It was nearly freezing that October night, but I didn’t feel the chill at all as I emerged from the subterranean cabaret club known as Danny’s on W. 46th Street in midtown Manhattan. It was close to midnight and I had just finished a performance of my first New York show, My Life as Frank Sinatra, in which I described an affinity for the singer’s complicated personality, from his prodigious talent to his occasional startling thuggery. With the help of a jazz trio, I had woven a musical tapestry around Sinatra’s failures and struggles. The patter was balanced by some of my favorite tunes among the more than 1500 he recorded in his lengthy career. My encore was “Young at Heart,” a reflection of how I felt even though I just passed 50. I wore a custom-made tux for the occasion with a silky white top, which seemed very Sinatraesque to me.
Cabaret is a very personal genre, with roots in 1930s Germany – just the performer and the musicians on stage, the theme and music infused with his or her unique personality. The performers write their conversation with the audience, called patter, which is delivered directly to them. There is no “fourth wall,” as there is in the theater. The venues are nearly always intimate, seating fewer than 150 at tables around the stage.
The show that night had gone very well by my lofty standards, and the audience seemed to agree. I was surrounded by people who talked about the songs and the stories, having enjoyed it all. Reluctantly leaving the well-wishers, I walked through the restaurant to the entrance, meeting approving smiles as I passed. I hit the sidewalk, made my way through the ever-present throng of pedestrians, turned right and headed toward those famous bright lights of Broadway to return to the silence of my rented apartment.
As I paused in the glare of the lights, I looked to my right and saw a bookstore I knew was carrying my autobiography, though it had been published more than a decade earlier. A few blocks away was a record store I knew was selling my Sinatra CD. Both of these marketing triumphs were due to the talents and perseverance of my own strong-armed Sinatra, my New York press agent. I stood for a moment, savoring the success. “If I can make it there…” I hummed to myself. I knew it was just an emotional snapshot in the moment. And yet I couldn’t help but smile as I caught a layered glimpse of all the years of yearning and preparation that led to these tachistoscopic images. It had been a long, often interrupted journey.
What is it about New York? When I want to be emotionally transported, I walk those streets in Manhattan, if only in my mind. There’s something ephemeral about that place that seeped into my pores long before I got there.
In my third grade art class I drew skyscrapers I had yet to see in person. The first book I bought with babysitting money was a book of New York City photographs – tall buildings and busy streets, cluttered with taxis and rushing people in every direction.
My first real visit didn’t come until I was 17, a stopover on a car trip across country with my family. I had a list of places I wanted to see but mostly I wanted to drink in the city. High on the list was seeing a Broadway musical. Carol Burnett had opened in Fade Out, Fade In, and had a delicious insider showbiz theme. A few days before we arrived though, Burnett had tripped on a curb or something and injured herself. Someone else would be playing her part. My parents weren’t the least bit interested in spending all that money to see a show, especially one featuring an unknown understudy. We didn’t go.
Instead, I insisted we go to Greenwich Village because I wanted to locate the bookstore where Fred Astaire as Dick Avery first met Audrey Hepburn as Jo Stockton in Funny Face. It was a grimy little place with stairs that descended below street level. As one raised in Southern California, the idea of having to go downstairs to buy books was catnip to me. I knew it was highly likely that the scenes had been filmed on the Paramount lot but something like it had to exist there or somewhere. I saw shops that resembled that unique urban structure, but I was disappointed to have missed the real thing.
In 1964, I took a job as a copy kid for The Christian Science Monitor in Boston but didn’t stay very long. While I was fortunate to have been given opportunities to write, the religious quid pro quo was intolerable to my 21-year-old idealistic certainty. Before returning to Los Angeles and a new job search, I took a Greyhound to New York and spent a week exploring the city. I had also set up an interview with the editor of Newsweek, who was a friend of the arts editor on the Monitor. I was trying to find a reason to stay in New York. I used the money I had saved on my $54 a week salary and stayed at a Sheraton in a teeny little room overlooking Roseland, the famed dance hall whose lights kept the room aglow all night.
