The Pop Side: Mimi Hines

A magnificent singer and inspired clown, Mimi Hines has had a career that defines the show-biz magic and grit that Stephen Sondheim wrote about in his anthem to survival, "I'm Still Here." On July 17, she returns to New York with a one-night-only show at the popular club 54 Below. By BRIAN KELLOW

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Hines and Phil Ford in a RCA press photo from 1958

MIMI HINES: I've been singing since I was two. My whole family sang, and my mother sang to me in the womb. My grandmother would sing to me constantly, because she raised me, because my mom was on the road. And my uncle studied at La Scala, and his maestro was Gennaro Barra. And he told me all the things they told him in Italy, and once, when I was twelve, he took me to a teacher in Vancouver and said, "I would like you to give my niece some vocal lessons. And I sang for the teacher, who said, "You bring me a canary, and you want me to teach it to sing?" I guess I had natural ability, and I consider that if I still have it, it's a blessing. 

OPERA NEWS: Do you practice on a daily basis?

MH: I did practice, a lot. A few years ago, I had breast cancer and twenty-two weeks of radiation. I didn't have to have chemotherapy, thank God, and I didn't lose my booby, so that's cool. But it was a drain on my strength. When I was finished with the radiation, I had a right carotid artery that was ninety-three percent closed. That was going to be done first, but the breast cancer took precedence. I finished with my cancer treatments in February of 2009, and a little while after that, I had the carotid artery surgery. They cut into the throat, from the back of my ear down to the pit of my throat, and you know, little nerves disappear from surgeries. I have had to contend with that, but the quality of my voice is still pretty strong. I went through all of that, and I felt like it was like having a 400,000-mile check up and coming out okay. I've sung a few appearances where you sing one or two songs, and I went up to Seattle three years ago and did a Saint Valentine's Day concert — I sang two numbers in the first act and four numbers in the second act. But I haven't done a full hour all by myself, like I'm doing here at 54 Below. But to answer your original question, I don't practice every day, anymore. I sing a little bit to see if it's still there.

ON: So you had little in the way of formal training?

MH: My first vocal coach was Constantine Callinicos, Mario Lanza's vocal coach. He taught me "Un bel dì," which we put in my act immediately. I used to sing it every night onstage. It was the climax of a sketch my husband, Phil Ford, and I did. It was called "Sayonara," and it was based on Butterfly, but comedically. I would be the Japanese girl. We did it on The Ed Sullivan Show. But I love opera. Renata Tebaldi was my idol. I used to listen to her constantly. My uncle knew all the people at the old Met, and we were here in town, and Phil and I had just done The Jack Paar Show on August 28, 1958, and all of New York had seen us, because there were only four channels. Cab drivers were waving at us, and cops were waving to me across the street — "I saw you on TV, Mimi!" We went into Saks, and people recognized us. Long story short, my uncle said, would you like to see Renata Tebaldi? He took us backstage at the Met, and we sat on the floor in the wings, which was strictly forbidden, I'm sure, right by the big wheel that turned the big main curtain. She was doing La Forza del Destino, so she comes out singing "Pace, pace, mio dio," and every time she took a step, she had these sandals on, and the sandals squeaked every time she sang "Pace." Phil leaned over to me and said, "She's fantastic, but somebody's gotta oil her sandals." I still laugh at that. I had to bite my tongue so that I wouldn't scream out laughter from the wings! 

ON: Did you get to meet Renata Tebaldi?

MH: No, unfortunately. I really wanted to. But if we'd gone to her dressing room, she probably would have said, "Phil Ford? Mimi Hines? What? Who? Get 'em outta here!" But to have seen her and have her walk right past us that closely — that was a great experience.

ON: You have such a remarkable technique, with an amazing range — did anyone ever try to push you toward opera? 

MH: Someone asked me to do Die Fledermaus. In my act with Phil, I did an impression of a mouse — that was one of the famous things we did. And a gentleman saw it and came to us and asked us if we would consider doing Fledermaus. I can't remember what his name was. But the fame we had prevented us from doing anything but what we were doing. We sang in the Latin Quarter, the Persian Room, at a lot of the top places in England. All the big hotels. So we never had an opportunity to do it. 

ON: I'm guessing that you had tremendous vocal confidence from the time you were quite young.

MH: A lot of confidence and a lot of ambition. And after Phil died in 2006, I continued to work. But it wasn't the same. He and I had divorced, but we came back together nine years later and worked for another twenty-three years together. When he did pass away, my buddy was gone. I used to phone him every day. And I had a declining attitude about pursuing any more show business, but I've continued to work. I've continued to do a lot of musicals. We did Hello, Dolly! all over America, and we went to China with it. That was the last thing we did together. We did about 150 cities in America and Canada, and we went to Hong Kong and Singapore. We were the first musical to come to the city of Taipei. The president of Taiwan and his wife came. I went down into the audience on the closing night, when they're singing "Hello, Dolly!" again, and I took the microphone down to the president, and he sang along with us! When we played Singapore, the theater was called the Kallang. I was going around singing "Kallang, Kallang, Kallang, went the Dolly!" Sorry. I couldn't resist. 

ON: It must be very difficult to work so closely with someone and then have that relationship taken away from you.

MH: It is. In 2005, I came to sing here in New York at Feinstein's, and Phil wanted to sit in the audience and watch. Then we were going to have him come up out of the audience to do a number with me. But the guy who ran Feinstein's didn't think that was a good idea. And Phil died the following year.

He was my life partner, and then he remained my partner, and we had a very special chemistry together. If you watch our reruns together, you can see the chemistry. When we went into Funny Girl on Broadway, he played Eddie Ryan. People knew we were in love — you could see that Eddie was in love with Fanny. All that stuff worked because of the truth behind it. 

