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The mid-eighties to early-nineties were a golden age for public-access cable in Tampa, Florida - at least judging from the "highlight" tapes my brother sent me. But no wannabe who appeared before the cameras of Jones Intercable Channel 12 has left a more indelible imprint on my consciousness than Sondra Prill.
Sondra was the star of the imaginatively titled "My Show". (Hey, Charlie Chaplin wrote a book called "My Autobiography" and he was a genius, so maybe we should cut her some slack.) In its three installments aired over the course of several years, "My Show" provided a showcase for Sondra's ever-evolving range of things at which she tried to be talented.
Episode One was the most primitive technically. Most of the segments were studio-bound, shot in front of that all-purpose cable-access backdrop: a trellis. Sondra introduced her guest, Dave Turner, a mountainous Charlie-Daniels-esque country singer, who ably began to sing the male half of the Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton duet "Islands In The Stream". Then came time for Sondra to fill Dolly's vocal shoes (or whatever) in a voice simultaneously so shrill and so flat that it's remarkable Turner could remain on pitch…or refrain from crying. But Turner proved impervious enough to Sondra's shrieks that they went on to perform two more duets ("Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Behind Closed Doors"), with Sondra over-exaggerating her facial expressions and body movements to drive home every nuance of the songs. In "Islands In The Stream", when she sang the lyrics "No one in between", she waved her hands between herself and Turner like a "Price Is Right" model or David Copperfield assistant, just to make it absolutely clear that there was indeed no one standing between them.
Then it was time for Sondra to take the solo spotlight, where her abilities could truly shine - first on a version of Whitney Houston's "Saving All My Love For You", with enough sustained flat notes to shatter all the china in your neighborhood. Finally came the show's production highlight, an out-of-studio video of Robert Palmer's "Addicted To Love", shot at a local fern bar with a handful of uncomfortable-looking extras. For some reason, Sondra decided to sing as if she were the bride of Frankenstein, with her vocals taking on a high quavery Elvira-doing-the-Monster-Mash quality and her face contorted into a fright mask of wide eyes and gnashing teeth.
Episode Two showed considerable evolution, both in higher production values and in Sondra's range as an entertainer. No longer content simply to be the next Dolly/Whitney/Elsa Lanchester, Sondra now wished to be Lily Tomlin as well, introducing the songs while dressed as an old lady character named Marjorie and a four-year-old girl named Miss Melissa. Some of Marjorie and Melissa's bits were crude -- tending toward the snot-fixated range of the comedy spectrum - but their defining characteristic was their utter incomprehensibility. Here's one of Miss Melissa's "jokes" in its entirety:
"When my brother was in the third grade, his teacher told him that he needed to see a psychiatrist. My parents said, 'Uh uh, no way, we're movin'."
Musically, Sondra got down with her bad self by performing Janet Jackson's "Nasty", while wearing a fur coat onstage with a couple of male strippers, and Technotronic's "Pump Up The Jam", while wearing a fur coat on a Florida beach. (She also wore a baffling beaded something-or-other during this segment.) Sondra the balladeer made her presence known via "Memory" from "Cats" over the closing credits, as well as an original composition which I assume is titled "Just A Smile", although I prefer to refer to it by the much more cumbersome lyric, "A Smile Must Be The Most Extravagant Thing To View". Intercut with black-and-white footage of Sondra singing, we are shown numerous stills of Sondra, which suggests either that she's singing the song to herself or that Sondra is letting us know just how important she knows she is to us, because she's able to make us smile. (Hey, wait a second. Charlie Chaplin wrote a song called "Smile"! And why is Sondra shot in black-and-white during this song? Is it an homage because all of Chaplin's films were in black-and-white? These parallels are starting to get eerie. If only Sondra had stuck with silents.)
In the unfortunate tradition of "The Godfather", "Alien", the original "Star Wars" trilogy and the "Look Who's Talking" franchise, Episode Three of "My Show" is by far the weakest. It consists primarily of footage shot at a party where Sondra gave out "thank you" presents to the people who had helped her make "My Show" number two, including a twenty-five-dollar gift certificate for vitamins and a six-foot Blimpie submarine sandwich. (SPOILER ALERT: This is also essentially the plot of "Godfather 3".)
But the show did include a few new characters, including Nellie Pineapple, a husky-voiced broad with stained teeth who inherits a fruit market but dies from smoking, leading to the timeless Aesopian moral: "Sondra Prill Says: Don't Smoke If You Wanna Own A Fruit Stand". She also played Mario Muscleman, wearing a plastic chest complete with nipples which was meant to suggest that she was a weightlifter but, due to her completely unconvincing performance (including a high squeaky voice), it just looked like Sondra was flashing her audience.
The musical highlights of show three were a new video for the "Smile" song - breaking in yet another fur on the notoriously frigid streets of Tampa, Florida -- and Sondra's take on Bette Midler's "From A Distance". Around this time, Sondra also recorded a version of "The Star Spangled Banner" to be used when access channel 12 signed off. In the video, she stands before a chromakeyed American flag, hugging herself coquettishly as if she were singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President".
Sondra and "My Show" disappeared from Jones Intercable after the third installment, but Sondra made at least one more attempt to bring her talent to the masses. In 1992, Sondra and her mother/benefactress Regina rented the 900-seat Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center Playhouse Theatre to present "A Musical Fantasy", for which a portion of the proceeds were to be donated to victims of the recent Hurricane Andrew. I'll let Daniel Ruth of the Tampa Tribune fill in the rest:
"Ticket prices for her show ranged up to $50, a testimony to a rather intriguing assessment of her talents considering recent (and slightly better known) TBPAC performers such as Al Green and Patti LaBelle charged a maximum ticket price of $25.
"Of course Green and LaBelle lack Sultry Sondra's unique way of handling a melody - a cross between the dulcet sound of setting one's hair on fire and sticking one's hand into a garbage disposal.
"Friday night's show was not without its highlights. First, it started about 20 minutes late and in an inadvertent gaffe much to the delight of the audience, Sultry Sondra's microphone failed during one of her songs, which meant we were all spared from having to listen to her.
"Fortunately for the rest of the city, there weren't that many of us in the audience. Only 41 tickets were sold to Sultry Sondra, a commentary on the good sense of the populace. Of course they did miss that dramatic moment during the performance where Sultry Sondra had honey poured all over her for no particular reason. Say, That's Entertainment!
"Needless to say the victims of Hurricane Andrew won't be benefitting much from Friday's extravaganza of the banal. But then again, perhaps the folks down in Miami could send Sultry Sondra a few bucks - as professional courtesy from one disaster to another."
Here's hoping at least forty-TWO people get to hear her this time around.
- Eric Williams