Andy Anselmo, vocal coach to the stars, says that everything a singer needs to know is in the song "Over the Rainbow." There is a beauty in that, seeing ?that he and Harold Arlen, the man who wrote the song, are both from Buffalo.
"Over the Rainbow," Anselmo says, has all the challenges a singer could face. There is the initial octave leap ("Somewhere...") And the up-and-down motion in "If happy little bluebirds fly..."
"There are fourths, fifths, everything," Anselmo says. "We always ended student shows with everyone singing ‘Over the Rainbow.' "
"Student shows" has a sweet, modest sound.
And Anselmo, who is 88 and jokes about his childhood on Buffalo's West Side, could be described as modest. But there his nothing modest about his students, who are smiling down from photos on the walls of his Williamsville home. Among them are Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli and Mandy Patinkin. To the world, they are legends.
Anselmo has a different view of them.
Take Tony Bennett. "I used to go over to his apartment to teach him," Anselmo says. "He had this dog, a Maltese. That dog would not let him sing. He had to hold this dog all the way through the exercises."
A photo of Judy Garland holding her daughter Liza is autographed: "Dear Andy, take care of my baby girl love child. She trusts you."
Anselmo is especially moved by that picture.
"One night I was in Sardi's," he says, alluding to the famous New York restaurant. "I taught Mrs. Sardi. All of a sudden the door opened, and in came Judy. She was carrying flowers, but she didn't look well. I thought, ‘Oh, I hope nothing happens to her.' "
Garland, he sighs, died soon afterward. "It's sad when people like that pass on," Anselmo broods. "They're irreplaceable."
So, you could say, is Anselmo himself.
In 1978, with his late partner, John Albert Harris, he founded the Singers' Forum, a nonprofit singing school in Manhattan. The school, over the years, has trained a galaxy of stars. Just one single installment of the Andy Anselmo Achievement Awards – an annual fundraiser – featured Minnelli, Patinkin, Julie Harris and Joanne Woodward.
Buffalo playwright and filmmaker Joey Giambra featured Anselmo in his 2007 film "La Terra Promessa," about Italian immigrants on Buffalo's West Side. Giambra first became aware of Anselmo's unique talent in the 1940s, when Anselmo had a show on WEBR.
"You start with all this talent, and it entertains others, before you find out your real strength lies in the teaching of others," Giambra says. "That's what he did."
Anselmo is now semiretired. He eased up on his commitments with the Singers' Forum years ago, and last year, he moved back to the Buffalo area. But the Singers' Forum goes forward, as he had planned that it would.
Coincidentally, it remains in Buffalo hands. Don Rebic, a pianist and cabaret artist from Buffalo, is its current artistic director.
"Andy, God bless him, he kept this place afloat a long time," Rebic says on the phone from the school. "He's a go-getter. He knows how to talk to people and he gets what he wants. They don't make them like that anymore.
"There are still pictures of him all over the place. It's not like his presence isn't felt here. You walk off the elevator and see a picture of him with Liza. He had a big New York Times interview. May 30, 1993," Rebic says, reading from the page. "That's prominent on the wall. He's still on the website. He's out of the day-to-day business, but we keep his legacy alive."
> ‘A yoga master, a guru'
Anselmo's patio home in Canterbury Woods is airy and relaxing. The hardwood floors glisten. Votive candles flicker on a kitchen counter. In the bright living room, a sculpture of Friedrich von Schiller – the poet who wrote the words to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" – looks down on the Steinway parlor grand with fatherly concern.
A serene sun room acts as an office, with a desk and colorful paintings. Even the rug in the bathroom offers a pep talk. "Inspire," it reads. "Create."
Anselmo, impressively youthful, has always lived up to those challenges.
As a boy, he took voice lessons at Buffalo's Community Music School. The school assigned him to a particular teacher, Louise Sleep. Sleep would not have been his choice at the time, he says – he had hoped for another teacher. But she put him in touch with her teacher, William Whitney, at the New England Conservatory.
Whitney had known Johannes Brahms and had studied the master's songs. He was also a great champion of bel canto. Italian for "beautiful singing," bel canto is a classical voice training method that had been polished over 300 years. Singers learn by singing short arias that are what the Chopin etudes are to pianists – pieces that help you learn and are, at the same time, beautiful.
"He was like a yoga master, a guru," Anselmo says of Whitney. Whitney, he says, had intended to be a singer himself. "But someone threw a stone at him, and hit him in the eye, and he could never go on stage because of that."
Anselmo spent six years in Boston, living the bohemian life in a variety of apartments. In 1961, armed with his new vocal technique, he moved to New York.
"It was a wonderful time. Everything wasn't as expensive as it is now," he says. "People trying to get started in show business could find a place to live."
> ‘He was kind of scary'
"A Star-Crossed Life," Anselmo's hilarious, self-published 2005 memoir, overflows with wild stories.
Once, Anselmo and his combo were at a club, playing "The Shadow of Your Smile," from the Elizabeth Taylor movie "The Sandpiper." He writes that a drunk Eddie Fisher, newly divorced from Taylor, angrily knocked all the music off Anselmo's piano.
Wacky adventures accompanied Anselmo's ascent in the music world.
"I used to tease Andy all the time," one friend, Johnny King, reminisces in the book. "We'd be out somewhere and I'd go into the men's room and come back and say, ‘Oh, you know who was in the men's room? Richard Rodgers!' And he'd go flying into the men's room, singing ‘Some Enchanted Evening.' Of course, Richard Rodgers wouldn't be there."