ON: Your casting in Funny Girl came about pretty suddenly and without a whole lot of discussion, didn't it?

MH: Well, more or less. We knew Jule Styne from up in the Catskills, and we would run into him there. One year he was up there — this was years before he found Barbra — and he told us about writing this musical about Fanny Brice. He always said, "You'd be great in it." And we went on with our careers, and that all passed, and then Barbra was sensational in Funny Girl. She had that marvelous resemblance to Fanny, comedically. She was the perfect choice. And Larry Kasha got in touch with us and wanted to take over the roles in Bajour. We were driving down Broadway in a taxi with Larry Kasha, and we were going past the Winter Garden, and Phil says to Larry, "There's a show Mimi could do," and Larry turned and said, "Are you interested in that?" Phil said, "Of course." No more said. We went to see Bajour, and it didn't suit us. We went on to Puerto Rico to open at the hotel there, and we got the telegram in Puerto Rico saying, please come back — Jule Styne, Bob Merrill and Ray Stark would like to see if you are interested in auditioning for Funny Girl. We flew back, and I went on the stage and sang, and Phil's sister was in the back of the house, leaning on the back rail, and she stood next to Jule and Bob and Ray. Jule Styne was a racetrack guy, you see, and he jabbed Bob Merrill in the ribs and said, "See! I told you! This kid's been to the post." That's how I got the part. I played it eighteen months on Broadway, and then another three months in Las Vegas. We took it to Anaheim first. Las Vegas didn't want Funny Girl, because it was about a gambler who went to jail! They said, forget it! 

ON: That's hilarious.

MH: Oh, it's true! So we went to Anaheim, and Harvey Silbert, who ran the Riviera Hotel and saw us in the show, said, "Everybody loves Mimi and Phil," so he booked it right in to the Riviera straight from Anaheim. We were there on a New Year's Eve, and the next night, the balloons were still up in the wings, that they had let out. The way we cut the show, Phil and Jule Styne together had to edit the show down to an hour and fifteen minutes for Vegas, because it had to be shorter. In order to edit it, Phil became like the stage manager in Our Town — he narrated. Mrs. Brice gets a telegram from Fanny, with Nick Arnstein in Europe — we took that idea and extended it, so it would fill in the scenes we had to cut. While he was reading it, one of the balloons floats down out of the wings, and it comes down with a long ribbon on it, and as it went to his face, he reached for the ribbon and kept riding the balloon across the stage and reading this telegram from Nick. He rode it right to the other side of the stage. The audience was laughing hysterically!

ON: Was it strange doing a big Broadway show like that, with such heavy vocal demands all the way through, when you had mostly been doing club work?

MH: Well, we were doing a lot of summer stock, too. Bells are Ringing was the last show I did before Funny Girl. That was a great break-in. I was ready for it. I got to see the show once before I did it. We would do afternoon rehearsals and Barbra would pop in before she would go up to her dressing room to get ready for the show. She's a lovely person. 

So many people get to do one show and play one theater. We played the three theaters. On March 17, 1966, they moved us from the Winter Garden to the Majestic. They painted a green line down Broadway, and the ad campaign said, "Follow the green line to Funny Girl at the Majestic." That was the ad campaign. Sammy Davis was closing Golden Boy at the Majestic the night we were moving the sets in. I have wonderful pictures of that night. Years later — in the 1970s, I think it was — I was sitting with Ethel Merman at the St. Regis Hotel, where I was doing With Love to Rodgers and Hart. I said, "I've played all three of those theaters. Which one do you think is the best?" And Ethel said, "Well they're all toilets, honey! But if I gotta like one I think it's the Broadway." 

ON: Was it hard for you to get used to performing in a big Broadway house? 

MH: When we moved into the Broadway with Funny Girl, the timing of the jokes was different. Larger theater, larger capacity house — and a little tiny lag of a few seconds can be enormous. And the lags of the sounds, the laughs would come back, and the laughs would come back four or five seconds later than they did in the other theater. A laugh can hit you quickly from the joke you've just done or a second later. The Broadway had maybe a three- or four-second lag. You do the joke, and you say to yourself, "Tick tock, tick tock ... why aren't they laughing?" Then boom — there's the laugh.

ON: Some people find it difficult to fight the crowds in hotels and supper clubs — the noise and talking and noise from dinner.

MH: When I sang in the hotels, the dinner would be served and cleared, and there was no clattering of forks and knives and dishes. That would be all over. Also in Las Vegas, they would be passing the checks out for the dinner by the time they started the show. That's how we invented the sketch we did around the song "Tenderly" — where Phil would do the flute. I can't eat before a show, so I would be eyeing the people in the audience and singing, "I want a steak / Please cook my steak / Tenderly...." I would do a high cadenza, and I would reach the top note and not be able to it and do a face-front pratfall. I knocked my teeth out at Mr. Kelly's in Chicago with Shecky Greene on the bill! It was a night Time magazine was there! They put a picture in the magazine, and I had blood dripping on my white satin dress! They had to find a dentist at two in the morning. 

ON: So many of us saw your terrific performance as Hattie in the Encores! production of Follies a few years ago. 

MH: Wasn't that a wonderful cast? Victor Garber — I could look in his eyes all day. I had a couple of lines with him, and he's so tall and such a charming man. And all of the other ladies in the show — Donna Murphy, Victoria Clark, Christine Baranski, Yvonne Constant — I loved them all.

ON: I'd like to ask you what you're planning to sing this week at 54 Below, but I think I'd rather be surprised.

MH: I'd rather make it a surprise. I will, of course, sing "Till There Was You." That much I'll tell you!

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