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The Time of Her Life : Estelle Reiner Slips Into Sequins and the Spotlight

October 27, 1985|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer.

The music begins, and from the back of the Gardenia supper club, Estelle Reiner struts out in a low-cut, shimmery black dress, long, dangling earrings and sparkling black slippers. She slinks and shimmies through the room, past her family and friends, past regulars and newcomers. Dipping backward over the piano and caressing the microphone, she tosses off lyrics like "you intoxicate my soul with your eyes."*

Sultry on a raunchy blues classic one moment, raucously interpreting Randy Newman the next, Reiner is no ordinary chanteuse. She's been married for 41 years to actor-director Carl Reiner, raised three children--among them actor-director Rob Reiner--and been through one career as a painter. Her audience is as likely to include friends Mel Brooks and Dom DeLuise as people from the neighborhood.

What makes a woman past 60 slip into sequins and stand up before a crowd to sing? For Reiner, it isn't the money, since, after paying the musicians, she rarely breaks even. And it isn't the promise of a good life, because she has that already.

Her desire to perform began as a teen-ager in the Bronx. She sang twice on the radio, 15 minutes a shot, accompanying herself on a ukulele. They wanted her back, she remembers, but she had nothing left to sing. "I used up my entire repertoire."

Nevertheless, she kept the ukulele handy, singing at friends' homes or at the Carl Reiner tennis tournament in La Costa. When her youngest son, Lucas, now 24, was very young, she sang to records of background instrumentals that her husband brought home. He first heard her sing at an adult summer camp in New York, where they met, and says that he's been nagging her to perform ever since. "I'd been telling people for years what a good singer she was, and I could never get her to stand up and prove it."

Although Reiner admits that her husband's prominence has certainly not hurt her singing career, she says that it also kept her home for years. "Being the wife of a celebrity made it difficult for me to strike out on my own," she says. "I had to be satisfied with smaller stuff. It's kind of expected that someone married to a prominent person either does nothing, so she can give him support, or does something really big. That part was hard, being Mrs. Carl Reiner and doing this."

Anne Bancroft, a friend of 20 years, made it easier, casting Reiner in the film "Fatso" a few years ago. "It was the first time I got out of my house to go to work since I was married," Reiner says. "I loved it. They loved what I did. They paid me."

As she tells husband Carl Reiner on the record jacket of her debut album, "Just in Time," the "Fatso" experience "made me realize I liked performing." It provided liberation--"I was a mother for a long time, a nurturing mother"--and it gave her confidence. "I thought that a person who performs is special, and I didn't see myself that way."

"The big thrill is to see this woman up there doing it," Bancroft says one evening after the show. "The greatest remark was made by Carol Matthau, Walter Matthau's wife, who said that other women her age are out getting divorced, seeing psychiatrists, taking sleeping pills--and Estelle's out singing in nightclubs. It's really a wonderful phenomenon. But aside from the courage, which we all admire, she does some musical things that are genuinely thrilling."

Those "musical things" didn't just happen. After "Fatso," Reiner studied acting and singing. When the owner of Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks asked her to sing there, Reiner says, she asked for a date six months in advance "because I had a lot of work to do. And in those six months, I worked like a dog. There's a big difference between wanting to sing and getting up and doing it."

Opening night was in December, 1982, and Reiner's bad cold had turned into laryngitis. A throat specialist gave her a shot, assuring her that she'd be fine by show time, but her voice never really came back. Two songs into the show she stopped and asked the audience whether she should go on, and "there was thunderous applause. I don't know why."

Producer Norman Lear knows why. One of several celebrity friends in the room that night, Lear says that he "loved the fact that I was watching someone at the very peak of her joy of life. It was an extraordinary experience, and I think that everyone felt that way. It's very rare that a group of people can watch someone and think: 'I am looking at that person at the happiest moment of that person's life.' She exuded the hard work and the thrust and the joy of it."

Reiner won't reveal her age, saying that since her audience doesn't seem to notice it, she's decided not to think about it either. "Women feel so grateful that someone my age gets up," she says. "People can see I'm really on in years. They don't need to know my age."

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