ANDY ANSELMO: Living His Dream and Teaching Hollywood Stars Like Julie Harris to Do the Same

Republished from: From Lake Erie Magazine

“There is no truer truth obtainable by man than comes of music.”

Those words, uttered by Robert Browning, may well have come from Andy Anselmo, another poet of sorts. A song and voice master with roots in the Lake Erie region, Andy describes his humble beginnings, his glamorous days in entertainment and his hopes for tomorrow with the one constant in his life — love of music.

Andy, The Boy

A native of Buffalo, New York, Anselmo proudly calls the Chautauqua region his second home. After all, he spent most of his childhood weekends just 20 miles northeast of the Institute in the small town of Portland. His grandparents owned a grape vineyard and farm on Route 5 along Lake Erie.

“I loved the farm,” Andy recalls. “What great memories! After picking grapes (his grandfather sold them to the Welch’s plant in North East), we’d get on the horses and ride for hours. I can still smell the grapes ripening on the vine,” he says, taking a deep breath.

Back home in Buffalo, Andy wasn’t picking grapes. He was singing … singing at any little club to which his parents would take him. “During the Depression, people needed to find a way to relax, and one way was visiting the neighborhood hangouts — and everyone of them was packed. I used to beg my patents to take me so I could sing,” Andy remembers.

“The audience would watch this little eight-year-old boy on stage, singing his heart out, — and they’d throw change at me. I’d pick it up and give it to my dad. The money helped our family through a rough time. Yet somehow my sisters, Carolyn and Annetta, and I never felt the roughness. Our parents never let us feel it.”

For that, Andy remains grateful. “My mother had such a positive, optimistic viewpoint. How lucky I am to have inherited that from her. And then there’s my Aunt Mayme. She’s 99 now. Without her I wouldn’t have known entertainment. She and I would go to the movies every chance we had. We didn’t have television, so movies were our only way of seeing what else was out there … the glamour … the music. What a kick!” Without all the positives, all the support from family and friends, Andy admits his life could have easily taken a different course.

Andy, The Student

Under the direction of singing teacher Louise Sleep, Andy trained his voice at the Community Music School of Buffalo and began to visualize his career in music. “Setting goats and visualizing … two very important, very powerful toots,” Andy says with conviction. “Visualizing is something I’ve always done. It is more than daydreaming. It is very specific.”

For example, Andy visualized walking into a radio station and asking the directors for an audition. Andy saw them “falling on their hands and knees with the joy of the request” and granting the tryout. And it really happened that way. Well, except for the part when they fell on their knees.

“One day after singing class, I took a wrong turn, literally, and found myself outside the Mutual Network, WEBR. I just walked in and said, ‘Can I see the program director, please?’ The receptionist said, ‘There he is,’ pointing to a man on the stairs. ‘Go run after him.’ So I did.”

Bob Kliment, WEBR’s program director, allowed Andy an audition that very minute. He liked what he heard and decided to give Andy a try. “Everything was smaller and much simpler then,” Andy recalls. “It’s not likely you would hear that same story today.”

Andy continued to sing at the station through his remaining years in high school and at Canisius College where he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in pre-law in just two and a half years. “It wasn’t that I was a genius. All courses of study were accelerated during the war.”

Andy continued to visualize what was to come after college graduation. He pictured himself attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. It came true again as he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1949 and a master’s in 1951. One of the most influential people Andy met there was William L. Whitney, who, according to Andy, was one of the greatest singers of the early 1900s.

“William was my teacher’s (Louise Sleep) teacher. How often I visualized meeting him … learning from one of the masters.” Whitney taught bel canto, a scientific approach to singing practiced by 18th Century Italians, and is credited with developing the career of Eleanor Steeber, one of radio’s most famous stars.

“William was already well into his eighties when I met him, and he died three years later. But in those few years of instruction, he taught me the techniques I needed to take care of my voice — to keep it strong.”

Andy’s academic background is due in large part to his strong voice. He received scholarships from Fr. Morris’ glee club to attend Canisius and from the Buffalo Foundation to attend the

Conservatory. In addition to his parent’s support, Andy’s other source of financial aid was a natural — performing.

Andy, The Performer

Andy credits WEBR for grooming him into the performer he is today. He not only continued his love of singing by performing in the Armed Forces Mail Call — a group of singers, supported by a full orchestra, who serenaded requests from soldiers or their loved ones at home, but he learned how to speak.

“Because I read letters and song requests on air, the station sent me to speech class. My teacher suggested I get rid of my Buffalo accent. And I did it quickly,” Andy chuckles. “How fortunate I was to learn the importance of speech at such a young age.”

Andy put his WEBR talents to work time and again. While at the Conservatory, a small group from the musical theater review got together to make some extra money.

“We knew in order to live in New York — and eat — we needed to make serious money. And that meant finding a serious agent. Charlotte (the only woman in the group) knew Jack Talan, an agent with MCA (Music Corporation of America), one of the biggest entertainment agencies in the country. Jack fell in love with us mostly because we were fresh, There was nothing jaded about us. We were just three kids from Boston.”

Jack took them under his wing, and it wasn’t long before their act, “Tom, Dick and Carrie,” began traveling across the country. For two years, the group headlined or opened for other acts, like George Gobel.

About a year after the trio graduated from the Conservatory, Andy found himself off-Broadway bound.

“I auditioned for a show called “The Golden Apple,” a Greek myth with a beautiful score, a true American opera. Well, I arrived at the audition a little late because I was doing another show at a club. The assistant said they were all booked up. It couldn’t be true, I thought. This is my show.”

After much hounding, Andy was promised an audition only if all the other actors finished their performances by 5 p.m. The director called Andy on stage at 4:50 p.m.

