Published on December 16th, 2013 | by Zamná Ávila0
a wandering waif with
a hint of noblesse oblige
By Lionel Rolfe, Contributor
I met Penelope Sudrow at a backyard party in the SilverLake home of my actor friend Lee Boek, who runs Public Works Improvisational Theater.
I sensed that she was somebody more than just a pretty lady. What was intriguing about her was that sense that she was a woman-child. Although she looked like a woman, she had the vulnerability of a child about her as well a sense of fun and wonder you rarely see in a normal grown up. I was not surprised when I found out she had been a well-known child star.
I was probably drawn to that quality because my mother, Yaltah Menuhin, had been a child prodigy pianist, playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto with Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony when she was 10.
Yaltah died at 79 years old, after giving a concert of Chopin and Debussy for the students at the Orwell Park School in Ipswich, England. She played and then danced down the aisle of the auditorium with the children following her like the pied piper. Then she came home, had a heart attack and died. She died in the arms of a neighbor, who held her and screamed at her, “Yaltah! No, no, don’t go!” I know that child prodigies sometimes have terrible lives and sometimes wonderful—think Mozart in his last years prior to being buried in a pauper’s field.
And just because a grown woman has a strong inner child in her does not mean she is innocent of the ugly ways of the world. Now, most people emerge from their childhood into adulthood with a certain blasé attitude toward the awful things that people do to people. But people whose inner child dwells more strongly in their adult bodies are perhaps more easily shocked by ugliness—it is not in their DNA to be blasé about how things really are. Such a person is Penelope, and such a person was my own mother.
Penelope is best known for her role in the 1987 horror film, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. She played Jennifer Caulfield, who is killed by Freddy Krueger as she watched television. She is grateful for that role, because it became a cult classic among horror film aficionados. She is grateful for the fans who remember her role—her website is built by one of those fans—www.penelopesudrow.com.
She made her stage debut at the Hollywood Bowl as ‘Twiggy,’ followed by a tour in 1976 when she was 10 years old. She did her first commercial when she was six for Oscar Mayer Wiener. She performed on numerous television variety shows, with folks such as Danny Kaye, John Denver and Gene Kelly, most memorably in his special, An American in Pasadena.
Penelope’s fondest Gene Kelly memories was that he was a kind man. Years after working with him, she remembers him coming over to her table where she was sitting with her family at a big event for him and speaking to her warmly.
Penelope is nothing if not a true child of Hollywood. Her father was Lyle Sudrow, the original star of the Guiding Light soap opera, first on radio and then on live television. He later managed the career of the actress Karen Black. He died in 2006. Her mother, Ebba Rosenblad, loaded with the DNA of Swedish nobility, was a professional dancer who headlined at the Copacabana for several years and was also a dancer on the Jackie Gleason Show.
But if truth be told, toward the end, at least in Penelope’s telling, it was she who was supporting the family—and in relatively high style, what with a home in Brentwood and enough money to send her sister to fancy schools. Whatever money she made, none of it is left, and now Penelope has survived as a dog walker, a caretaker for old people, and the like. Sometimes this has left her pillar to posting.
Penelope doesn’t deny for a second that she is more child than adult. Quite proudly, she says she will be child-like all her life. My mom Yaltah was that way too—and even as she suffered the pains and struggles that come with the “wisdom” of old age, she also remained very child like. That child-like quality gave her the ability to say the most devastating things about people to their faces, which they accepted with gratitude. Part of it was her quick wit—she loved to pun in two and sometimes three languages. But it also seemed as if the truths she spoke were spoken by a child, without the guile of an adult.
Both Penelope and Yaltah shared having had no real childhoods. They had few of those sacrosanct moments that can define growing up. They did not grow up along the Mississippi, leisurely fishing along its banks or other sweet dark reveries of youth. They were working hardly after they emerged from their respective wombs.
They had to cope with the demands of adulthood before they were mature. At six years old or so, they were “working.” So since they didn’t have childhoods, they were perennially child like adults.
You can see in the way Penelope is today. She’s not a lazy person—after all if you’re working and end up supporting your family at six, you probably will never be lazy again in your life. Yaltah was not a lazy person. She was always reading, writing and playing her piano.
There is a certain similarity of Penelope and Yaltah to people who were forced to work at harsh, menial jobs at young ages. I had an ex-mother-in-law who was working in the mills of Manchester before World War II when she was 13. It was a life right out of Dickensian England, or Bangladesh today.
Yaltah passed on two telling memories of her childhood to me. One were Dante-like recollections from visiting South Africa in the ’30s and being shown the gold and diamond mines, where she was haunted by the faces of youngsters who worked most of their days under the earth in this Hades-like scene. She also never forgot in the 20s in Paris, seeing hordes of Armenian families fleeing the Turks, carrying all their belongings—mainly rugs—on their backs, which they sold for nearly nothing because they were desperate.
Either she’d be pondering these things, or lose herself in hours of child-like silliness, such as driving around rather reckless to entertain her son and his friends in a way no other parents did.
Penelope showed moments that reminded me of Yaltah in different ways. She insisted she had been more of an athlete and an entertainer than an actor. She loves to watch old musicals in which she either performed, or knew by heart. And now she’s contemplating her future and wondering what she will be like when she grows up, even if she knows she never really will. In the future, she will retain her charming self, molded by her unique childhood, waiting to be rediscovered.
*Lionel Rolfe is the author of a number of books, available under his name at Amazon’s Kindle Store.