Sunday, April 19, 2015

SEEING THE SOUND OF MUSIC AFTER FIFTY YEARS

This week, Sunday, April 19, 2015, through Fathom Events, Turner Classic Movies has hosted the showing of THE SOUND OF MUSIC in theaters across the USA.

At this point in time, there are many who have seen this film yearly on their televisions screens. If you have not seen THE SOUND OF MUSIC on the big screen, then you really have not seen it. It is magnificent, a fact that hit me once again today. The makers of the Sound of Music were truly  inspired men (and women if such is the case). Each scene is a brilliant work of art. Salzburg is really another character in the film.

In a day and age where we look for bigger highs, more shock, more violence, pain and outrage to shake us up, The Sound of Music shocks us because of how different it is from all that. The film harkens back to a day when excellence and inspiration were the true goals of the top filmmakers.

The Sound of Music qualifies as a great film because we have many of the opposing qualities we find in reality.. We have gorgeous scenery and a troubled girl, great music and unhappy children getting happy, love against a backdrop of evil as the Nazis move in. We know that the face of the world is about to change forever, even as love triumphs for this couple and this family.

That the music of the film, written by the brilliant Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II makes the film goes without saying. It was great on Broadway, but again, the way the filmmakers have meshed the music with the actors and the landscape of Salzburg brings out it's true grandeur. And again, they could not have chosen a more perfect Maria than Julie Andrews.

In 1965, Julie Andrews was a fresh-faced young woman with an amazing voice. Although she was fairly well-known at that time, The Sound of Music would hurl her into the kind of fame where people can't get enough of you. Christopher Plummer, although handsome, seems rather churlish in a good portion of the film. It is Julie as Maria, who can't help being attracted to him and falling in love with him, that makes us believe he is a decent fellow. The children are brilliant as well. When one takes a simple song like Do-Re-Mi and sees how grand and wonderful it can be, it brightens your entire aspect on life!

I'm not saying I can write anything half decent on this film. It has been written and written about - both as great and as too sweet and silly, but maybe those watching it this week on the big screen, after all we have experienced in our world during the last 50 years, will see it with fresh eyes and find it is a necessary value in our world. We need this joy!

(c) Michelle Russell, 2015

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Meeting Julie Andrews Again and, Finally, Thank You!

In the years following my meeting with Julie Andrews, I went on with my life. Julie was living a new life herself, as a wife, mother and film star. And as far as I knew, she spent most of her time in Europe. My memories and mementos of The Julie Andrews Hour were packed away in a closet in my parents’ California home, where they remained for the next 30 years.

Whenever I saw a mention of Julie’s success, I felt happy for her. In the late 70s, when she toured the country, singing in concert, I traveled to Westchester, NY to see her onstage. I was thrilled by her ease and beauty before an audience, receiving the applause she so richly deserved. The nay-sayers of Hollywood had been left far behind.

OLD FRIENDS

By now, life for me was about performing and, like many young artists, surviving on little money. The only people from the ABC studio days whom I kept in touch with were mother and daughter, Ruth and Vannie Schaufelberger. From time to time, Ruth wrote me long, handwritten letters about her life and Julie’s career. She’d made friends with a woman who knew Blake Edward’s parents, and once in a while, Ruth sent me copies of a few photos the Edwards’ had shared with her.

Ruth and Vannie at ABC Studio in 1972
Sadly, Ruth’s association with the fans from the studio was not a good thing for her life. After inviting the “fan club president” (See “Put Out” blog) into her home for a lengthy visit, the girl convinced Arthur,  Ruth’s husband of over twenty years, that she was in love with him and would kill herself if he did not marry her. Arthur was a generous man with a good job, but, for whatever reason, he found it impossible to extricate himself from the girl’s grasp. He divorced Ruth, and married the girl, then tried to run between the two. A few years after this disastrous second marriage took place, Arthur died of a heart attack.

During this time, Ruth also kept me informed on the whereabouts of the fans who had caused trouble at the studio. It seemed they were still causing trouble, even following Julie around Europe.

