage payments. Okay, so we walked a fine line — but I did score an awesome clubhouse and a kickass, lifelong career from the deal.
While a lot of "child stars" can become pretty confused or resentful as adults, maybe one of the reasons I turned out so sane is that I wouldn't consider myself a "child star." I was a child with a serious hobby that segued into an amazing career — in the same way the kid who loves to swim becomes an Olympic gold medalist, or the child who practices piano every day becomes a Carnegie Hall performer. As Malcolm Gladwell would say, I put in my ten thousand hours. I simply loved to act, and I didn't care about the rejection, which for me has been key to having such a long career; from a young age, Mom taught me that if I didn't manage my expectations, and take the good with the bad, life would feel like a real pisser. Between work and auditions, I enjoyed a "normal childhood," like other kids on Long Island. I played in the sprinklers in our backyard, climbed trees, hunted frogs, and rode my bike to get Italian ices or to a friend's house to play Battleship.
While our whole family clearly benefited from the money I earned, showbiz was never all about the cash, or else my childhood would have played out very differently. My family would have moved closer to Manhattan or to L.A. for more frequent auditions, and we'd have spent anything we had left on a high-profile publicist instead of refurnishing the cramped home we'd grown to love. All that pressure would've also caused me to obsess over whether casting people liked me, or how upset I'd be if I didn't get a part or a new toy. This would've killed the childlike glee that made me so good at peddling cereal and snacks — and nobody likes to buy Twinkies from a desperate, beaten-down child. The only upside to this fantasy is that I might have dated another child star like Fred Savage, who I always wanted to be my first on-screen kiss. Hey, Fred, if you're reading this, let's grab the families and do dinner. It's on me.
Excerpted from Melissa Explains It All by Melissa Joan Hart, Kristina Grish. Copyright © 2013 Melissa Joan Hart with Kristina Grish. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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