My first Broadway show was Hello, Dolly. It was Carol Channing’s first year in the long-running musical. The show had been sold out since its opening but I got the last seat in the house that night, in the corner in the last row of the balcony. The heightened emotion I felt as I watched the breathtaking perfection onstage was unlike any I could remember. The full sound of the orchestra reverberated into my soul. All those people coming together to create musical perfection fired every nerve ending in my body. When the overture began, I wept. The finale just laid me out. If I had been asked, I’m not sure I could have identified all the emotions I was feeling that night. I just knew something wonderful had just happened. Something similar happened when I saw Funny Girl with Barbra Streisand the next night, and again with each subsequent musical production. Whenever I left the theater, I felt cradled by the vivid lights of the city. I almost felt I was in a production myself as I walked around the city at night.
It was Thanksgiving time so I treated myself to dinner at Jack Dempsey’s restaurant. It was my first holiday away from my family, a bittersweet rite of passage. I guess I looked a little lost sitting in the big banquette by myself because Jack, himself, came over for an introduction and joined me for a few minutes.
“Hi. I’m Jack Dempsey.”
“How do you do. Yeah, I recognized you.”
“You’re too young to have seen me fight.”
“True. But I’ve seen you on TV.”
“You here by yourself?” Uh oh. Is he going to hit on me? He’s old enough to be my father, at least.
“Yeah,” I said as I averted my eyes.
“Well, you take care of yourself, Miss. New York isn’t a safe place for young girls like yourself. Now you enjoy your dinner.”
“Thanks, Mr. Dempsey.”
When I returned to the hotel, I got into the elevator with a man who looked to be in his 40s. He started up a friendly and casual conversation. He asked if I was a tourist and I told him I was there for a job interview with Newsweek, which was true. He asked if I’d like to join him for a drink.
“No, thank you,” I said, politely with a touch of anxiety in my voice.
There was a pause. “You’re not interested in me or you’re not interested in men? Because I can introduce you to a female editor, if you’d like.”
“Not interested at all, thank you.”
I could feel my face turn red. Feeling trapped, I decided to get off at another floor so he wouldn’t know where my room was. The minute the elevator stopped, I bolted, still feeling in jeopardy. But this was part of the urban experience, too, I told myself. These things happen in the big city.
When I’d awaken in the morning, I’d head out onto the street. I could see the history of the city unfolding before me. Just passing by a Broadway theater produced a kaleidoscope of manufactured memories. I knew where Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor had performed and the names of their eleven o’clock numbers. My trivia-filled brain could easily imagine how it must have been on their opening nights in the 1920s. I knew where vaudeville gasped its last breath, where the Ziegfeld Follies lived and died.
Several decades passed as they do if you’re lucky.
It had started in Portland at a performance in the aptly named Old Church.
After retiring from being a shrink, I gave myself permission to pursue the elusive dream I had harbored for so long. I wrote a one-woman show, that tribute to Sinatra, and found my way around the logistics and the fear to mount the show. I had it taped with an enthusiastic audience so I could market it for possible bookings outside Portland. Within two weeks of sending out the tapes, I had a couple of bites. The first came from San Francisco. Piaf’s had been the premier cabaret venue there for many years and I didn’t think I stood a chance, but owner Dan Kryston called and made me an offer and I accepted it. I would be there for a two-week stint.
If I thought I was nervous about performing in front of the hometown crowd, I was apoplectic about standing in front of a sophisticated urban audience. Dan found me housing just down the street in a charming bed-and-breakfast. I rehearsed during the day with a taped instrumental version of my show. As the opening approached, I did some television and radio interviews and the ads promoting the show were everywhere. I was being treated like some visiting celebrity diva, an honor I had not really earned. As a shrink I had appeared often on TV and on the radio but this time, I was there to discuss myself and the show. That made me even more nervous.
Opening night, I walked across the street, entered Piaf’s through the smoky, crowded kitchen, and made my way upstairs to the office which also served as a “dressing room.” If I needed to use a bathroom, I had to come back down the steep stairs and use the only one available, in the dining room.
