What Annie Knew

  • Annie soundtrack (Columbia Pictures Records, 1982).

Dear n+1 Readers,
Heavy Rotation, edited by our friend Peter Terzian, is a book of essays about record albums. You can find it here, or, better still, in any real bookstore. The authors include a number of n+1 editors, friends, and contributors, such as Benjamin Kunkel, Mark Greif, Sheila Heti, John Haskell, Pankaj Mishra, James Wood, and Colm Tóibín. Here is one essay.


When I was five years old, my eyes were clouded to my childhood duties by the peak fan experience of my life. It was 1982, and everything was Annie. I developed a new-to-me, curious sensation of both wanting to be like her and believing myself to be already more like her than anyone else could possibly be—a certainty about kinship of soul that is the mark of devotion. For nearly a year I moved through the streets of my neighborhood with this feeling inside me.

My parents obligingly took me to see the movie three times. I begged for and received on my birthday a furry, plush Sandy doll—Annie’s dog. For two years running I dressed as Annie on Halloween, wearing my usual clothes and a clown wig—not quite Annie, but close. I called my mother (who had curly red hair, like Annie) my “Annie-mom,” which she hated, but I wouldn’t stop. At the time, I loved Annie more than I loved my own mother. And like any romantic obsession, wherever one looks, there is the beloved.

But though I called my mom “Annie-mom,” there was something wrong with the term. She was not my mom, after all. For I was an orphan like Annie. I longed to be in an orphanage. One afternoon, I demanded to be shown my birth certificate to determine my true parentage. Which turned out to be my parents.

My dreams falling short, I would sit on the windowsill (which was not wide like Annie’s windowsill in the orphanage, so not that easy to sit on) and gaze out the window—not at the dirty streets of New York as Annie did, but at my neighbor’s middle-class home across the road. I’d sing the song “Maybe” in the heartbroken way that Annie had, a lament for what my real parents might be doing at that moment—not downstairs but perhaps in Pittsburgh. “He may be pouring her coffee/She may be straightening his tie …”

I wanted the replica Annie locket but never got it. But since this was the age before VCRs were common, my parents bought me the record, which became my constant companion. I would put it on the living room stereo and dance around, singing along, or sit still with it cradled in my arms and imagine I was she, the object of my admiration and my twin. I had never before seen a girl portrayed who had so many feelings and yet was so gutsy.

The album cover was beautiful, too. It was white and unfolded to reveal stills from the film: Annie hanging off an open bridge; Annie laughing beneath a pile of silk sheets; Annie smiling up at Daddy Warbucks, holding his hand—two lost and lonely souls who found each other and were “together at last, together forever.” I would gaze at these pictures like they were portals to a better, more glamorous world.

It was one of those dreary Sundays when I had to do chores all morning, and I got through the cleaning by singing the song that Annie and the orphans sang as they poured soapy water down the stairs of the orphanage: “It’s the hard-knock life for us … .” If there was one thing my mother liked less than being called “Annie-mom,” it was me vacuuming while singing loudly and self-pityingly, “Santa Claus we never see/Santa Claus, what’s that! Who’s he?” Especially since we were Jews.

Once the house shined like the top of the Chrysler Building, I lay on the rug in the TV room and turned on the set to watch Big Top Talent, a popular variety show in Ontario at that time. It was hosted by an unfunny clown who stood in the center ring of a circus, and to the applause and appreciation of the crowd sitting in bleachers that seemed to rise all the way to the heavens, he’d introduce, one after another, local singing or dancing or singing-and-dancing troupes—children as small as three years old in matching tutus, or grown-up kids of twelve or thirteen in glittering black costumes dancing awkward jazz routines. It was definitely my favorite show.

Really, I was fascinated by any show in which kids my age (or usually a little older) got to dance and sing and josh around, for nothing looked more fun or more glamorous than being a child star. I’m not sure whether I became obsessed with Annie because I was already craving to be a child star, or if my obsession with Annie made me want to be a star and live in a mansion with Daddy Warbucks and sing all my feelings. In any case, Annie was really so lucky: not only was she Annie, but she got to play Annie on the big screen.

Sitting, watching, I felt a desperate need to join those kids on the TV and sing a song from Annie. And I determined I would. I imagined myself singing in the centre of the big top. I would choose the perfect song, and I would bring Annie to the masses. (I didn’t quite realize, of course, that not only were the masses sick of Annie, but that it was the masses that had brought Annie to me.)

