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

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.


Categories: Afro, Architecture, Creative process, Detroit, Families, House, Kitsch, Kitsch O' The Day, Music, People, Songwriting, The Color Purple

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33 Comments

  • mike frost says:

    Very cool…I really enjoyed reading this

  • Cindy says:

    Allee, you just made me cry like a baby! This is so fantastic, that you got to go “home”! So proud of what you are doing there in Detroit! I know they are both proud and appreciative to have you and what you’re doing! Keep up the good work! You’re a blessing! Just love ya!

  • Rusty says:

    Wow…each post gets more and more interesting. What a gift to be able to go into your childhood home and then to find out the serendipitious stories behind it all. Amazing and almost chilling stuff.

    • Allee says:

      Thanks, Rusty. I shot every inch of this as a documentary so hopefully those chills will increase when you see it actually unfolding.

  • Heidi Ehrenreich says:

    Your mom was there with you Allee. No doubt about it. I have many many stories that only can be understood if you really believe in all things being possible. Especially where a loving connection is the heart of the matter.
    BTW, that white dress and heels outfit is something. I loved that you matched the drapes!

  • Heidi Ehrenreich says:

    And the lamp matched your hairdo too!

  • I’m crying, too. So very poignant and meaningful on an universal level. Every time I thought you could not touch another nerve, you succeeded. The maroon tile was the capper.

  • Joan Henehan says:

    Touching, beautiful heartfelt travel-through. Does time even matter?

    • Allee says:

      No, time doesn’t matter. I think that was my fascination with cyberspace to begin with. That as long as it was in memory everything was existent at all times.

  • Pamela Mason says:

    How amazing! I loved how you juxtaposed your yesterdays with today… and how your puzzle pieces just fell into place! Rust tile… Broadnax… even the magnolia tree. You were meant to be born Allee; just meant to be here on earth spreading music and joy and color…and KITSCH! LOL!
    Okay.. no more gushing!
    And your mother’s presence…! Just wow!

    Agree with Heidi… only understood if you believe all things are possible.
    Loved this!

  • Denise says:

    So beautiful, Allee.

  • Just lovely, and touching. So so happy for you to make all of those connections with your past. Yay!

  • Barbie Edelman says:

    What a great walk down memory lane. Remember ridingf our pink and gray bikes down the street and up 7mile down to curtis and wyoming going intro one store after another. Over the week-end Marlen and I were talking about the monkey your dad bought one year and you kept it in the backyard by the patio or back porch. I rmember sitting on your front porch listening to your cousin Hershalplaying his guitar. What fun. i am going to drive down ardmore and see what my house looks like

  • Susan Rayl says:

    Wow Allee! Like Cindy and Robbie, I was drawn to tears. I’m so happy it all fell into place for you…and I totally understand documentation. And, yes…your mom was there – how wonderful that you can continue to visit! The tile in California was not an accident. Something tells me that you’ll be returning to Detroit often…and I think that’s a good thing!

    I mentioned Dave Bing, the Detroit mayor, some weeks back. I don’t know him personally – met very briefly at a conference in DC in November – but I think it would be very cool if you could meet up. He’s trying hard to turn Detroit around – and my gut tells me that you may be a part of the process.

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It hit home (no pun intended) with me in so many ways.

  • Georgia says:

    So, so glad you were ready to see the house and that you got the opportunity to do so. Maybe in time I’ll get to that point but I’m just not there quite yet.
    I am a firm believer that coincidences are more than just that. There have been way too many situations that have happened in my life to let me know that certain objects, interactions with others, etc. happen for a reason. I am so heart- happy whenever something like that happens.

    Now, I’m just so heart- happy for you! Let the memories, the smells, the winds on your face, the sights and sounds of home take you to the most comfortable of places and let that recharged energy you were given by being there explode into a creative drive for you.

    Here’s to going home and letting the comfort of it wrap around us like a handmade afghan… :)

  • Georgia says:

    P.S. As a child, I would ask my Mom for an “African” instead of a afghan. I now wonder if this was precedence to explain my need to read, discuss, and meet with folks who have a desire to rediscover and/or continue sharing what they know of their Gullah and Geechee roots. I’m working with a family friend and hope to have an independent documentary completed in the future. The Gullah- Geechee deserve to have their stories told for their children and grandchildren as well as for the rest of us who could learn so much from their abilities to keep pushing forward.

  • I like the photo series – very cool. Interesting read lately as I enjoy reading about Detroit – probably has something to do with growing up in Windsor.

    - Sir Thrift-A-Lot

  • gloria vassy says:

    allee. so enjoy your visit ti detroit, also my home town. went to pershing ’53′ to ’57. my house on goddard is still in great shape, and i plan to visit it next time i’m there, thanx to you.the

  • snappyp says:

    Love the then and NOW PICS. Such a good contrast and context. Wonderful narrative too.

  • Kyle Dayton says:

    Allee, Thank you so much for posting this. It’s a wonderful read, and I certainly appreciated learning more about the co-incidents in your life. (I believe in synchronicity more than I do in luck or coincidence). To me, a co-incident could be compared to something like a co-worker in business, I guess, where both are working together towards the same goal because they’re connected by something much bigger. And then there’s the law of attraction, which I believe is in the same ballpark as the aforementioned. Were these things an inspiration for Neutron Dance? That song has always been one of my favorites, very much for the message behind it. Your life is truly is an inspiration. Oh, and I’m glad that you had a great time in Detroit, too!

    • Allee says:

      Yes, that’s certainly part of the thought behind Neutron. If you go to alleewillis.com and go to the music page there’s a link on the right to Neutron Dance. You can read a lot about how the song was written as well as hear the demo.

  • \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.\

    That’s beautiful. :) I am thrilled you got to see the house! My grandparents lived in Saginaw, MI in a mid-mod quad-level in the 80′s and it remains to this day my favorite house. I would LOVE to see inside of it now and see if the pink tile bathroom remains, for one thing. We were up there to look at a used car last year and I realized I knew how to navigate there, and I got a photo of the outside of the place, but didn’t have the cajones to ask the owner if I could see inside. Maybe one day, I’ll have that wish granted. Your post here gives me hope! :D

    • Allee says:

      Definitely gather your cajones and knock! I knocked for decades and wouldn’t have this time had I not been with someone who insisted and knocked on the door themselves. Let me know when you do. And would love to see exterior photos of the mid-mod condo in the meantime at AWMOK.com.

  • Lisa Loeb says:

    I love, love, love this. I’m obsessed with visiting my old homes too, but you captured it in a way that really brings me back to your past. I love that shot of you in the living room- you have a great knowing look on your face. wow. Love, Love, L

  • Stuart Lester says:

    Alee, The 1961 picture is the one I remember you as the most. I have a picture somewhere of you and I dancing at my Bar Mitzvah and I came up to your chin.

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