January 27, 2008 in Features

FAST TRACK TO FAME

A teenage opera sensation, Patrice Munsel became Spokane’s cover girl
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Video: Looking Back: Patrice Munsel

Patrice Munsel
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Some people have a serious gap in their Inland Northwest cultural knowledge: They don’t know Patrice Munsel.

Maybe that’s understandable: Munsel left Spokane for good in 1943 for the Metropolitan Opera, so she’s hardly a household name to people who weren’t even born until decades later.

Still, everyone in the Inland Northwest should know Patrice Munsel. Here are a few reasons why:

• At age 17, not long from Lewis and Clark High School, she won the 1943 “Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air,” a high-brow radio version of today’s “American Idol.”

• She immediately became the youngest singer ever to sign a Metropolitan Opera contract. She remained a Met star for 15 years.

• She made the cover of Life magazine in 1944, Time magazine in 1951 and Life magazine again in 1952. She starred in her first movie, “Melba,” in 1953.

• She had her own TV show, “The Patrice Munsel Show” on ABC in 1957 and 1958.

• She branched out to become a musical comedy star, especially well-known for “Hello Dolly!” and “Mame,” which perfectly suited her spunky personality,

• She was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “The Dean Martin Show,” “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Perry Como Show.” She even did three Las Vegas revues.

She was, in short, one of most popular entertainers ever to come out of Spokane, moving gracefully between the worlds of opera and pop music.

“I think I must have been the original ‘crossover’ singer,” said Munsel, from her home in New York’s Adirondacks.

At 82, Munsel is as vivacious as ever. Opera News this year used the phrases “daffy” and “dizzy” to describe her demeanor.

Was she offended?

“No!” said Munsel. “That made me very, very happy.”

That’s nothing, however, compared to the words that local critics used when she won the Metropolitan Opera auditions in March 1943 and returned for a triumphant hometown concert in June 1943. Lines stretched for blocks outside the Fox Theater.

“Miss Munsel’s program was built with architectural grandeur to reveal all her artistry, both as a musician and as a dramatic coloratura soprano of extraordinary sureness of tone and brilliance of execution,” wrote critic Mabel S. Watrous in The Spokesman-Review. “… The result was nothing short of electrically exciting.”

In December 1943, Watrous attended Munsel’s Met debut in “Mignon” and reported that Munsel received “one of the longest ovations ever heard in the Metropolitan Opera House.”

The tough New York Times critic Olin Downes wasn’t nearly as generous; he called her “cruelly miscast.” But in a few years she had won him over as well, especially in a famous 1950 performance as Adele in “Fledermaus.”

Downes called her “the bright particular star of the whole show” and added that “she is born for Adele’s part by personality, wit, temperament.”

She stayed at the Met until 1958, becoming best known for comedic roles. But she loved doing the tragic roles as well, such as Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

“I loved dying,” she said, with real enthusiasm. “Dying was the most fun.”

How did Munsel trill her way to the pinnacle of the opera world?

She credits her upbringing, in part.

“Fortunately, I was blessed with parents who were a bit off the wall,” she wrote in a brief autobiography on her Web site. “In an insular city like Spokane, they were rare individualists, and thank God, since I was an only child, nothing was denied me.”

As a child, little Patrice decided she wanted to become a professional whistler, after watching the dwarves whistle their way to work in “Snow White.” Her parents, Audley J. and Eunice Munsil (the spelling of her name was changed later by the Met), actually found her a whistling teacher (yes, Spokane had one). Patrice gave whistling recitals, at which she said she was wildly applauded “by what must have been an insane audience.”

She abandoned her whistling career after listening to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the radio. She wanted to grow up to be a Met star. When she was a sophomore at Lewis and Clark High School, she went to New York with her mother to study voice and languages with some of the world’s top teachers. Lewis and Clark gave her a farewell concert, in which she sang “The Bell Song” and “I’ll Never Smile Again,” all the while “gazing soulfully into my teenage boyfriend’s eyes.”