Happily enough, my father was one of those kind and obliging parents that any bossy child is lucky to get. He agreed to take me to Kitchener-Waterloo, a dreary town several hours west of Toronto, so I could go on TV and sing “Tomorrow.” Not that this was my favorite track on the album, but it was the one that best captured Annie in her hard-done but optimistic essence. My favourite song was “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”:

Hey, Hobo man! Hey, Dapper Dan!
You both got your style
But brother, you’re never fully dressed
Without a smile!

“Tomorrow,” on the other hand, had more heart. It was the song Annie would sing to herself when she felt sad and lonely in the orphanage, to remind herself that though she was stuck with a day that’s grey and lonely—I could relate to that—she couldn’t give in to sadness, but rather had to stick out her chin, and grin and say, oh, the sun will come out tomorrow. She sang this not only in the orphanage but also in the White House with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as they stood proudly before a portrait of George Washington.

I don’t know how my father managed to get me on the program. No doubt he called them up and they were happy to fill a spot on what was probably not as popular a show as I imagined. Though I was already singing “Tomorrow” once a day, I have a recollection of “rehearsing” it, my father crouched at a distance with his hands cupped around one eye as though he were looking through a TV camera.

The only thing I was afraid of now was the crowd; I had to be stronger and have more courage than even Annie. She had no audience, while I would be standing in the centre of the big top, with its tall bleachers like the ones in the circus I had gone to when I was three, packed with parents and children.

But it would be okay: my father had stood in front of me like a camera and I felt I was prepared.

Early one January morning, my father and my pregnant mother and I drove in our brown Honda to Kitchener-Waterloo and pulled into a half-empty parking lot. I suddenly felt shy and aghast at what I was going to do. Wasn’t it enough to love Annie in the privacy of my own home? Did I have to proclaim it on television? But I quickly reminded myself that, yes, I did have to proclaim it on television.

We got out of the car and walked through the front doors of a concrete warehouse, my mother and I parting with my father. We went to the “green room” while my father left us to go shake hands with the clown.

We entered what looked like a classroom, the yellow walls covered with mirrors. The other kids who’d be performing that day were standing around with their mothers, who were less like my mother than any mothers I’d seen. My mom seemed as nervous as I was. She had come from Hungary in her mid-twenties and was still intimidated by Canadian women. And naturally she dressed me all wrong. While the other girls stepped into spandex and sparkles, my mother put me into an ugly, conservative, pinky-beige dress, the same one I’d later be forced to wear for our family portrait.

Shockingly, every mother was putting makeup on her daughter. I was the smallest one there, but even if I had been older, my mother would never have done such a thing. Makeup was for ladies. I pleaded with her that I needed makeup, too. My mother nervously pulled a lipstick from her purse and rubbed a little bit into my cheeks. I felt utterly sad and humiliated.

But the greatest shock was to come. A tall, skinny woman came along to lead me away from my mother. She took my hand and I followed her through the heavy, leaded, double doors of the changing room, into what I still imagined would be a circus tent filled with parents and kids. Instead, we emerged into a cold, barren concrete space. There was the set I knew so well. There were two large cameras, a beaten-up brown piano, and most depressing of all, an “audience” of five or six empty folding chairs.

I was still trying to take all this in, to reconcile myself to the truth of the situation, when the lady pulled me by the hand to the side of the stage. She picked me up under the arms, plunked me down on a stool, and walked off. On a nearby stool sat a stuffed monkey. The show had already begun. A boy in brown lederhosen was dancing an Irish jig on the set. For some warmth I touched the monkey and it made a loud squeak, and the boy dancing the jig stumbled and looked over. I pretended I hadn’t touched the monkey. And even later, on the car ride home, and waking up the next day, and a week after that, I told myself I hadn’t touched the monkey.

The set was cleared of the boy, and the clown, dressed in green, took the stage. He was an elderly giant. He waved me over. At this point the camera began taping. I walked onto the set, slowly, looking around like a small cat new to a house, and stood on the large silver star sticker I had seen so many kids stand on before me. I waited there dutifully, looking blankly out at my audience: two or three stage moms smoking and chatting with each other.

“Hello,” said the clown.

I didn’t reply.

“Your name is … Sheila Heti. And what are you going to sing for us?”