Before my show, Piaf’s had a French chanteuse who played the piano and sang Edith Piaf’s songs. As I stood on the second floor and listened to her wavering soprano of uncertain pitch, there was a substantial part that was standing outside myself, appreciating that a little girl’s dreams were apparently coming true, that I was living the life I had always wanted and had created for myself. I shook my head, pondering the power of chutzpah.
Dan delivered his flattering introduction, the piano intro started and I eased myself down those stairs without falling, a major feat, I thought. The show went well, the crowd receptive. Because the club was adjacent to the Castro district, it was largely a gay audience. They appreciated some of my scurrilous asides about Sinatra and savored some of the less familiar stories I told about him. They hooted and laughed when I described Sinatra’s ex Ava Gardner’s response to the news he had married Mia Farrow. “I always knew he’d end up in bed with a boy.”
The next morning, I walked into breakfast at the B&B and the dozen or so diners already there began to applaud. They had seen the show the night before. All during breakfast, I fielded wonderfully warm comments over scrambled eggs. Two couples said they were returning that night to see it again. It was the first and likely the last time I would ever be applauded before breakfast.
Feeling buoyed by my success in San Francisco, I went home to prepare myself for my New York debut. A second offer had come from Danny’s, the famed restaurant and cabaret on W. 46th Street – for three consecutive Friday nights, prime time.
Performing in New York was the top of the heap. The standards I set for myself there escalated beyond reason. I needed to be better than I had ever been before.
After much research and consulting with friends, I found a super jazz trio, a publicist and an apartment, since I would be in New York for a full month this first time. That was a large part of the excitement for me, living as a New Yorker.
During my first visit to Danny’s, I discovered that the little club was situated downstairs, much like the elusive bookstore in Funny Face I had sought more than three decades earlier. Every time I entered the building, I felt an electric connection to the fantasies of my youth.
And I found I relished rehearsing, especially in the empty club. There was a pure sense of immersion in the music and the freedom to bathe in the emotions of the lyrics. Without the distraction of the audience – but with all the other musical elements in place – I was able to be completely present. We could tweak the arrangement and the timing, of course, but there was no judgment, even from within. Some of the biggest peak experiences came during those times, rather than in performance.
Even in the midst of rehearsals, I knew I wanted to keep the learning process going. I found a voice teacher, Andy Anselmo. I wasn’t sure he would accept me as a student, since his many legendary students included Liza Minnelli, Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett. He and his partner had founded the Singers Forum and were taking all comers. Well, most of them, anyway.
The audition with Andy was terrifying. He asked me to sing while he accompanied me. I handed him the lead sheet for a ballad, “More Than You Know.” Beautiful lyric, dramatic situation, plenty of affective grist. No major key modulations, all easily within my range. I even did the verse, which is seldom sung. When we finished, he smiled at me.
“Where have you studied?”
“I had a vocal coach in Portland for a few months.”
He studied me for a long time. I didn’t know how to read him. Was he trying to find a nice way to dismiss me? I started to steel myself.
“It’s too bad you weren’t born and raised here. You could really have been something extraordinary.”
I wasn’t sure whether to thank him or cry. “Could have been?” Was it too late? Probably. I had to come to terms with my age and my limited musical development. But I knew with Andy I could maximize what I was now. With the opening at Danny’s coming up, I scheduled lessons twice a week and practiced every day in a rehearsal hall I rented by the hour. There was hardly a time day or night I wasn’t preparing on some level. With Andy’s consistent support and encouragement, some of the anxiety was turning to eagerness.
Shortly after beginning rehearsals, an acquaintance casually asked if I would be interested in meeting one of the genre’s legendary singers for “moral support.” Would a dauber want to meet Renoir? The deal was the star would listen to me sing and give me performance advice. I could choose between Julie Wilson, the long-established and revered Queen of Cabaret, and Margaret Whiting, who enjoyed a lengthy career as a recording artist, television performer and nightclub singer. Since I had fond memories of hearing Margaret’s records and loved her brief foray into TV situation comedy with her sister in the late 1950s, I made arrangements to meet her at her apartment on Central Park South.
