Donna Loren is — and always has been — a powerhouse. She’s been the face of Dr. Pepper, a singer on Shindig!, and an actress in the Beach Party movies and TV shows of the 1960s. The iconic California “It Girl” takes readers back to that era in her new photographic book with the help of Los Angeles archivist Domenic Priore.
Loren’s new book, Pop Sixties: Shindig!, Dick Clark, Beach Party, and Photographs from the Donna Loren Archive is a visual collection of her life and a reflection on the era’s music, movies, shows, and identity.
A shy Californian whose vibrant and fun personality radiates when she talks about her memories, Loren spoke to REBEAT on the phone about her pop star beginnings, her first performance after 50 years, and, of course, ’60s fashion.
REBEAT: How did you feel looking back on so many great memories?
DL: Well, actually, I think I’ve always been a reflective person. I live my life in the present as much as possible; I’m always evaluating what I’m doing now and how it all affects me. But I have to say that when you do concentrate on the past it causes you to, you know, [recall] good memories, as well as not such good memories. Right?
I agree. So, describe the moment you decided to become a singer.
It was a family decision, and it happened when I was very, very young. I was about five or six years old, and my mother was an ambitious, stage-mother type. She pushed me to perform for charity and for contests. My personality is kind of shy, so if she hadn’t pushed me, I wouldn’t have volunteered! [laughs]
You know, I wasn’t the kind of kid who got up and wanted to perform for everybody, but I did love to sing even though it scared me to death. [laughs] As soon as I started singing, I connected with the people in front of me and [the fear] didn’t matter anymore because, you know, the warmth and the exchange that I felt was so rewarding. I felt like, well, this is what I can offer, this is what I can give, and so that made me feel really good.
So, in a way, it allowed you to step out of your comfort zone?
Oh, well I hadn’t thought of it that way! [laughs] I’m gonna tell you a little story, okay? My life is like so many [people’s] lives — it’s about relationships. When I was a little girl, my mother and I had a very strained relationship.
The first time I performed, I was standing backstage in the dark behind the curtain, and I could hear the audience in front. And my mother noticed that I might not actually go out and do it. So in the dark behind the curtain, she held her hand out to me with a five-dollar bill. It was the most money I had ever seen back then [laughs]. Five dollars could be like a million dollars for a little kid. But I knew that it meant a lot to her.
So, just to be clear, having a stage mother, it’s not about having to be, you know, coerced out of your comfort zone. There’s a real relationship there that is dysfunctional. We hear about these things when young kids have talent for something and the ability to earn money, and the parents look at the child and think, “Well, this is our breadwinner.” It happened to me. And so it was a very, very uncomfortable relationship that I had with my parents.
Because you were very young when you started supporting your family by doing shows and singing in front of the public, did you feel like your childhood was kind of taken away from you?
I would say for the most part. But there are exceptions, you know, if you have parents that recognize talent in a child and the child adapts to that environment. Let’s say you’re under 18 or 16 years of age and you’re put in a situation with an adult such as, let’s say, a director, who says, “Okay, this is what you’re gonna do.” And you see your mother or your father standing three, five, 10 feet away from you. They’re there, but they’re really not emotionally supporting you anymore. You are on your own.
Some people can handle that. A part of me could. A part of me understood having responsibility at a very young age — and I also felt an emotional responsibility for my parents, not just financial. I could tell that I could handle myself with adults better than they could, to tell you the truth.
I felt comfortable in the world of art and I felt comfortable in the world of the camera, and — leading on to possibly another question — the reason for this book is because when my dad died, my mother sent me a box of thousands of negatives that my dad took of me when he photographed me during my career. He became my manager, he traveled with me, he was a professional photographer as well as an artist himself, and he did a great job. He supplied magazines with photography for magazine covers and articles.
When I received this box with these thousands of negatives, my husband and I had them digitized. So I [finally] had a chance to see these pictures that he took of me, more candid pictures than the ones he used to sell to magazines. And they were really good! So that’s when I got in contact with Dominic Priore, who decided to evaluate them with me and my husband, and then the book evolved from those photographs.
When you discovered these photos, particularly the candids, were there any you looked at and thought, “Oh wow, I don’t remember doing this”?
