Q&A: Danielle Spencer

Danielle Spencer 2 courtesy David L David“Oooooooh! I’m telling mama!” If you have ever heard this phrase, chances are you have watched the classic television show What’s Happening! That famous phrase was uttered by the character Dee, portrayed memorably by Danielle Spencer, whenever she was bent on getting her older brother Roger in trouble, which usually resulted in her blackmailing him for money in order to keep her mouth shut.  After What’s Happening! was cancelled, Spencer, who is originally from Bronx, New York, was able to escape the so-called “child star curse” by readjusting to a regular childhood and adolescence, thereby avoiding the unfortunate trappings former child stars get into. In this interview, Spencer talks about what it was like playing the character Dee and working with her co-stars and how she handled fame.

SoulTrain.com: Did you ever do any acting before What’s Happening!?

Danielle Spencer: I did a public service commercials but I don’t remember what it was for. I also did a couple of modeling ads for Alexander’s department store, but that was the extent of my professional work prior to What’s Happening! 

SoulTrain.com: What was the audition process like when you auditioned for the role of Dee Thomas? I’m sure there were a lot of girls you had to compete with.

Danielle Spencer:  There were supposedly over 300 girls at the audition. I didn’t get the part the first time I auditioned, but I was called a month later and the producers decided to fly me into California and that’s when I got the role.

SoulTrain.com:  As a child, were you a lot like Dee in real life?

Danielle Spencer:  I think I probably was just being a bratty little sister even though I didn’t have an older brother.

SoulTrain.com: Did you ever have problems in school such as bullying due to your character being a tattletale and a bit obnoxious? Sometimes people tend to associate the character you play with who you really are.

Danielle Spencer courtesy David L DavidDanielle Spencer:  No. Everyone was nice to me. I had really positive interactions throughout my school years. High school was probably a little better because there were other actors there and producers’ kids there who were more familiar with the industry. I never had any problems at all in school.

SoulTrain.com: What was the recognition like for you being a child star?

Danielle Spencer:  At the time I didn’t really care for it because I was a kid and I didn’t understand what it meant to be a celebrity, especially being a child. I was bothered whenever someone would ask me for an autograph when I was out at dinner for instance, but my mom would tell me these people are your fans. Even though I listened to my mom, I still didn’t particularly care for the adoration.

SoulTain.com: Was it hard balancing a “normal” childhood with being a child star?

Danielle Spencer:  No, because my mother let me be a kid, which I am truly thankful for.  I also had my friends and we would do regular friends things. I even got to go to my prom, so I actually had a little bit of normalcy in my life.

SoulTrain.com: Do you have any particular favorite episodes of What’s Happening!?

Danielle Spencer: The one where the baseball player was in the hospital and me, Roger, Dwayne and Rerun found his daughter, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years. That was one of my favorite episodes.

SoulTrain.com:  The episode when Dee finally got a whooping from Mama was liberating for some of us little boys at the time!

Danielle Spencer: (Laughing) That was so mean of Mama to make me clean the house then give me a whooping!

SoulTrain.com:  When the Doobie Brothers were on the show, to be honest I was only a little kid and I had never heard of them at all until they were on What’s Happening!. What was it like working with them on that episode?

Danielle Spencer: They were all so nice. They were very mellow and down to earth. Of course, women had a crush on Michael McDonald—myself included, but they were all super sweet. We didn’t even understand how big they were either. I had heard of them but I didn’t realize how big and how famous they were.

SoulTrain.com: It’s funny because in that episode Dee told the Doobie Brothers that her favorite group was The Jackson 5, and that she was not particularly crazy about one of its members. Which Jackson brother do you think Dee was referring to?

Danielle Spencer:  The scriptwriter didn’t specify…

SoulTrain.com:  I thought Little Earl was annoying. What was it like working with the actor who portrayed that character?

Danielle Spencer: It was a little weird of him having a crush on me and I wasn’t quite comfortable with the boyfriend/girlfriend thing at that age. The actor who played him was a nice kid, though, but his character coming onto me was annoying and unwanted.

SoulTrain.com: Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether the weary looks on your face whenever Little Earl came around were acting or real!

Danielle Spencer: It was both!

SoulTrain.com: When What’s Happening! was cancelled, was that shocking for you?

Danielle Spencer: It was definitely shocking for me. I took it really hard. I had gone out of the country at the time so I didn’t even know that the show wasn’t coming back. Fortunately, I had school and friends to fill my head. I really focused on school. I didn’t see the cast members for years after that.

SoulTrain.com:  It must have been great to reunite with the cast for What’s Happening Now!

