Teen Girl Runnin’ Wild – read the first part of Erica’s
most vulnerable period – from family dramas to local theater.
“What I went through in those years is what everyone went through. Kennedy being killed, the Vietnam War, the whole drug generation. It was a hard time–especially for someone born and raised in Hollywood, we were right in the middle of it.
“I was always getting in trouble, and I was always one of the kids who got caught. One night when I was thirteen, I stole my mother’s car and drove down Hollywood Boulevard [about 8 or 10 blocks from her home]. In those days, Hollywood Boulevard was “it”, just bumper to bumper on the weekends. I had no clue how to drive. I don’t even know how I got that far. I hit a parked car right in front of a policeman, then was thinking I was going to outrun him.”
She was taken to the police house and the officer called her mother. “Her response was, ‘can you keep her overnight? They said no, so she came and got me. I was grounded for a year and half, although I could always find a way to go off somewhere.
“I was smoking pot in high school, when that was considered very bad.” She ran with a “pretty tough crowd” and some of them paid the price. “A lot of my friends didn’t make it. We were pretty wild, especially when we got out of high school.”
Her parents divorced while she was a teenager. “My parents were always getting into very volatile arguments, and there were constant threats of one or the other moving out.”
Many of the arguments “were about me—’do you know what your daughter’s doing up on the roof, she’s smoking pot!'”
Eventually, after the divorce, her mother “began going with a guy, and eventually he moved in and sort of replaced my father for a while, although he never did for me. He and my mother and my sister basically became a family unit, but I was an adolescent and locked out of that. I didn’t like him for trying to take my father’s place, and I was angry at my mother. We’d all go out camping in the desert and I’d always wander off by myself.”
Fred and Madeleine Graff eventually reconciled, remarried when Donna was 16 or 17, and remained together for the rest of their days.
* * *
Even as a kid, she had enjoyed putting on shows for her parents. At her junior high school in Silver Lake and John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, the acting bug bit more seriously, helped along by two drama teachers whom she greatly admired.
“I had a major crush on one drama teacher, Gerald Gordon, although I knew he was gay. He had a summer program, the Los Angeles Youth Theater, so I was in plays both in school and in his program.”
She played the role of Maggie in the musical The Boyfriend, was one of the Shark girls in a summer production of of West Side Story, and was in another summer staging of Finian’s Rainbow.In the latter show “I tore my ligaments, because I was doing a backflip and didn’t do it properly.”
For a Freeway Players production of Tevye and His Seven Daughters, which ran for several months at the Zephyr Theater on Melrose Avenue, Erica understudied and worked the lights.
“I loved doing plays. I was trying to be responsible and to do something I had a passion about. I loved the feeling of hanging around people who were talented and hard working. It’s a powerful feeling being around theater. The camaraderie, doing something over and over and each time it means something totally different. It’s sort of like therapy—your interpretation, that moment.
"You can say a line a million different ways. I really enjoyed being someone that I wasn’t—someone who was out there and who was not shy. I got out of my own life that way, it was a rush.”
When she would later work with Russ Meyer, one quality she really admired about him—that “he was totally committed to his work”—was a quality she recognized in herself.
“I know that feeling, and it’s the ultimate. It’s better than sex. It’s better than anything when everything is happening in your art.” During this period, she appeared as an extra in an episode of NBC’s Mr. Novak starring James Franciscus, which was actually shot at her high school.
Continue On to Part II
–by Steve Sullivan
excerpted with kind permission from Glamour Girls
Hollywood Boulevard — My Backyard Basically
My Parents' Beautiful Schindler House in Silver Lake
Cleaned Out for a Flip — That's L.A. for You