Teen girls across America anxiously await the release of Bobby Conrad’s new movie, First Kiss, which opens this Friday night. A majority of the girls interviewed by this reporter plan to see the film this weekend. The draw? Bobby Conrad, of course. The quintessential boy next door. Blue-eyed, muscled, and tanned, he’s every teenage girl’s dream-come-true, and the envy of many a pimply-faced, pale-skinned boy.
According to those interviewed, Bobby’s smooth-as-silk voice only adds to his charm. The proof? After his highly touted performance of the movie’s theme song on The Ed Sullivan Show this past Sunday night, stores across America sold out of the 45 in record time. Pun intended. Teen girls flocked to get their copies of the romantic ballad, wreaking all sorts of havoc along the way. Doo-Wop Records is scrambling to keep up with the demand. This outcry from fans has only served to boost interest in the movie. Good news for producers on both sides of the equation.
Early reviews of the film are mostly favorable, with only one critic noting slight inconsistencies in the plotline. Still, we can safely assume that viewers won’t be paying much attention to the writing. With Bobby Conrad’s face front and center on the big screen, one would have to conclude that he could deliver his lines in pig latin and still win over the female viewers. Women of all ages have fallen head over heels for this wholesome crooner-turned-actor. And First Kiss will only make them love him more. So, what are you waiting for, ladies? Grab your friends and neighbors…and let’s go to the movies!
— Reporting for Hollywood Heartthrob magazine, “On the Big Screen” columnist, Cinema Cindy.
Sweet Sal’s Soda Shoppe, Laguna Beach, California, 1957
“Bobby Conrad is the yummiest thing since rocky road ice cream.”
Debbie Carmichael turned as her younger sister broadcast her thoughts on Hollywood’s latest heartthrob.
“Have you ever heard anyone with a voice like that?” Becky Ann continued, speaking to a group of her friends. “It’s positively scrumptious. When he opens his mouth to sing, I could swoon!”
The other girls who’d gathered in the back booth of the soda shop went into giggling fits at this proclamation. They chimed in with their thoughts, their high-pitched, giddy voices layering like the pickles, onions, and tomatoes on top of the Sweet Sal’s Cheeseburger Deluxe.
Debbie couldn’t disagree with her sister’s assessment of Hollywood’s latest golden boy. Indeed, Becky Ann had hit the nail on the head with her over-the-top description of Bobby Conrad. And nearly every girl in America would agree, at least those who read Hollywood Heartthrob magazine or watched The Ed Sullivan Show.
The velvety strains of Elvis’s new song, “Love Me Tender,” filled the soda shop. Oh, how Debbie loved the tunes on the jukebox. She enjoyed listening all day long as she worked. Balancing a tray of sodas, malts, and shakes with one hand, she approached the girls’ table. Joining in the conversation was inevitable. She could no more avoid this topic than she could leave the whipped cream and cherry off a banana split.
“If anyone would know the scoop on Bobby, it’s Becky Ann.” Debbie grabbed the chocolate shake with her free hand and passed it to the first teen in the booth. “My little sister has memorized nearly every article in Hollywood Heartthrob over the past couple of months, and our bedroom is filled with posters of Bobby. I can hardly see the walls.” She laughed and passed out the rest of the drinks—two Coca-Colas, one cherry phosphate, and a strawberry malt.
Becky Ann continued to sing Bobby’s praises. “Who needs walls when you’ve got Bobby?” She released an exaggerated sigh. Her gaze shifted upward and her eyelashes fluttered like two butterflies taking flight. “He’s the last thing I see when I go to bed at night and the first thing when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes I imagine he’s right next to me, saying, ‘Wake up, Becky Ann. Let’s grab a couple of burgers and head to the beach. I want to spend the whole day with you and only you!’ ”
A collective sigh went up from the group.
Debbie couldn’t help but laugh. “And then she comes downstairs to the soda shop and turns on the jukebox, which is how they really spend the day together.”
