Feather boas and fancy hats set to music
ILWACO - Barbara Poulshock leads us into her sewing room off the main store, Nina's Antiques and Closetries. In the background a flute plays on her tape recorder as she laughingly apologizes for the mess. What she calls a mess is incredible creativity to someone who hyperventilates even at the thought of sewing or playing the piano.
Poulshock does both with elan. While I'm fiddling with my tape recorder (the only kind of fiddling I can do), Barbara makes a quick phone call to two voice students waiting for her at her house.
"Will you guys start practicing if I don't get there right on time? I'm not going to be very long. She's going to take some pictures." The woman on the other end of the line has something to say about all that, and Poulshock laughs - a mezzo-soprano, breathing from the diaphragm, full-throated guffaw.
We sit at a table used for spreading out material to be cut for all kinds of sewing projects Poulshock has going. I prop my tape recorder on an ironing board, check to see if it's recording, and then I ask her to spell her name. I suggest that this shop with Poulshock original hats and period dresses is a bit different from her music career. She shakes her head and laughs as she explains the connection between her singing and sewing.
"When I was teaching at PLU (Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma), we did the costumes and everything. Once we made 18 nun's habits out of sheets." She laughs that joyous laugh again as she talks about borrowing rooms from professors to sew costumes or actually sewing in the halls. With racks of costumes lining the halls, the conductor of the symphony would often come down the stairs, saying, "'Do you have anything in a 38 long?' as if he were entering a clothing store. So I make the hats, and it's all a kind of remembering a lot of fun times we had."
Poulshock was head of the opera department at PLU, and she and the students made all of the costumes for small presentations. When they did whole operas, big productions, they rented things. Otherwise, they made everything and recycled everything.
"If you squinted your eyes, they looked great from a distance" she says with a chuckle. "Once when we were doing Gilbert and Sullivan's 'Trial by Jury,' we had a whole group of extras attending the trial. They were all making their hats right up until about seven o'clock opening night."
Poulshock taught at PLU for 24 years - 1970 to 1994 - producing whole operas and other vocal performances, teaching vocal literature and vocal pedagogy (how to teach singing), and doing Elderhostel in the summers, when the program included Scandinavian studies. She is not Scandinavian, she explains, but when asked if she wanted to teach opera again one interim, she said she wanted to teach something she'd never taught before.
"I said, 'Let's do Scandinavian music.' So I did a lot of studying of Scandinavian music. Then when Elderhostel came around in the summer, I had 60 people just adoring this music and having so much fun. I thought, 'Well, they're here for three hours. Maybe we can do some class singing. I said, 'Would any of you like to study a little bit about singing?' They all said, 'Oh, yes!' So here were all these people over sixty [so eager to learn something new], and we had a great time. Of course, I had some marvelous singers and wonderful literature playing all day long, every day. It was great."
Not surprisingly, Poulshock not only teaches singing, but she herself is a singer. She doesn't sing much anymore, she says, but sometimes. "When I sleep good," she adds, laughingly qualifying her admission. I press her for details. Did she do opera?
"I did mostly recitals and sang with symphonies." She shares this information about her vocal career as if it is not an unusual bit of information to share. The range of her talents and accomplishments are - to use a word much over used today - awesome. It was, however, opera that brought her together with the man she would marry.
"Norm and I met - actually - in Hawaii when I was working in the preparation of "Pirates of Penzance", and Norm was playing French horn in the pit. I didn't do much opera except directing and doing some scenes in different places, but not on a grand scale surely. But I did lots of recitals. Singing everywhere."
Reminiscing a bit, Poulshock talks about growing up in Los Angeles, where her father was a musician as the oboist with the David Rose orchestra. Her father was, as she puts it, born at the right place at the right time. It was the era of the Big Bands, she recalls, and all these talented, young musicians were just starting out and hot and working in the studios. She remembers listening to the radio with all the band singing, "J-E-L-L-O," on the Jack Benny Show.
Probably all of us who grew up in that generation have those memories; however, most of us didn't know the famous people singing to us about our favorite quivering dessert. She remembers her father doing the Red Skelton and the Crosby shows, as well as concerts. When her father wanted her to start playing the piano, he just went out and bought a grand piano.
