To paraphrase: “There are angels all around us in this City of Angels and sometimes you come across them when you least expect it,” Steven Spielberg once asserted in a most rousing and unforgettable commencement speech to all graduating U.S.C. film students in a time loop far, far away…
After having spent years in this town I can now finally say I have met at least one of the proverbial angels to which he refers. Her name: Barbara Van Orden. Former model, agency secretary, and everlasting lounge singer she has done it all and in her quest to give back, continuously strives to do more.
Joining forces with Creator/Executive Producer Michael Sterling, Van Orden only just recently brought her talent and expertise to the ring once again for the fourth consecutive year as Sponsor and Co-Executive producer of L.A.’s Next Great Stage Star. For the past nine years, the contest has aspired to assist, as yet unknown, musical theatre performers in their quest for recognition and employment in a most rigorously rewarding stage competition lasting six weeks! Held at Sterling’s Upstairs at the Federal in the NoHo Arts District on each consecutive Sunday starting January 5th to February 8th the 2015 competition evoked nothing less than a loungey nightclub feel combined with the most grandiose of Broadway stages as twenty of the original forty registered contestants, between the required ages of 18-32, crooned, belted and danced their way to adulation!
The competition, as mirrored by Barbara Van Orden’s life stories, is utterly inspiring and compelling.
“And why [do we do this],” Van Orden asks rhetorically yet informatively, “To help young talent be exposed to people that can help them… It’s not like American Idol where they just critique them; these are people who are going to hire them!”
And hire them they will as she will go on to explain, “Michael Sterling who’s a dear friend, created L.A.’s Next Great Stage Star… this is the help these kids need right now. [Back in the sixties/seventies] some of us were lucky enough to do the Playboy Club or the Catskill Mountains where we could hone our craft. [But these clubs no longer exist.] So in this six week competition, [contestants] work during the week…on different things…with James Lent our magnificent musical director. They learn, they get better each week and four of them win, and the winners have gone on to star on Broadway and Vegas! Carrie St. Louis went on to star in Rock of Ages and was so good in Vegas they took her to New York…and now she’s touring the country in Wicked. She’s playing the good witch. So the careers have opened up for them. Then last year at the big finale, a fellow called in from New York who had won… He had done a few parts on Broadway, starring in The Bridges of Madison County. He called in [on speaker phone] and he said ‘I’m in New York. I’m going to go onstage very soon. If it hadn’t been for L.A.’s Next Great Stage Star where I was exposed to all the agents, all the producers, all the casting people, directors…I never would have the career I’m having now!’”
And when one catches wind of this year’s list of distinguished judges, the vast reserves of success stories centering around this competition, are no surprise. Included in this year’s panel: Michael Donovan of Michael Donovan Casting TV, Film, Theatre, K.C. Gussier of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, Mark Simon from Center Theatre Group at the Los Angeles Music Center, Cate Caplin – Choreographer and Director with the Kennedy Center, Paris Opera House, Metropolitan Opera, and the Hollywood Bowl, Roger Castellano – Director and Choreographer with the Pasadena Playhouse, Music Theatre of Wichita, Moonlight Amphitheatre and Musical Theatre West, T.J. Dawson – Executive Producer and Artistic Director at 3D Theatricals, Plummer Auditorium, and Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, Joshua Finkel –Director, Actor and Acting Coach; co-star Broadway/London/U.S. National Tour of Kiss of the Spider Woman, David Galligan –LA Lifetime Achievement Ovation Award; Director of S.T.A.G.E. – 29 consecutive AIDS fundraising spectaculars 1984 – 2013. Director: Academy Award and Tony Award winner Rita Moreno; Director” Tony Award winner and 6-time Emmy Award winner Tyne Daly, Bruce Kimmel – President and CEO of Kritzerland Records and creator of Kritzerland Presents at Sterling’s Upstairs at The Federal and Out of the Box Web Series for Broadway World.com, Lee Martino – Choreographer and Director: Joel Hirschorn Award Outstanding Achievement in Musical Theatre, 3-Time Recipient of LA Drama Critics Circle Awards; 4-time Los Angeles Ovation Award winner; Director and Choreographer of When you Wish: The Story of Walt Disney, James Mellon – Artistic Director and Co-Owner – NoHo Arts Center, Todd Nielsen – Director of San Diego Musical Theatre, The Colony Theatre, International City Theatre, Musical Theatre Guild, Larry Raben – Director Musical Theatre West, NoHo Arts Center, Cabrillo Music Theatre, The Phoenix Theatre, The York Theatre, The Promenade Theatre, and Calvin Remsberg – Premier Vocal Coach/Broadway Musical Theatre Star; Director/Bare…A Pop Rock Opera; Director/Sweeney Todd/ Musical Theatre West/Long Beach Into the Woods.
Equity Agents and Theatrical Management representatives included: Anthony Boyer –Stage 9/DDO, Steven Dry – Connor Ankrum & Associates, Todd M. Eskin – ABT Talent (Across the Board Talent Agency), Tal Fox – Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin & Associates, Victoria Morris – Lexikat Artists, Artist Management and Development, Dave Secor – Daniel Hoff Agency, and Alisa Taylor of the Brady, Brannon & Rich Agency.
This year’s cast of most talented and inspiring contestants were as follows: Elizabeth Abadale, Claire Adams, Alex Allen, Griffin Barr, D.J. Blickenstaff, Melving Biteng, Hajin Cho, Cole Cuomo, Kelley Dorney, Arielle Fishman, Hannah Goodman, Alexandra Hartmann, Rachael Johnson, Mack Kary, Jotape Lockwood, Dylan MacDonald, Elizabeth Pye, Patrick Reilly, Matthew Solomon, and Tory Stolper. Each singer is earnest, bewitching and enthralling all in their own way and it is fairly difficult to even begin to decide whom the judges will ultimately decide upon.
All songs this year ranged from comedic to plaintive to downright ballsy and I honestly could not think of a single criticism pertaining to most performances. The esteemed judges, however, though kind in their assessments, had very detailed and sometimes seemingly trifling suggestions for the singers, ”But they’re the people that are hiring you,” Van Orden will explain, “and if you’re standing in front of them and they’re saying, ‘Don’t ever again wear that and don’t ever again make those faces [while singing]…or we’re not even going to listen to you…’ it might save that kid from not even having a chance… So there are a lot of things that help along the way that most talent wouldn’t even think of… And it’s very good because as they’re performing each week, they get critiqued on their performance [and] they sit [and watch] while the other 19 are being critiqued and they see what the judges are saying to them… The greats that you work with say, ‘You learn what not to do and in seeing what not to do you learn many times more than learning what to do.’ Because what to do looks so easy but when you see something that’s bad you say ‘Oh my God I don’t want to do that!’ It teaches you.”
Van Orden herself is no stranger to the learning curve. Having been raised amidst a sea of entertainers to beat all skill sets, she has seen all manner of what to and not to do for better or worse!
“I grew up in a show business family. My father had been in Vaudeville and [his act] was an acrobatic tap dancing team called Van Tyson and Van. They played The Palace in New York and that was a big thing to do back in those years. My father was born in 1909. So he did that for quite a few years until he was overthrown into the orchestra pit… He had played clarinet and tenor sax since he was seven years old so when he was overthrown into the orchestra pit he went on to play with a couple of the big bands: Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman… My mother who was ten years younger than my father was a café society singer and in…the thirties and forties it was very big to have a very pretty girl/lady who sang the songs of the time with the big orchestras. She worked with Rudy Vallee and his orchestra and various [bands] around the New York area. In fact she even knew an up and coming young—as she would say—‘snot nosed young fella’…by the name of Frank Sinatra… She was [also] the first woman to have her own radio show… as, at the time Newark New Jersey was the broadcasting Mecca of the radio shows.”
