Once there lived in Brooklyn a shy, homely, woefully fat kid named Joan Molinsky. When Joan went away summers to camp Kinni-Kinnic, the counselors assigned her bunks 6, 7, and 8 and allowed her in the glee club only because she promised to mouth the words.
In high school, she got to be chairman of the decorating committee for the senior prom. It was held in the Waldorf-Astoria's grand ballroom - but Joan managed to make it look like a gymnasium. What's worse, she was the only girl without a date. Finally, her father said, "Look, Lump, we'll get your cousin to take you. "That was humiliating enough. " But my cousin," recalls Joan, " she didn't want to take me either. "
Today there lives in Beverly Hills a petite 39-year-old blonde named Joan Rivers. This weekend she will pack them in at the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel/Casino in Atlantic City where she does comedy routines about Joan Molinsky. During the daytime she will put the finishing touches on a new book about getting started in show business and she will place calls to one of the major movie studios currently considering her latest screenplay.
"I was sitting at a dinner party, and Cary Grant came over to talk to us," Joan Rivers recalls, still overcome with disbelief. "CARY GRANT. He wrote down his telephone number on a piece of paper and told me to call him.
"The piece of paper said 'Cary G.,'" Rivers said, chuckling and shaking her head from side to side. " Like I've got other friends who are Cary F. and Cary M."
Times have changed for Joan Rivers.
After more than 15 years on the laugh circuit, she is still one of the most sought-after comediennes around.
It was on the Johnny Carson show back in 1965 that she made her first television appearance. Carson predicted, "You're going to be a big star." And the next day critical raves and offers poured in.
Even before the fateful Carson show, Rivers had managed to garner some credits. She took her first acting lessons when she was 12 and, within a few months, was cast in the film "Mr. Universe," starring Bert Lahr and a young actor named Vincent Edwards. ("I've always had a flair for spotting talent. As soon as I saw him, I predicted he'd never make it . . . But that's nothing. My manager told Barbra Streisand she'd never make it. That was last week." )
As a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Barnard College at 19 with a degree in social anthropology, she decided she wanted to be an actress, and improvised off-Broadway at Chicago's famed Second City and wrote television patter for Zsa Zsa Gabor, Phil Foster, Phyllis Diller, and Topo, the Italian mouse on "The Ed Sullivan Show." She filled in with odd jobs, toured the Catskills, talked her way through hundreds of routines at small clubs in New York and San Francisco and finally made it with the Carson show.
Despite her success, inside Joan Rivers still lurks a bit of Joan Molinsky, the outcast of Camp Kinni-Kinnic. "I still feel fat," she says. "To me a star always looked gorgeous, cool and composed. I just don't think of myself as a star.
"Did you look at my hips after I did the Carson show? They must have grown eight inches. It's nerves. I still get them before a show. It's never easy to walk out there," Rivers said.
Indeed, Rivers still tapes her routines and reviews them the next day. Even her 14-year-old daughter, Melissa, is a critic. " I come home from doing a Carson show and I ask Melissa, 'So how did it go? Did they like me? ' And Melissa replies, 'Too rough, Mom, too rough. ' Do you believe that my own daughter tells me I'm too rough? "
Rough, though, is apparently working. Perhaps because Rivers is almost intuitively funny. She says it is her " point of view."
"Some female comics may find it tough getting started these days because they have no point of view," Rivers said. "It's such a cop-out to say that women comics generally get laughs by making fun of other women, while male comics get laughs by making fun of women. Look, if Hitler was funny he'd be hosting the 'Tonight' show. You've just got to find areas to talk about. A point of view."
But more than her point of view, it is Rivers' vulnerability that is most apparent in her act, and her ability to grow close to an audience.
She will stand on stage - whether in Atlantic City, Valley Forge Music Fair (Sept. 29-Oct. 4) or on the " Tonight" show - and very sincerely look the audience straight in the eyes and say, "Can we talk? " Millions of people are watching, and she wants to know if they can talk.
"I come from an upper-middle-class family," she said. "My mother took the test in Reader's Digest, and that's what we are.
"I was very fat when I was a child. Like when I say fat . . . like I was my own buddy at camp."
"I began retreating into myselves. So my parents tried to cheer me up. We'd go for a drive in the car and they'd take me with them in the U- Haul-It . . . finally, they thought they would try therapy to make me forget. They put me in school plays to take my mind off being fat."
"It was Christmas time and they put me in the Christmas play. The first part I ever had was the three Magi. I got to do a solo: 'I three kings of Orient am . . . '"
Despite the standard insecurities, Rivers is wonderfully independent and resilient. "I'm doing exactly what I want to do," she said. "I haven't compromised myself. You know that word in the business - selling out? I'm still talking about what I want to talk about, and getting paid for it."