Hitting the High Notes

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last story in an occasional series highlighting performers who played an interesting role in the history of entertainment in Las Vegas. The series will return for four weeks in August.

 

The Metropolitan Opera and the Las Vegas Strip are not often found in the same sentence. It would seem they are as far apart in spirit as they are in miles, but sometimes a performer can bridge that gap. Patrice Munsel was the first.

Beginning in 1955 at the New Frontier, she exposed the desert to opera as entertainment on the Strip. It was said at that time that Munsel was the only classical artist to transition from classical to popular music successfully.

"It was just a small part of my musical life, but it was a hoot when it was happening," Munsel joyfully recalled.

In those days, performers entertained for a month at a time.

"When I first came to Las Vegas it was so totally different," Munsel told me. "And my husband (Robert Charles Schuler) had called the manager after we had negotiated the contract for me along with John Reardon, who went on to the Met. But my husband called the manager and explained that we would need a lot of space while we were out there because we would be accompanied by our two small children then, our cook, and driver, a parrot, two English bulldogs and a nanny.

"This was all in writing. The man responded that the entourage would not present any problems, and he could provide us with spacious accommodations. But he regretted that the nanny goat would have to be sent to a kennel! (She laughs.) That was in the days before people came to Las Vegas with their children and a nanny."

Both Look and Life magazines covered her opening on Oct. 3, 1955, with large pictorial layouts. The Life spread featured Munsel in performance pictures — trim and attractive, her hair pulled back into a long ponytail, wearing an Arnold Scaasi designed outfit. In one picture, Munsel is reclining on a fringe-lined, tufted Victorian love seat, a tiger rug in front of her, her arms above her head, and smiling appealingly. She clearly enjoyed herself, and that enjoyment was contagious. The audiences were enthusiastic. The shows sold out every performance, and the critics raved.

"My husband produced the revue that we did and it was great fun because we divided the stage into two parts: One for opera or classics, and one for jazz and blues and pop music. And it worked beautifully. I could go out with a great Scaasi skirt over my tight embroidered pajamas for a classical aria, and then whip the whole thing off and be in those great, tight embroidered satin pants for a little blues or a show tune."

She found the show to be a comfortable fit.

"It was more me," she explained. "I was just out there. And I would explain what I was going to do — if I was going to do an aria or a duet with John. I would explain what I was singing or if I was singing an aria in a different language, I’d explain that and what the aria was all about. And that would be done on one particular side of the stage with a piano looking very formal with beautiful candles on it, and beautiful draperies, and not an operatic dress, but more one for a concert rather than Vegas."

Attracting attention seemed to come naturally to Munsel, who was born Patrice Beverly Munsil on May 14, 1925, in Spokane, Wash.

"I’ve had a funny life because I had wonderful parents. Fortunately, I was an only child, and they were open to everything," Munsel said. "They understood that I had a really complete focus that I think probably was the stage — showing off. Who knows, whatever it was it got me to where I wanted to go. And they helped, and they paid for all my lessons, and took me to New York when I was 15, with my mother, to start studying for opera, which is why I was able to get in the Met when I was 17."

But before she got to the Met, before her singing voice developed, she studied whistling and birdcalls for seven years. Eventually Munsel’s teacher told her mother she should study Puccini. Munsel craved an audience. And she was gifted.

"I have to tell you something that will amuse you a lot," Munsel recalled. "I was studying ballet and tap and I gave a recital when I must have been about 11 years old. The radio station had a very nice theater, and I gave this recital at the radio station theater to a packed audience while I whistled on pointe. And if you can imagine anything more ridiculous than that! I did classical songs. I did popular songs. I interpolated birdcalls into all of these things while I was in my toeshoes. It was a great success."

Munsel’s talent was noticed by impresario Sol Hurok, who became her manager and got her on at the Met for $85 a week.

When she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York on Dec. 4, 1943, cast as Philene in Ambroise Thomas’ "Mignon," Munsel became the youngest star of the opera company.

Within a year she was earning $150,000 annually from radio, concerts and recordings alone.

I was amazed at her youthful confidence. I asked her if she felt daunted by her success at such an early age. "Darling, nothing daunted me," she replied. "I just loved singing. From the very beginning when I got in the Met when I was 17. I was offered ‘The Family Hour’ on radio that year."

She continued: "It meant that every Sunday I could sing an aria, I could sing the latest song from whatever show had just opened, or whatever marvelous popular song — and in those days there were a lot of them! I could sing everything and reach an enormous audience. So every Sunday that’s what I did. Along with singing at the Met doing ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘The Barber of Seville’ and ‘Lucia di Lammermoor,’ and all of those things, and doing classical concerts as well."

Because she was so versatile, Munsel made numerous television appearances. In 1957, she hosted her own variety show, "The Patrice Munsel Show," on ABC. Her husband was the show’s creator and producer.

(She had married Schuler — president of the publicity firm of Celebrity International Inc. and a magazine writer — on June 10, 1952. They would have four children. Schuler died on Christmas Day 2007 at their home in the Adirondacks, not long after completing the tenderly sweet biography "The Diva and I.")

Munsel would come back to Las Vegas appearing at the Thunderbird, the Sands and the Riviera several times during the 1950s and 1960s. She performed at the Riviera with Buddy Hackett in July 1956; January, May and July of 1957; and in 1960.

A Fabulous Las Vegas Magazine reviewer wrote of her appearance at the New Frontier in June 1956: "Patrice Munsel, lovely diva of Metropolitan fame, returns to this bistro with a sparkling cast of sixty, to enhance her superlative soprano in a dazzling revue that promises to surpass her previous FLV performance. This petite and gracious star has one of the most glorious voices to ever flow from a stage. Her captivating personality will win your heart as she runs the gamut of opera to popular music."

Appearing with her were comedian Henny Youngman, the Blackburn Twins, the Venus Starlets, with choreography by Dorothy Dorben and musical direction by Garwood Van and His Orchestra.

Some may be surprised that Munsel found the enthusiastic response she received in Las Vegas cabaret shows similar to audiences for her Met performances in New York.

"The Met audiences made a lot of noise after big arias. They would scream and ‘Bravo!’ and carry on like crazy and they still do," she said, smiling. "And they did it in Vegas, too. They were very noisy. That’s what mother’s milk is to us.

"Applause is half of what we’re out there for. It’s wonderful. It’s exciting! You can get this wonderful response from the audiences’ eyes when they’re close enough. And in Vegas they were close enough so that you could see their faces and see their eyes and see how they’re responding to what you’re doing."

The difficult part of performing in Las Vegas was the hectic pace of two shows a night. "I’m glad that I did it, and it was a part of my life. And a fun part," she said.

Munsel would eventually take on stage work ("Mame," "Applause") and dramatic parts on television shows.

"I didn’t tackle anything I didn’t think I could do superbly — with theater, or television, or radio, or Las Vegas," she told me.

Munsel is still involved with theater today, often sailing and entertaining with the Theater Guild annually to exotic ports of call.

Munsel’s life has been full. She has experienced show business in all of its aspects.

"The time I was with the Met lots of female opera singers simply devoted their lives to their career — which is no life at all, you know," Munsel told me. "It’s fun. But there’s nothing like having a great, handsome husband who was also amusing and adventurous. And having children, and being able to have the career at the same time. It’s all wonderful. And I feel totally, totally blessed."

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