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Big-Screen Memories Of A New York Adventure

NPR producer Selena Simmons-Duffin has heard the story of her grandmother's trip hundreds of times. It began in the Rocky Mountains, continued on the East Coast and ended up in Hollywood. Simmons-Duffin recorded Betty Jane Simmons and Dorothy Fiedelman just months before Fiedelman died at age 88 in August 2009.

It was 1939, the year of the New York World's Fair, Germany's invasion of Poland, and the publication of Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath. It's also the year two 18-year-old girls from Denver took a train to the East Coast for an adventure that inspired a Hollywood musical.

Betty Jane Simmons and Dorothy Fiedelman had been best friends since they were 5 years old. An invitation to a dance in Philadelphia lured them east, where they got to see an up-and-coming singer named Frank Sinatra sing with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra.

"I looked at him — we danced by him. He was so skinny! He was hiding behind the microphone," Fiedelman recalls. "I couldn't believe that anybody would think this guy was wonderful."

"The girls were screaming," says Simmons. "They literally did think he was the greatest. We weren't impressed."

What would impress them, they decided, were real New York nightclubs. They had read about the clubs' extravagant shows for years — the elegance, the famous people, the music. Denver didn't have anything like that, so Fiedelman and Simmons decided to set out for New York. There was just one problem.

"We didn't have the money," Fiedelman says. "And no one was going to take us." Back then, a pair of 18-year-old girls couldn't just show up at a club by themselves — they needed an escort. So they came up with a plan.

Using Fiedelman's maiden name, Bomash, they would arrive at a club just before the show started. "We'd say, 'Mr. Bomash's party, please,' " Fiedelman recounts. "And just then, the lights would go off, and they'd say, 'Well, you'll have to sit down.' And we'd sit down, and we'd watch the entertainment."

It was unlikely that the maitre d' would find a Mr. Bomash, but while he went to look, the two girls reveled in the glamour of the show. When Mr. Bomash was nowhere to be found, the girls would thank the maitre d' and move on to the next club.

"We went to about three different New York nightclubs," says Simmons. "The ultimate adventure!"

Their tale was a big hit back in Denver, and Simmons' cousin was inspired to write up their story for Good Housekeeping magazine. In the magazine, the editors even wrote a postscript saying it was their favorite piece of the year. Two years later, it was a movie.

In Pin Up Girl, the girls use the name of a war hero, instead of Mr. Bomash, to get into the club. Then he shows up, there are a bunch of mix-ups, and one of the girls — played by Betty Grable — winds up performing a big number on stage with the orchestra. She pulls it off flawlessly, of course.

In real life, Simmons and Fiedelman didn't fall for the war hero or become big-name stars like Grable did in the movie. But for them, the movie is just a nice footnote to the trip itself — the thrill of doing exactly what they wanted to do and receiving the blessings of real New Yorkers.

"We were little farm girls to New Yorkers, really," Fiedelman says. "Everybody always talked about how cold New York was and everybody was for himself — and they were wonderful to us."

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Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.