Actually, I have a pretty good memory! [laughs] I would say 99 percent of the time I remembered a flash of the memories of where I was, what I was wearing, who was there, if anything weird happened, or if something funny happened. It was just like looking at an old family album. And it was easy on me, to tell you the truth, much easier than looking at video. When video started happening on YouTube and I started seeing myself on Shindig!, that was a little bit more reactive on my part.
These photographs pretty much told the story not just of me or of music, but of a time period that I think we’re actually picking up on today. I think it’s pretty relevant [to mention that] when I traveled for Dr. Pepper throughout the South in the ’60s, there was so much segregation that I had to deal with. When I went on tour with Dick Clark, the Supremes… how much segregation we had to deal with and those photographs brought that back.
It also shows the parallel, you know, that even though the world reacted to us in a certain way because we were mixed, within our group there was total harmony. We all had music in common, and we were all in similar ages. I was the youngest there, I believe, along with I think Diana Ross. I was 16 and Diana was 20; she had her mother and I had my dad chaperoning us. But there was definitely a camaraderie. Just like when you’re a little kid, you usually don’t see the world as anyone different than you until it’s pointed out, right?
The book is a very short, condensed version just highlighting certain aspects of my life, but I think I tell the story about when Dr. Pepper presented me to their national franchise bottlers. It happened to be in Dallas, Texas, with about 2,000 people near their headquarters in a hotel. And that was the day that President Kennedy arrived in Texas — November 22, 1963 — and a half hour before I was supposed to perform for these people, he was shot.
Those are definitely defining events in the early ’60s: segregation and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
That’s right, and look what we’re going through now. It’s almost like the seeds that were planted in the ’60s kind of went dormant for a couple decades, maybe more, and now they are blossoming and coming to fruition. These things were brushed under the rug. Now we know that things can’t go on this way, but it’s been a progression. The mid-century period has a tremendous influence on what’s happening right now.
There’s definitely a ’60s comeback happening, especially in the worlds of fashion and music. There have been a great deal of reunion tours lately. Have you performed any concerts as of late?
Actually, I did my very first concert in 50 years last summer. The crowd was, I would say, between ages of 25 and 45, and I think that there’s an awareness [about the ’60s] like something was happening then that they feel is very relevant now and they want to be a part of it.
There’s an excitement and enthusiasm and courage for justice that we want to manifest rather than just talk about and hope for and wish for. We want it to manifest and we all know that it takes a tremendous amount of courage to have been a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Maya Angelou or a Gloria Steinem. These people have so much courage and still do — you know, the ones that are still out there — and I feel it very strongly.
You transitioned from being the Dr. Pepper girl to acting in the Beach Party films with Annette Funicello. Do you have a fond memory of working with her since you both appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club also?
Well, she was a few years older than me. [laughs] I was 10 when I did The Mickey Mouse Club. From age 10 to age 14, she was somebody I could look up to, and yet when I was 10, she said to me, “I wish I could sing like you.” When we met back up for the Beach Party movies, she was already like a teen idol. But she was the same girl that she was when we first met. I think we both had a mutual professionalism that we shared even though we were so young.
In your book, you include many pictures and descriptions of the clothes you made. Most of the outfits that you’re wearing, were they actually designed by you or were they from sewing patterns?
Well, sometimes I used those basic Simplicity patterns and then I made variations. The tops, sometimes I made them, but it was mostly dresses that I made. I never made a bathing suit until later, much later, when I learned how to make bikinis. [laughs]
What are your plans for the future?
I live a very quiet life, and if I’m invited to do something and it feels right, then I’ll do it. There’s so much going on on this planet now that if I’m invited and if I feel that I can contribute something positive — you know, if I can make a difference — by performing in a certain arena or with certain people and we’re putting out a good message and creating a good vibe, then I’ll be happy to participate.
Music is the universal language. I think that’s a unanimous revelation and conclusion, and if that’s what’s going to bring this world together and unify it as a planet and help it to heal, then I’m really, really happy to be alive at this time. Play the music!
Pop Sixties: Shindig!, Dick Clark, Beach Party, and Photographs From the Donna Loren Archive is out July 25 and is available for purchase on Amazon.