Danielle Spencer: It was. It was really fun. We never even thought that would happen. I didn’t know that Ernest had been discussing with the producers about bringing the show back and changing the focus a little bit. I’m so glad they brought it back.

SoulTrain.com: If Dee had gotten married, who would her husband have been? Dwayne, Rerun, Snake or Little Earl?

Danielle Spencer: I would think it would have been Dwayne.

SoulTrain.com: You became a veterinarian in later years. Was that something you always wanted to do even when you were on What’s Happening!?

Danielle Spencer:  Oh, yes. I knew I wanted to work with animals but I didn’t know in what capacity. But I always loved animals. They were my closest friends sometimes growing up. I was so happy to be able to be a veterinarian because I wasn’t doing much acting once the show went off the air. It’s good being able to make a living doing something that I love.

SoulTrain.com: You did the TV movie The Tap Dance Kid. I saw it as a kid and really enjoyed it.

Danielle Spencer: It was an after school special. It inspired the play, which went on Broadway.

SoulTrain.com:  Over the years when you were in public, have you ever had people see you and go, “Ooh! Ooh! I’m telling mama!”

Danielle Spencer: All the time! It is so funny!

SoulTrain.com:  On Unsung, you spoke about the tragic car accident you were in that took the life of your stepfather. Were you finished shooting the episodes for the season up until when that accident happened?

Danielle Spencer:  No. It was in the middle of the season. It was a month before we were going to break for the summer.

SoulTrain.com: Did you grow up watching Soul Train?

Danielle Spencer: Absolutely! I think everybody has watched Soul Train. I love it to this day.

SoulTrain.com:   The Lockers, who all formerly danced on Soul Train, appeared on the fourth episode of What’s Happening! ,which is one of my favorites. On the tag of that episode, you wore that loud Lockers outfit that Rerun wore.

Danielle Spencer: I don’t know where they got that thing from! That was funny.

SoulTrain.com: During the period you were on What’s Happening!, were you friends with or did you know Janet Jackson, who was then playing Penny on Good Times, and Kim Fields, who was then on Baby I’m Back and later The Facts of Life?

Danielle Spencer:  Yes. I met a lot of the child actors then. Janet and I hung out a few times. We went roller skating. Kim Fields and I went to the Al Kann Theatrical Ensemble together, so I knew her back from my days living in New York and I also knew her mom. We were the first ones to move out to California from that acting school and then everyone else came after that. A lot of the child actors that were on TV came from Al Kann Theatrical Ensemble.

SoulTrain.com: When I interviewed Francheska Berry, who was then married to Fred Berry, she said that it was hard for him to deal with the fat jokes hurled at his Rerun character. Were you aware that he had challenges with this at the time?

Danielle Spencer: I actually found out about this when I watched the Unsung documentary on What’s Happening!. But of course, we were acting and I was just reading and saying the lines, but I always felt bad saying those things. Fred never mentioned to me that he was hurt by the lines so I assumed everything was okay.

SoulTrain.com: How would you like for What’s Happening! to be remembered?

Danielle Spencer:  I would like for it to be remembered as maybe one of the first shows that allowed people from all generations and racial backgrounds to come together and watch TV at the same time. Before that, it’s been said that white people didn’t watch a lot of the shows black people were on. But now, we have so many fans of all races that come up to us and say they really enjoyed What’s Happening! and how it reminds them of their childhood. That’s always a good thing when you can be reminded of the things you were raised with.

SoulTrain.com:  What would you like to say in memory of the cast members that have passed on from the show—Fred Berry, Mabel King, Shirley Hemphill, Thalmus Rasulala and Ray Vitte?

Danielle Spencer:  They added so much to the entertainment industry and definitely to our program. We would not have had a show without them. I would take cues from them in terms of acting and how to act on camera and how to interact with the fans. I learned all of that from them. They were a great influence on me and taught me so much.

SoulTrain.com: Do you want to continue acting?

Danielle Spencer: I do. We’re trying to find a good vehicle. We have a reality show called All Grown Up that we are shopping, and it will have some child stars. We’re looking to have that on by next year.

SoulTrain.com: What word of wisdom do you want to share with SoulTrain.com readers?

Danielle Spencer:  Even though a lot of us will go through difficult times, know that it’s always darkest before the dawn and have hope in your heart that things will get better. God always offers hope.

Danielle Spencer’s book Through the Fire: Journal of a Child Star is available via Amazon.com.

-Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, choreographer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian. He is also a former Soul Train dancer. He is featured in the Soul Train documentary Show Me Your Soul and is also featured in the book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train.

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