Lena Horne would've turned 94 on June 30, and it's been more than a
year since the world lost this ground-breaking singer whose sultry voice
and stylish phrasing made her a legend. But when I think of Ms. Horne, I
remember her as the unflappable diva who rescued a crucial fundraiser
for the Joffrey Ballet. She may have saved the company itself that
night, for all I know.
In the late seventies, I was Joffrey's New York marketing director,
and I was chosen to be the staff liaison for the company's 1980 gala.
That spring, I walked daily between the Joffrey's office suite at City
Center and the Metropolitan Opera where our fundraiser was scheduled for
April 13. I placed ads in the Times promoting the headliners:
Luciano Pavarotti, then in his vocal prime, and Lena Horne who was
developing the one-woman show she'd perform on Broadway -- to dazzling
acclaim -- the next year. The Joffrey was back on its feet after some
financial problems and was slated to make its only New York appearance
of the 1979-80 season. Dancer-film star Gene Kelly had agreed to be our
master of ceremonies.
Opportunities to hear Pavarotti then were scarce. He was 44 and arguably
the most famous tenor on the planet, and his engagements sold out
instantly. That's why his fans supported the Joffrey gala: they hoped to
hear a few dazzling arias and some duets with soprano Judith Blegen. I
assume it was the Joffrey's tireless chairman, Anthony A. Bliss, also
general director of the Met, who prevailed upon Pavarotti and Ms. Blegen
to lend their talents to our program, and his instincts were superb.
Those opera stars paired with Lena Horne proved to be box-office magic.
By the night of the show only a few seats remained in the upper tiers.
At dusk on April 13, 1980, the Met's starburst chandeliers threw light
on the grand staircase as the well-dressed gala audience entered the
lobby. I was standing there as our company manager dashed by. Noticing
his pained expression I asked if anything was wrong, and he said, "You
don't want to know." But then he ruefully said that Pavarotti had just
called to cancel. "He's not coming?" I asked, utterly stunned. The
company manager explained that when "the Pav" was flying back from
Europe that day (or the day before), a passenger died. The plane had
been diverted, and by Sunday night the tenor was so upset about having
witnessed a death, or perhaps so exhausted from the protracted flight,
he didn't feel like singing.
Suddenly numb, I recalled that Pavarotti had a reputation for canceling.
Hadn't the idea surfaced in staff meetings that the company should ask
another name singer to stand by? Just in case? But in the hurly-burly of
gala preparations, this idea had fallen through the cracks.
I later learned that when the company manager ran backstage, he found
our senior managers working on a remedy. The Joffrey Ballet was going
to dance part one of the program, as planned, so our officials were
begging Lena Horne to fill in part two, meaning she'd have to sing twice
as many songs as she'd rehearsed. I heard that Ms. Horne summoned her
music director, and they quickly decided she would do most of her
nightclub act -- a last-minute reprieve.
The program began on time, and the Joffrey dancers performed with their
youthful panache. Ms. Horne's second act was smashing. To this day I
recall her dusky, sensual timbre, her charisma, and her rapport with the
audience. It didn't surprise me when, a year later, she won a special
Tony Award for Lena Horne: A Lady and Her Music.
There was a pause after Ms. Horne's triumphant finale. Then Anthony
Bliss walked onstage holding a breast shield, a humorous attempt to
break the ice. Standing before the Met's curtain, Mr. Bliss gravely
announced that Pavarotti was indisposed. There were whispers and moans
but no boos, and after Mr. Bliss retreated the crowd filed into the
lobby. Holders of the higher-priced tickets attended a reception at
which Lena Horne's brilliance -- not Pavarotti's absence -- was the main
For weeks afterward, it was my job to answer the irate, accusatory
letters from patrons who thought the Joffrey had deceived them,
advertising Pavarotti's appearance without expecting him to perform.
Though I was an opera fan, I couldn't watch or listen to the tenor for
years, resenting his behavior and its effect on the Joffrey's
reputation. And by the way, I recently discussed this long-ago debacle
with Donya Hubby, who at the time of the gala was the Joffrey's
publicity director; she has lately served as the U.S. company manager
for the Royal Danish Ballet. Ms. Hubby confirmed that the details I've
described here also reflect her memories of the evening.
I left New York at the end of 1980 and slowly morphed into a
freelance writer. Many of my articles feature opera, so I belatedly and
inevitably fell under Pavarotti's spell. I viscerally understood why his
fans had been so disappointed when he didn't show up: his tone was
ineffably gorgeous even if his actions could be maddening. (Google
"Pavarotti cancels" and you'll see what I mean.)
The great Lena Horne, of course, has held a special place in my heart
for the past 31 years. What a gracious and generous artist; what a
trouper in the finest sense of the word!
I'm just sorry I didn't meet Ms. Horne on that balmy April night. I would have expressed my admiration and my heartfelt thanks.
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