"A baby grand!" She laughs to remember. "He was going to have his daughter have the best he could get," she adds thoughtfully.
Celebrity is an interesting phenomenon, especially as seen through the eyes of children. I ask Poulshock if she had been aware of her father's celebrity when she was growing up, and she leafs back through her memories of those times to retrieve the ones that stand out.
"He was a marvelous musician," she begins, and then lists his accomplishments. He was a nationally known oboist, but he didn't take up the oboe until his daughter was ten or so. He played saxes and clarinet until he realized the real demand was for oboists. He started studying the oboe and finding teachers - and he always made sure his daughter had the best teachers.
"I remember how he would take me to George Leibling's big apartment. He was a great piano teacher. The Leiblings were a great family. Estelle Leibling was teacher to Beverly Sills for her whole life. This whole family had come here from Germany, and they were very well known. But I wasn't really ready for him. I was too young and not that good to be studying with somebody like that." She wakes up my own memories by recalling the old Lux Radio Theatre.
"I remember I would walk with him to the Lux Radio Theatre, listen to the show, and then we would come home together. So I had wonderful teachers and study, and then I started accompanying singers. One day just out of my mouth came a very sweet voice. So, I cut my own record and played it for my dad. He said, 'Who's that singing?' I said, 'That's me.' He said, 'Now you're going to be a pianist. Remember?'"
Remember records? The old 78s? The 33 and 1/3rds? The 45s? The 12-inch 33s with one song on each side? It isn't that we're getting old. It is more that technology has moved at Mach 9 speed. I am intrigued, and I ask her to explain how she was able to cut a record. Poulshock talks about cutting a record as if she were giving me a pie recipe. Pies I understand.
"Well," she begins, "we were able to cut a record ourselves on our own machine, like making a tape now. You took a certain flat 78 and a certain needle you would put on, and all these threads would come off, and you would have all these grooves cut into a 78. That's how it was done."
As she talks, I realize I am taping her talking right then, and I don't understand that either. Don't have to, thank goodness.
So, Poulshock started a singing career, and then, she says, she sort of got the cart before the horse. She got jobs at different universities before really finishing her degree - first teaching at what was then called Long Beach State, now University of California at Long Beach. Her first professional job was with synagogues in California doing Sabbaths every Friday night. Then she did a benefit for Israel around 1940 when people were beginning to raise money for Israel. Eddie Cantor was there with all these other important actors. She was just a kid then, maybe 18.
"So I sang some Hebrew songs, and I sang some Yiddish songs, and then I sang the Lord's Prayer." She laughs that joyous laugh again to remember her own naivety. "Then I hit that nigh note and it was gorgeous, and then I stopped and realized what I had done, and I was embarrassed. But everyone was very kind. The Rabbi and a lot of other people came up and said, 'Well, you know we respect you as a great prophet.'
She did the synagogue circuit for a while, and then she went to Hawaii where she met Norm Poulshock, an arranger and composer. Norm was stationed there in the Navy. Barb stayed for a while, and then she went back home. But Hawaii and Norm called.
"I went back to Hawaii on the Matsonian, a small ship, the first commercial ship to sail after WW II." She was especially impressed that Hilo Hattie was on that ship. The natives swam to the boat to greet Hilo Hattie, and people were shining mirrors from all the hills over the island. "It was a big event," she says.
This one reference sends me in search of more information about Hilo Hattie, and I find it on the Internet, of course, where technology often unearths and throws light on buried history.
Apparently, Don McDiarmid, Sr. was a member of the Harry Owens band at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1935, when "he wrote this song, a clever tune about a sexy siren, but a tune not 'high class' enough to be performed at the hotel." Then McDiarmid put the tune aside, until a year later, when Clara Inter, a schoolteacher and member of Louise Akeo's Royal Hawaiian Girls' Glee Club, found the song and performed it on a trip to Canada with the glee club.
