Remembering 'Pretty Little Dolly,' 50 years later
50 years after she cracked up Carson, song keeps Sleepy Hollow woman on the map
Mona Abboud of Sleepy Hollow remembers the two days -- Prediction Day and Johnny Carson Day -- as if they happened yesterday.
Prediction Day came in a New York nightclub roughly 52 years ago. New York producer/talent agent Jack Rollins heard Mona Abboud do a musical sketch about a little girl from hell who, sitting on Santa's lap, asks him to bring her a special "pretty little dolly" for Christmas.
"The pretty little dolly can wet. The pretty little dolly can cry," the wee tyke sings to Santa in a tiptoeing, uncorrupted little-girl voice. But as the song goes on, her pleas take on a more sinister tone.
"If you put a plastic bag around her head, she'll choke, turn purple and die," the girl sings. By the end, she threatens that if the jolly fat man doesn't deliver that doll, he won't live to see New Year's Eve.
Rollins, the man behind the careers of Woody Allen, David Letterman and Dick Cavett, told the twenty-something comedienne-actress, "Some comics are known all their lives for one piece of material. Mona, this is going to be yours, and this song will make you a million dollars."
After two years of polishing and rehearsing and lobbying to get onto TV, Johnny Carson Day came exactly 50 years ago. On Dec. 15, 1966, Abboud performed "The Pretty Little Dolly" on NBC's "Tonight Show" while millions watched and Carson dissolved into laughter.
The first part of Rollins's prediction came true. A half-century later, a video of Abboud's performance has drawn more than 60,000 views on YouTube, including 2,000 in the past week. The bit has been copied by Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin and Madeline Kahn. And 13 less famous women have recorded their own versions and posted those on YouTube, too.
As it does every Christmastime, the audio recording of "The Pretty Little Dolly" has reappeared on radio stations around the country. Two shows on WGN played it in just the past week. It can be heard on the album "Dr. Demento's Holidays in Dementia."
"The YouTube versions have introduced new generations to the song," Abboud noted. "And imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
But the million dollars? That didn't quite become reality. Walking across the room in the 1920s stone cottage where she now lives in Sleepy Hollow, Abboud opened the envelope containing her latest four-times-a-year royalty payment for Dr. Demento's recording of the 1966 appearance. Inside was a check for a whopping $3.08.
The big moment
On Dec. 15, 1966, Johnny Carson and his audience had no idea what was coming. Abboud had been working alongside people like McLean Stevenson at a Second City-like comedy club in New York called Upstairs at the Downstairs. The song had been written for her by Jim Rusk, one of the club's writers.
"The producer, John Carsey, just told Johnny that I was a trick voice artist with a funny song," Abboud said. As Carson interviewed her on air, he was delighted to find out she had starred in a sexy TV commercial for false fingernails that he admired. He was impressed by the talking doll in her lap.
"At the commercial break, they asked, 'Do we have time for the song?'" Abboud recalls. "TIME FOR THE SONG???" Her biggest shot at fame and that million dollars was threatening to timeout before her eyes. But producer Carsey knew that song was worth keeping her on. By the time the little girl was threatening Santa's life, Carson was beside himself with laughter.
"They got bags of fan mail, so they called me and said, 'You've got to come on the show again. Have you got any more material that funny?' But I didn't, and I didn't want to bomb on national TV."
She did agree to come back onto the Carson show to repeat "Dolly" a year later. But this time Carson did know what was coming. Abboud thinks that might be why that second appearance didn't have the same pizzazz.
That, or maybe the fact that as she waited to go on, a sheep urinated on her leg.
When her brother, former First Chicago Bank Chairman Robert Abboud, urged her to release the song on a 45 rpm record, she waited until she was able to talk NBC into letting her use audio from the 1966 show. She had 20,000 copies pressed in 1980. Used ones can be found on eBay.
This year Antenna TV, available on Comcast and WOW cable, began replaying the old Carson shows. And when Carson Entertainment Group began selling a DVD collection of the old shows, the lead photo on its ads showed Abboud singing "The Pretty Little Dolly."
But the episode from Dec. 15, 1966, may never show up on TV.
"Unfortunately the 'Tonight Show' archives are not complete and famously much of the first 10 years of the show was not even preserved," explains Dave Gaysunas, the operations manager for Carson Entertainment Group. "So currently Antenna TV is running shows from 1972-1992, and none of the 1960s material that exists is being shown on Antenna TV."
"There's something about this little kid that hits people of all ages," Abboud said. "Maybe it's that within a sweet exterior there can lurk a strain of deviltry. Yet when she threatens Santa at the end, you can see that she does still believe in Santa Claus."
Bill Leff, who used to play Christmas music on Chicago's WLIT and now hosts at WGN, said that "strangely, 'Pretty Little Dolly' is usually requested by guys with gravelly voices who sound like they are Teamsters. I have no explanation."
Abboud was able to go on to a 30-year career as a voice-over actress in Chicago. Before semi-retiring a few years ago, she acted in 7,000 commercials, creating such characters as a bug being killed by Raid, the Maytag repairman's nightmare and the incredible, edible egg.
She also appeared in three Hollywood movies. And an interest in politics inspired her to write and record songs attacking our wars in the Mideast and extolling the glories of Sleepy Hollow Road.
"The Ballad of Sleepy Hollow Road" helped get that road declared a rural pleasure drive. She presented the ballad again recently to the Sleepy Hollow village board.