Some friendships are just meant to be.
So it was with Norma Doggett and me, beginning with a chance encounter 20 years ago.
I was appearing in a production of “Bells Are Ringing” in a community theater in Forest Hills, my adopted hometown. Following one performance, a meticulously coiffed older but still striking woman came up and congratulated me, casually mentioning that she had once been in a production of the show.
“Aww, how sweet,” I thought to myself. “And where did you do it?” I asked.
“On Broadway,” she said. The tone seemed to imply, “Where else?”
“You mean the original production with Judy Holliday?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes,” she answered matter-of-factly.
I asked Norma how she had come to see our show. She explained that she lived only a few blocks away and had wanted to hear the songs again.
I mentioned to her that I was a reporter for this newspaper and that I would love to do a story about her. She agreed.
A couple of weeks later, I found myself in her small, memory-filled apartment, tucked unobtrusively in a corner of the basement in a building just off Queens Boulevard. She shared with me some of her scrapbooks, overflowing with programs, photos and letters culled from a lifetime in show business. The letters included one from composer Richard Rodgers. Another one, from songwriter Irving Berlin, was displayed proudly in a frame on the wall.
Her talent had taken her to nearly a dozen Broadway shows, where she worked with the likes of Ethel Merman, Gwen Verdon and Jerome Robbins. She appeared in summer stock, in nightclubs and on television. Her major claim to fame was as one of the brides in the film musical classic “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
And on the evening of Dec. 12, 1949, she became a Broadway star — for one night only — when she went on for leading lady Allyn McLerie in Berlin’s musical “Miss Liberty.”
Still, she always maintained that her career was “modest.”
Norma was tiny, but even as she got older, she demonstrated a degree of the toughness needed to make it as a performer. And she continued to take dance classes in Manhattan into her 90s.
It was in 1970 that she and her husband settled in Forest Hills, where she would spend the rest of her life. She passed away on May 4 at the age of 94.
Over the years, we shared many happy times. She came to see several of the shows I wrote or directed. In a musical revue, I included a number from “Seven Brides.” When the song ended, Norma was introduced in the audience. She loved the recognition.
Norma never hesitated to give of her time. I was a high school English teacher and she was happy to oblige when I invited her to come to speak to my students about her life in show business.
She once arrived at a local community center to watch a screening of “Seven Brides.” When the audience found out she was there, they decided to scrap the movie in favor of hearing Norma’s personal stories.
She loved to write poetry and would often send me copies of her latest creations in the mail. Every occasion surely meant I would receive a handwritten note of thanks from Norma, ever the epitome of social grace.
I wrote a book last year, “The Theater and I,” in which I included a photo of Norma and me, taken the day we met, as well as the story of how it came to be. I planned to share a copy of the book with her but she had already taken ill and I never got to see her again.
I shall miss my friend forever.
Mark Lord is a Queens Chronicle contributing writer, retired teacher, lifelong lover of Broadway, playwright, community theater actor and author of “The Theater and I,” who lives in Forest Hills.