She went back and forth between Spokane and New York for two years, and finally her voice teacher decided she was ready to do the Met auditions, which were broadcast nationally. In the finals – “without a nerve in my body,” as she later said – she sang a triumphant “Mad Scene” from “Lucia.” She was immediately signed to a Met contract.

She debuted in “Mignon” that same year and became one of the Met’s most popular coloratura sopranos. By 1950, she was specializing in “soubrette” roles – comic roles, in opera parlance. In the Time magazine cover story of Dec. 3, 1951, headlined “Soprano from Spokane,” the Met’s formidable general manager Rudolf Bing called her “a superb soubrette – probably without competition at the moment.”

She used her fame to branch out into other areas – concerts, radio, records and movies. She was the musical star of the CBS radio show, “The Prudential Family Hour.” However, her big movie debut, “Melba,” in which she played Australian opera star Nellie Melba, turned out to be a disaster. She was quoted in Opera News as saying, “If I had seen ‘Melba,’ I never would have hired me to do anything.”

She had far more success as a TV guest, on shows like “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” “The Dinah Shore Show,” “The Jimmy Durante Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the “Steve Allen Show.” With her bubbly, cheerful personality, she made an ideal variety-show guest.

She was so popular that ABC gave Munsel her own ABC variety show, “The Patrice Munsel Show,” in 1957, in which she sang songs, performed sketches and bantered with guests such as Buddy Hackett and Eddie Albert. It was canceled in 1958, because it wasn’t attracting children, according to ABC.

“Miss Munsel’s show received good notices from professional critics, who said it was an outstanding attraction among the new musical programs,” said the New York Times late in 1957. “But judging from ABC’s analysis, children find more interest in ‘Zane Grey Theatre’ and ‘The Life of Riley.’ ”

She left the Met in 1958 after achieving one of her dreams of playing Mimi in “La Boheme.” She soon branched out into musical comedy and operetta, starring in “The Merry Widow” at Lincoln Center in 1964 and appearing in dozens of touring and regional productions of Broadway hits.

“I did ‘Hello Dolly’ a lot on tour and ‘Mame’ on tour and in Los Angeles and Dallas,” she said. “I adored ‘Mame.’ ”

And the critics adored her. The New York Times critic Allan Klein wrote, “Temperamentally right for the role, she exudes an intrinsic sense of subtle camp and sly wit … (with) a rich operatic voice that negotiates the songs more pliantly than any Mame in this theatergoer’s experience.”

A Spokesman-Review critic called her “wonderful” in a 1990 touring production of “Mame,” her last performance in Spokane.

With all of her musical comedy experience, from the 1950s into the 1990s, she actually appeared on only one show on Broadway itself: a revue called “A Musical Jubilee” in 1975.

The New York Times critic Walter Kerr said that Munsel sang “Why Was I Born?” “note for note, word for word, and even passion for passion.”

She continued to do TV shows, both as a singer (“The Dean Martin Show” twice in 1967 alone) and as an actress (“The Wild Wild West,” as diva Rosa Montebello in 1969). Before long, she was even doing musical revues in Las Vegas.

She returned to Spokane numerous times, sometimes to receive an award (an honorary doctorate of letters from Gonzaga University in 1968), sometimes in road shows (“Applause” in 1972) and sometimes to lend her name to a cause (honorary co-chair of the Fix the Fox campaign).

“It was a great place to come home to,” she said.

Her usual high spirits were dealt a blow last month on Christmas Day, when her husband of 55 years, Robert Charles Schuler, died at their home in New York. In an obituary which ran in both the New York Times and The Spokesman-Review, Munsel wrote that he was “the handsomest, funniest, most adventurous man I ever met.”

She stayed mostly out of the public eye during his long illness, but Munsel is not the type to stay down for long. She has long been a “popular, uninhibited hostess at charity events,” in the words of Opera News, and she plans to continue appearing at those kinds of events.

“Possibly even performing,” she said. “God only knows.”

Not that she has much left to prove. In the words of critic Watrous, Patrice Munsel proved way back in 1943 “that even in this wartime world, there is still music that can lift the spirits and heart to exultation.”

MEMO: Jim Kershner can be reached at (509) 459-5493 or by e-mail at jimk@spokesman.com.


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