Allee Willis’ Kitsch O’ The Day – Allee Willis Marches on Detroit! Part 3, The House

Allee Willis
Submitted by Allee Willis April 14th, 2011
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I know… I promised that Part 3 was going to be about finally getting into the house I grew up in on Sorrento Ave. in Detroit after trying for the last 46 years. But, as someone who’s conscious of her evolution and creative process every waking moment, this finally-going-home experience was BIG for me. Also, it’s not like I can go posting detailed photos of someone else’s stuff, which is inevitable if one is photographing a room. So this isn’t so much about documenting the actual house as it is about what I felt like being back in it.

I remember when I finally went to Disneyland for my 50th birthday, after I had only been there once when I was 14, I was shocked that everything was so small. The same thing, of course, happened when I walked into the house I lived in from 5 to 16 years old last week. It was like walking into a dollhouse. Like here’s me with the banister that in my head was a giant slide, down which I rode every morning en route to breakfast:

The house now is, of course, filled with other people’s stuff and taste, but it still had the same soulful vibe I was aware of even back then. Here’s the living room corner in 1961:

And here it is in 2011:

Thank God I finally got out of those heels and into more comfortable shoes.

My shoes were also very comfortable in this photo taken in my driveway around 1957. I remember testing my penny loafers on my pink and gray Columbia bike against other shoes I had for the firmest peddle grip.

Albeit slightly worse for wear, the driveway remains intact today.

This is the Magnolia tree that was the subject of one of my earliest songs, “I Fell Out Of The Magnolias”.

No one ever released it but it was one of those songs that impressed all of my singer and songwriter friends back in 1974 when I cowrote it with David Lasley (who I would later write “Lead Me On” with) and one of those songs that when I bump into any of them they still sing a little of. Forget about “September” or the Friends theme, “Magnolias” is the classic. Here I am back in the ‘Magnolia” days:

When I first  set eyes on the house I live in now in LA back in 1980, my realtor had heard about it at a dinner party the night before we went house hunting. I didn’t want to live in the Valley but after looking at and hating a bunch of square boxes in Hollywood I decided to drive over the hill and see the house described in the brochure as a miniature Hollywood Palladium. This was a day before it officially went on sale. There was a party going on in the backyard but the back gate was open so I just ran in and raced up the stairs into the house, with the owner chasing behind me. My realtor caught me just as I entered the living room but I remember turning my head and not only seeing a curved wall in the living room that reminded me of a curved wall in the living room on Sorrento but I was dying at the bathroom, just off the living room, because it was filled with gorgeously aged vintage maroon tile. Here’s the bathroom floor as it was that day:

I didn’t know what it was about the tile but looking at it made me dead certain this was MY home. So I almost died when I walked into the bathroom on Sorrento to see the exact same tile there. I had totally blocked it out of my memory but there it was with that deep almost orange hue that only hugs tile that old.

Another unbelievable thing is the people who live in the Sorrento house. First of all, it’s the same folks who bought the house from my father in 1965. Second, their last name is Broadnax, a name I’ve  only heard once before because it’s the name of one of the characters in my musical, The Color Purple, and one of the only characters’ names mentioned in song. As soon as I walked in, the Broadnax’s, both Reverends, told me that my mother, who passed away very suddenly when I was 16, was still in the house. They hear her walking down the steps, and growing up their kids often told them there was a white lady in the house. In my youth, I may not have believed this but when  my co-writers and I first started working on the musical, Alice Walker, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book, told us that it was all she could do to keep her hand moving fast enough to scribble down the thoughts in her head she was certain her ancestors were dictating to her. The book was written in one quick draft. Alice told us her ancestors would be contacting us. I swear to God, there were times when I would just move my mouth and words or a melody would tumble out, as if someone else was dictating them. It happened to me, Brenda (Russell) and Stephen (Bray) throughout the four years we were writing the show. So I definitely believe that my mom could still be hanging around Sorrento. I hope she was home when I came over.

One last little bit of synchronicity, throw in that the person who sang the “Magnolias” song demo was the only old friend of mine cast in The Color Purple, Charlo Crossley, former Bette Midler Harlette and Church Lady Doris on Broadway. She’s been talking about that Magnolia tree for decades now.

Friday night, the Broadnax’s sat next to me at The Color Purple, where it was playing over the weekend at the Fox Theater.  I totally got a vibe that my mom was there.

It’s pretty overwhelming to be in spots where you have very specific memories and to see it through adult eyes. Especially for me, as I have so few photos and zero movie footage because all of it got tossed after my father remarried. Which I’m sure is why I so obsessively document now. I don’t ever want my past thrown away again. And now at least I can visit it more often.

9 Responses to “Allee Willis’ Kitsch O’ The Day – Allee Willis Marches on Detroit! Part 3, The House”

  1. BeeJay

    BeeJay

    Oh Allee, what a WONDERFUL post, I so enjoyed reading this and LOVE that you added the old pictures too. Needless to day how cute you were and are! I really had to smile when I read you felt like in a dollhouse, I once visited my old school and thought how small everything appears to me now.
    I can picture you so good sliding down this banister! :)
    Very nice turquoise color by the way, was it always like that?

    Great great post!!!

    • Allee Willis

      Allee Willis

      Our walls were all white. That was actually the biggest change in the house as all of the architectural details are still intact other than windows that got replaced. But paint colors now are mostly very dark other than this burst of light blue around the all-important banister. What excited me most about the paint job when I was a kid was that the curved wall in the living room was painted blue and white striped and my bedroom, which I inherited from my brother when I got old enough, was green and white striped. I’m sure those were painted out within a week of the new homeowners moving into the house.

  2. shirlie williams

    shirlie williams

    Wow Allee, I am so glad you had such a positive experience visiting your old home , fascinating to read about it and loved seeing the old photos alonside the new . My sister and I plan to have some time revisiting our old haunts when she comes back from the US this year.

  3. MyFunCloset

    MyFunCloset

    A heart filled post that speak volumes as you traveled back in time. What a gift to feel with every fiber and relive special moments like it was yesterday. Beautiful!
    I’ve been working on a major project. Hope to post and make more comments soon. Love to visit your site most everyday.

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    childstari

    Loved reading this post! So cool to travel back in time and revisit old haunts especially the house you grew up in. Your photos were priceless. I had the ghost of a deceased child in my home. I had seen her two or three times and my friend told me she was stuck there and I needed to tell her it was okay to let go. Once I did this, she was never visible again. I believe your mom was stuck there after a sudden death. Tell the Broadnax’s to tell her it is okay to leave and give her your LA address!