One of the funniest comediennes I’ve ever had the pleasure to see was a lady who performed on the S.S. Rotterdam in August, 1976, traveling from New York to Nassau and Bermuda. Her name was Barbara Hanna.
It was my first cruise of what would turn out to be dozens, so the details of that trip have stayed with me as though they happened last week. It was my good fortune that the very first ship I traveled on just happened to be the flagship of the Holland America Line.
The Rotterdam was amazing. It was also gigantic. I went off exploring before the ship left port and memorized the whole layout on the spot, but my parents were lost, and either following me or asking me to tell them where the various rooms were, for the rest of the whole week. There was a movie theater, eight lounges, two decks of public rooms, a library, dance bands, a disco, entertainers, and performances every night. The staircase in the ship had been moved there from an honest-to-God European castle. Yes, castle. Artwork was all over the place. There was even a mosaic of yellow and white stars on the dining room ceiling. Take a look:
The first night onboard, at the “Welcome Aboard Show,” the ship’s staff introduced themselves. Then there was a magic show.
The second night was Formal Night. There was a Captain’s Cocktail Party that the passengers attended in formal wear, with me in a long gown. I’d just turned fifteen and was about to start high school. I could hardly believe the opulence of the surroundings in which I found myself and thought I’d “arrived.”
That night the show featured a singer named Barbara Hanna.
Unofficially, it also came with a “co-star” – an old drunk who had obviously spent the entire day hitting all eight of the bars in the lounges and over-doing it at the Captain’s Cocktail Party besides. “Tonight’s my lucky night,” he kept yelling as the singer tried to perform her number. “I can’t find my wife!” He wanted Barbara Hanna.
Well, Barbara Hanna didn’t exactly want him, to put it mildly, so she asked the band play the song “Bill Bailey.” She called for a bouncer – named Bernie, I remember – then started singing to the man:
“Won’t you GO HOME, Bill Bailey?
Won’t you GO HOME?
She moans the whole day long…”
I took “Bill Bailey” to be some kind of security signal that the performers must have used when an audience member was causing trouble. There was something hilarious about the way she sang it, though. I was a kid and had not been around drunks all that much. I found her heckler to be scary. She nevertheless turned the whole thing into a funny routine.
I was at the First Seating’s after-dinner show and liked Barbara’s act so much that I stayed in the lounge when everyone else left to see it again when the Second Seating showed up. So did my parents.
At another show later in the week, she made herself up as a clown in front of the audience. Then she sang a 1920’s number I knew and loved, “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.” “Hava Nagila” was one of her numbers, too. I remember her saying that she said she was “Italian by birth and Syrian by adoption” at the First Seating show, which was filled with kids, and where the humor was toned down. For the Second Seating, where there were more adults than kiddies, she changed it to, “I’m Italian by birth and Jewish by adoption.” Syrian or Jewish, adopted for real or a line in her routine, her delivery was hysterical.
During the week I got to know Barbara Hanna and one of the other performers on the ship, too, an older man who had been in Vaudeville. I was already interested in theater and loved talking to them. One evening I hung around with them in the Lido Lounge, where they were playing cards and cracking jokes. She had a ruby birthstone ring with a round stone that was beautiful. It turned out we were both born in July. I’ve been on the lookout to find one like it ever since. She told me she was originally from Rhode Island, and I believe she said her hometown was “Pawtucket.” We laughed about how she’d handled the ship’s drunk and a whole bunch of other topics besides.
That night my face hurt – from smiling so much! It was a gift to be around such wonderful people as Barbara and her friend.
The Bermuda leg of the trip was cancelled that year due to a storm. The next year my parents and I went on Holland America Line for vacation again, to make it to what would become our beloved favorite vacation destination. I hoped Barbara Hanna would still be on the line. She had told me she’d been entertaining on Holland America for several years, so I thought she’d still be there – but Barbara and her Vaudeville friend were no longer on board.
I have always wondered where Barbara Hanna went next.
Does anyone know? If you do, please stand up!
Here’s a video clip I just found of Barbara Hanna as part of a magic act: