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Portia Nelson

Portia Nelson

Singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger, actress, poet, painter, and photographer Portia Nelson (b. Brigham City, UT, 27 May 1920; d. New York, NY, 6 March 2001) was best known for her award-winning appearances in the thriving cabarets of the 1950s, in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Europe, and for the outstanding Studio Cast Recordings of musicals she made for Columbia Records. Her elegant figure, even late in life, was the perfect match to her silvery soprano and flawless diction. Nelson’s very first film role was Sister Berthe in The Sound of Music (1965), which set a precedent for her being cast as a nun in The Trouble with Angels (1966) and again in the television series The Big Valley (1967). Her well-known poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” (“There’s a hole in my sidewalk”), although not always credited to her in every place it appears, is a familiar mantra among self-help groups and psychotherapists.

Betty Mae Nelson was the youngest of nine children in her Mormon family, four of whom had died before she was born. She grew up on a farm; her father also did some work for the railroad. Like most Mormon children, she learned to play the piano as a child, and at Box Elder High School her classmates gave her a new name – Portia – because of her extreme fondness for the daily radio soap opera Portia Faces Life. Graduating in 1938, she went off to Weber College in Ogden but remained there for only two years, moving then to Los Angeles to seek her fortune.

She worked on and off as a secretary or office assistant until, in 1945, temporarily out of work, she struck up a relationship at her LDS church with a popular swing vocal quartet, the King Sisters, who were also from Utah. Their bandleader, Alvino Rey, offered Nelson a job as secretarial assistant for the duration of their road tour, and in the following months she got her musical feet wet as an arranger for the group.

When she got back to Los Angeles in 1946, Nelson worked variously for film director André de Toth and in the publicity department at United Artists. From time to time she would sit at the piano during a lull on the set and sing. On one occasion Jane Russell, who was then filming Young Widow, stopped by to make a request or two. Exclaimed Jane Russell, “What the hell are you doing pounding a typewriter? You should be singing!”

Portia Nelson soon met lyricist Nick Arden, with whom she teamed up to write a song, “It’s As Simple As That,” which they recorded on a demo disc. The demo came to the attention of star singer Jo Stafford, who used the song as the flip side to her “September Song” for Capitol Records in October 1946. When Arden opened his nightclub in Sherman Oaks soon after, he hired Nelson to debut there as a singer. Her regular accompanist was Walter Gross, a former staff pianist at CBS radio and the composer of a recent hit, “Tenderly.”

Thereafter, Nelson would continue to work day jobs while appearing occasionally at night spots – and sometimes acting as a vocal coach for Jane Russell and other friends in the movies. (Russell would sing “The Gilded Lily,” a song co-written by Nelson, in the 1952 film Montana Belle.) In 1949 she was at the Café Gala, a cabaret on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip where singer-pianist Bobby Short was also engaged. Forty-six years later, Short wrote in his autobiography, “Portia walked onto the floor of the Gala, tall, poised, goddess-like in floating chiffon – and singing in a way that was all her own. She was a smash.”

It was at the Gala that Herbert Jacoby, co-owner of Manhattan’s foremost cabaret, the Blue Angel, first heard Portia Nelson and invited her to New York. Starting in January 1950, Nelson was performing on one of the Blue Angel’s four-act rosters, and her singing career was launched. She was to sing there intermittently for a decade, sharing the bill with the likes of Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, Imogene Coca, Orson Bean, Wally Cox, Harry Belafonte, and Johnny Mathis.

At the New York lounge Celeste in 1951, Portia Nelson’s accompanist was songwriter and pianist Bart Howard, who would later move to the Blue Angel as its emcee. Nelson remained a champion for Howard and his songs for the rest of her life; his “In Other Words” (or, “Fly Me to the Moon”) was a particular favorite, and she was the first ever to record it.

In 1953 she made her recording debut with a solo album, Love Songs for a Late Evening, for the Masterworks division of Columbia Records, which was normally dedicated to classical musicians. In 1955 she recorded the classic “Autumn Leaves,” and the following year brought out her album Let Me Love You: Portia Nelson Sings the Songs of Bart Howard.

During this period, president and producer Goddard Lieberson at Columbia Records was embarked on a project to preserve the never-yet-recorded jewels of the classic American musical theatre. Portia Nelson was a frequent star of these Studio Cast Recordings: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1952) with Nelson Eddy and Kaye Ballard, Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes (1952) with Jack Cassidy, Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s Roberta (1952) with Cassidy and Ballard, and Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse (1953), again with Cassidy. She also took part in a recording of Noël Coward’s Bitter Sweet with Robert Rounseville, but its release was permanently blocked by Coward.

And on to Broadway! In 1954 Nelson originated the role of Miss Minerva Oliver in The Golden Apple, the musical adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by John Latouche. With Kaye Ballard as Helen and Bibi Osterwald as Aphrodite, the show previewed at the Phoenix Theatre off-Broadway, then moved to the Alvin, where it ran for 125 performances. The next year Nelson and two other songwriters put together a Broadway revue called Almost Crazy, which lasted no more than sixteen performances. Her cabaret career continued full force, however, taking her to Bon Soir and Downstairs at the Upstairs in New York, the Colony in London, and Bricktop’s in Rome.

