Moon Lady: The long, wondrous life of Lucia Pamela

Moon Lady: The long, wondrous life of Lucia Pamela

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In the spring of 1969, several months before Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11, an American nightclub singer and radio personality named Lucia Pamela built herself a rocket ship, fastened her seat belt, said a quick prayer and blasted into outer space.

The first stop of Pamela's fantastical voyage was the moon. She landed in a place called Moontown, inhabited by moon people who dressed like cowboys. They welcomed her warmly and invited her to an Eskimo wedding. To show her appreciation, Pamela did what came naturally: She picked up her accordion and sang.

Moontown is a place to go.
Whether it's hot or whether it's cold,
The weather on the moon is the best, I'm told.
On the highways and byways and valleys, it's true,
There's no finer people than the moon people to you!

With the help of her new lunar friends, Pamela made a recording of "Moontown" and a dozen other numbers. She played fifteen instruments, including the piano, clarinet, drums, cymbals and what sounds like a theremin. The sound quality was poor, and Pamela's voice occasionally wavered offkey. "The air is different up there, you know," she later explained. Still, the old pro belted out her songs with gusto. It had been 60 years since her stage debut in her hometown of St. Louis, and there wasn't much that could faze her.

After returning to Earth, Pamela released her lunar recordings on Gulfstream Records, a small label in Hollywood, Florida. She called the album Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela. It sold well enough to warrant a re-pressing in 1970. Then it fell into obscurity until 1992, when a New Jersey DJ named Irwin Chusid recognized it as an unheralded classic and included a chapter on Pamela in his book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music.

It's difficult to describe Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela, though many earthbound music critics have tried. "Imagine an LP of a peyote-soaked klezmer band, recorded with Joe Meek passed out at the console, wavering on your turntable between 31 and 35 rpm," wrote Chusid.

It has "the feel of a warped bebop children's album," Neil Strauss ventured in the New York Times. R. J. Smith wrote in Los Angeles magazine that it sounded "like a Dixieland band carrying boxes of silverware stumbling down a staircase."

At first, listening to the album is a painful experience. Yet there's something endearing about Pamela's raspy voice, her swingy piano-playing and her absolute conviction that she is, indeed, on the moon. "Ooooh, I see elves!" she exclaims impatiently at the beginning of the song "Walking on the Moon." "Let's take a walk on the moon! Come on! Come on! Come oooonn!"

"Her voice sounded like a woman in her second, third or fourth childhood," Chusid observes.

The tune is catchy. After a few choruses, it's difficult not to sing along.

As I was walking on the moon,
I met a little cow-ow-ow,
And this is what she said to me:
Da-da da-da-da-da da-da,
moo-moo-moo-moo moo-moo moo-moo-moo-moo!!!!
And that's what she said to me!

"I started playing her on the radio," Chusid remembers in a recent interview. "People loved her. There's a lack of inhibition and joie de vivre. It's very sincere and genuine. You don't get the impression that she's trying to sound shocking and avant-garde. There's a sense of adventure."

Chusid and Erik Lindgren re-released a CD version of Into Outer Space on Lindgren's label Arf! Arf! Records out of Middleborough, Massachusetts. A new generation discovered Pamela, and though the album never sold more than 2,000 copies, it became a cult classic.

In the 1970s Pamela drew and released a coloring book intended to be a companion to the album. In addition to the people of Moontown, it includes pictures of the French-speaking residents of neighboring Nutland Village — Messieurs Walnut, Filbert and Cashew — and a man in a dog costume smoking a cigarette. She announced an international coloring contest open to all. "Children aren't the only people who like to color books," she insisted. (Because the contest had no deadline, a winner was never declared. Some suspect Pamela was waiting for entries from as-yet undiscovered parts of the galaxy.)

The British band Stereolab wrote a song about Pamela called "International Colouring Contest." It appears on their 1994 album Mars Audiac Quintet. Vocalist Laetitia Sadier writes in a recent e-mail: "There was something radically optimistic about her, that imagination was strongest of all and would conquer all, which was really inspiring."

A Belgian artist and filmmaker named Danielle Lemaire became so fascinated by Pamela's work and delightfully eccentric spirit that she traveled to Los Angeles in 1998 and spent several days with the singer collecting footage for a documentary about her life.

