By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Sam Levin
By Timothy Lane
By Sam Levin
By Dennis Brown
Sadly, Pamela never had much of a chance to enjoy her status as a cult figure, nor was she able to release the second album she had promised in the liner notes to Into Outer Space. In the early 1980s, says her grandson Kenny Irwin, she suffered a stroke in her house in Fresno, California. "She was in a state," Irwin remembers. "She wasn't Nana Pam anymore."
In 2002, the year Pamela died at 98, playwright Tony Kushner paid tribute to her life in the New York Times Magazine with a short play called "Flip Flop Fly!" Titled after one of her songs, it has since been incorporated into a collection of one-act plays called Tiny Kushner, which has been performed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California.
Kushner portrays Pamela as the embodiment of the can-do American spirit and, in the end, her enthusiasm and optimism are so overpowering that even the war-weary Queen Geraldine of Albania joins her in a song-and-dance number.
No one who knew Lucia Pamela ever doubted that she'd been to the moon. As Marshall Klein, who worked for the Rams for 21 years and now serves as a media consultant to the Rosenbloom family, puts it, "If she said it, I believe it."
In 1908, barely out of toddlerhood, Lucia Pamela Beck made her concert debut in St. Louis. She sang an Indian love song she had written herself. The song appears in altered form on Into Outer Space as "Indian Alphabet Chant." It begins, "A-a-a-a-i-o-aiddy-addy-o-o-o" and proceeds, somewhat erratically, through the entire alphabet.
Her mother, also named Lucia, was a concert pianist and composer and taught her young daughter how to play. Their house in the old West End neighborhood had two pianos, remembers Pamela's son Ken Irwin, who is now 80 years old and lives in Palm Springs, California. "There was a grand piano and a huge rosewood Steinway. They used to play two-piano concertos." Pamela gave her first recital with the Philadelphia Philharmonic when she was seven years old.
A year later she met Ignacy Paderewski, the pianist, composer and future prime minister of Poland, who, she wrote in the liner notes of Into Outer Space, "was so amazed and enthused that he went back stage and gave a note...to Lucia's mother....In this note one of the phrases was, 'Your daughter is a natural born pianist, and she will be the finest pianist in the world when she grows up.'" (The liner notes, though written in the third person, are Pamela's own work and the closest thing she had to an autobiography.)
Pamela didn't simply attribute her success to natural musical talent, but to a freak childhood accident. When she was two years old, she told Chusid, she reached for a cookie that was sitting on a hot stove, and all her fingers melted together. Her doctor "used a knife to slice my melted hands into ten fingers," Pamela recalled. "He didn't give me any thumbs, so it made me a better piano player."
Pamela's father died before she reached her teens, and her mother supported the five children by teaching music and publishing a newspaper, The Public School News, in the basement of their house on Hamilton Avenue. Pamela helped out by going on tour with a fellow pianist named Charles Kunkel who she claimed was "the first cousin of the great Beethoven." Kunkel died one night in the middle of a performance. Pamela finished the concert alone. "Charles would have wanted it that way," she told Chusid.
After Kunkel's demise, Pamela attended Soldan High School on Union Boulevard. She applied to study at the Beethoven Conservatory of Music and Voice but was rejected. "The people in charge of the conservatory in Germany, after hearing her play and sing, told her mother she was already so much advanced there was not much they could do to teach her," she wrote.
So Pamela went home to St. Louis, where she studied music at Washington University and earned extra money recording paper rolls for player pianos. Eventually, she abandoned classical music and taught herself to play the accordion. "Jazz was kind of exciting and more fun to play than Beethoven," explains Ken Irwin. "She got a lot of resistance from her mother, the music teacher."
In 1926 Pamela was crowned Miss St. Louis, beating out 2,000 other contestants. News of her victory spread as far as New York City. The Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld invited her to sing in his famous Follies and threw a party in her honor.
"So," she wrote, "the steps on the ladder of success started to go up, up and up for LUCIA PAMELA."
Fact or fiction?
"I'm not sure what is true," Chusid admits. "It's storytelling. And I don't want to know. She had a very overactive imagination. She spoke with a certain confidence of what she was telling me was true. It's possible she'd been telling those stories for so long, they became fact. It was her reality."
When Chusid visited Pamela in 1991, however, she showed him old newspaper clippings from the Miss St. Louis pageant and photos from her days performing with her band, Lucia Pamela and the Musical Pirates. They show a slender young woman with delicate features and long hair arranged in elaborate curls on top of her head. "She had beautiful hair," remembers her grandson Kenny Irwin. "It was reddish, golden hair, wavy and thick as can be."
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