I am a trained Singer and a licensed Exterminator (Insect and Rodent Controller). I had this desire to combine my creative side with my day job hence The Singing Exterminator was born. And no, I did not steal this from William Burroughs. I have not read Naked Lunch or Exterminator!, though I will very soon.
When I began promoting my business, I had two images in my mind. Either one would be good for my business cards and/or a web site. In one I was the Pied Piper, singing my songs and leading both insects and rodents to their watery graves. The other scenario had me singing with a smooth, romantic voice. The pests would hear me, swoon and drop dead, much like the cartoon barnyard animals who listened to "Frankie" Sinatra in the Warner Brothers shorts of the 1940's. I just thought of a third one; I'm Elmer Fudd! "Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. I'm hunting woaches. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha." It's good that I have an active fantasy life!
The reality is that both jobs are very demanding, requiring training and a constant process of learning new techniques. Every day there is a new song to learn; a new vocal exercise to try or an alternative method to successfully treat a home for bed bugs. It's a full life, folks.
Even though I have always loved singing, my training did not begin until I was 40 years old. I heard a song that had a profound effect on me. It moved me to begin singing lessons. Fortunately and being luckier than lucky, I found the best teacher. It would be more accurate to state that I found her, again. I knew she would take very good care of me and my voice. Furthermore, her presence would allow me to re-connect to a very happy time in my life. Why? We sang together many years before we agreed to be teacher and student. My lessons would be enhanced with purpose, laughter and friendship. It was just a matter of time before I'd write an essay about...
THE SINGING TEACHER
A Love Story in 16 Bars and 36 Years
It’s the early 1970’s. I’m an adolescent in Brooklyn, NY and already, I’m a day-tripper. It was a habit I was hooked on. And I wasn’t alone. I was on a bus surrounded by other teenage trippers. How did a bunch of kids become such fans of tripping? What influenced us to do it almost every day? What was that four-letter word? It was a noun in my vocabulary, still a year away from being an adjective. It was camp.
Organized by our local synagogue, it was called “Camp Nachas”. It was open to all age groups, but for those of us who were teenagers, “Camp” meant going on an outing every day of the week. We would go to amusement parks, baseball games, to Central Park for a Jefferson Airplane concert (it was a progressive Synagogue). Each and every summer there was a week at Grossinger’s, the famous resort in the Borscht Belt. For kids, we sure got around. One day we’re in the park and it was Grace Slick singing, “One pill makes you small.” The next it was hearing the ultimate Jewish mother say (think Nancy Walker as Ida Morgenstern), “That Gracie Slick thinks she knows something about pills. Wait until that White Rabbit gets Arthritis. Oy, the pain, I’m Going Mah Jong.”
For me, the best thing about camp was that I met someone who would touch my heart forever. She was there.
We met in 1972; further back than most of us care to remember. I don’t know when we said hello or even exchanging names. We were fast friends from the start. We quickly discovered we had three things in common. We loved movies, music and the stage. In other words, we were budding performers; two “hams” that had come together. And at a kosher camp, no less!
When our bus driver would turn on the radio, we’d sing together all day long. We knew the lyrics to every pop song played on WMCA or WABC, two of the great New York City Top-40 radio stations. Our favorite song was Neil Sedaka’s Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (the original, up-tempo version from 1962). The song was once referred to as "two minutes and sixteen seconds of pure pop magic." We managed to take that two minutes and stretch it out over an entire summer. We sang that song so many times a day; I suspected that at one point everyone else on the bus wanted to “pop” us like blisters. It didn’t matter to me. We were friends, we were together and we were singing. That was always enough. I wonder why it never entered my mind that things could change?
Everything was easy for us, we never ran out of things to talk about. We’d talk about ourselves; what we liked, what we didn’t like. There was this one time when I had a minor crush on another girl at camp. (OK, so I wasn’t 100% out, I mean, sure of my sexuality, yet) When I told my friend that that my feelings went unrequited, she immediately told me that the other girl was a real bitch. Now that’s a friend!
For fun, we’d occasionally start talking to one another with these exaggerated Yiddish accents. We always made each other laugh, gabbing away as if we grew up in a shtetl. Then, when we couldn’t hold it in anymore, we’d spontaneously burst into song. Actually it wasn’t that dramatic. We’d sing at the drop of a hat.
This is beginning to read like a plot for a musical. Damn, I’m not a composer but I certainly know who is. Mr. Lutvak, are you reading this?