The plan was that she would have her accompanist there and I would choose some of the songs from my new Sinatra show. It happened that there were two tunes with which she could easily relate, one written by her famous father, Richard Whiting – “Hooray for Hollywood” – and the other by her lifelong friend, Johnny Mercer – “I Thought About You.” I would be in the house of legends.
So distracted and frazzled was I about the meeting that I had to return to the apartment after leaving to collect my forgotten lead sheets. When I arrived, I stood in front of her door and took a slow, deep breath. She opened it after my first knock and let out an anxious-looking man, apparently her vocal coach. I had been warned that she had had several strokes and was nearly blind. I was hoping she wouldn’t notice my shaking as she led me into the living room. Tex Arnold, her longtime accompanist, was already there, sitting at the white piano upon which her father had written many of his hit songs – including the one I was about to sing for her. As I looked around and saw the view of Central Park from her window, I heard her say, “Please sit for a minute, dear.” This wasn’t easy to do. The room was cluttered with books, music, curios and piles of papers. I made my way to the sofa and perched on the edge, carefully avoiding a pile of sheet music on the next cushion. There was way too much overstuffed furniture in the room and I wondered if the rest of the apartment looked like this. I had expected more glamour, more Architectural Digest.
She spoke briefly to Tex then turned to me and said, “Stand over here, dear, where I can hear you.” This was in vivo, no microphone in sight, no way to cover any vocal irregularities with reverb. Could this really be happening? How was I to maintain myself under control? As a kid singing in my room, I hadn’t considered the inevitable nervousness; I just longed for the opportunity to do it, to perform in a setting like I had seen in the movies. This meeting seemed an exhilarating move in the right direction. Now all I had to do was step into my own childhood tableau.
For the show, I had opted to do “Hooray for Hollywood” as a melancholy ballad, which fit my narrative. As I counted off the tempo for Tex and started to sing, I tried to breathe normally but my mouth filled with cardboard and my voice sounded as if it were coming from a distant borough. At least, I remembered all the words. She was surprised at the tempo; I watched as she nodded at the change of pace.
When I had finished, she gently advised, “You should sing out more.”
I took a beat and told her, “I don’t know when I’ve ever been so intimidated. I’m just glad something came out of my mouth.” Both of them laughed and reassured me that they had enjoyed my rendition, quiet as it was. They each made some interpretive suggestions, which I appreciated.
She asked me to sing another, so I did “I Thought About You.” I could feel Margaret’s gimlet eyes on me as I stood less than four feet from where she was sitting.
When I finished, she said, “That’s very good, dear, but I think you sang the wrong lyric there.” Oh no. I was panicked. I was habitually scrupulous about accuracy and this was not the time to screw up. She continued, “It should be, ‘I took a trip on a train…'” I felt my heart rate speed up even faster, remembering her very close relationship with Johnny Mercer, the lyricist. Still, I timidly countered, “Mmm. I thought I read it as, ‘I took a trip on the train…'” I saw my fortunes flash before my eyes. She could not only brand me as an amateur, but might also upbraid me for my cheeky response. She scrunched up her face. “Just a minute,” she muttered as she scurried into the other room. Out she came, waving Mercer’s original manuscript. “Oh, my God. I’ve been singing it wrong all these years. You are absolutely right.” Tex moved over to inspect the lyric sheet and slowly nodded while I took a deep, reviving breath. They both seemed more than a bit stunned, forgetting for a moment I was there. After what seemed like a long pause, they looked up and absent-mindedly wished me well on my New York run. I thanked them and left, feeling galvanized by having had such an invaluable opportunity to learn from the masters. And, not incidentally, to teach Margaret Whiting something she didn’t know about Johnny Mercer’s 1939 lyric.