Becky Ann rolled her eyes. “For now, maybe. But I’m going to meet him in person someday, Debbie. Just you wait and see.”
Yes, you will, if I have anything to do with it. Debbie wanted to speak the words aloud, but didn’t. Not yet, anyway.
“I would pay a million dollars to see those gorgeous blue eyes up close,” Becky Ann’s best friend, Martha Lou, said. She leaned her elbows on the table in unladylike fashion. “I’m going to Hollywood to audition for his next movie.”
“You are?” All the girls let out a squeal.
Debbie could hardly believe it. “But, how?” she asked. “Do they let you just waltz in there and try out?”
“I’ll figure that out.” Martha Lou sighed. “If it’s not an open audition, I might need to get an agent. Mama is looking into that for me. She thinks I’ve got what it takes to make it. But all of this is going to take money, and so far I’ve only saved three dollars and twenty cents.”
“And she’s going to spend all of that on cherry phosphates!” Debbie’s brother chimed in as he passed by the table on his way to mop up a spilled soda under the adjoining booth.
Debbie laughed, but Becky Ann didn’t seem to find the humor in his remark. “You’re just jealous of Bobby’s baby blues, Junior. Admit it.”
“Sure I am. Sure I am.” His gaze narrowed. “Let me ask you one question, li’l sis.”
“All right.” Becky Ann shrugged and took a sip of her Coca-Cola.
“Six months ago you girls were in love with Elvis Presley, correct?”
“ ‘Love Me Tender’ is the cat’s meow,” Becky Ann said with a dreamy-eyed look.
Debbie glanced at her brother. “You have to admit it’s a great song. And Elvis is a one-of-a-kind.”
“Of course.” Junior nodded. “I agree. But I’m trying to make a point. You’re fickle, Becky Ann.” He looked at the other girls now. “All of you are. A couple of months after your Elvis-a-thon, you switched gears and fell in love with Troy Donahue.”
“He was brand new on the scene,” Becky Ann argued. “That’s why.”
“And he’s so cute,” Cassie Jenkins, one of the younger members of the group, sighed.
“I can’t argue with the girls there, either.” Debbie shrugged. “Have you seen Troy Donahue?”
Junior groaned. “Of course. His signed photo is on our wall.” He turned back to Becky Ann. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but after your brief romance with Troy, you wrote Pat Boone a letter, declaring your undying love. Am I right?”
Becky Ann sighed. “I don’t expect you to understand, Junior. You’re a boy.”
“No, he’s a man,” Debbie argued. “He’s eighteen years old.”
“Yes, I’m a man.” He paused and his gaze shifted for just a moment to Martha Lou. “Not that anyone around here seems to notice.” Muttering something indistinguishable, he walked off with the mop in hand.
Debbie’s heart went out to him. “Poor Junior.” As she spoke the words, everyone looked Martha Lou’s way.
The dreamy-eyed teen took a sip of her cherry phosphate and leaned back against the booth. “What?” she asked after a few moments of awkward silence. “What did I do?”
“It’s what you didn’t do, silly.” Debbie laughed. “You’re supposed to fall head-over-heels in love with our brother, and apparently you haven’t been paying attention to the signals he’s been sending.”
“Oh.” Martha Lou looked perplexed. Her gaze shifted to Junior, who continued to mop. “Well, maybe if he had Bobby Conrad’s gorgeous blue eyes, I’d consider it.”
This, of course, led the girls right back into a discussion about their newest heartthrob.
Debbie had to admit—if to no one but herself—that Bobby’s scrumptious eyes had captivated her too. Many times she’d awakened to those luscious pools of blue staring right into her very soul. In those moments, she could almost imagine him crooning one of his tunes just for her. And why not? Bobby was closer to her age, anyway. The lat¬est issue of Hollywood Heartthrob listed him as twenty-one. She would turn twenty next month, on the third of August.
