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How to celebrate 1,000 years in show business

Sonya Tannenbaum and Frank DiSpigno Photo by Ron Hellman
TimesLedger Newspapers

Sometimes they get it right, and such a time was a Sunday evening in June when the remarkable Sonya Tannenbaum was the star of a surprise celebrity roast. The event, which took place at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Oceanside, was billed as a tribute to Sonya for “her first 1,000 years in show business,” and was attended by a number of luminaries from the Long Island stage. Love was in the air.

Poor Sonya, a woman of a certain age, was led to believe that she was going to a granddaughter’s college graduation party, but when she came through the door, 75 friends shouted out her signature greeting, “Hiya, Cookie!” and she hasn’t been the same since.

Planned for months, the party was made possible by the efforts of the ubiquitous Frank DiSpigno and the effervescent Cathy Chimenti. (Adjectives included solely for those preparing for their SATs.) The festivities came off without a hitch and the guest of honor was truly stunned, perhaps amazed that all the talkative theater types could keep a secret for so long. It was a roast, of sorts — a lot of references to age and Sonya’s cigarette habit — but mainly anecdotes and memories of her long career.

Sonya began her theatrical journey at the age of 6 in summer camp, went to school in her native Brooklyn, graduated from Lincoln High School, and married while still a teenager, a marriage that produced three daughters. The second time around she got it right: Sonya and the late Jesse Tannenbaum were married for almost 30 years, living in their home in Flushing.

As the Master of Ceremonies, DiSpigno introduced a roster of nine presenters: (in order of appearance) Jerry Zaback, Linda May, Gary Tifeld, Sue Anne Dennehy, Michael Chimenti, Marian Waller, Tommie Gibbons, Cathy Chimenti, and Johnny Hayes — all celebrities in our theater community. The Chimentis, a political odd couple who perform a dazzling non-controversial cabaret act, each sang a song with custom-made lyrics for Sonya, “Smoke Gets in your Eyes” and “I’m Still Here,” while the others mixed zingers with praise. Food and drink were consumed and laughter filled the room.

Sonya’s acting credits are legendary, “hundreds of shows,” she says, including a mere six in 2011. On the list are the title dames from “Hello, Dolly,” “Mame,” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” and roles in “The Gin Game,” “Blithe Spirit,” “Cabaret,” “Trip to Bountiful,” “Crossing Delancey,” “Lost in Yonkers” and “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You.” And lots more, of course. The list of shows she hasn’t been in is probably shorter, although rumors that soon she’ll be playing that red-headed orphan in “Annie” are unfounded. She likes to keep busy, so if you have a part for her, please call.

Ageless Sonya says she’s not shy about her real age — her most recent birthday was July 6 — but she prefers not to reveal it to the theater world, in case it might influence her casting options. Instead she prefers the age of 39 — “if it worked for Jack Benny, it works for me,” she says. If pressed for a number, she answers “mature.” The rest of us should be so fortunate.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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