By Stanley Paul
Right after my original 13-week contract from The Pump Room was up, I returned back to New York. It was early spring 1965. My agent quickly got me another booking at a new place called the Chateau Renaissance in North Bergen, New Jersey, located off a truck stop near the Lincoln Tunnel. Why anyone would have wanted to build such an elaborate nightclub and hotel there was anyone’s guess. The place looked like an Atlantic City Trump version of the Taj Mahal met “The Merchant of Venice.” Coyly lit scenes of Florence in the Renaissance were splashed everywhere, complete with tons of imitation marble and gilded Roman statuary.
I think you get the idea. It was an ersatz set gone wrong. However, it was here in this unlikely place that I made the acquaintance of one Miss Bette Davis!
I found a copy of the ad for the Chateau Renaissance, probably May 1965.
You might be wondering how Miss Davis came to such a place. A few weeks prior, Bette Davis had been on her way to New York, back from Philadelphia (where she had been a guest on The Mike Douglas Show). She was stranded en route by the great New York City blackout when she happened upon the sign for the Chateau Renaissance — and, since she couldn’t get to New York, decided to stop there for the night. She pulled in with her manager, Viola Rubber. Yes, that was her name, as in the tree.
Miss Davis had become absolutely smitten with the manager of the Chateau, who was at least a decade younger than she was. (A fact that didn’t seem to bother her one bit.) She had already been a regular a few weeks before I arrived. During my opening night, Miss Davis sent a note to the piano, requesting me to join her after I finished my first set.
Seated at the piano, as I gazed around the club, there was one particular spot that was completely shrouded with cigarette smoke. I knew Bette Davis had to be at that table.
My heart thumped violently as I creakily made my way over. There she was, holding court with a cigarette dangling between her fingers. She looked exactly as she did in the movies.
“YOUNG MAN, WHERE DID YOU E-VAH LEARN TO PLAY THE PI-A-NO LIKE THAT?” were her first words to me before I even sat down. I thought, my God, she really does talk like she does in the movies.
Her arm gestured wildly. “I ABSOLUTELY ADORE THE WAY YOU PLAY THE PIANO. BUT YOU WILL NE-VAH GO ANYWHERE IF YOU DO NOT SING THE LY-RICS TO THOSE WONDERFUL SONGS YOU PLAY.”
I was speechless. I had never even thought about singing, but I kept thinking, I’m sitting before one of the world’s greatest stars and she’s giving me career advice. Maybe she’s right. Maybe it was something I should be doing. Maybe that was what was missing from my budding career.
“YOU MUST GET A VOCAL COACH AND START IMMEDIATELY,” she advised, peering at me through thick plumes of smoke. All I could stammer back was, “Thank you for the wonderful advice, Miss Davis,” before my legs took me back onstage for my last set.
I couldn’t get her words out of my head.
This is the picture she gave me the night I met her. She signed the photo, “sing-sing-sing.” Unfortunately I followed her advice.
On the way back to New York that evening in the car, I started singing, and singing, and singing! Until the car was in the middle of the Lincoln tunnel and my bass player said sharply, “Stanley, will you shut the hell up? You sound terrible!”
I shot him a glare. What did he know? Maybe I could become the next Bobby Short. Maybe I could become a singing sensation in Las Vegas. My mind was abuzz with all these wild ideas.
As soon as morning came, I flipped through a telephone book and found a recommended vocal coach. Her name was Coe Glade. Her studio was in an old apartment building on 72nd Street on the West Side, which was the kind of place that opera singers lived in those years. I discovered that Miss Glade had been the diva who sang Carmen at Radio City Music Hall’s opening in 1932. Now, a vision of her former self, with outstretched flaps of operatic arms, she even still had Carmen’s comb firmly in her slicked-back, black-shoe-polish hair.
I soon became her devoted student, and practiced singing loud every day. The piano in my apartment was near a window, and every once in a while, you could hear a neighbor’s window slamming shut. A few of the other neighbors weren’t afraid to hurl expletives and threats. But nothing could stop me now! Especially when I received a letter from the legend herself.
This is a copy of the letter that she sent me, telling me what songs I had to sing. I love her last line, “You are to sing all of these!!”
I practiced diligently every day, and three weeks later, I felt ready to make my singing debut. I eagerly called Viola Rubber to find out where I could reach my mentor, Miss Davis, to share with her that I was ready for her and all the world to hear me.
A few days later, Miss Davis called me. “ARE YOU ANY GOOD, STANLEYPAUL? ARE YOU PRACT-TISSING?” (She always called me by my full name in one word.) And she promised to see me in a few weeks, as she was out on the West Coast doing some television appearances.
In the interim, I drove my neighbors nearly crazy, and bragged to friends, family, even employees in the restaurant about my “upcoming triumph in blending the two musical arts.” Finally, to everyone’s relief, the big night arrived. I was onstage when I noticed that Bette Davis and her party had arrived.
About 20 minutes later into my set, she had a note sent to me: When are you going to sing, Stanley Paul? I quickly readied myself, and burst, and I do mean burst, into my own enthusiastic version of Ezio Pinza’s “Some Enchanted Evening.”
Eyes widened. Patrons in the restaurant looked at each other in disbelief. The waiters stopped serving as silence descended upon the restaurant.
And Miss Davis? She was doubled over laughing. Her response surged to a howl when the manager of the club advised me, “Stick to the piano, Paul.”
As I approached her table after my singing debut, she gazed at me with those “Bette Davis eyes.” “WELL, MAYBE THAT WASN’T SUCH A GOOD IDEA AFTAH ALL! PEOPLE WILL HAVE TO THINK THE WORDS, STANLEYPAUL! YOU BETTER JUST PLAY!”
We became good friends after that memorable evening. I think she may have felt a little guilty about the whole thing. Any time Bette Davis was there — which was often — it was a given that I’d sit with her during my breaks. She would always be in the middle of a gigantic cloud of smoke, with the usual two open packs of Chesterfield cigarettes lying near her on the table. God forbid they should run out! During these evenings, she would fill me in with funny stories about her lengthy movie career. Bette had a wonderful sense of humor I discovered. I remember one particular evening when I neared her table and noticed she was blinking madly. She had on false eyelashes, but the glue had stuck the top and bottoms together. “DON’T YOU THINK I LOOK AS GLAMOROUS AS JOAN? HOW THE HELL DOES SHE WEAR THESE DAMN THINGS ALL THE TIME?”
She loved to play pranks. I’ll never forget the night Bette Davis became a car hiker at the Chateau. The car parkers for the restaurant wore red wool coats with gold braiding and red stocking caps. And they carried flashlights. “NOW THAT WOULD BE A FUN JOB!” she announced, marching off toward the drop-off spot on the Chateau’s long circular driveway. In seconds, she persuaded one of the car hikers to lend her his coat, cap, and flashlight. She even added a pair of big sunglasses. The next thing I knew, she was waving the flashlight around, directing traffic through the entrance and yelling, “PAHK RIGHT HERE! PAHK RIGHT HERE!”
Of course, none of the patrons knew it was Bette Davis guiding them in. Who’d even suspect? To this day, I wonder how they would have reacted if they had known it was the film legend herself. She was having so much fun doing this, but after 15 minutes, she got bored with the whole exercise. “I TURNED IN MY COAT,” she announced. “NOT A GOOD CAREER MOVE, EITHER.” And she started laughing. “WOULDN’T THEY HAVE FUN WITH THAT ONE! NOW BETTE DAVIS IS PAHKING CARS FOR A LIVING!”