At first, Anselmo did not recognize his gift for teaching. He found it thanks to his friendship with Geraldine Fitzgerald, the beautiful actress who appeared with Laurence Olivier in the 1939 "Wuthering Heights," playing the girl the tormented Heathcliff marries but does not love.
Anselmo met her when she was in her early 50s, preparing for a secondary career in cabaret.
"Her hair was a beautiful, red Irish color," he says. "She touted me everywhere. She said, ‘You are a great teacher. You must continue with this.' "
"Anyone she met, she said, ‘You've got to go to this teacher.' She'd buy them lessons as birthday presents."
One of those friends was Mandy Patinkin. The future star of musicals began his career as a reluctant voice student.
"He said, ‘I just came because Geraldine Fitzgerald told me to. I'm an actor, not a singer,' " Anselmo recalls. "He was kind of scary, full of energy."
Patiently, Anselmo put Patinkin on bel canto arias and "Over the Rainbow."
"Once we got started, he just fell in love with the exercises, which absolutely amazed me," he says. "This beautiful voice started coming out of him."
Patinkin's wife became involved. Her solidarity, Anselmo says, helped a lot. One day Patinkin announced that he had his first audition, for "Evita."
"What should I sing?" he asked in a panic.
Anselmo told him: "Well, you know only one song. Sing it."
So Patinkin sang "Over the Rainbow." He gave it a trick ending – that is, a surprise ending, with heightened high notes.
"He had beautiful high notes," Anselmo says. "They went wild. They told him to go home and learn all the songs from the show, for another audition the next day. We worked on the songs, and it was as if they were written for him. I said, ‘Mandy, you're going to get this job!' "
"He's a beautiful, beautiful man," he adds. "If I said, ‘Mandy, come to Buffalo next week, he'd come."
> Eartha and Alec
?The Singers' Forum has the kind of honest, show-biz humor you find in "A Chorus Line." Classes include "Hone It and Own It!," "Get Your Act Together" and "How Not to F^%$ Up Your Audition."
The vibe reflects Anselmo's nuts-and-bolts wisdom.
Don't smoke, is one piece of advice he offers.
"It's a bad thing," he says. "It coats the vocal cords. Usually it's not as bad as you think it is. They're usually not smoking as much as you think they are. Cigarettes are a great prop. But it's a bad thing."
What about drinking?
"It affects you," Anselmo says.
"A lot of it is publicity, showmanship. Dean Martin made a thing out of it, but he didn't really drink all those drinks. Sinatra could drink. But it's not good for your throat. I couldn't drink and sing, either. I didn't drink at all till I was 82. Now I have a glass of wine."
Anselmo has always kept in mind his students' individual goals. He coached actresses – Mary Tyler Moore, Joanne Woodward and Brooke Shields, whom he loves – how to project their speaking voices. He readied Julie Harris for the 1965 musical "Skyscraper." He also taught Jose Ferrer. And Mia Farrow, when she was making a children's album. When Regis Philbin wanted to sing, he turned to Anselmo, too.
Eartha Kitt was a complicated case. Anselmo liked her, but her voice needed work. Alec Baldwin also posed challenges.
"When Alec Baldwin walked in, he was 18. He had the worst speaking voice. I said, ‘Alec, we've got to work on your voice,' " Anselmo says. "He is another giving, wonderful person."
"You can help anybody, really," he says. "You just go with it and see what happens."
Right now, Anselmo's main protegee is Caroline Jones, a 22-year-old aspiring country singer in Greenwich, Conn. She is the daughter of billionaire hedge fund titan Paul Tudor Jones, who with his wife is a generous supporter of the Singers' Forum.
Anselmo coaches Jones every two weeks.
"She flies me in," he says. "I stay there for three days. I get my shot at New York and come back. She can sing anything – she can do opera, theater and country. She'll be bigger than Elizabeth Taylor. She's been a joy in my life unlike anything else. I'm leaving her all my music, all my things. She can pass it on like no one else. She's the one.
"When you work with someone like that, it's a spiritual thing."
> ‘Don't push it'
When he is not in New York coaching Caroline Jones, Anselmo divides his time between his Williamsville home and a historic farmhouse he owns near Fredonia. He is not seeking students.
Occasionally, though, a student finds him.
One such student was Mari McNeil. For years a respected folk singer locally, she decided in midlife to start exploring jazz. Buffalo was good to her. First, she was able to get coaching from the great cabaret pianist Guy Boleri. Her next stroke of luck was meeting Anselmo.
"I was booked to sing at a birthday party at the Saturn Club. He was going to be there," she says. "It was very intimidating, knowing he had coached Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, Mandy Patinkin. It scared me out of my wits."
But they hit it off. McNeil had just written an essay for The Buffalo News' "Women's Voices" column, about trying to get her start as a singer. "He had read it that day," she marvels. "He said, ‘You're that girl! Where do you want to go with your career, and how can I help you?' "
Anselmo put her on bel canto exercises and what McNeil describes as "vocal scales upside down." "It's the craziest thing I have ever done," she says. "But it relaxes your larynx and your facial muscles so your vocal cords are free to vibrate in the correct way. You learn unaffected singing, just allowing a sound to occur, rather than pushing it out.
"One day he said to me, ‘Grow it slowly. Don't push it. Let it grow slowly. You've got many, many years to sing. Don't be impatient. It'll happen."
The advice gets to the heart of Anselmo. For him, it's not just about "Over the Rainbow," it's about body and soul.
"If everybody sang, we wouldn't have guns," he told the New York Times in 1993.
He still embraces that philosophy.
"Singing always makes you feel better," he says. "There's nothing like singing."