“I’m going to sing the song ‘Tomorrow’,” I replied, anxious to begin the song, finish it, then get in the car and go home.

“What! You’re going to sing the song tomorrow?” the clown said, laughing loudly. “Why don’t you sing it today!”

I stared at him and blinked expressionlessly, at a loss for words. My nervousness must have been palpable, but also some of my irritation.

“Oh!” he chortled, and clapped his hands together. “You’re going to sing the song that’s called ‘Tomorrow,’ but you’re going to sing it today!”

I looked over at the brown piano and a horror welled up in me. I realized that I would have no accompaniment to my song, and that it was too late to do anything about it. No one performed without music. But no one in my family had thought of it.

“And who’s your singing teacher?” the clown asked.

No one had taught me to sing. I didn’t know what to say. Were kids taught to sing? Wasn’t that something kids just knew?

“My daddy taught me,” I lied.

“Daddies are good teachers all right!”

At last, after what felt like an hour, the clown said: “And here we have … Sheila Heti … singing the song that’s called ‘Tomorrow,’ but singing it today.”

Which I did—a bit hurriedly, but full of conviction, unsmiling, tiny, stern:

The sun will come out…tomorrow!
Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow
There’ll be sun
Just thinking about…tomorrow!
Clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow
Till there’s none…

In the months following my performance on Big Top Talent, my relationship with Annie changed hues. I was still an Annie fan, but I really was more of an Annie colleague. Though I was only five and she was ten, I believed that I had a feeling for what she had been through. Having witnessed the guts of show biz for myself, and been shaken by how radically it contrasted with what I’d imagined, I felt hardened—though not in an entirely bad way. My point of view was bleaker now, less naive. But it was more like Annie’s. Life was a scam. It was like the orphans sang it on the album: “‘Stead of treated we get tricks/‘Stead of kisses we get kicks/It’s the hard-knock life.”

The experience pretty much killed any possibility of my idolizing a musical star ever again—and I haven’t since. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t taken. Now whenever I find myself in a situation in which I must empathize with the young men of my generation for whom going to see a rock star in concert is an act of devout pilgrimage, I have to go all back to when I was five, before my innocence was lost. I’ve just never been able to shake the sense that, while it might appear that, for instance, the White Stripes are performing in a grand stadium to a crowd of screaming fans, in reality they’re on some crummy set before some folding chairs in a concrete warehouse in Kitchener-Waterloo.

Several years ago, my father called to let me know that Aileen Quinn—the actress who played Annie—would be in town for one night performing in the musical Saturday Night Fever. Did I want to go see it? I wasn’t sure. But we hadn’t gone together to see a play in years, so I said yes. The show was mediocre, and Aileen Quinn disappointing: she was wearing makeup, and she had breasts.

When the show was over, standing in the lobby, my father began goading me into going backstage to say hi to her. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Seeing her onstage had been enough. I would have nothing to say. She would likely be tired. But I went with him anyway, and together we stood in the back alley beside the stage door.

It was a dark, dismal day, and we huddled in the doorway as the energetic performers slammed their way out, running down the alley through the pouring rain. As it goes in the movies, we were just about to give up—we had been waiting fifteen minutes—when out she came: Aileen Quinn, with a man. He left her at once up the alley, and she stood there blinking at the sky. I had to work to see her as Annie. There was only the slightest resemblance. Naturally, she was no longer a girl of ten.

I said I was sorry to bother her but I just wanted to say that I liked her performance—and then I mumbled how I’d once been a real fan of Annie. She thanked me warmly and said she loved playing Annie.

Then my father said, “It’s raining. Can we drop you off anywhere?”

I caught my breath. She hesitated a second, then agreed. So there we were, me and my dad and Annie, running through the rain to our car. I got in the back seat where I sat silent, embarrassed and burning, while my dad drove through the grey Toronto streets, chatting amiably with Annie about all the things I had done since I was ten, when it was Annie I loved best. I was too embarrassed to speak, I could think of no questions to ask her. I was as shy as a little girl, and couldn’t think of anything to say. My dad and Annie spoke like two grown-ups—she talked about the show and how much she liked touring—while I stared at the back of their heads.

I had always wanted to meet Annie, and imagined it a million ways. I could never have guessed, back when I was little, when it would have meant everything to me, that one day it really would happen—but that it would take twenty-one years, and that it would be like this: dropping an unrecognisable woman off at the subway, and watching her run through the pouring rain.

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