In time, life I lost track of my old friends. Eventaully, when I tried to find them, I found that Ruth had passed away. Vannie, however was about my same age and I hoped to find her. Sadly, after many months of searching, I found that Vannie had passed away the previous year.

***

LOSS OF VOICE

Singing at "The Bushes"
Park Royal Hotel around 1977
Although, I auditioned a lot, I never “made it big,” as they say. In time, I found it more to my liking to create shows and sing on a more intimate level in clubs.

Eleven years after moving to New York City, I moved back to California. Later, I moved to Washington, DC where I worked for the U.S. House of Representatives, a life changing job which broadened my view. After quite a few years on the Hill,  the call to theater and music was strong and I returned to my performing arts roots by going to work at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

After leaving New York, I lost my singing voice. I believe this occurred partly through misuse and partly because of emotional problems over certain in my life. I had all of three notes. The rest was broken. And when I tried to sing, it as if someone had their hands around my neck. Finally, I looked for a way to regain my voice.

***

A NEW VOICE

My first attempt was unsuccessful. Then, by luck I found an amazing teacher named Don Zuckerman. Don taught singing using the Alexander Technique, as a basis, along with breathing techniques taught by an Olympic atheletic coach and a certain amount of pyschology. 

The Alexander Technique in short may be described as
:
 "… a way of learning how you can get rid of harmful tension in your body."

The “technique” was founded by an Australian actor, Frederick Mathias Alexander, around 1900. Mr. Alexander suffered chronic vocal problems as a result of his work onstage.  After much study and analysis of his problem, he came up with a theory on relaxation, posture and movement that rids the body of tension, and allows efficient, free use not only of the body, but of the voice.

 Using these techniques Don taught helped me change habits and thoughts that were holding me back. I learned to laugh at myself and not to be afraid of any unpleasant sounds I made in the process of retraining my voice. I also learned to become aware of when my vocal production felt right, rather trying to listen to myself and create a sound I thought was good. None of us hear ourselves as we sound to others.

Humbled by the fact that I could not sing at all if I didn’t listen, I followed Don Zuckerman’s instructions to the letter. Like a baby learning to walk. I learned how to breathe and how to make sounds all over again Over the next three years, I began to be able to sing again. For the first time in my life, I knew this was my true voice, but more than that, I was feeling it and feeling the beauty of music. Though it would take many more years, I was finally beginning to be free to express what I had been longing to express.

***

JULIE’s CAREER

In the late 1980s. Julie went on tour with a show about her life. In it, she performed some of the greatest songs from her films including, "The Sound of Music" and "Bubbling Bertie." I attended her performance at Wolfe Trap, an open air theater, just across the river from Washington, D.C. I was so moved by Julie's great performance I sent her a letter. As a result I received a response from Claire Priest, Julie's fan club secretary who had been instrumental in getting me into to see the closed set tapings of The Julie Andrews Hour. 

VICTOR/VICTORIA


In the mid-90s, I moved back to New York. I had to sing and there was far more opportunity in New York than inWashington, DC. When Julie Andrews starred on Broadway in Victor/ Victoria, I attended the show. It was thrilling to see how she filled the stage with her presence. Julie is one of the few who has true star presence on stage. Seeing her there, I could not help but feel happy for her.

Once again, I really wanted to talk to her. After all the years, I felt maybe, finally, I could hold a decent conversation, but it soon became clear that this would not be possible. I remember handing a note to a stage door man who looked something like Fagin in Oliver.

One night, I stopped by the theater and watched as Julie left, looking as beautiful as ever. She was rushed to the car and did not stop. “No,” I thought, “she is far too big a star for me.” At that moment, I decided to accept the fact that I would never speak to Julie again. What was past, was past.


***

After both appearing in my own cabaret shows and producing others with numerous people, I moved to the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. My new project, a book on Judy Garland’s family history, took me to many states. During this time, Julie’s autobiography, “Home,” was released. When I learned that she was going to do a book signing in Philadelphia one weekend, I considered driving down to see her, but money was tight and my dear 18 year-old cat, Sabrina was not well. I decided not to go. I didn’t want to leave Sabrina alone for that long, and I doubted I’d actually get to talk to her.

