The night club is dark and seedy, but I can easily identify the bones of what was once reputedly a hot spot for the Rat Pack in the 1960s here in Palm Springs. An alleged quote from Frank Sinatra covers much of one wall, meant to evoke a different era: “Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy but the bible (sic.) says love your enemy.”
It takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, like entering a theater just before the movie starts. I make my way in slowly, using the din of conversation as an auditory compass. As I round the corner, I can see the silhouettes of tables and chairs and the moving profiles of people. Directly ahead is a small stage with a mic on a stand in the center. Upstage is a grand piano, surrounded by several monitors. I can’t make out faces or even the boundaries of the crowd noise. Even with the muted ambient ceiling lights, my eye catches a color – a golden shock of tightly coiffed hair.
There is no doubt that the back of this head belongs to Broadway, night club and recording star Marilyn Maye, the nearly 88-year-old singer we have all come to hear. She is not going to perform, at least in the traditional sense of that word. She is conducting a Master Class, open to twelve nervous singers and maybe 25 of us watchful auditors. It is the same class she holds in cities where she performs and has likely repeated a hundred times across the country.
I had first heard Marilyn Maye when I bought one of her early albums in one of the last free-standing record stores in Beverly Hills. It was probably 1966. I listened repeatedly to this person I had never heard of before and only later found out she held the record for the number of appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” There was something about the clarity of the voice, her arrangements and her choice of songs. I could sense the warmth and vivacity, her complete engagement with each song, the effortless sound. After the Tonight Show fame, though, she seemed to disappear for decades, continuing to perform at a club in Kansas City, her home then and now. In the ‘90s, she was “rediscovered,’ returned to frequent New York performing and became the darling of the cabaret world. But now 20 years had passed. And in ther interim, I had had a singing career of my own. But I wasn’t here to relive all that. I wanted to understand her longevity, her magnetism and her endurance.
Two nights before the class, she had awed an audience of a thousand at the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs. She offered her tribute to Sinatra, an icon closely associated with Palm Springs, and held the crowd for two solid hours without either a break or sitting on a stool on the stage. She weaved her way through well over thirty-five tunes – both his and others – via medleys and complicated modulations. Only once or twice did she falter, her memory challenged by the show’s musical complexity, among other things. Her patter was charming, her energy indefatigable.
Now, in this intimate setting, each singer would get about twenty minutes of her laser-like focus. There is palpable disquietude in the room as we await the start of the five-hour class. I cautiously grope my way to a small table by the wall, about ten feet away from The Legend. After her students find their seats, I am able to get a clear view of her. She is dressed in basic black, adorned by a red sweater, colorful scarf and shiny yellow bling – from her oversize earrings to the clunky bracelet. Is the low lighting to preserve the illusion of youth? In every photo I’ve ever seen of her, her face assumes the same configuration – layers of false eyelashes unable to weigh down her wide open blue eyes, face heavily made-up in a golden hue, a closed-mouth amused smile, a snuggly lean toward others in the picture. From my perspective, both in the front row for her performance the other night and my perch in the club, she looks exactly the same. She could have walked out on any stage with its bright theatrical lighting and given a performance.
She takes the stage precisely at 1, the scheduled start. The crowd hushes.
“Hi, everybody. This is the ‘Art of Performance’ not a singing lesson.”
She fumbles a bit with the paper she is holding.
“It’s hard work, not fun. You have to have a passion for it.”
I could see people nodding in agreement.
“The audience is the star, kids. It’s your job to serve them.”
Throughout the class, she would often refer to us as “kids,” which I suppose we were from her perspective.
“Don’t worry about being good. Worry about doing your job.”
She then turns to the man now sitting at the piano. In his rumpled suit, he resembles an insurance salesman who has accidentally stumbled into the wrong place.
“This is John Rodby.”
Everyone applauds, likely hoping it will court his favor when it’s their turn to sing.
“John, how long were you with Dinah Shore?”
More applause. How many of these people know who Dinah Shore was?
“Now, kids. Remember that lyrics are conversation. You need to look at the audience.”
