Oh, to be a movie star!

My fascination with movies and movie stars began because I was an obnoxious child who began reading early. Or because of parental neglect. You be the judge.

I started reading at about 4 years of age and would read every chance I got. One of those chances was at the grocery store because I hated grocery shopping and pitched a fit as soon as we got there. In order to keep the peace, my mother would just drop me off at the movie magazines and let me blissfully enjoy the gossip about which stars were in a “trial marriage,” whose actual marriages were on the rocks, and who was having a secret baby. I didn’t quite understand any of those stories, but I found them exciting and could have sat there all day reading about Sandra Dee & Bobby Darin, Annette & Frankie, and Liz & Eddie (& Dick). One day I was reading a section on celebrity birthdays when I realized that that very day was the 21st birthday of my TV idol. I was so thrilled by this that I turned to the adult standing next to me and blurted out, “TODAY IS ANNETTE FUNICELLO’S BIRTHDAY!” and she just looked at this small and kind of weird child and said, “Uh…. okay….” and walked away.

Renate plunked me down in front of the TV a lot in the evenings. Those were the days of Monday Night at the Movies, Tuesday Night at the Movies, Wednesday, Thursday, etc. and I saw a wide variety of 40s and 50s films, dramas, comedies and musicals.

My cabaret show, “Oh, to be a movie star!” draws upon these early influences. I have collected songs over the years, not specifically from movies but about them and their now-legendary stars. The show features familiar music such as Elton John’s “Candle in the wind” (which Ryan is singing) and obscure songs I’ve run across over the last 20 years including “Humphrey Bogart” by Leiber & Stoller and “Poem” by Christopher Berg (which begins with the immortal line, “Lana Turner has collapsed!”).

The show will be at a wonderful old movie house, the Times Cinema at 5906 W. Vliet in Milwaukee, on Sunday, May 3 at 7pm. It will be followed by a showing of another of my favorite “X Night at the Movies” chestnuts, Singin’ in the rain. The cost is $10 in advance and $15 at the door. I will be accompanied by Ryan Cappleman, pianist and baritone.

I really hope that we have a good turn-out. Performing this show back in February was a dream come true and it’s a good show that allows me to share my love of music and my love of movies.

I did it my way

What a cliched title (how do you do accents in this format, anyone know?). Surely I could think of something better, something less obvious, something more original. But I can’t, because it’s the title of the first song I ever sang for a large audience and the song that made other people identify me as a singer.

After my Streisand epiphany, I spent a couple of years trying to figure out how to make singing happen for me. I knew nothing about voice lessons – the attitude in my working-class neighborhood was pretty much “Either you can sing or you can’t.” In fact, when I signed up for 8th grade girls’ chorus for an elective, my father refused to sign the sheet for it: “Chorus? You don’t have the build to be a chorus girl. Take home ec.” While I tried to impress upon him that I would be less likely to perform as a Rockette at Bell Jr. High and would most likely be doing SSAA renditions of “I feel pretty,” he still told me to take home ec. In which I got a C.

Of course, this is the same person who, when I wanted a pretty red dress in first grade, said, “Red? What are you, a communist?” and I answered, “No, I’m 6.” Still didn’t get the red dress.

But I digress.

In 9th grade, I signed up for the Bell Jr. HS Annual Variety Show. I decided I was going to sing Frank Sinatra’s “My way.” I was terrified to do this on my own, so I recruited my friends Janet Weger and Sandy Whateverherlastnamewas to be my backup singers. Neither of them could actually sing but I wanted them there for moral support so that I wasn’t up on that stage completely alone.

The bridge of “My way” was a bit too high for me at that time. So Janet & Sandy had the task of singing the melody on “oo” while I spoke the text. I didn’t realize till the actual performance that this text had connotations that made 13 year boys hoot and holler (and of course, had I sung the text, I suspect it wouldn’t have been quite so evident):

“Yes, there were times, I’m sure you know
When I bit off more than I could chew,
But through it all, where there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.”

Amazingly, I managed to keep my composure through the spoken part and soared into the final line: “And did it myyyyyyy wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” The audience cheered my performance, and afterwards, I was known as “the singer.”

Why I Sing

I sing because I can?

Maybe there’s more to it than that.

When I was very little, my parents took pictures of me doing everything. Bathing, playing, and, of course, singing. One of my favorite childhood pictures is of me standing on a “stage” (the sofa) wearing an “evening gown” (my mother’s ecru slip), Mickey Mouse ears, and singing into a “microphone” (upside down Romper Room horse).

My earliest influences were the girl singers, especially the ones on TV shows. In retrospect, none of them were really very good. Especially not Annette Funicello, but I had her album! (Wonder what happened to it – probably worth something now. Then again, probably not.) The first movie I remember seeing was Summer Magic with Hayley Mills. I came home singing the music from the show, which was written by the Sherman Brothers, who became more famous for my next and probably most significant influence:

Mary Poppins. I saw that movie at 7 with my father. My mother didn’t like movies. They made her nervous. I wonder if she might have had adult ADD – but that’s for another musing. Again, I came home singing all the Sherman Brothers tunes, which were far more memorable than those of Summer Magic. Probably because Julie Andrews was a better singer. And it had Dick van Dyke in it, on whom I had a terrible crush.

I got to take piano lessons – group lessons through MPS. I think my parents sprung for piano lessons because some Slovenian kid was taking lessons and my mother always had to compete with the Slovenian families. (Again, that’s for another musing.) We got a piano from Bob Kames Pianos on the South Side – the first piano was a mahogany upright. Beautiful instrument.

Too big and too dark, according to Renate. Back it went and in its place came a walnut spinet. Didn’t matter that it was an inferior piano – it looked better in the room.

Of course, I didn’t know that till years later. All I knew was that I had a piano and I could now pick out tunes and sing songs. All the time. I think it was beneficial that my father worked second shift during my early years because I could come home from school and play all evening.

I discovered I also had a talent for writing and for writing song parodies. (Me and Michael Scott.) So I started to write silly parodies, both prose and song, and sing and act them for my friends and classmates. In fact, for a few years, I thought I’d be a writer. I was writing stories – all of them terribly derivative and probably owing a great deal to The Diary of Anne Frank.

And then when I was 11, I saw another movie that determined my life’s path. By myself, this time. I went to the Southgate Theatre and saw Funny Girl. My parents didn’t come because they hated Barbra Streisand (and she wasn’t even political yet!) and my friends really didn’t have much interest in that movie. Or maybe they weren’t around.

I loved every minute of the movie – except the last 5, which I missed because I decided I could no longer wait to go the bathroom. But the scene that meant the most to me was the scene where Fanny Brice pursues Nicky Arnstein, and she’s on the boat singing “Don’t rain on my parade.” I sat there in the theater, a fat little girl sitting by herself in a back row, with tears running down my face, and all I could think of was “That’s what I want to do. That’s what I have to do.” I left the theater stunned with that realization. (And pissed off because I missed the end of the movie.)

So that’s why I sing.