She later visited the site of Pamela's childhood home on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis but found that it had been demolished. Though Lemaire finally finished her film last year, she hasn't been able to release it because of difficulties getting the rights to use Pamela's work.

Those rights are owned by the Rosenbloom family, which also owns the St. Louis Rams. The late matriarch, Georgia Frontiere, in another odd twist to the legend, was Pamela's daughter.

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 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."

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."

Pamela promoted the album by driving around Fresno in a pink Cadillac emblazoned with bumper stickers that read: "Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela." She claimed the Cadillac could fly.

These days, an original copy of Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela is a collector's item, selling for as much as $1,000.

The Arf! Arf! reissue has been far less profitable. "We've sold maybe 1,500, 2,000 copies," estimates Lindgren. "It's a pretty limited market. When one sells, it's a major victory." Chusid suspects that more have been downloaded through online file-sharing.

Most of the CDs have gone to fans of what Chusid has dubbed "outsider music," though some listeners may consider the term "music" a misnomer. Outsider songs are usually produced by people of limited ability or people such as Pamela who deliberately choose to ignore the conventions of popular music. Some practitioners are homeless or mentally ill.

Yet, as Chusid writes in Songs in the Key of Z, the definitive work on the subject, "despite dodgy rhythms and a lack of conventional tunefulness, these often self-taught artists radiate an abundance of earnestness and passion. Most importantly, they betray an absence of pretense. And they're worth listening to, often outmatching all contenders for inventiveness and originality."

The genre is perhaps epitomized by the Shaggs, a trio of profoundly untalented sisters from Fremont, New Hampshire, whose single album Philosophy of the World has inspired a cult considerably larger than that which surrounds Into Outer Space.

Some fans of Into Outer Space consider it a brilliant children's album, despite songs like "You and Your Big Ideas" in which Pamela laments that her boyfriend gambled away all their money in Vegas.

"Lucia was just all about fun and playfulness," says Lindgren. "It's like going back to childhood. I sing 'Walking on the Moon' all the time. I live on a farm. It really resonates here."

In her old age Pamela made plans to build an amusement park in Southern California that would feature a ride that simulated her 1969 trip to the moon. She lived quietly in Fresno with her third husband, Billy Angelo, a former prizefighter whom she married in 1960. She attended church and bingo games and amassed enormous collections of coins, stamps and antique keys. She continued to perform into her early 90s at retirement communities and piano bars.

"I'm going to live forever," she assured Chusid in 1991.

She sang her moon songs as lullabies to her grandchildren and told them stories about her adventures. "Did I believe them?" asks her grandson Kenny Irwin, now 35. "Well, come on, I was a kid at the time. I thought she was pretty amazing." Pamela, he recalls, loved to spoil her grandchildren, taking them on outings to ice cream parlors and arcades and buying them presents like a cigarette-smoking robot.

Pamela moved to Los Angeles after her stroke and took up residence in a tiny bungalow at the foot of the office building that housed the LA Rams' headquarters. She kept a Christmas tree up year-round. But both Chusid and Lindgren, who visited her there, remember that the main feature of the house was the grand piano in the center of the living room.

"She was like an elf or an imp," Lindgren recalls. "She had a magical quality. I played the piano. She picked out a few notes. When she was playing the piano, she really came alive."

"Music was her life," says her son Ken Irwin. "You'd ask her to play a song written in the 1800s. She didn't remember until I played a few bars and then she could play the whole thing. I could never stump her." According to Ripley's Believe It or Not!, Pamela memorized 10,000 songs.

In "Flip Flop Fly!" Pamela appears as something of a showbiz huckster. In one speech, she declaims, "[Madonna's] the Lucia Pamela of her day. She may not be the best actress, but she believes in herself, and when you do that, everything's possible. You just gotta believe! That's what it means to be an American!"

To Ken Irwin, though, she was, more than anything, a free spirit.

"She had confidence," he says. "That's something women lacked in that generation. When she wanted to go onstage, my grandmother's argument was, 'Women don't do that. Men will be ogling you. They'll think you're not a nice woman.' Lucia said, 'They can think what they want. I'm going to play music and enjoy it.'"

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