“I was really worked up and ready at that point. I chose the song “Ridin’ On The Moon” by Buffalo’s own Harold Arlen, and sang my head off. I knew they liked me, but I still had to play the waiting game. The next day I did nothing but wait. And I visualized the phone ranging. It finally rang. I got a part in the musical with Kaye Ballard playing the lead. We became fast friends.”

Andy didn’t stop pursuing his singing passion even after his dream of performing in the theater came true. He continued to sing in clubs like the Astor Roof, Palace Theater and Copacabana in New York and the Fountainebleu Hotel in Miami Beach.

Andy, The Man

“After one of my performances at the Fountainebleu Hotel, I sat out on the balcony of this beautiful suite overlooking a waterway and thought, I’m not presenting the real me anymore. I was in my 40s then. I was all grown up. I had matured, and I wanted to show that side of me to my audience. But I didn’t feel I was accomplishing that anymore. So, I was off to New York … again … to study.”

Andy enrolled at HB Studio, where he studied acting and musical theater with friend and classmate Charles Nelson Reilly.

“Charles taught me more than anyone I have ever met. He helped me; he touted me everywhere. He introduced me to people in the theater I’d never reached before, like Julie Harris. In fact, Julie gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received. She said, ‘You sing the words like Frank Sinatra does.”‘

With a voice like “Old Blue Eyes,” Andy was soon performing a show that Charles had put together for him. Opening night at the plush Greenwich Village restaurant Bon Sort, (French for “Good Evening”), brought in a packed house including critics from “The New York Times” who gave the show two thumbs up.

“I knew the minute I was on that stage — the same stage where Barbra Streisand, Phyllis Diller and Kaye Ballard started their careers — that I never wanted to leave it again. But I had to find a way to make money so I could afford my dream. Charles asked, ‘Why don’t you teach?’ And I said, ‘Geez, I never thought about it.”‘

Not long after Charles’ suggestion, he started to send students to Andy’s small New York apartment.

“My first student was the first woman I ever felt in love with. At age 14, I watched her in “Wuthering Heights” and later in Dark Victory with Bette Davis. I’m talking about the brilliant Geraldine Fitzgerald.”

Geraldine may have been Andy’s student, but he remembers her better as his champion. “She would constantly tell me what a wonderful teacher and director I was. She even put me in the same category with Orson Welles. I was overwhelmed at times … it was all so new to me. But back then Geraldine kept me going. She kept me reaching. And still today, at age 82, she reminds me of the same.”

Andy, The Teacher

Tony Bennett, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Julie Harris, Eartha Kitt, Liza Minnelli, Mary Tyler Moore, Mandy Patinkin, Regis Philbin, Brooke Shields, Joanne Woodward … and the list of Andy’s students goes on.

Every year new hopefuls come to the Singer’s Forum on West 19th Street in New York City to learn from the masters. Andy, founding director, and John Albert Harris, artistic director, started the school 19 years ago.

“John’s background was Juilliard and performance. My background was the Conservatory and speech and voice.” The complementary talents pulled these entertainment forces under one roof. Well, half roof to be exact. At first the duo rented half a loft. But that didn’t stop the students from arriving at the apartment door. Andy remembers 30 to 40 of them climbing the stairs every day for a chance to visualize their careers in entertainment.

“I teach the basic principles of singing: how to breathe, where to place the sound, how to free the throat, and the need for real energy. I also want my students to visualize themselves on a movie screen — 20 feet tall and larger than life — enabling them to conquer their fears.”

Mandy Patinkin, ex-Dr. Jeffrey Geiger on the television drama Chicago Hope, wasn’t afraid when he met Andy. For that matter, he wasn’t sure he wanted to sing.

“Mandy enrolled in the Singer’s Forum when he was 24 years old and just starting out as an actor. His first conversation with me was short and to the point. ‘Andy, I’m an actor, and I’m not that interested in singing. But Geraldine sent me. She said I should study with you, so that’s why I’m here.’ Funny thing, I could tell by his voice he was going to be a singer. It was so unique … a throwback to the greats like Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Al Jolson.”

Mandy worked on scales every day. He wasn’t anxious to move into singing like so many of Andy’s other students. And when he did stretch his vocal cords in song, he sang only one, “Over The Rainbow.”

“And he would sing it … over and over again.” Andy laughs. Then Mandy’s big break came — an audition for “Evita.” He sang his one and only song using a trick ending that Andy taught him to really show off his brilliant voice. As Andy expected, Mandy won the part. “And now he wins the hearts of all his audiences.”

It wasn’t until Andy began teaching that he realized the true impact his teachers had on his career, his life. Without instructors like Louise Sleep, William Whitney

And Lee Strasberg, Andy knows he wouldn’t be the teacher the stars have come to know, appreciate and, most importantly, love.

Andy, At Home … Again

Andy returns home to the Chautauqua region nearly every summer. But this season is different. In August, Andy will visit with a few of his closest friends — the Singer’s Forum faculty — to host a week-long vocal performance retreat.

“This workshop has been in the making for several years, but I never made the right contacts to get a project of this magnitude off the ground. My applause goes to Carol Lawrence for propelling this project.”

The Fredonia retreat, “Study with the Star Makers Under the Stars” is designed for personal growth and challenge in vocal training and performance … the same challenges Andy accepted some sixty years ago in Buffalo, New York, his first home.

And now it seems his grandfather’s farm, now Andy’s farm, is drawing him home again. “I can see a little Tanglewood, a performer’s haven, on the 100-acre farm. So many who summer vacation in this area want more of the arts but simply can’t afford the prices.” Andy visualizes an affordable, state-of-the-art mecca for just those vacationers, those lovers of song. Visualizing begins with an idea. After the idea, Andy has found — and continues to find — nothing is impossible.