In 1959, Nelson was host of her own radio show, Sunday in New York, named after one of her own songs. Tracks from the radio series would later constitute a 1994 CD of the same title.

At about that time, the New York cabaret scene began to falter, and Portia Nelson decided to move back to Los Angeles. In the film and television milieu she found ample occupation as a music-writer and vocal coach for Debbie Reynolds, Marlene Dietrich, Julie Andrews, Rod Steiger, Rock Hudson, and, in particular, The Carol Burnett Show. And then suddenly she was a film actress, specializing as a nun. As Sister Berthe in The Sound of Music (1965), she helped the Trapp family escape from the Nazis by removing a distributor cap from the officers’ car (“Reverend Mother, I have sinned”). Then in the comedy The Trouble with Angels (1966) she was Sister Elizabeth, and on an episode of TV’s The Big Valley (1967), Sister Benedict. She took a minor role in the movie Doctor Dolittle, and was the mother of the Hardy Boys in The Mystery of the Chinese Junk (both 1967). Later screen appearances were in Tom Tryon’s thriller The Other (1972) and in the Razzie-winning Can’t Stop the Music (1980).

While still in L.A., before returning once again to New York, Nelson worked as consulting producer and writer for the 1969 TV special, Debbie Reynolds and the Sound of Children. It was for this broadcast that she composed her best-known song, “Make a Rainbow,” which was later to be sung by Marilyn Horne at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.

The only recorded album made by Nelson during her L.A. decade was Picadilly Pickle: Lady Nelson and the Lords, a rock-and-roll parody on which she played the organ and didn’t sing a note. By 1971 she was back in New York, making a rare cabaret appearance at her friend Mary McCarty’s short-lived club. For a time she did television commercials, but in 1976 she made a genuine cabaret comeback with an engagement at Brothers & Sisters, followed by appearances at The Ballroom, Ted Hook’s OnStage, Freddy’s Supper Club, and at the Mocambo in San Francisco. She also toured with Patti LuPone in The Baker’s Wife, and to round out a busy year, turned up on an episode of the sitcom Chico and the Man. (Nelson once remarked, quite truthfully, “I always do about ninety things at once.”)

Probably the greatest cultural impact Portia Nelson ever made was not in the field of music or acting at all: in 1977 Popular Library published her book of writings, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery (reissued in 1993 by Beyond Words Publishing). It contains the poem, “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters:”

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in. I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.

This poem has been reprinted in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, in the foreword of Roseanne Barr’s autobiography, as a song lyric on Dianne Reeves’s CD In the Moment (2000), and on countless wall plaques and posters. Such a poster appears on the wall of the fictional psychologist played by Robin Williams in the film Good Will Hunting.

Meanwhile Portia Nelson continued to act, principally on television (The Ghost of Thomas Kempe on ABC Weekend Specials 1979; The Doctors 1981; All My Children 1983, 1991). She also continued to sing, in spite of surviving two bouts with cancer, the first in 1973 which resulted in a mastectomy, the second in the early 1990s which affected her tongue and throat and resulted in surgery, leaving her voice low, husky, and near to speech. As a Mormon, Nelson had never smoked nor drunk, and could only blame her throat cancer on the months and years of singing in smoky nightclubs. She simply devoted more time to writing songs, and in the end had written hundreds of them, plus volumes of music for film and the theatre.

Many were the awards and accolades Portia Nelson received in the last decade of her life. In October 1992 ASCAP and the Mabel Mercer Foundation honored her with its Premier Cabaret Classic Award in a special celebration at the Cabaret Convention. Then in 1996, Nelson’s “As I Remember Him” was voted Song of the Year by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC), and she was honored with a Bistro Award for Lifetime Achievement by Backstage Magazine. Fellow cabaret artists Margaret Whiting, Jaymie Meyer, Amanda McBroom, Ann Hampton Callaway, Deborah Tranelli, and Nancy LaMott joined her in recording This Life: Portia Nelson – Her Songs and Her Friends, a CD issued by DRG Records, and her two solo albums of the 1950s (Love Songs for a Late Evening, Let Me Love You: Portia Nelson Sings Bart Howard) were reissued by the same company.

In early 2001, Nelson was honored at a MAC/ASCAP Songwriters’ Showcase, but by this time her cancer had recurred, and she died in her New York apartment in March. Her ashes were scattered by friends and family at the Kolob Canyons in Utah’s Zion National Park, and her collections of writings, photographs, recordings, clippings and memorabilia were donated to The New York Public Library, establishing the Portia Nelson Archive at the Library for the Performing Arts.

In the liner notes for the 1996 CD This Life, Rex Reed remembered a review he had written about Portia Nelson in New York’s Daily News: “Her magic had the reverence and excitement of a visit from royalty in a bygone era.”

– Lucy E. Cross

Photo courtesy of Photofest