During that first Danny’s run, I was booked on many local radio and TV programs. One was an all-night talk show. I was only supposed to do a five-minute promo with the host but we had a similar sense of humor and hit it off. I was there until nearly dawn, almost four hours. When I left the studio to walk back to my apartment, I was surprised to find there were people out there and taxis patrolling for fares. But at that hour the streets had a quality I hadn’t experienced before. I could almost hear the sounds of Gershwin’s blues progressions in my head as I made my way wearily home, watching the sun start to rise. The shadows seemed to contain a minor key melancholy, adding another layer of emotional richness. It was a moment of personal confluence that had little to do with ego, a catalysis of the most salient fantasy of my life: to live as a creative person.
A few weeks later, I walked out on the stage, looked into the audience and saw a glamorous, incandescent person I recognized to be Julie Wilson, sitting nearly at my feet. I was momentarily thrown as I hadn’t expected this royal visitation. I could hear her leading the applause after every song, laughing at my jokes. She came up after the show and said, “I loved your show. You have a wonderful way with a lyric. You know what you’re singing about.” I felt as if I had been knighted by the Queen. It was much more than I had ever expected, but then, to my surprise, she showed up at nearly every performance I gave in New York.
I saw a lot of Julie over the succeeding years. Not only did we attend each other’s performances, but we would often dine together. When she performed in Palm Springs, she came to my house to rehearse. She was both interesting and interested and we frequently shared laughter over some mutual foible. In our conversations, she never offered suggestions for improvement, no criticism of my musical choices. She gave me unconditional regard in every sense and her enthusiasm helped me develop confidence in my abilities, which were still under development. She often commented on an interpretation: “When you sang about lost love, I really believed you were there. It made me sad. You got under the lyric.” Treating me as her equal, she would kiddingly refer to my “taking over the stage” when I began my shows. That self-confident demeanor was fueled by her admiration.
I came to appreciate her most when I was at the bottom a few years later. After much reflection and many shows, I had decided to stop performing. Trying to keep up residences and relationships on two coasts was becoming too burdensome. More to the point, I didn’t feel as if I was measuring up to my own standards and expectations. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote in Oklahoma, I’d “gone about as ‘fer’ as I could go.”
It was excruciating to slam up against my own limitations after all these years, but I sensed this wouldn’t get any better for me. I was good – but not good enough. Other people’s opinions never mattered as much as my own. I never ran my life by consensus, especially when it came to things that mattered as much as this did. It’s a good thing that others’ reactions were in second chair because when I informed my musical director (who went on to work with major stars on Broadway) that I was stopping, he responded completely without irony, “Oh, sorry to hear that. Guess I can white-out your name from my address book.” Easy for him.
When the phone rang that evening and it was Julie, I was immediately struck by the unique conversation we were having, being cajoled to continue performing by this towering talent with the croaky voice. First thing out of her mouth was a loud, “You’re not really stopping, are you? No, no, no.” But she was empathic and nurturing and, having been in the business well over 50 years by then, she knew the stakes here. “Everybody has a bad show. I had some terrible shows through the years. You can’t let it get to you.” I tried to explain that it wasn’t just one show or a momentary disappointment. It was just time to stop. “Well, you shouldn’t stop. You are so good. Give it time.” I was very touched that this mattered to her and almost felt guilty for not capitulating.
I don’t think she ever really understood my decision. Like most lifelong performers of a certain age, this was all she knew how to do, the only way she knew how to be. Even when she could no longer do it herself, she wanted to be a member of the audience any time someone was on stage. Everyone loved her and everyone felt they knew her. She was the least pretentious legend I had ever met.
Not every aspiring performer has the opportunity to be mentored by the best in the business or to get the performing opportunities I had. By the time the musical career was done, I had performed in many US cities and recorded two CDs, the last at Capitol Records. Even so, the career and the city will remain forever linked for me. That so many of the ups and downs of this improbable career happened in the city of my childhood dreams underscores the emotional resonance of the experiences.
I’m convinced it could only have happened in New York.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Willow.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie
Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram and Almost Famous. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Recently, her essays, book reviews and short stories have appeared in more than 130 publications. She is the nonfiction book reviewer for Fourth & Sycamore. Her play Life Without was nominated for Outstanding Original Writing by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Pam has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, her sixth college degree. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want to Be, was published in 2018 by Adelaide Books. Her work can be found at https://www.pammunter.com.