***

"HOME"

For eight years, my life was focused on writing my book and surviving. Life was a new adventure every day. There was no time for anything else. Meanwhile, my best friend from high school, Alice, who had known me during the ABC Studio days, sent me a copy of Julie’s book, Home, as a birthday present. The book sat on the shelf for three years.


Finally, the day after I completed the second volume of my 500 page book, From Tennessee to Oz, I picked up Home and began to read. I recognized the voice in the book. It was Julie. While some may have been surprised by the stories in Home, for me, it was a revelation and explanation of the woman I’d already spent so much time with. I felt as if Julie had taken me by the hand, and led me on a journey into her life; I felt I understood her better. And I felt grateful.


TO WRITE A BOOK

When people began asking me what my next book would be, I had no answer. I was dead tired. Writing is not an easy task. You sit long hours and become possessed by words, ideas, shapes, facts; working and re-working them. But writing is addictive. What would be easy to write, I wondered. Home made me think of Julie at the studio, and I began to wonder about those old diaries. What was in them? Was there a story there? After I finished reading Home, I took them out and began to read. I was on the edge of my seat; I knew what happened, but I didn’t remember all the details. That happened? What did she say? What happened next? What?!!!

The idea grew, and I followed the same method I’d used with my Judy Garland family history book, however I soon learned that talking to Hollywood people is not at all like meeting and talking with your average person. You have to be on our toes and get what you want the first time, as likely there will be no second chance.

Julie rehearsing for a number on The Julie Andrews Hour
Perhaps what surprised me the most in my research on The Julie Andrews Hour was that nothing had been done with the show. Many television shows had come out on DVD, but not Julie’s. I wondered why. It seemed a great loss. Whenever I approached people who had worked on the show, whether technical people or talent, they were all eager to talk about what a great show it had been. And all of them felt frustrated that the show was not available to be seen, even by them. One reason for this may be that The Julie Andrews Hour's ownership resides with one of Sir Lew Grade’s former television companies in Great Britain.

As the months passed, my research, letters and phone calls to those who had worked on the show began to pay off. People began calling me. It was an exciting time. Through my memories, I had returned to the time when I was a shy young girl, sitting in the front seats of ABC studio and  watching all these people; director, producer, cameramen, dancers and stars working up on stage. Now, they were calling me to talk about the show they had helped create.  It seemed that life had come full circle.

Finally, there was one person left to talk to and that was Julie. I tried what I thought were the proper channels to reach her, but eventually I reached a dead end. When I finally reached a person at the top of the Julie list, I was told, “We don’t do that.” I wasn’t sure exactly what they didn’t do, but the door was obviously closed.

As the months passed and I interviewed more people, I couldn't help wondering what Julie would think if she heard about my project. Would she think I was rude or just sneaking around behind her back? I needed to talk to her!

The opportunity came soon enough. Julie was going to be in New York with Emma Kate Walton, signing their new “Very Fairy Princess” book. Dare I go? Would I have a chance to speak to her? I was scared, very, very scared, but finally came to the conclusion – this might be my only chance.

I confess, by now I was a little wound up. Even though I knew Julie didn’t sing anymore and forty years had passed since the studio days, reading my old diaries had taken me through the door into the past and all the emotions of that time. I had to see her! I was picturing the Julie I knew then and listening to all my favorite recordings, especially the ones she did in the early 60s, which I absolutely love -- the English songs she recorded. By now, having worked as a singer, my appreciation for what Julie did with a song quadrupled.

Suddenly, I was a teenager again and all that had happened in life that was sad was gone. I was thrilled – beyond thrilled – that finally I was going to speak to Julie, Julie, the real person. I didn’t want the star or the image people were talking about, but the woman I’d seen working hard at 2, 3 and 4 in the morning, for whom I had the highest esteem.

