Celebrities maintained a more distant allure before the age of social media. For better or worse, catching an intimate glimpse required you be in their physical presence. In our continued exploration of modern fandom on Man Repeller — what it means and how it’s changed — I spoke to 84-year-old Gwen Boller, who spent her formative years mingling with the rich and famous. Below is her as-told-to story of what that was like and how it feels to reflect on it now.
In the ’50s and ’60s, we could walk right up to celebrities. In those days, the band was just part of the dance floor. Fans would swarm around them. The world has totally changed since then.
I grew up in Chicago. It was nice for going to museums and stuff like that, but my family didn’t have much money, so we didn’t get downtown often. My friends and I learned about celebrities from magazines and movies. When I was young, there were record stores where you could pick out a record and go in a booth to play it. We would sit there for hours playing all the records. I loved to dance. My girlfriends and I learned how to jitterbug, and we danced in my basement.
When I was a teenager, my favorite celebrities were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. I was a junior in high school when they played in downtown Chicago, and that was the first and only time I ever skipped school and went downtown to see them.
When it came time for me to choose what I wanted to do after high school, I didn’t want to go away for college where I wouldn’t know anyone. So I went to Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in Chicago for two years. That was an excellent school then, a very high-end secretarial college. Any time you applied for a job and mentioned you were a Katharine Gibbs graduate, you got hired right away.
I got my first job with an advertising agency in Chicago. Some friends of mine from my office got their own apartment downtown, and they wanted me to move in with them. But my dad said, “Absolutely not, no daughter of mine is going to leave until she’s 21.” That was a mistake.
I met my ex-husband Phil when I was 19. He was a great dancer, and I learned to dance from him too. We met at a dance club in Chicago and started dating. We would go to record hops — we’d play records at clubs, and people would hop around. I don’t think kids today really go out and dance like we did.
In that time, if you weren’t married or engaged by age 21, you were going to be an old maid. That was the thinking then. Isn’t that stupid?
Phil went to DJ school, then we got married in 1955 when I was 21 and moved to Midland, Michigan, for his first DJ job. I always wanted to live in a small town. That was my way out. If my dad had let me move in with my friends in Chicago, I wouldn’t have gotten married so young.
Every Friday night, Phil and I put on an event called the “Red Vest Club.” Phil would be onstage, and I would work the tickets. We all wore red vests I had made. We’d serve food and he’d play records. As a DJ, he’d dance with all the teenage girls — they loved that. It was fun and we made good money.
We got to meet a lot of celebrities for Phil’s work. I got to meet Johnny Cash when he was first getting his start, around 1956 or 1957. We were at a party in a bar-restaurant kind of place, and we talked to him. He had a special drink that he liked — I can’t remember what it was exactly, but it was like wine and 7UP or something like that. That was quite impressive.
Once we went backstage at a concert by Count Basie and Joe Williams in a roller rink they had rented out. They were great musicians and had a tremendous following. I was about four months pregnant, and it was the first time I had ever worn a maternity dress. Somebody came in and grabbed the only chair that was backstage, and Joe Williams picked him up by the shirt collars and said, “That chair is for the lady,” meaning me. That was also quite impressive.
Another pair I met was Louis Prima and Keely Smith — people my age will know who they are. We went to a big party with Keely Smith. Around 1962, I met George Maharis. He was an actor on Route 66, and he also made a record album. He signed his album for me, and I had my picture taken with him. In the picture, he had his arm around me, and — oh, my gosh — he was a good-looking guy. I was just thrilled.
Then there were The Beatles. Phil got to interview them when our kids were little, and they got to see them in concert. Phil has a picture of himself with the four Beatles, and he carries it in his wallet to this day. He whips it out to show anybody he meets for the first time. That was his claim to fame.
Meeting the celebrities and all of that was a lot of fun. But then we started moving around every year for Phil’s work. We moved all around Michigan, where my three kids were born, and then to Cincinnati. Phil could get a job anywhere, but I couldn’t while I was raising the kids. I was off work for 11 years.
Raising the kids was my life. I was the one who always had to pack up the truck and move. Getting the kids in new schools and finding new doctors and dentists and all of that was stressful. Moving around was especially hard on my oldest daughter; she didn’t make friends as easily, and she resented having to constantly switch schools, as many kids would. Moving around was also difficult for me because it was hard to maintain friendships. I’d make a friend, and then we’d move again. Phil worked at least two jobs every place we went, so I was alone a lot. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it.
Although we had a lot of fun together at times, especially with the dances, Phil and I had our differences and eventually went our separate ways. My advice for younger women is to know what you want out of marriage and make sure you know somebody really well before you marry them.
Before all the moving around, I had a job working for Dow Chemical in Midland in the legal department. But after years of raising the kids full time, it was difficult to find work again. I eventually started working at a company that made electronic church bells for a man who thought I was the best secretary and office manager he ever had. My self-esteem went way up — I didn’t have any when I was married. Phil didn’t believe women could handle money, so I didn’t have a checkbook and couldn’t have my own money. I’d have to beg him for money when I needed it, and that was demeaning because I’m a very independent person.
Once I started working again and staying in one place, I became much happier. I went on to work other executive secretary positions, then for Mercy Health Systems and later for a dentist in the billing department.
I don’t have the excitement of meeting new people and celebrities all the time, but I have a lot of friends now, and life is much better.
When I was younger, I never wondered, What am I going to be when I’m 80? I don’t even wonder that now. I don’t feel 80. I don’t even feel 60! With the exception of some foot problems, I do everything I can. I go to a lot of movies. I go out to lunch with friends. I go to SilverSneakers three times a week to keep fit. I see my kids and grandkids as often as I can. I’m most passionate about volunteering. I volunteer at the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop. It’s a high-end resale shop. All our items are donated, and we all work as volunteers.
Aging isn’t a problem. I’m not one to sit at home and do nothing. I enjoy my life. I just wish I could still dance.
Illustrations by Marion Kadi.