“My sister and I grew up in New Jersey which was 45 minutes by route 46 from Manhattan…and [there] would be a lot of musicians that would come by to see my mother and father: Red Nichols, Dave Brubeck…and on and on… So my sister and I grew up listening to all these great sounds…and they’d be jamming in the kitchen. We’d be in bed and of course [our] bedroom was over the kitchen… [My sister is] 21 months younger than I am [and she] got the dancing ability… I got the singing ability. My sister was very good. In fact she was going to be going to the Olympics in high school…because she was a great gymnast. But my mother, being very strict, said, ‘No, no, no you can’t go because you’ll be away from home and I can’t watch over you!’ But it was my mother who suggested ‘Why don’t you sing?’ …She must’ve sensed that I had some kind of a voice…so, that’s what started it!”
Van Orden would begin by modeling:
“In the sixties—the early years–miniskirts were in for the very first time. We’d walk around New York with our legs freezing and we’d carry our little black book with all our test pictures… Many of us went on to be singers, or you went on to do television… I was able to sing the Catskill Mountains for a very brief time; at Grossinger’s. Jenny Grossinger who owned it was wonderful. It was where all the New Yorkers went up during the summer. The men would stay in the city during the week and work… They’d send the wives and the kids up during the week and then the husbands would come up on the weekend… All the greats would play up there; Milton Berle, Red Buttons etc…”
“After I was in New Jersey and New York and in the Catskills I moved to Chicago [from] 1972 to 1978. I played the Playboy Clubs. …It’s something that hadn’t been before and it hasn’t been since. It was the greatest training ground for all talent…because we were hired for a week/ten days/two weeks… You did two shows a night…and three on the weekend… After each show, you’d go upstairs and you’d play it back. You’d say, ‘Oh my God, did that get a laugh? Did that work? Is this good?’ That way you were honing your craft…[also] on the bill, especially for girl singers, would be a comedian. So you learned a lot about the industry. You learned a lot about timing, playing to the audience…and each audience was different every night and you’d have to be able to give of yourself to satisfy everybody… For a girl singer especially, you’ve got to win them over right away especially if you tended to play with the audience during your show and do comedy bits…You had to immediately win those women over on your first song out, because they’d size you up: Do they like the way you look? Do they like the way you sound? Do they like you period?”
It was during these pivotal years that Van Orden met comedian Morey Amsterdam best known for his role on the Dick Van Dyke show and continued the learning curve:
“In working with Morey Amsterdam I had been a straight girl singer… You’d come out [on stage] and your first song was to win that audience. There were times when I would go across the front of the audience, spotting each woman who was with her husband or boyfriend…and I would hand the woman a rose right off the bat! ‘Here’s a rose for you. Is that your fella? Oh how wonderful! Because you know what…? I have a fella too and aren’t we lucky to have such great fellas and here’s your rose!’ And I would never pay attention to the fellas at all because later on I would need them for different things I would do onstage. But [I would work on] winning them over immediately because there’s nothing worse than looking out into an audience and trying to use their boyfriend or husband for a funny bit that you’ve worked so long to perfect and she won’t let him do it… She’ll kick him under the table! She’ll clang the glasses with a fork and a spoon…everything!… In those years…if you were an opening act…you did twenty minutes. You came on with an opening song to get them to like you. The middle song was always the love song and at the end it was always American Flag, Apple Pie and Mothers; something very up; rousing!”