***

SEEING JULIE AGAIN – 37 Years Later

The day arrived, April 17th, 2012, and I was ready. I’d been playing a song Julie sang on one of her early records, “How can I Wait ‘til Tomorrow Comes…” and now it was here! I drove to Jersey City, parked near my old apartment and took the train into the city. I bought two “Very Fairy Princess” books for my nieces (only one could be autographed), and received a ticket which would allow me to get in and have the book signed.

(Note: Much of the original blog has been removed for copyright and other reasons) 

Julie was delayed and for a long while, I sat on the floor waiting, while I watched parents, also seated on the floor, reading to their children. 

Julie arrived with a number of people, including her daughter, Emma Kate. As she walked through the front door, for a moment my heart stopped. In the distance, it seemed as if Julie from 1972 had  just walked through the door. Finally, she and Emma were seated in a small alcove to the side. The table at which they were seated was behind a bookcase. There would be no seeing Julie (aside from the signing) or photographing her. Ten people would be taken into this private area  at a time.

The line began to move swiftly now. Ten, and ten, and ten. Even writing this, I can feel how quickly my heart was beating. I was strangely calm, but very thirsty. As we went in, the girl in front of me said, “I think I’m going to faint.” I wished she hadn’t said that because at that moment I felt I might faint too.  Seven people in front of me, five, three. I saw how swiftly they were moving, how quickly a few words were spoken. Now, there was one person in front of me, then only me--it was my turn to walk up to Emma Kate.


My greeting to Emma was swift, stating that I'd last seen her when she was eight years old at the Julie Andrews Hour. When she commented on how long ago that was, I said “Yes," but thought to myself that it didn’t seem long at all.

.....
“Hallo,” said Julie, looking up at me through her reading glasses.
This was it, and there she was after thirty-seven years. I felt as if someone had pushed me out onstage.
“Oh, Julie, you’re so beautiful.” I head myself say. 
Where had that come from? I never would be so bold. Of course she was and is beautiful, but one doesn’t SAY that and not so boldly as I’d heard my voice say it.
Julie put her head down and began signing my book, and I, like an actor who has flubbed his lines and must carry on, carried on. I began to tell her how I had attended The Julie Andrews Hour some forty years earlier and was intending to write a book about the show.

Julie conceded that's she'd heard about my book. Some things went well between us, but throughout, I found things coming out of my mouth I didn't expect to say. Why? I was bubbling over, nervous and feeling as if I'd waited 40 years to have a conversation with her. 

Meanwhile, I gave her a gift - a special photo taken the night of the last show with two of the photographers... I was glad I had something to give her.

I stepped back as two more people spoke to her briefly and got their books signed. All this time, watching Julie, I knew she was a woman on a mission; she’d come to sign books and she was going to sign books! But for me, it was not so strange to be standing there, talking to her as she worked. I’d spent all of my teen years following my mom around the kitchen while she worked, talking to her, reading to her. She might be busy, but I knew she was listening, and it was no different with Julie.

Now there was a momentary lull as the last girl had her book signed and they prepared to bring in the next ten. 

After a few more minutes, the gentleman standing next to the table said, “I think we’re going to have to move on now.” Of course, I knew. I’d gotten at least 3 -5 times more time than anyone else. A few more words were spoken... Then I reached out my hand to her. Earlier I’d seen a girl do this and now it seemed the best way to end. I needed one last moment, one clasp of hands, because this might be the only time in my life that I would ever see her again. She took my hand.
“Thank you for my present,” she said, meaning the picture. Her hand was warm and she gave me a little extra clasp before letting me go. Then, it was over.


***


Later that day I went to visit my old friend, actor, singer and playwright, Michael Bruck. I was feeling quite giddy and wound up. In fact, I really wasn’t sure what had happened. Had it been good or bad?

In the following weeks, I found it had not been bad, quite bad. Getting back in touch with my Julie contact, he let me know how bad it had been by deeply insulting me. I could only surmise that Julie was not pleased. I was horrified. For the next two weeks, I spent hours in the small cubicle of my new job,  crying my eyes out.