Across the room, the song on the jukebox changed. When the familiar beat of Bill Haley’s popular song, “Rock Around the Clock,” came on, smiles lit the faces of the girls in the booth. Well, all of them but Becky Ann. She was still too busy talking about Bobby to notice.
“I can’t believe First Kiss is finally releasing.” Becky Ann clasped her hands together and placed them over her heart. “I’ve dreamed of this moment for weeks.” She looked at the others. “You’re all going, right? The first showing at The Palace is at five-fifteen on Friday after¬noon. Be there, or be square.”
“I’m going to get there at three o’clock to get in line,” Martha Lou said. “If I don’t get a ticket, I’ll just die.”
“I’ll be there,” Cassie echoed.
“You coming with us, Debbie?” Becky Ann asked.
“Of course.” She couldn’t stop the smile that erupted. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” In fact, she’d been looking forward to the movie’s release just as much as the younger girls had.
“Did you see him on The Ed Sullivan Show last Sunday night?” Becky Ann asked. “Talk about dreamy. And when he sang “First Kiss,” I just knew those words were meant for me. I went to Frazier’s and bought the 45 first thing Monday morning.”
“I’m so jealous.” Martha Lou shook her head. “When I got there, they were sold out.”
“No problem,” Debbie said. “When you girls are finished with your sodas and shakes, you can all go upstairs and listen to Becky Ann’s record.”
“The lyrics are out of this world,” her sister added. “This is his best song, by far. And you’ll never guess what’s on the flip side.”
“What?” all the girls asked at once.
“Bobby…singing the song in Spanish. You’ve never heard anything so beautiful.”
Debbie grinned as her sister went off on yet another tangent about Bobby’s sultry singing voice. The other girls hung on her every word.
Well, all but one. Ginny Anderson leaned back against the seat, arms crossed at her chest. Nothing new there. Ginny wore a serious expression much of the time. In that respect, she took after her father, Everett Anderson, who happened to hold the mortgage on the soda shop. Thank goodness Ginny hadn’t inherited his crankiness. Just a slow, calculated way of looking at things.
“I don’t understand you, Becky Ann,” Ginny said at last. “What’s the point of falling in love with someone you’ll never even meet? It’s such a…a waste of time. Give me a real boy any day.” She corrected herself right away. “Er, man. I’m nearly twenty now. Boys are a thing of the past, and so is giggling about Hollywood stars we’re never going to meet.” She reached for her chocolate shake and took a long sip.
“Who says we’re never going to meet Bobby?” Becky Ann argued. “Laguna Beach isn’t that far from Hollywood. It could happen. You never know. Bobby might be driving down the Coastal Highway right now, on his way to Sweet Sal’s Soda Shoppe to see me in person.”
“You’re such a dreamer, silly girl,” Ginny said. “You always have been.”
“She will meet him…if I have anything to do with it.” Debbie’s hand flew to her mouth as soon as the words escaped. Had she really just said that out loud?
“What do you mean?” Junior stopped mopping long enough to ask.
Debbie released a breath and tried to think of a way to fix this. She didn’t want to give away her idea just yet. Not with so many things left to figure out. Still, if she had her way, Becky Ann and the others would, indeed, meet the heartthrob in person. “Oh, I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” she said finally.
“Debbie, are you saying that Bobby Conrad might come here, to Sweet Sal’s Soda Shoppe?” Martha Lou paled and nearly dropped her soda.
Debbie wasn’t sure whether to nod or shrug. She finally decided the shrug would be a safer bet. “I’ve been thinking of asking him to do a benefit concert.”
Ginny didn’t look convinced. “Do you think he still does things like that, now that he’s a big movie star?”
“Well, there’s no way to know for sure unless we ask,” Debbie said.
“I just can’t imagine what it would be like to have him here.” Becky Ann’s eyes grew wider by the moment. “That would be a dream come true!”
From across the restaurant, Debbie heard her mother call out her name. She turned and gave a little wave. “Be right there, Mom.” Looking back at the girls, she winked. “Say your prayers, girls. I’ve got to wait till just the right time to pop the question.”