In the summer of 1937, while McDiarmid was leading his own band in the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Clara Inter insisted on performing this song that catapulted the composer and dancer to fame. Clara was so closely identified with the song that she adopted the title as her legal name. (The source of the story of the origin of Hilo Hattie and the song that fostered her legend are attributed to Derek Lamar: Hawaiian Music and Musicians by George Kanahele, Noble's Hawaiian Favorites, Copyright 1936, 64 Miller Music Corp.)
"Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop," by Don McDiarmid, Sr. and John Noble, describes what happens when Hilo Hattie sings her rendition of the Hilo Hop. Traffic comes to a stop, sugar raises cane, palm trees sigh, ukuleles fret, and birds won't fly. Even the Humuhumunukunukus stop swimming by. By all accounts, Hilo Hattie leaves nothing to the imagination doing a dance that is more than the law allows, even waking dormant volcanoes. Hilo Hattie gets thrown in jail, but she convinces even the judge and eventually St. Peter to be lenient, "when Hilo Hattie does the Hilo Hop."
This is a far cry from opera and classical piano, but Barbara Poulshock takes music wherever she finds it and in whatever form. Just go to Pastor Samantha Weir's Ocean Park Methodist Church some Sunday. Poulshock accompanies the congregation, the choir, and instrumental or vocal soloists. If you're lucky, you can hear a bit of improvising on any given Sunday, especially around Christmas, when you might hear a reverent, but lively version of "Jingle Bells" being played during the offertory. But then if it's church, it's not a matter of luck, is it?
It has always music that connected and blessed Barbara and Norm Poulshock's lives. Norm went to the Navy School of Music and then was shipped to Hawaii, where Barb met him after the war was over. When they married, their music connections graced even their wedding table with a beautiful meal prepared by a friend and restaurateur for whom Norm had done musical arrangements. Back again in Los Angeles, they started their family. This still seems a long way from teaching opera at PLU in Washington state, Poulshock explains.
After ten years of living in Los Angeles, Barbara and Norm decided to get rid of all their commitments to choirs and concerts and teaching and just go live in the woods. A lot of people dream about living that life. Norm and Barbara Poulshock actually did it - for ten years - while living on Recreation Creek between Medford and Klamath in a resort area in the mountains of southern Oregon. Norm got a job teaching in Klamath Falls. Barbara taught some while raising their children, but then the school levy failed miserably, and they had to move north, where Norm got a job in Shoreline District in the Seattle area. Re-enter: opera and classical music.
Her first contract was with the Cascade Symphony, an Edmonds symphony, doing the Ravel "Scheherazade." As it would happen in Barbara Poulshock's own personal musical fairy tale, the music director from PLU happened to be in the audience that evening. Next day, he called to ask if Poulshock would consider teaching at PLU.
"Everything happened to me like that," she says. "On my first sabbatical I wrote some folk songs to some nice accompaniments. I had some little forewords about how to approach certain hurdles in the singing part of them and how to interpret and envision what the story is about. Certain things that would help [people] interpret well musically. I sent them off to a publisher, and they published them, which was just wild because you don't usually do that, you know."
Poulshock has had two books published, and now she's working on a third.
"I still have my ten Emily Dickinson songs to send again. She's my favorite poet. They've been sung. They are sung still all over the place because people have found copies here and there. I'm going to work on those some more. I've also set some William Blake poetry. So I am doing some publishing. But I find writing is like putting a book under your face and never getting out of it. I think, 'Well, I can't go up this morning and write because I know I'll want to stay all day, and I have to cook breakfast and dinner.' This I can just set away any old time."
Barbara and Norm's three children are following in their footsteps, but in their own creative ways. One son has Red Door Films in Portland. Their daughter is an artist who makes miniature furniture. Their younger son is a teacher at Tokyo University and a singer who writes his own music. Poulshock isn't surprised her children have artistic talents. Besides being a musician, her father was a painter who did still life paintings, and her sister is a visual artist, also.
"My mom was the nester, so I think I got a lot of that from her. She didn't have much opportunity being a young wife to - you know - go to school. In those days ... well, my dad finished high school. My mother finished ninth grade and went to work."
We talk about how Poulshock herself juggled her music career while raising three children, and she reflects on her own experience. Norm had polio during the polio epidemic in the late '40s when their first son was six months old. "It was a long recovery," she says thoughtfully, "and I didn't - well, actually those first few years, I just sang for myself."