Speaking of musicals and composers, two of our fellow campers were prodigiously talented. To our benefit, they wrote the camp play every summer. In 1972 they wrote a show entitled Stranger In Egypt, a musical version of The Ten Commandments. I was cast as the Pharaoh Ramses and she played my daughter, Bithiah. We got to play on stage and for the first time, sing with our own voices sans the Neil Sedaka record. This was to the relief of our fellow campers who were; by then ready to cast us into the Nile, I’m sure.
We played the opening scene together. There I was as Pharaoh, in my Throne Room counting the daily tally of “gropenpecks”. Making quite a commotion, she bursts in to tell me that she had pulled a baby out of the Nile. I think you pretty much know the rest of that story. If not, please get thee to Temple, Church, Mosque or Netflix (but please, not before you finish reading The Desert Sun. I need the work.) Then we did our opening duet. Singing with her, I was certain that dictionaries were being updated to reflect a new definition for the term, “Happy Camper.”
I can still see it as if it happened yesterday. I couldn’t wait for her to run out on stage and join me. If our friendship was the cake, then sharing a stage was the sweetest icing any chef could create.
To say that having a friend like her was the high point of my summer (which it was) would be an understatement. This was a new high in my life! I was an overweight kid who came from a semi-broken home. It was always difficult for me to find my place; I never quite felt like I fit in. Harder still was my ability to make and keep friends. To have one whom I loved and who returned that love was a gift.
It’s 1973! Another summer, another show. The Prodigals were back; this time writing an original musical about the lives and loves of a bunch of High School teachers. One And One Makes Three was its title. The Prodigals wrote a part just for me. How many actors get to say that at fourteen-years-old? I was to play Mr. Jackson, the very flamboyant, yet questionably Gay math teacher. “Camp” is now an adjective. On a side note, I’d like to say that estimable acting skills made my Mr. Jackson so convincing. More to the fact was that nobody plays a fagila like a fagila. In many ways, “Mr. Jackson” gave me permission to be myself, along with courage to begin the process of coming out.
Meanwhile, back at camp, she was cast as Ms. Johnson, Mr. Jackson’s best friend and sometime love interest. Here we were again, singing, playing and having a great time. Then a major change took her in another direction.
She was taking singing lessons and her coach got her an audition for a role in a Broadway musical. In Mid-July, she got the part. I was truly happy and thrilled for her and very sad that she was leaving. She was going off to perform on Broadway and I could not go with her. And believe me, I wanted to go! This is what we both wanted for ourselves. It wasn’t jealousy. I simply did not know how to say how much I would miss her.
There was some consolation; we had three weeks until She had to leave to begin rehearsals. I secretly hoped that something would happen. Nothing bad, just a little delay in the show’s schedule that would allow Her to finish the summer at camp. It wasn’t going to happen. All of a sudden that damn Neil Sedaka song was the last thing I wanted to hear. Now, the lyrics had meaning. In 30 years, I would learn to look at that as an acting lesson. In 1973, it was breaking my heart.
I eventually saw her on Broadway and she was great. Visiting her after the show, something was different. We still loved each other, but there were big differences between the musical I was doing in High School and the one she was doing on Broadway. For me, work after school meant slicing Lox at my Uncle’s delicatessen. For her, it was making a TV special with Art Carney. We’re not exactly leading parallel lives here.
We went to different schools and our lives took different directions. Then one day, “nothing” happened. We didn’t talk. And that happened a second day, then a week, and a month and there it was. We fell out of touch, but for me, it was far from over. Our friendship was an attachment of the heart. It’s the kind of attachment that never fades. So, in my heart she stayed, a very happy memory.
I’d think about her often. I wondered where she went to college. Was she was still acting and singing? I always hoped she was, although I never again saw her name in the credits for a Broadway show. I tried to contact her a few times, but I could not find an address or phone number. Someone once said to me that relationships are active when you have “some kind of business” being together. My guess is that for 25 years we didn’t.
“Some kind of business” reads like stage direction. Does anyone out there want to work on this with me? I am available. And if it’s not a show, this story is certainly worthy enough for an hour of television. Hello, Oprah? But I digress.
It's 1999. I am watching a TV special called My Favorite Broadway – The Leading Ladies. In the middle of the show, Karen Ziemba, a singer/dancer of prodigious talent runs on stage to declare, I Wanna Be A Rockette. Typing those words makes my head spin. I can’t describe what I was feeling when I heard that song for the first time. Something stirred within me.
“What was this?” “Who wrote a song about my life?” I had never heard the song before. I was absolutely agog as I thought, "That's my song. There’s no one else who could give it what I have.” If you’re wondering what kind of man wants to be a Rockette, just ask.
