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Article updated: 12/22/2010 12:16 PM

A Sleepy Hollow woman's classic holiday with Johnny

By Burt Constable

Flush with fabulous old TV footage of a gyrating young Ann-Margret selling a song with everything she's got, the interview with Muhammad Ali suggesting he's "pretty good," or any of the breakout performances by comedians such as Dangerfield, Letterman, Leno and Seinfeld, the new JohnnyCarson.com chooses to lure holiday shoppers to its website with a simple black-and-white clip of Sleepy Hollow's Mona Abboud singing her Christmas novelty classic, "The Pretty Little Dolly."

"I can tell you why we put it up. It's funny," Jeff Sotzing, Carson's nephew and the man in charge of the website says of Abboud's clip. "She's a character, isn't she? She's great."

Abboud's performance of the wacky, irreverent song sung in the character of a little girl asking, and eventually demanding, that Santa bring her a newfangled doll that pushes the limits of lifelike has been a radio Christmas classic for decades. Legendary Chicago DJs such as Wally Phillips, Fred Winston and Bobby Collins made its airing an annual event, and Dr. Demento features it on his Christmas CD.

But the unearthed footage of Abboud singing the song while sitting next to Carson on "The Tonight Show" rekindles her memories of the incredible fear, the awesome power and the everlasting joy of that moment on Dec. 15, 1966.

"It's terrifying. I'm reliving it at this moment," says Abboud, her voice catching and her breath quickening as she remembers every detail about her appearance holding her breath backstage during Carson's monologue, the walk past his desk, Carson's eyes, his cologne, her song, the thunderous applause, next guest Eva Gabor gushing, "Oh, darling, you were marvelous," and high-tailing it back to her apartment. "I shook for days after."

A product of Denison University's prestigious theater program, Abboud entertained the troops in the Far East and Europe, once performing "The Man Who Came To Dinner" in Korea lit entirely by the headlights of Army Jeeps.

She moved to New York City with the dream of becoming a cabaret singer. Living in a Y in Manhattan, Abboud worked days as a secretary for a "Mad Men"-esque advertising firm of Young & Rubicam.

She spent her nights in Greenwich Village, singing in cabarets and performing at comedy clubs. She got raves for starring in the "A Thurber Carnival" in Milwaukee and was in the cast of an off-Broadway production of "The Cat and the Canary" at Stage 73 with Abe Vigoda. She also excelled in voice-over work and made enough money to get an apartment with two other young women in a building where neighbor George Plimpton would invite them to parties with celebrities such as Norman Mailer or Ernest Hemingway's fourth wife.

Abboud performed in a six-person ensemble with McLean Stevenson at the famous "Upstairs at the Downstairs" nightclub, where young comedians such as Joan Rivers, Woody Allen and Lily Tomlin got noticed. Abboud impressed songwriter Jim Rusk, who brought her the darkly funny song he had written about a dolly that walked and talked, wet and cried, tanned and peeled, bled and broke, and turned purple and died. That song, plus Abboud's work in a popular TV commercial as the sexy, suggestive voice for a masseuse wearing Hazel Bishop Fabulous Fakes fingernails, helped land her the shot on Carson.

No venue could make or break a career like "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson, who was "The King of Late Night" from 1962 to 1992. Abboud was the first guest on a Friday, the most-watched show of the week.

"The audience is half-drunk on Fridays, and the band is totally drunk," Abboud says. She knew the stakes of appearing on Carson.

"He's the king," Abboud says. "If you get a thumbs-up from Carson, you can go around for life saying, 'I got a thumbs-up from Carson.'"

Clutching a large, battery-operated "Goody Two Shoes" doll that walked and featured Abboud's voice, the young performer got off to a rocky start.

"After my first sentence, I thought, 'OK, here I go, goodbye life.' I sort of bombed," Abboud says. "I looked into Johnny's eyes and could see he was thinking, 'I can rescue you or let you bomb.' He decided to rescue me."

Carson picked up the doll and asked, "How do you turn her on?" a line that got the crowd chuckling. When Abboud said, "You have to press her chest," Carson gave a look and the fun was on.

"He turned everything I said into a joke. He was brilliant," says Abboud, recalling how the host won over the audience for her. "All of a sudden they love the doll. They love me. They love everything."

Her song (accompanied on piano by a friend who shared a name with showbiz legend Steve Lawrence) brought down the house. Carson wiped his eyes in laughter as Abboud walked offstage, too overcome with the weight of it all to stick around.

"I grabbed my coat, ran for the elevator," says Abboud, who got back to her apartment in time to watch her triumphant performance on TV.

Going out for breakfast with friends the next day, she was motioned into the intersection by a traffic cop outside the Empire State Building. "Hey," the officer said, "saw you on Carson last night."

At the restaurant, diners whispered, "Is it her? I think that's her."

Mona Abboud had been a smash on Carson.

"I loved it that they loved it so much," Abboud says.

"I love his (Carson's) reaction to Mona," says Sotzing, who says it's "terrific" that Abboud still appreciates the influence Carson held over his guests' careers. "They could go on the Carson show in the middle of the week, and by the weekend, they were household names."

Abboud parlayed her Carson moment into a career doing voice-overs for more than 7,000 commercials from a singing egg in "The Incredible Edible Egg," to the voice of a Maytag repairman's nightmare, to being a bug about to be done in by Raid. She turned down the part of Lucy in Broadway's "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," but did accept a role as the wedding planner in Robert Altman's 1978 movie "A Wedding," where she shared the set with Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, Geraldine Chaplin, Lillian Gish, Lauren Hutton, Pam Dawber, Dennis Franz, Desi Arnaz Jr., John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, George Wendt and other names worth dropping.

She shunned an offer to come back on "The Tonight Show" immediately after her first performance, explaining, "I don't have any material as good as the dolly song," Abboud says. But she did agree to stop in and pick up some fan mail sent to her.

"They take me into a room that is filled with canvas bags," Abboud remembers. "Over the next year, I answered every single letter."

At Carson's request, she returned the following December to sing the song, but the experience wasn't as good because the freshness was gone. That and there was a mishap while Abboud waited backstage with a bevy of fashion models who were appearing with animals.

"A lamb peed all over my leg," Abboud says. "Fortunately, I was wearing gold-mesh stockings."

Carson died in 2005, but "The Pretty Little Dolly" still plays this time of year on most Chicago radio stations, earning her new fans. Abboud was in the dental chair last week at the office of Dr. George Deihs in West Dundee when her song came through the speakers. "I was between Satchmo and The Everly Brothers," she laughs.

Abboud made a few thousand dollars from record sales, and says she still gets 7 cents every time someone buys the Dr. Demento compact disc featuring her. But the experience of being a hit on "The Tonight Show" and having fun with Johnny Carson is the Christmas gift that hasn't stopped giving to Abboud, to JohnnyCarson.com and to tens of thousands of fans from kids and teens to parents and grandparents, who still love to hear Abboud sing that song.

"It was," Abboud says, "magical."

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