“Oh, pop the question!” Becky Ann used these words to drift back into a conversation about what it would be like to have Bobby Conrad propose. And Debbie used them as an excuse to scurry off to the register to see what her mom wanted.
As Debbie reached the front of the store, her mother gestured to a group that had just entered. Debbie had been so busy gabbing with the girls that she’d somehow overlooked the jingling of the bell at the front door. A family of four waited to be seated.
“Welcome to Sweet Sal’s.” Debbie grabbed some menus and led them to a booth.
The woman, who looked to be in her late thirties, paused to stare at the photos on the walls. “Oh my. Look at all those autographed photos of movie stars.”
“We’ve had quite a few come through over the years,” Debbie said.
“Like who?” the woman’s husband asked. “Anyone we would know?”
“Oh, sure. My mother can tell you.” Debbie gestured for her mom to join them as the family took their seats. She arrived in short order and Debbie introduced her. “This is my mom, Sally Carmichael. Everyone around here calls her Sweet Sal.”
The woman smiled. “I wondered if the shop was named after a real person.”
“I’m very real, I assure you.” Debbie’s mom laughed. “Some days, more real than others. So, what can I do for you fine folks?”
“They want to know about the photos on the walls, Mom,” Debbie said.
“Yes, have you actually met all of these people?” The woman pointed to the wall with the framed photos of Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Ozzie and Harriet, and several more.
“Oh yes,” her mother said. “Many of the stars own homes in Laguna Beach or Dana Point. Quite a few stop by as they go back and forth to L.A.”
“How perfectly wonderful. Well, I can see why they would. This place is great. And what darling waitress uniforms. Very cute.” She gestured to Debbie’s red-and-white-striped dress.
“Folks call us the Peppermints,” Debbie explained. She straightened her crisp white apron then made sure her cap was on straight.
“They’re just precious. Truly. I can’t wait to tell my friends back home about this diner. It’s so…so California!”
Debbie smiled at the family as she handed out the menus. “Our special of the day is the beef stew. And just so you know, Sweet Sal’s is famous for its shakes and malts, so save room.”
“Save room?” The woman chuckled. “Why don’t we start with a couple of chocolate shakes? Can we share?”
“Of course. I’ll bring extra straws.” Debbie headed to the front of the store on her mom’s heels. As they reached the register, another round of laughter erupted from Becky Ann’s booth at the back of the room.
“What do you suppose those girls are up to?” Debbie’s mom asked.
“Oh, you know how it is. They’re gaga over Bobby Conrad. Can’t wait for his new movie.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing that movie, myself,” her mother said. “I wonder what your father would say if I told him. Can you imagine?”
They both laughed and glanced back over the open counter to the kitchen area where Debbie’s dad worked flipping burgers.
“I heard that, Sal,” he called out. “And just so you know, I’m not a fan.”
Debbie laughed. “I’m sure Bobby is a great guy, Pop. Just like every other guy that age.”
“Most twenty-one-year-olds I know don’t live in mansions in Malibu,” he said. “And they certainly don’t drive cherry red Corvette convertibles.”
“I’ll bet if he showed up in that car and offered to let you drive it, he’d win you over.” Debbie flashed a smile.
For a moment, her father’s eyes lit up. “Hmm. Maybe. I’d never turn down a ride on the Coastal Highway in a convertible.” He slapped the bell. “Order up!” he hollered. “Bossy in a bowl with a cup of moo juice.”
Debbie lifted her empty tray and reached for the bowl of beef stew and the large glass of milk. As she headed over to table five, she found her¬self daydreaming. What would it be like to ride with Bobby Conrad in his convertible with the wind whipping through her hair? Would he want to stop off at the beach afterward to watch the sun set and steal a few kisses? She was lost in the possibilities, a wave of hope sweeping over her.
“You okay, kid?”
She looked up as she heard her customer’s voice. Everett Anderson. Ginny’s father. The town’s most infamous banker was rarely cheerful, even on a good day, but he looked particularly cranky today.
