By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
Late in 1926, after rejecting a career in vaudeville, Pamela married an insurance man named Reginald Irwin, who would be the first of her three husbands. Their daughter, Georgia, was born in November of 1927, and Ken came along two years later.
Motherhood did not impede Pamela's musical career. Ken Irwin remembers her performing throughout his childhood with the Musical Pirates, the first all-girl orchestra in the United States.
"They started as a novelty act," he says. "They were beautiful women dressed as pirates. But people would come to watch them perform because they were extremely talented musicians. In an age when a woman being able to vote or work wonderful jobs standing up in a telephone center was considered the height of achievement, [Pamela] was really unreal as far as breaking through glass ceilings."
The Musical Pirates played the rooftop of the Chase Park Plaza and the nightclub at the elegant Statler Hotel and eventually became the house band for the Odeon Theatre. They performed on KMOX (1120 AM), and Irwin says the violinist eventually went on to national radio.
When the Depression hit, though, the band had trouble getting gigs. The musicians' union wouldn't let them join, Ken Irwin says, because they were women. The Musical Pirates broke up, and Pamela went solo, performing as a featured accordionist with the Lionel Hampton and Paul Whiteman orchestras, two of the biggest dance bands of the '30s and '40s.
After her divorce from Reginald Irwin in 1943, she took her children with her on tour. Georgia, who had aspirations of becoming an opera singer, eventually joined the act. They called themselves the Pamela Sisters and were very popular on the USO circuit. (Pamela told Chusid she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her service.)
But Ken Irwin's most vivid memory of his mother from that time was from a show with Hampton in San Francisco during World War II:
"She was playing an accordion covered with diamonds," he recounted in Los Angeles magazine. "When the floodlights hit it, it absolutely lit up the stage. She did a back bend while leaning into the orchestra pit, playing that heavy accordion.
"She ran her hands down the keys so it sounded like the accordion was falling, and the floodlights cut out at exactly that moment. People in their seats all gasped, they thought she'd fallen, but then she would come back up playing the rest of the song, and the spotlight turned on again. That was a showstopper."
Pamela moved west to Fresno, California, in 1947. She never gave up singing, but the era of the big bands had come to an end, and the venues became considerably less grand: car-lot openings, bowling alleys and, memorably, the Moon-Glow Drive-In.
"I'm the only person who has ever had a vaudeville show at a drive-in movie," she proudly told the Los Angeles Times. "We played before the movie started, during intermission and when the cars were leaving."
She decided to embrace the then-new media and became (she said) the first person to appear on both radio and television. Her first show, Gal About Town, was a list of events going on in Fresno. On the second, The Encouragement Hour, says Ken Irwin, "she would take young people and train them, and they would appear on her show. She would coach them how to look and dress. It was like American Idol.
"My daughter was talking to the mayor of Fresno," he continues, "and he said of my mother, 'She made me who I am today.' He was on the show and said she taught him how to appear with people and be comfortable in front of an audience, to be a politician."
In 1962 Pamela took a job managing the Fresno amusement park Storyland where she also portrayed Mother Goose. After her retirement, she worked with several volunteer organizations.
She never divulged the details of her trip to the moon outside of what appeared in the album and coloring book, though she did once tell Chusid she considered recording some tunes on Venus but decided she didn't like the atmosphere. "All the music is true," she informed Neil Strauss in a 1992 article in New York Press. "Most of it is from experience."
Chusid and Erik Lindgren have tried to figure out how, exactly, Into Outer Space was recorded.
"The album is definitely the work of one person," Chusid posits. "I presume she had an engineer because the reverb is great. It has a real lo-fi sound. Bands used to spend tens of thousands of dollars to go into the studio and get crappy sound like that. I really don't know when it was recorded. For an album from 1969, it's not really pegged to what was going on musically."
"At this point," says Lindgren, "I really do think it was recorded on the moon."
The circumstances of the album's distribution are only slightly less mysterious. Gulfstream was a fairly well-known rockabilly label in the late 1960s and early '70s. "I can't see them signing her," Lindgren says. "I'm pretty sure it was a vanity project that she bankrolled herself. A year later, there was a second pressing on L'Peg. Apparently, she needed more copies. I'm fascinated that it had to be re-pressed. There were about 500 originally. I don't know if she sold them or gave them away."