And really when it comes to things as American as Apple pie and mothers one need look no further than all-American vocal icon–Frank Sinatra:
“[One night] Phil Ford had me sitting in the audience in the Chicago Playboy Club and one thing led to another and he said to me…’Come on out to Vegas. I’d like to work with you–hone up some things…’ Anyway, I did and while I was in Vegas, Frank Sinatra saw me performing. So he asked me, would I perform with him at the Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel? It was a one nighter. They were called club dates. In those years you called club dates one nighters. And of course I was so excited… I did perform with him. It was the greatest experience. He was very kind to me. Frank was a dichotomy. He either liked you or he didn’t. And as far as a girl, a woman, a female, you were either a lady, or you were not a lady. And he treated you accordingly… I learned a lot working with him and it was a wonderful experience. And then of course I worked with Soupy Sales in the Playboy Club in New Jersey. In those years many of the big name comics, if they had a girl singer working with them many times they would invite you for lunch or dinner…and guess who was supposed to be dessert? And if you didn’t want to be dessert, you came with all kinds of excuses; ‘Oh my god my Aunt Tilly’s in from Ohio I can’t!’ or ‘Oh my God I’ve gotta rush home because I think I’m getting a cold and I don’t want to give you a cold!’ You did all kinds of things to get away. If you wanted to be dessert, then you were dessert. But I didn’t want to be dessert. So I thought of all kinds of excuses. Then one night Soupy said to me, ‘You know, Barbara, I’d really like to hit on you but the word is out,’ and I thought ‘Oh my God, the word, what word is this?!?’ Because growing up with a strict mother and father, well mother especially, I was told that your reputation was everything…your reputation was like a white dress. Once there’s a spot on it, forget it. It’s ruined for life! So I’m thinking, ‘My God the word? My God what word?!?’ So finally by the end of the engagement working with Soupy, I got up enough courage to say, ‘Soupy, what word? What word?!?’ And he said, ‘Frank let it be known, that anyone who did anything with Miss Van Orden that he didn’t approve of, would answer to him!’ Oh my God thank God for Frank and thank God for ‘the word!’ So he was very, very kind to me and I wished that I could have worked with him more…but then it was the end of his career, more or less, and I was younger so I didn’t get a chance to work with him as much as I would have liked…”
Mister Sinatra would keep Ms. Van Orden’s integrity in check in more ways than one in his continual quest to shield her from the ways of the world…
“I’m in Chicago, working at the Playboy Club and I’m sitting over Acorn on Oak and there had been a group of performers that were there [as well]. They’re all talking about how bad the traffic was on Oak Street…because you had all the nightclubs, all the dress stores, all the shops… and they’re all talking about how it’s hard to park…and my god what is it gonna be like years from now if you can’t get around? …And there was a place on the street. It was called The Body Shop, and there were no windows, no signs on it; no nothing. It was just a building. It just said ‘Body Shop’. So I’m sitting there and I’m saying, ‘Gee I know the traffic is so bad. It really is terrible. I wonder how they get the cars in and out of The Body Shop for repair.’ Well, dead silence falls around! And a couple of them say, ‘Is she for real?’ And I’m thinking, ‘What are they talking about?’ So it was Frank Sinatra who said, ‘Barbara don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about the cars getting in The Body Shop. I’m sure something will be worked out.’ Meanwhile he’s telling everybody, ‘No, don’t you dare laugh!’ I come from…Dover New Jersey…it was like small town U.S.A… You had the drug store, you had the soda shop, you had the grocery store, you had the doctor’s office, you had the dentist’s office and a place called the ‘body shop’ was there because if you dented your car [you took it there for repair]… After awhile I realized what I had said and I’m, [thinking] ‘Oh my God,’ like a country bumpkin. I was just so shy and naïve…”
It was in 1978 that Van Orden moved to Los Angeles and expanded her skill set further behind the camera and on the business end. It was at this period in her life that she also suffered and subsequently bounced back from a most harrowing experience of a lifetime…
“I had the opportunity to come out [to California] because I had owned part of an apartment building; Toluca Clybourne apartments in Toluca Lake… Chris Costello, Lou Costello’s daughter was a tenant [along with] a few other people. I forget their names… At that point, I was tired of being 5 feet 8 and being 115 lbs… It was just too hard… You went to the gym, you lived on celery, carrots, mushrooms radishes, hard boiled eggs and many times you would debate, ‘Am I going to get sugar from the carrot or do I have celery…and get salt from the celery?’ It was really down to that… [So] I went into the business end of the business. There was a man called Arnold Sank who had been a William Morris agent who had gone on to be a personal manager and I said, ‘You know what? I would like to be able to try [working] behind the camera,’… So I went with Arnold Sank. [His office] was on Beverly Drive and he had Leonard Nimoy as a client. Jack Albertson was a client. He had a lot of well known names. I was the secretary, so during lunch, I’d be out getting clients, lining ‘em up, saying, ‘Arnold I was just out to lunch and I ran into so-and-so and let’s bring him in… We could represent him,’ it got to be funny after awhile.”
