Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Singing Lesson

Not long ago, I got a call about appearing in a charity show. I could hear the anxiety in the producer’s voice when she asked “Do you sing?” I used my stock reply. “Yes, I can sing, but I’m not a singer” -- Meaning I can carry a tune, but I’m not planning to record a CD anytime soon.

Once, when I was a young actor floundering around in New York, I decided to take a couple of singing lessons. A friend of mine had met a voice teacher while waiting on line at an open call (not a good sign) and had passed the teacher’s card along to me. My friend had made it plain that this woman, “Christine Watford-Schenk” was a bit of an oddball, but seemed harmless and might be a good teacher for a beginner like me.

When I called, I was instructed by Mrs. Watford-Schenk to meet her at her studio at the Lincoln Towers apartment building. On arrival, I was greeted by a striking, 40ish woman wearing what could best be described as grand Kabuki make-up, crowned by an upswept hairstyle with dangly ringlets falling here and there. Dressed in a gold brocade sleeveless top with matching pedal pushers, her outfit would have been cutting edge if this had been 1967, but it was 1982 at the time.

“Chrissy” (as I was told to address her) ushered me into her apartment. I had never seen anything like it. The place looked like Liberace's moving van had crashed into the set of "Phantom of the Opera." Jammed with French antiques, bejeweled lamps and of course, a huge grand piano, there was barely an aisle through each room. Every surface was crowded with ornate candelabras, Chinese vases and objects d’art. That, however, was nothing compared to the walls. Perhaps 30 paintings, all in heavy gilt frames, were hung literally from floor to ceiling, filling every available inch of space. Even I, hayseed that I was, recognized the names of a few of the artists like Alexander Calder.

"Chrissy" perched herself on the edge of her wrap-around sofa and began to quiz me about my goals as a singer. Since I didn’t have any, we proceeded to the piano where she tested out my range and general musical ability. I was deemed a worthy student and was then informed that her rate was $50 an hour. I offered her $20 and she took it.

Every Thursday, Chrissy would poke and prod me, push my shoulders back and make me spit out my consonants and round my vowels. It was sort of fun until she began occasionally asking me odd questions like what did I do for fun or who I was dating. Although I enjoyed her grand manners and her “Holly Golightly” wardrobe, her interest in my personal life creeped me out. Plus, she didn’t seem to be such a great singer herself. Deciding I wasn’t so interested in singing lessons after all, I told her I could no longer afford the twenty bucks. Undaunted, she informed me that since I was one of her favorite students, I could continue to study for free.

In those days, guilt was a powerfully motivating force in my life. It had become increasingly clear that Chrissy’s other voice students (to whom she frequently referred) were entirely fictitious. I’d also noticed that one-by-one, her art collection was gradually disappearing from the walls. Soon, a ritual developed where Chrissy would offer me a glass of wine before our lesson. During these little chats, her life story began to unfold. If Tennessee Williams had written “Gone With the Wind,” it couldn’t have come out better.

Apparently, Chrissy had arrived in New York, a young, wealthy debutante eager to pursue her dream of becoming a ballet dancer. After falling down a flight of stairs and injuring her back, she opted to abandon ballet for the world of opera and had studied for a time with some big deal voice teacher. Somewhere along the line, she met and married a Jewish man who was roughly old enough to be her grandfather and soon they had set up house in a swank Park Avenue penthouse. Good Southern girl that she was, she had handed over her entire inheritance to her new husband, who within a few short years, managed to lose it all. Her husband then died of a heart attack (in her arms) and a week later, she discovered she was pregnant. Tragically, she miscarried and was briefly institutionalized. When she got out, she was evicted from her Park Avenue digs and had been forced to cram the contents into this one-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Towers. She now existed on a small stipend that her late husband’s brother had arranged for her and of course, her “teaching income.”

I wanted to help her out, but the problem was that Chrissy wasn’t really a voice teacher. She was just a bizarre, lonely lady whose life had derailed. I no longer had any desire to study with her, but felt like she depended on our weekly visits. Often, I would arrive for my lesson to discover that she had already knocked back half a bottle of wine. Then one day she made a big sloppy pass at me. It was so lame it didn’t even offend me. Instead, I sat her down on the sofa and told her that she needed to get out of this apartment and at least try to meet some straight men.