She points to an older, frumpy woman sitting at a table directly in front of her.
“Did I look at you the other night?”
I didn’t remember her raising her hand as one of the attendees at the Annenberg, but she briskly nods her head up and down.
For the next few minutes, she passes on some practical tips. Never use a stool because it doesn’t flatter the body “unless you’re 94 pounds.” And don’t wear short skirts or sleeveless tops, she opines.
“The audience is supposed to be watching this,” she points to her face. “Not this,” she stretches out her covered upper arms. We all laugh.
“So let’s get started,” she says, moving to her seat at the table in the middle of the room. She adjusts the mic on the stand at her left. “Who’s first?”
The first few singers reveal why they’re there within the opening eight bars. The first man has a resonant baritone but lacks stage presence and proper phrasing. The second, a woman closer to Marilyn in age, sings every word as if it’s a final plea to spare her life. Marilyn makes suggestions to each in a supportive, kind way. Though she sang “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” in her Sinatra show, she fails to correct the second singer who persistently sings the wrong lyrics to that Cole Porter classic. Neither student can concentrate long enough to remember Marilyn’s suggestions, so there is much repetition. Marilyn offers this without complaint. After each vocal attempt, there is always applause, deserved or not.
Over the next five hours, she provides both comfort and support to each performer, no matter the level of professionalism and talent. Though she had commented early about the importance of wardrobe, she politely refrains from mentioning the infelicitous choices made by most of the people standing in front of her. There is a disparity of proficiency here, not surprising given the absence of any screening. It’s apparent that the “master” in “master class” refers to the teacher, not necessarily the students.
One middle aged woman chooses to sing “Blame It On My Youth,” evoking incredulous smiles while another, a Bernadette Peters lookalike, stuns us with her treatment of the very funny “Rich, Famous and Powerful” that is stage-ready. We know immediately that she has performed this number in a professional venue and probably more than once.
After more than two and a half hours, Ms. Maye calls for a break. She spends most of it talking to the people around her. Does this woman ever sleep, I wondered? The night after her Annenberg performance, she was the guest of honor at a huge party. And now, the next day, here she is.
As the afternoon wears on, we can all see common patterns and could have provided many of the suggestions ourselves. Intonation is an uncomfortable problem for several, partly corrected by Marilyn’s suggestions about adequate breathing. Some swallow their words, phrase in odd ways or completely miss the meaning of the lyric.
Her interventions are varied, tailored to the level of her student.
“Hold that last note ‘til gangrene sets in. It’s your money note.”
“Don’t fade at the end. Hold it strong, sweetheart.”
“Remember, this is the first time you thought of it.”
“Emphasize that word….that’s it, honey.”
“Your voice sounds great. Don’t be afraid.”
“Let’s try that in a lower key.”
“See what you’re doing with your hands? Perfect.”
She is stumped only once. Well into the fifth hour, a man opts for a fast patter song with lots of words, showing more memory than vocal chops.
“Boy, that’s very involved. I don’t know what to do with that. Let’s hear your next song.”
I wonder if she is getting tired. In the last hour, her instructions become a little garbled. She refers to altering the first ending of a song but is actually talking about the second. She’s mortal.
Leaving a little after six p.m., I wonder what the singers might be saying to each other. Are they hearing anything they don’t already know? But how often does a performer get to be critiqued by such a respected pro, one who has been in the business for almost 80 years? And they are likely to be able to repeat her treasured words of praise longer than any proffered vocal or styling suggestions. As a former singer, myself, I wonder how my own stage presence might been improved by an afternoon such as this. Inspiration if not much information.
Walking alone to my car, I imagine Marilyn heading for a quiet bar in another venue, ordering her Appletini before heading off to dinner with friends – ready for a night on the town, accompanied by a now familiar sense of satisfaction that she has passed on what she has learned to another generation or two.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, TreeHouse Arts, Persephone’s Daughters, Better After 50, Canyon Voices, Open Thought Vortex, Fourth and Sycamore and others. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. Pam will finish her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts this June at the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert. Website: http://www.pammunter.com