by J. P. Shanley
Peggy Lee visited Manhattan the other day and, during a conversation over lunch, talked about future plans, but mostly about memories.
Miss Lee will be singing tomorrow night on the Producers’ Showcase presentation, Dateline 2, to be televised over the National Broadcasting Network in cooperation with the Overseas Press Club. Proceeds from the show will be used for the Memorial Center that the club has established at 35 East 39th Street.
Now an established star of films, TV, nightclubs and recordings, Miss Lee recalled her first visit to New York a dozen years ago, when she was a vocalist with Benny Goodman’s orchestra.
“We played the Paramount and did six or eight shows a day,” she said. “Some people used to get in line at about 6:00 in the morning to get into the theater. I remember seeing a line of people waiting outside in the rain.
“I had never experienced anything like it before,” she continued. “The theater was so enormous. The stage had been extended temporarily out over the old orchestra pit. I remember the first time I walked out to the apron of the stage to sing. I was in a giant spotlight and I thought ‘I just hope I don’t fall into the audience.’”
Miss Lee, who was raised in the farm country near Jamestown, North Dakota, recalled that during her first trip here she lived in a small room in a West Side hotel.
“I guess it was on about the eighth floor,” she said. “But I thought it was away up in the air. I’d never been so high before. I spent a lot of time in that room. I used to press my own gowns there. When I was finished there wasn’t much for me to do because I didn’t know many people here.”
The songs that were particularly popular in Miss Lee’s repertoire at that time were “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” The latter lasted a long time.
“It became big with the servicemen during the war,” she said. “I guess it brought back memories for many of them. Years afterward, when I was touring in nightclubs, I thought audiences would have grown tired of it, so I took it out of my act. But I had to start singing it again. It’s a funny kind of song. It’s one of those that I never really got tired of singing.”
Miss Lee believes that the modern crop of popular songs is not as good as those that she used to sing. However, she does not believe that all the songwriters are at fault.
“There still are good writers writing good things, like ‘The Impatient Years’ that Frank Sinatra sang in Our Town on television – but most of the real good ones don’t sell,” she commented.
“Rhythm and blues selections get the big play these days,” she continued. “It would be fine if there were just a little bit of that kind of thing. But so many good things are being overlooked and lost because of it.”
Miss Lee thinks it is unfortunate that some of the new songs of merit are contrasted with old favorites.
“We hear a song we’ve never heard before and we begin to measure it against some old favorites that were sung by Billie Holiday, Maxine Sullivan, Ella Fitzgerald or some of the other great ones,” she said. “I think we lose perspective sometimes. It’s not fair to compare a new song to everything we’ve liked.”
In addition to singing, Miss Lee has written songs and has done some acting. She collaborated with Sonny Burke on the music for Lady and the Tramp, the Walt Disney film, and was the voice for several of the canine characters in the movie. In the recent film Pete Kelly’s Blues, she had a dramatic role as a bibulous chanteuse who was friendly with a gangster. She is pleased to have had the chance to do more than sing, and she hopes to continue with other writing and acting assignments.
Miss Lee lives on a mountaintop home in Beverly Hill with her daughter Nicki, 11. She is not sure that she will always make California her home, but said that it is not likely that she will ever return to North Dakota.
“The last time I went back there, I was sunburned and my face was peeling slightly,” she recalled. “I guess I didn’t look my best, but I wasn’t prepared for the reaction I got from an old boyfriend, who called me by my real name of Norma Egstrom. When he met me, he looked at me and said, ‘Oh, Norma! What Hollywood has done to you.’ And this was from a guy I used to lose sleep over. I don’t think I want to go back home again.”