“I want to perform that song on a stage, somewhere. No, it’s more than that. I want to perform that song with the Rockettes. And there’s only one stage, the Great Stage, that could hold all 37 of us.” “But I’m not a professional singer. And there’s dancing involved? Acting, too? Oh, crap. How am I going to do this?” How am I going to become a “Triple Threat”?
I quickly realized that in order to do it properly I am going to have to take this one “threat” at a time. I didn’t own tap shoes, so dancing lessons can wait. I wasn’t quite ready for acting class either. I could hear myself singing the song Nothing from A Chorus Line, “Mr. Karp, he would say, “Very Good! Except Mik-el-berg. Try, Mik-el-berg, all alone.” Singing lessons, that’s the place to begin. It was the one thing I had been doing since I could form words. At least I had some practice under my belt, right? But where do I find the right teacher for me?
I have always led a bit of a charmed life. When I require something important I find exactly what I need. I am looking at Playbill Online. I noticed they had a database containing every “Who’s Who” that ever appeared in a Playbill. After looking up a few famous names I asked myself, “Is She in there?” I typed in her name and found a bio from a show she did in Philadelphia. As I read the last line of her bio, my eyes lit up. “She is a singing teacher living in New York City.” Was I actually going to find her after 25 years?
That clinched it! I had “some kind of business” with her. There was no one else who could teach me to sing. I remembered that she was my friend. As such I knew she would take good care of me. I was overjoyed when I came to think that we could be together again. Within minutes I found her phone number and placed the call. As Forrest Gump would say, “And just like that, she was there.”
I would like to say that I was restrained and professional as we had our first conversation, but I can’t. I placed my heart on my sleeve as I tried to explain the reason for my call. We were both adults and at least one of us was acting like one. How do you respond when someone says, “Hello, I haven’t seen you in 25 years. I love you. Would you teach me to sing?” I am sure she thought I was insane. Thank heaven she said yes, agreeing to meet me for coffee. I had a few minutes to prove I was not completely crazy. I managed to acquit myself and she agreed to a lesson.
I want to tell you that the desire to be a singer and the reality of taking lessons are two completely different things. I had no idea of what I was in for. I walked into her studio with the thought I might come out with a voice sounding something like every other voice I ever heard. That meant I was going to sound like a hybrid of Tony Bennett, k.d. lang, Richard Kiley, Robert Goulet, Barbara Cook, Dusty Springfield, Zero Mostel, Petula Clark, The Manhattan Transfer, The Supremes, The Four Tops and Lulu.
She asked me to sing something “legitimate”. My mind was such a blank that the only song I thought of was Tomorrow from Annie. I raised my head, stuck out my chin, grinned and began to sing (if you could call it that). I thought to myself, “Oh, crap!”
“THE SUN’LL COME OUT, TOMORR—“, was when she stopped me. "Shut Up! You are never going to sing like that in front of me again." Interestingly, that statement did not upset me. She informed me that my singing was never going to be the way it sounded in my head. Again, I got it. While it felt like the wind was being knocked out of my sails, I was being told I would be taught to sing in "my voice". Maybe that’s what the “message behind the music” means. It made perfect sense.
I quickly discovered that I had to be ready to work. For the first six months I didn't sing a note. I barely knew how to breathe, much less sing. With her guidance, I had to replace bad form with good technique. I had to retrain my body to avoid the mistakes I had been making. It’s something like learning how to walk all over again. But the result is amazing. Many of our lessons have informed me as a human being. Most importantly, I don’t look for my singing to sound like anyone else. I have my own voice, the only one with which I can sing. It is all the more precious that she is there to guide me in this process.
There is something else to say about out time together. We are laughing again. It seems like we are laughing all the time. There are times we have to remind ourselves that we are there to work. But, even in our work we found plenty to laugh about. I cherish these moments. It reminds me to be grateful. Here we are again, laughing, playing and singing, just as we did all those years ago. It is a gift for both of us. Talk about a charmed life.
For almost a decade she has been my teacher and my friend. That we have some history together is nice, but we spend little time talking about the past. We’re pretty much operating in the present. We care for each other, we work, we make each other laugh and we sing. Two friends joined at the Heart and Soul. One thing we have not yet accomplished is another duet. Maybe one day...
I don’t want to run the risk of making this a sappy, sentimental musical. I want something smart, sweet and hysterical, like Spamalot. And if that musical is any indication, we will “Succeed On Broadway”. My story is about two Jews!
© 2008 - David P. Mikelberg