Cathie Kane fondly remembers growing up in Margate, talking on the telephone with her girlfriends and going steady with boys at Atlantic City High School.
And inadvertently inspiring a world-famous musical.
Her uncle was Edward Padula, who produced the Tony Award-winning play “Bye Bye Birdie,” a satire of American society in the 1950s that was partly based on his observations of Kane’s life as a teenager, her enthusiasm for rock ‘n’ roll and television, and her parents’ concerns about her adolescent love life.
“We were kind of the very first group that started to rebel,” Kane said of her generation with a wide smile.
Later this month, Holy Spirit High School students will perform “Bye Bye Birdie” for their spring musical. Earlier this week, the actors and actresses met with Kane at her Ocean City home to hear directly from the show’s muse.
“It was fun having a famous relative,” Kane told the 13 teens as they gathered in her bayfront sunroom. “They say everyone has a little moment in time, and that was my moment in time.”
The play’s instant success was incredibly exciting for the family, but, over time, Kane thought less about her connection to the production.
Then, a few years ago, she casually mentioned it to longtime friend Claire N. Collins, the music department chair at Holy Spirit.
“I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute,’” said Collins, of Egg Harbor Township.
Collins set up the meeting with the students, who pored over the memorabilia Padula left his niece after he died in 2001, including original promotional posters, black-and-white publicity photos and even the actual Tony Award the play won in 1961 for Best Musical.
“They could have done the show without all this, but this will help make them dig deeper into their parts,” said play director Lisa DiBruno, of Dennis Township.
The work was originally called “Let’s Go Steady” and was set in 1958, the year Kane graduated from Atlantic City High School. At the time, Padula was directing plays at Gateway Playhouse in Somers Point, and he came up with the concept by visiting his family in Margate and watching his niece interact with her friends.
Kane, whose maiden name is Tort, explained to the students that television was becoming increasingly popular when she was their age, and teenagers would run home from school to watch “American Bandstand.” Back then, she said, “going steady” with a boy meant she wore his class ring and carried his football.
“The girls were on the telephone all the time,” added her husband, Ed.
“Oh, that hasn’t changed,” Collins said.
After talking for a while, the students took turns performing a few of the play’s musical numbers. Morgan Doelp, 18, of Ventnor, played Kim MacAfee, the character modeled after Kane.
“How lovely to be a woman, and change from boys to men, to go to a fancy nightclub, and stay out after 10!” she sang to the group all seated at a table.
Logan Kesel, 18, of Brigantine, who plays Rosie Alvarez, told Kane it’s fun to act out the roles, and she wondered if life was actually like it is portrayed in the show.
“I feel like life was very simple back then, but it’s very complicated today,” she said.
“It was pure,” added Matt Reale, 18, of Margate, who plays Mr. Peterson.
Kane said they were right. They never thought to lock their doors at night and there was little to no drug use among her peers.
She also remembers that right after the show’s debut in New York City, she ran through the streets, unsupervised, to get copies of the New York Times as it came off the printing press. In those days, long before the endless opinions found on the Internet and cable television, she said one review in a newspaper could make or break a show.
“Bye Bye Birdie” went on to be performed in other countries and revived several times since its premiere in 1960. It also inspired a film and television show of the same name.
DiBruno and Collins said they chose to present the play this year because they had the right mix of talent to do it, but the local connection was an obvious incentive.
“Everybody has done the show, but who knows all this?” DiBruno asked.
Padula wrote, directed and produced several other shows, earning another Tony Award nomination for Best Musical with “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.” At age 85, he died of a heart attack where he lived in Bridgehampton, N.Y., while reading his most recent play to a group of writers.
Kane said knowing Padula changed her life, even aside from her influence on his most famous play. He also turned out to be the first gay man she knew, which opened her eyes to a culture she and her husband knew little about.
“I feel like a very blessed person to have known someone like him,” she said.
Most of the memorabilia he left her is now hanging on the walls of a guest room of the Kane house on Edinburgh Road in Ocean City’s north end, where they moved in 1997. She also donated some of it to the Bridgehampton library.
The more she talked to the students and looked over all the old objects, she also remembered how much she cherishes all these memories.
“It really enriched my life, and it still does now,” she said.
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