In the midst of all this, I called my good friend Richard Skipper. Richard is a phenomenal performer on his own, but aside from that he is also a writer and had interviewed hundreds of Broadway and film performers. When I told him my story, he listened carefully and then said, “Well, the first thing I can tell you that you did wrong was bringing up your book. Julie was there to sign her book and no one wants to talk about something else when they are doing that. You could have spoken to her and given her a letter.”

I agreed with Richard but added,

“I realize it wasn’t the right place but I tried to contact Julie and I believed it was the only way I could ever tell her what I was doing. I felt I had no choice.”

Richard conceded that he knew a star who’d once tried to contact Julie. This star had actually worked with Julie in a film, but even this star had been unable to reach Julie, so I could have a point.

SHAME

In the long run, I figured out, in part, the cause of my problem. I'd been taking a medication for my breathing - a medication closely monitored because it contains elements to make speed. Being sensitive to medications, I am easily sent over the top and it appears I had been. I was extremely thirsty, wound tighter than a top and spewing out any thought that came to mind. 

My sorrow and shame knew no bounds. Against advise, I attempted to reach Julie to apologize, but that was no possible. Accept it, my friend Richard advised. In the end, I had no choice. Yet, in the midst, I realized my greatest reason to feel bad. There was something I'd always wanted to say to Julie and had yet to -- Thank you!


***
Dear Julie,

When I came to ABC Studio in 1972, I wanted nothing more in the world than to sing. There was music in me that wanted to come out, but everything was locked inside. My mother, a dancer, believed hard work was 90% of her craft, but in singing she believed you either had it or not. She said singing lessons would be a waste of money for me.

When I watched you on the stage at ABC, you worked hard. Even though you were obviously brilliantly gifted and had studied music your entire life, you sang your scales and you did all that you were trained to do to be the best you could be. You were simply doing your job, but you impressed on me, a young, dreaming girl the value of hard work. You made me believe that maybe if I worked hard, I too could sing. Because of you, Julie, I took my first singing lesson. It took many years to get where I wanted to be, but I did learn to sing and because of that I have been able to bring joy to others as well. For many years I did not realize that you were the catalyst to my being able to do what I wanted to do – but you were. With all the performers I loved and was inspired by, you were the one that made something very important happen for me at the right moment. 

Julie, I thank you with all my heart. 


***

A NOTE TO PERFORMERS

For those who are young aspiring singers and actors, and performing artists, I would like to share something else here. For many years, I felt I was a failure because I did not “make it big” on Broadway or anywhere; because I did not become famous. Fame is sometimes the reward (or some might say – double edged sword) that comes to those with great achievement, but one should never place the value of what one does on fame or money – difficult as that may be in our society. I cringe when I hear of camps where child performers learn to be stars—as if that is what would make them valuable. Singing, acting and all great art is not about being a star.

Art is meant to better the lives of our fellow human beings. I can only say to all of you out there, if you love something, do not give it up because you can’t make tons of money or be famous. Does it make you happy? Can you make others happy by doing it? Can you make the world a better place?

For fourteen years now I’ve gone to senior centers and retirement homes and sung for people. They are old now, but only in appearance. They were once the people who made this country. Go to your community center, hospitals, retirement homes, schools, wherever you can made a difference and share your talent with others. Use it for good and you will be doing what you were meant to do.

***
 IN CONCLUSION

Returning to my story. For a while after the events spoken of here, I gave up on my book. Then, I went ahead. There were so many people who had worked on The Julie Andrews Hour, who continued to generously share their stories. They believed in the show, loved it as I did and I could not tell them no.

As everyone knows, Julie is out and about these days, celebrating her great achievement in The Sound of Music, fifty years after it first came out! My friend Ruth used to say, “Julie doesn’t get what she deserves.” Well, it looks like finally she is.

In the following weeks and months I will be editing the 300 plus pages already written about what some have called, “the last great variety show,” THE JULIE ANDREWS HOUR. If you have something to share, please contact me.

Thanks so much!