“Oh…oh, yes sir.” She nodded. “Just thinking.”
“Humph. Better watch it. You almost dropped my stew. I want to eat it, not wear it.”
“Sorry.” She passed the bowl off to him with an apologetic smile. Dropping plates of food would never do, especially at Mr. Anderson’s table.
On her way back to the register, Debbie paused to look through the large plate-glass window at the front of the soda shop. The neon Sweet Sal’s sign flashed, its red, white, and black colors beckoning all to stop in for a hot meal or a cold malted.
On the other side of the busy Coastal Highway, brilliant white sands sparkled under a bright midday sun. The cool blue waters of the Pacific still held her spellbound, even after all these years. They seemed to stretch out forever. If she closed her eyes, she could almost hear the waves crashing against the rocks.
Most of the kids her age spent their summers swimming and talking about what the next semester at college would be like. Sometimes she longed to join them. But helping Mom and Pop with the family business took precedence now. Ever since her father’s heart attack last spring, things had been different, and not in a good way. They’d had the usual share of financial challenges—keeping up with the mortgage, for instance—but Pop’s health struggles loomed largest of all. Debbie did her best to trust God, but some days fear wriggled its way up her spine.
What would they do if something happened to Pop?
No, she wouldn’t think about that. She couldn’t. Her father would get well, and the shop would be a success, in spite of the competition from that new fast food joint, McDonald’s. Those golden arches might sway a few folks, but no other restaurant in the world could hold a candle to Sweet Sal’s burgers and fries. No, the real deal was here to stay. No doubt about it. And Pop was here to stay, too, as long as he took care of himself. She would make sure he did.
Debbie stared at the huge expanse of water across the street and whispered a prayer for her father. For weeks, she’d prayed for an answer, and now she truly believed the Lord had given her an idea to make everything better. If she had her way about it, the Carmichael family would struggle no more. Pop could even retire, if he wanted to. Or just work in the back office like the doctor had suggested.
A noise startled her back to attention. Debbie turned and saw that her father was trying to move the jukebox to sweep underneath the edges.
“Pop, you shouldn’t be doing that.” She ran to him, her heart thumping out of control. “Remember what the doctor said? You’re supposed to be taking it easy.”
“Frankie Carmichael, taking it easy?” He laughed. “That doctor doesn’t know me very well, does he, Sunshine? This shop depends on me giving a hundred and ten percent.”
Yes, but giving a hundred and ten percent is what landed you in the hospital with a heart attack in the first place.
She wanted to say the words, but didn’t dare. Besides, they wouldn’t do any good. It would be a better idea to transition into a conversation about teens and music. That way she could lay the foundation for her plan, the one she would present later tonight when they went to their apartment above the shop.
“Did you hear that ABC is going to kick off a new television show for teens in August?” Debbie tried to sound nonchalant. “American Bandstand.”
“Yes, I heard that show from Philly was going national,” he said. “Who’s hosting it?”
“Some guy I’ve never heard of. Dick somebody.”
“Well, I wouldn’t get too hooked on him, one way or the other. Bandstand has done pretty well on the local level, but I wouldn’t imagine taking it national is the best idea. Blink your eyes and this one will be gone.”
“Maybe.” She shrugged again. “But it sounds like fun to me.”
“Fun?” He sighed. “I remember fun. Had a lot of it, back in my day.”
Debbie gave him a sympathetic look. “We still have fun together, Pop.”
“You’re right, Sunshine.” He smiled. “And there’s plenty of it ahead.”
“Thanks for the reminder.” Debbie kissed him on the cheek, and her father responded with a quick hug before heading back to the kitchen.
She glanced at her reflection in the glass one last time, finalizing the plan in her mind. That done, she tried to picture herself through Bobby Conrad’s eyes.
Hopefully, when he came—and she had no doubt he would—he wouldn’t just fall for her family and their quaint soda shop.
He would fall for her, too.