“But one day I was working late. I left the office and I was in the crosswalk, crossing the street, and an epileptic blacked out and hit me at the impact of 65 miles an hour. I flew up in the air, went through his windshield, and then bounced back out and he dragged me for two blocks. So I was in the hospital a long time. I had twelve breaks in the right leg which went out like a palm tree–humungous breaks not hairline fractures. The left leg was five breaks. I also had inner problems. My back was crushed. My neck was crushed. My head was ripped open. The front scar was 3” by 5” on the left side and in the back about 4” by 6”. I was a mess; unconscious for a long time. So I was in a body and leg casts for 7 months; in the hospital. And the pain was excruciating because they had put a rod, bolts and plate in my right leg. Then I wound up in a hospital bed at home for a year where I had somebody tending to me all the time. Then I got to the point where I could maybe try to go to outpatient therapy at UCLA because I had to learn to walk all over again. Seven months after that they cut the cast off and it was very hard at UCLA at outpatient therapy. It took me almost 2 ½ years going five days a week, four hours every day learning how to walk all over again. And what happened was, you’d work on these machines but atrophy had set in and you’re so sick from all the trauma of what happened to your body that you go so far, then you break out in a cold sweat, then you throw up all over yourself. They drag you in the hall and wipe you down. At the time I still had a cast on my body. They would wipe the vomit off the cast but when you live in a cast for 7 months, you can never get the smell of the vomit off the cast. It was awful. So you lived with that. And when the casts came off, I never knew what was going to be inside… Did I still have legs?… Anyway, it was horrible… But one never knows how they’re going to be until they’re actually in that situation… I was unconscious most of the time. I was in a coma for about three days. I had been shot up with morphine…but the morphine never covered the pain at all… So I went from the wheelchair which I spent a long time in, to the crutches, to a walker, to a cane and it was horrendous. It took a good 8 years out of my life…trying to get back. When I got back and a little better…I was thrilled to death to still have my legs. ‘Cause at one point, one of the legs was in question because there had been so many breaks and there were so many doctors on the case. Three of the doctors wanted to amputate my right leg. But one of [them] said, ‘I saw a German procedure I’ve never tried it but do you want me to try it?’ So I’m in between morphine saying, ‘yes’. And Good Lord I could have said anything!!!”
What got Van Orden through such an ordeal?
“My son was a little boy at the time [about 11-12]. And of course he was devastated because I was his mother, father brother, sister; everybody. He didn’t know what happened to me and they didn’t tell him and it was a horrible thing for him to have to go through… Anyway, I got better. But I never felt sorry for myself believe me. Because my main worry and concern was, ‘What can I do to get up, and get out of this mess ‘cause I have to hold myself together for my son!’ …There were times through all of this where you’d have major break-throughs… You’re able to stand up and actually walk…then you go for months and months: nothing…no progress and then all of a sudden maybe another. It does a horrendous thing to you mentally, emotionally and physically…”
While Van Orden was still waging and winning her battle in recovery, another harrowing struggle had just begun:
“On top of all this, I had to concern myself with workman’s compensation; because I had been on the job in the office at Arnold Sank. I walked across the street to get papers out of my car to come back to finish working and the fellow hit me… I fought workman’s compensation for 27 years and it was horrible… Thank God I had some money to pay these medical bills all along ‘cause I don’t know what would have happened to me… For workman’s compensation you inform them of the cost [of your treatment] and then in 45 days they’re supposed to pay. Well they didn’t and this went on for the longest time. So finally after ten years, I was asked to come down to address some senators about the reformation of the work comp system. So I went down…there were a lot of people there, and it was sad. Some people lost their homes, some people lost their families. Some people wanted to commit suicide. Some people never recovered and it was horrible! So I addressed [the senate]… I gave them all the copies [of my paperwork] and miraculously…after ten years, I got the first reimbursement for my out-of-pocket. Then they paid for a year. Then I went through another group of years that all added up to about 27 years of waiting for them to reimburse me again, fighting them constantly. They harass you they send you to psychiatrists. They say, ‘Why did you jump in front of that car?’ And I’m saying (sarcastically), ‘Yes I would jump in front of a car that doesn’t have any insurance. Of course!’ And the guy had no insurance. He was an epileptic who lived at home with his mother for 45 years. So anyway I felt at that point if I could get through that, I could get through anything.”