The next time I saw her she was beaming. “I took your advice!” she exclaimed. Swaddled in her ratty mink, Chrissy had gone on a scouting expedition, scoping out the local restaurants and bars until she found one she rather liked. “I then asked to speak to the manager," she said. "I introduced myself and told him I was a single lady who lived in the neighborhood and that I intended to be frequenting his establishment.” She then told him that she was interested in meeting single men, but not just some trash off the street. “I said I wanted to meet older men, but not too old, you know. Mature men with jobs; divorcees and widowers; that type of individual; stable and no dope addicts.” She had then asked the manager if he thought that those sort of men came into his bar. Apparently, they did. “Next, I told him that I enjoy a cocktail as much as the next person, but if at any time it became clear that I had had one too many, I expected him or a trustworthy member of his staff to make sure I was escorted around the corner and back to my apartment building in a safe and dignified manner.” Trying not to show how dumbfounded I was, I asked “Did he agree to that?” “You know, he did seem a bit surprised,” Chrissy recounted, “But yes, he agreed.”

So, soon Chrissy became a “regular” and within a couple of months, managed to land herself a boyfriend. “Jimmy” was a bald, portly, divorced graphic designer who seemed to enjoy Chrissy’s company. They invited me out to dinner with them a couple of times and it was clear from Chrissy’s giggly, girlish demeanor that she and Jimmy were having a great time in the sack. I was thrilled. Chrissy’s sense of style seemed to be relaxing too. Instead of looking like Maria Callas in the 60’s, she was starting to look like Jacqueline Onassis in the 70’s. It was a start. Soon, she joined an amateur opera troop that staged little performances in church basements and then went out and got drunk afterwards.

After they had been going out for a few months, Jimmy hired me to come in and help him clean out and organize his messy design studio. A decent, friendly guy, he had recently seen Chrissy perform with her pals and asked me about her prospects as a singer. “Yeah, I dunno..." he said. "Does it matter…I mean, do you think it’s a big deal… She doesn’t always hit the right notes.” Not wanting to rock the boat, I assured him that the whole “singing-on-pitch” thing was generally overrated.

By this time, I had begged off my singing lessons, telling Chrissy I had gotten too busy with my acting classes. It was time to cut her loose. Jimmy was a Godsend and if she didn’t see it, she was beyond help. Although Chrissy continued to call from time to time to check up on me, I let my answering machine finish the job. Frequently she would end her always cheerful messages by saying, "Now don't you forget me!" As if that would ever be possible.

Copyright 2009 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.

David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at


SmittyinLA said...

What a lovely story and so well written. I could just imagine that apartment. We bump into each other so beautifully at times. When I was a young man I was hired by a lovely elderly lady to come to her house to count her Raleigh Cigarette coupons, which there were many, much like S&H Stamps of the day. The stuff she had, along with the birds, was a sight to remember for a 11yr old boy in the 50's. Your story made my story come alive as well. thanks.

Sage, Nathan said...

hahaha that completely made my day, reading that. A little creepy, her habits, but more than a little interesting; and what a story to tell the grandkids =]

Anthony La Russo said...

David, I really do like this story! Perhaps it's this particular day that it is striking me in a peculiarly strong, melancholic way, but I really *felt* for this lady. That's the merry-go-round, I know...that she's been abandoned, so, of course, you don't *want* to abandon her, but you eventually have to, just to have sanity yourself. And your own boundaries. So you wish her well, truly, in person and whenever you think of her, and wish her power and strength from her own identity -- and be on your way.

I really do admire the way she was ultra-frank with the bar manager. And ended up with exactly what she asked for. Strange how that works out. Not a way many other people might recommend to work out a problem, but -- done sincerely -- got results regardless. I find that conviction to her goal extremely inspiring. And you, not surprisingly, were the wise-hearted one who gently gave her a clean mirror for her Vision.

Norma Jean said...

I loved reading this story, it was well written and such a great way you turned it all around.

singing techniques for beginners said...

What a nice story and I like the way it was written! I was kind of inspired.