Solo Debut at Carnegie Hall

In 1961, I was a student working on a doctorate in music at Columbia University in New York City. I had performed with various groups in many performances in the City and had served as baritone soloist on numerous occasions. When I was hired to be a soloist for a performance in Carnegie Hall I was overjoyed. I did not own a tailcoat (the attire for such an occasion) so I borrowed one from my conductor and mentor, Thomas Dunn.

Bill in tails
The tails didn't exactly fit
perfectly, but close enough?

All the other soloists were well-known artists (many were regulars at the Metropolitan Opera Company.) Having never worn a tailcoat before, I remembered how Liberace moved on TV when wearing such a garment. As he would sit down on the bench at the keyboard, he would gracefully throw the tails out from under him and then sit down. It looked easy.

Carnegie Hall
Carnegie Hall

I practiced the move over and over (perhaps even more than I practiced the solo I was to sing.) I walked out on the stage to the thunderous applause from the audience (I am certain that the thunder was all for me!!!) with the conductor and the other soloists. My wife, Phyllis, was given a box seat – an entire box – for the event. She smiled lovingly at me as I came on stage. I felt secure knowing that she was there cheering me on.

Tommy Dunn
Thomas Dunn

I used my "practiced" move as I sat down in my assigned chair awaiting my solo with the orchestra. Before my solo time arrived, I looked up at Phyllis and saw that she had her hand over her eyes and would not look at me. I was concerned and thought that perhaps I have failed to "zip up" or some other embarrassing oversight. I checked and everything seemed to be OK. I kept searching for what might be wrong which was causing Phyllis not to make eye contact with me. After sitting there for several minutes I discovered that in my nervous enthusiasm I was more vigorous in the "throwing of my tails" before I sat down. I glanced to my right and out of the corner of my eye, I saw something perched on my right shoulder. It was my coat tail!!! It was no wonder that Phyllis would not look at me. I wriggled and attempted to bring the tail back down but to no avail. It perched there like a black raven awaiting my solo death debut in Carnegie Hall.

When my time came, I was able to stand, tug the tail into its proper place and sing (beautifully, I hope.) With the tail once again in its right place, it seemed that all was right with the world. BUT – How many people do you know who threw their tail over their shoulder while making a Carnegie Hall debut?

Many years later, I was soloist with the Monterey (California) Symphony. I had concluded my teaching day at Stanford and drove the approximately 2-hour journey to Monterey for the performance. I arrived in good time for a warm-up with the conductor and orchestra. I then went back to my car to get my tailcoat and discovered that I had failed to bring my black patent leather shoes. Everything else was there, thankfully. I thought "I will be on stage which has a slightly raised 'lip' which could hide my shoeless condition, and my socks are black and long." I discussed the situation with the conductor and he agreed that walking on stage with only socks would be preferable to my wearing beige Birkenstock sandals! After all, we had a physical separation from the audience and who could possibly notice?

The conductor and soloists walked on stage to applause, we each took our places and "bowed." When the audience sounds subsided it became quiet as the conductor raised his baton. One small child loudly exclaimed, "Mommy, why doesn't that man have on any shoes?" The audience broke into laughter as my face turned a bright red. I experience yet another wardrobe malfunction.

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