…and not only get through but thrive she would, after this dramatic turn of life events as she would go on to embark upon further noted pursuits!
“I got back into the business… with my husband Steve Heilpern: Producer at Universal Studios… He produced Run for Your Life, The Bold Ones, Alias Smith and Jones, The Scanner, The Blue Knight and he won an Emmy for A Case of Rape that starred Elizabeth Montgomery… [We worked with] Alex Singer and Judy Singer; Alex was a director. Judy Singer was a writer… I brought Virtual Reality into Universal Studios; through Alex Singer. We brought in the new concept and everybody was saying, ‘Virtual what?’… They were going to put together a theatre where you experienced virtual reality… We [also] had the company Cinequest. It…produced high quality, low budget films… [Then after] my husband died…I went on to produce some things for The American Film Institute…[and sat on the board]… I produced an event for the CBS Network [and just] produced a lot of different events…. Along the way Anne Nelson who was Senior Vice President of business affairs at CBS Network and the only woman that lasted 60 some years, said to me ‘Barbara why aren’t you performing?’ I said, ‘Anne where is there to perform? There are no nightclubs anymore!’ She said, ‘Go over to the Catalina [Jazz Club]. You’re going to perform over at the Catalina on Sunset Blvd!’ So I took another 11 months and wrote an act again. I hadn’t been on the stage in 30 years, went up, and did it. It was October 9th 2009. I performed, did the show and thought, ‘Boy I really have missed this.’ The show went over very, very well and it’s funny, this sounds like something from a script but it was the truth–so help me God it’s the truth: My lawyer…from my accident happened to be in the audience; and after the performance, he says ‘Barbara…you won’t believe it, they have finally settled!’ I went, ‘Oh my God after 27 years battling them!!!’
From here on out, Barbara Van Orden came 180 degrees back to her roots!
“I wanted to keep performing [so I did] David Green’s production of The Follies with Carol Cooke… I also [worked] with Jo Ann Worley in A Magical Night of Broadway [and did some more performances in Palm Springs.]”
As Van Orden will conclude, “one thing will lead to another” from her musical following and assist in her most current project:
“I have a children’s toy book/animated film that I’m working on [at the moment]. It’s a brand that I’ve created… I can’t talk too terribly much about it right now but in a few months or so I probably will be able to… I would like it to go into a Saturday morning children’s program because it’s unusual… It’s a brand and it’s to help kids get through life [this day in age], because it’s hard; there are bullies out there. It helps kids period. It’s self help.”
To this day it is evident that everything from Van Orden’s upbringing, to her professional prowess, to her hardships, and all the knowledge gleaned along the way have informed not only her life choices but her altruistic manner and need to see others succeed. L.A.’s Next Great Stage Star is one such product of a life so lived!
The Winners of this year’s competition:
In first place, U.S.C. Graduate, most genuine singer/performer, and professional photographer to boot: Tory Stolper
Second Place Honoree: Serial Killer Barbie Songstress—the hilarious Kelley Dorny
The four additional runners up include: The heartfelt Patrick Reilly and Claire Adams, both seniors at U.S.C., each planning on travelling to New York after graduation, a young and enthusiastic Jotape Lockwood, and a fresh faced fervent Mack Kary. Be looking for each and every one of them on a Broadway Stage, Disney Musical set or Vegas Extravaganza near you!
For more information on Barbara Van Orden and L.A.’s Next Great Stage Star please visit: