Willis Wonderland Foundation launched in memory of Allee Willis.
Hall of Fame songwriter Allee Willis once told NPR, “As a white, Jewish girl getting a break, you could not get better than Earth, Wind & Fire.”
And you certainly couldn’t get any better than Billboard’s #1 R&B, platinum-selling song “September.”
“Do you remember, the 21st night of September? Love was changin’ the minds of pretenders. While chasin’ the clouds away.
“Ba-dee-ya, dancin’ in September.”
Those immortal lyrics, which Willis co-wrote with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White and Al McKay in 1978, were the impetus for hosting one helluva party and fundraiser on Sept. 21st in Los Angeles. The newly created nonprofit, the Willis Wonderland Foundation, hosted the inaugural “Night of Wonders” gala as a tribute to former Detroiter Willis.
Willis died unexpectedly of cardiac arrest at age 72 on Christmas Eve 2019. She received the Spirit of Detroit Entertainment Award in 2018, the same year she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her last time visiting Detroit was in September 2019, just three months before her untimely passing.
More than 500 Allee Willis supporters attended “Night of Wonders,” which was held at Valentine DTLA. Topping the list were many Detroiters, including Willis’ classmates from Mumford High School, Motown Museum and Mosaic Youth Theatre executives and good friends Jim Budman, Cinnamon Triano, Stan Zimmerman, Rose Abdoo and Joya Koch.
Celebrity pals RuPaul, Luenell, Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman), Jenifer Lewis and fellow Detroiter Lily Tomlin hosted the star-studded evening.
“Allee was so unique and so original, you can’t do her justice in talking about her,” said Tomlin, who graduated in 1957 from Cass Tech High School while Willis graduated in 1965 from Mumford. “It’s hard to describe her. Allee was so absolutely alive and giving. She was very expansive, totally excitable and wonderfully delightful.”
The Willis Wonderland Foundation
The Willis Wonderland Foundation was established by Prudence Fenton, Willis’ longtime partner and Emmy and Grammy Award-winning producer. The nonprofit raised over $200,000 at the Sept. 21st event. Proceeds from the gala will help support the education and advancement of songwriters and multimedia artists, notably those from underserved communities.
“Allee’s work with the impressive Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit really inspired this Foundation because it’s one of the few charities that she ever ran into that sponsors kids from all over Detroit who are in the performing arts. That’s what we’re trying to do here in L.A., but we’re starting with songwriters and multimedia artists,” said Fenton.
Fenton says that Willis Wonderland Foundation plans to hold artist-in-residence programs at Willis Wonderland, Willis’ North Hollywood home, which is now a museum and houses one of the world’s largest collections of pop-culture memorabilia.
Willis Wonderland was the site of Willis’ legendary parties. In 2018, Willis hosted a fundraiser for Mosaic Youth Theatre in the backyard of her home, which was designed in 1937 by noted architect William Kesling.
“We plan to use the house to give songwriters a place to participate in seminars and lectures,” Fenton says. “We’re also going to have parties and introduce the students to people in the industry. We plan to give them exposure to the business of being a songwriter and provide a real 360-education.”
Tomlin said that she and her wife, Jane Wagner, have visited Willis’ house over 100 times throughout the years.
“I live about six minutes away from Allee’s house in the Valley. It’s the perfect, ideal mid-century house. It has ’50s cars in the driveway and it’s totally painted pink. It sits there wonderfully, and there are bowling balls in the front and in the backyard. She had beach blanket bingo made around the pool, and the house itself is really wonderful,” said Tomlin, who grew up in Detroit and established the Lily Tomlin Endowed Scholarship Fund in 1990 at her alma mater, Wayne State University.
While Tomlin and Willis socialized mostly in L.A., it was their deep love for Detroit that forever connected them.
“I have a great picture of Allee out on the corner in front of a barbecue joint in Detroit,” Tomlin says. “She was really, really hardcore Detroit. She built her whole career kind of on that inspiration because her house was filled with that kind of collectible kitsch. It was just unbelievable what she was capable of.
“When you’re from Detroit — I don’t know if other people feel this about their city, I don’t necessarily think they do, not very often anyway — but it’s like Detroit is an unspoken language,” Tomlin adds.
“You love Detroit, or it inspired you. It was so political and gritty and filled with all kinds of people. I’m sure it influenced me just like it influenced Allee in another kind of way.”
The “Night of Wonders” bash was all-things Allee and all-things pink with numerous nods to Detroit including many of her favorite foods — BBQ ribs and Vernors floats. Guests autographed a giant high-top gym shoe, which was one of Willis’ signature looks.
“Allee’s wardrobe was a statement in itself, and people wore it in the fashion show at the event,” said Tomlin, a co-chair.
And then there was Willis’ iconic, statement asymmetrical hairstyle.
“Allee’s hair was just ideal, and I had always wanted to commemorate Allee in some kind of way. So I took a photograph of her hairdo — which was cut very short and high up on the ear on one side and long on the shoulder on the other side — and I just glued that hairdo on to my character Kate’s image in a collage of photographs for the book [The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe],” said Tomlin, who won the 1986 Tony Award for Best Actress in her one-woman play. “Allee liked that I did that.”
At the “Night of Wonders,” 15 of Willis’ friends modelled her clothing and accessories, which were auctioned off for the Foundation along with memorabilia from Willis’ extensive collection. Every guest took home a kitschy Allee Willis paper doll cutout book designed by Jewish author and artist Hillary Carlip.
“That’s the kind of excitement she generated. Allee had a team of operators at every party, and they’d be videoing the party. She had a soap-carving party one night, and we all had to make a political statement with the carving. It was during the lettuce boycott here in California. I did a romaine salad without the romaine. I don’t remember. I think I had some balled up something or another with no lettuce. I think I may have won a prize,” laughs Tomlin.
DETROIT JEWISH MUSINGS FROM LILY TOMLIN
“I grew up in a predominantly Jewish, but very diverse, neighborhood. We lived in an old apartment house across from Herman Kiefer Hospital, on the corner of Hazelwood and Byron in Detroit. I would go from apartment to apartment from the time I was 7 years old until I was about 14. Belle and Joe Schwartz lived next door to us. Belle’s sister, Marianne, used to read the Katzenjammer Kids Sunday comics to me in Yiddish. I would just love it when she did that.
“I had a great friendship with Mrs. Rupert, who was a botanist. Every night, I’d walk her two chihuahuas and get paid 15 cents. Mrs. Rupert would read me the New York Times, and I’d work the crossword puzzle. If I didn’t understand a word, I’d have to write it down and look it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. After that, we would listen to [journalist] Drew Pearson — Mrs. Rupert was very reactionary politically.
“And, of course, I’d have other influences in the building who were very communistic and very left wing. And then I’d go and hang out at some Southern person’s apartment who’d be up from Tennessee working at the factories and who didn’t have any politics. My mother and dad were both from Kentucky, so I had lots of exposure to Southern and Black culture. I saw all the different ways that people lived their lives. They were so different, but so similar. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“But let’s talk more about Allee.”
All About Allee
“Completely committed to color, cut and silhouette, Allee found energy in schmattas,” said Willis Wonderland Foundation CEO and Founder Prudence Fenton. “She didn’t wear haute couture; she wore kitsch couture.”
Allee’s friends got together in advance of the gala to model fashions and accessories from her wardrobe. The items were auctioned off during the Fashion Parade at the Willis Wonderland Foundation “Night of Wonders” on the 21st night of September 2022. The video was recorded to Willis’ and Danny Sambello’s “Neutron Dance” (https://youtu.be/3mnfip7_t_u)
For more information on the Willis Wonderland Foundation, visit www.williswonderland.org.
To purchase the Allee Willis cutout paper doll book, designed by Hillary Carlip, or a limited-edition t-shirt, go to:https://one.bidpal.net/williswonderlandholidayauction2022/browse/all.
Allee Willis Best Kept Secret Sizzle Reel is at https://youtu.be/tu2krqiwpqs.
Get one-of-a-kind gifts from Allee Willis’ estate for the holidays.
Proceeds from the auction will benefit the Willis Wonderland Foundation.
Bidding ends on 12/9/22: Willis Wonderland FoundationEverything starts at $25 Kitsch-Tastic Holiday Auction