As he got better, they moved to another area where he could have outpatient care, and they had their second child. Then they bought a little vacation house from her dad and mom and moved to the other Long Beach, where Poulshock went to Long Beach State and got her first teaching job. She had done a lot of performing and was hired mostly on the basis of that with the promise that she would work on her degree.
"Norman was better by then, and he was on his Kenny sticks." He went to Long Beach State and got his master's degree. They moved again, and by that time they were so busy they were ready for a change. They had gone up to Klamath where Barbara's parents went regularly to fish, and Poulshock said, "Wouldn't this be an adventure?" And Norm said, "Well, it's not a bad idea."
They were both tired of the rat race in southern California, "so we just went," with two kids in a Volkswagen. They stored their piano and all their precious belongings, family antiques and such, and off they went pulling a little motor boat filled with things they needed, waving goodbye to LA and smog and all that busy-ness.
"The smog was so bad then that I had to put wet cloths over the kids' eyes, but then we drove up to that peak where we lived on that hill - so sunny and clear, no rain, just sun and then snow. David and Norm were out chopping wood one morning, and David said, 'You know, Dad, aren't we lucky? Other kids can't do this.' And David built a tree house in the aspens, and he built this raft and had no way to stop it, so we just waved to him as he went down Recreation Creek and then we drove the car down to get him where the raft finally stopped."
Norm was busy writing and composing on the computer before he died in June of this year. Poulshock says she has never "touched that thing," claiming she still has too much music to learn. Currently, Poulshock has six students - including "two wonderful sopranos, and two very precocious children" - and she plays every Sunday at the Ocean Park Methodist Church.
"I love my job there because Pastor Sam just lets me play anything. Before the service, I can play Bach, Debussy, whatever. It's just great. And of course hymns. I made a CD for the church to raise money for the new building they're going to have." She has several CDs of her own performances now. The husband of one of her former students took tapes of all Poulshock's concerts and put them on CDs. "So I have all those memories (on CDs)," she says.
Poulshock and her students have rolled a piano down the street to move it from the student's apartment to the nursing building in order to have a larger rehearsal space. She has directed operas performed in a space with a bowling alley above. Fortunately, the opera was about war, and the college president thought the bowling balls were just sound effects. She has taken minimal sewing skills to new heights making costumes for all the operas she's directed. She has taught 23 years, doing two productions a year, one in the spring, one in the fall, 46 productions all told.
Poulshock considers the total production of Bernstein's "Candide", in which she played the old lady, the highlight of her career. However, she can reel off a formidable list of opera scenes and complete operas she has produced, directed, sewn for, played roles in, and/or rolled pianos down the street for. The complete "The Mikado", "Rigoletto", "The Consul", "Martha", "Carmen", "Bluebeard", "Hansel and Gretel" complete, "La Boheme", "Die Fledermaus", and a lot of Puccini, to name a few.
No Wagner, no Russian operas - because: "Wagner's much too big having been written for Heldentenors (big men with powerful voices with a high range) and Wagnerian sopranos (buxom women with powerful voices and a high range). Wagner's music is written for a huge orchestra, and to sing over that is sort of a no-no for any young singer."
Retired from college teaching, Poulshock admits that she misses her job somewhat. She misses playing all that great music, she misses her students - and she misses Norm.
But make no mistake. Barbara Poulshock is not retired in the usual sense. Currently, she is co-owner of Nina's Antiques and Closetries with Nancy Lela Paine, where Poulshock draws on those years of experience making costumes for operas. The shop is filled with creations and collections of vintage dresses and hats, some old, some new. She is ever on the go. Nonetheless, she honors my request for her to play a few bars on the keyboard there in the shop before she's off and running again.
"I have two sopranos waiting for me," she says, and she's out the door.
I may be mistaken. It might just have been my imagination. But as Poulshock made her exit on her way to the two waiting sopranos, I thought I heard something in the air that sounded like, "O, sole mio," roughly translated, 'mine alone." That's Barbara Poulshock. In a class all by herself.