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Singers Field the Pressure : Baseball's Anthem Opener Takes Patriotism and Nerve

April 10, 1986|JIM WALTERS

Johnny Mathis will be the first star to show his stripes for the California Angels and Old Glory this baseball season at Anaheim Stadium as he leads the opening-day crowd in singing the national anthem Monday.

Although anthem singers make it look easy, a lot of work, worry and wonder go into the brief production that precedes each game. "People don't realize what a difficult two minutes it is," said John Sevano, the Angels' director of public relations, who has overseen the selection of singers for the past three seasons.

Angels anthem singers share a bit of patriotism, a love of sports--and a nervous excitement every time they stand at home plate, facing an average crowd of 32,500, and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"Angel Stadium is my favorite place to sing it," Mathis said. "They have the best set-up. You have the organ playing along with you . . . and you're right up in front of the fans, not out in the field like at some parks."

Mathis, 50, will be leading the fans Monday in the key of A-flat. "I never used to care or think about what key--just whatever was easiest for everyone involved. But once at a Dodgers game I had said it didn't matter, and so I started in. . . . By the end I was really screeching. I've learned to ask to sing it in A-flat."

"I'm always real nervous until that first note gets out," said Jo Letkins, 29, of Irvine, who sings several times a year for the Angels. But for Letkins, who works for a home-video distributor in Irvine, nervousness gives way to "the beauty of it when (the national anthem) is sung the way it was written, and when you make it sound like it's the first time you've ever sung it."

"It never ceases to be fun," said Judy Jeffreys, formerly of NBC's "Santa Barbara," who sings the anthem a cappella "at march tempo with a band playing along in my head."

"But you have to remember," she said, "people don't come just to hear you; they like to hear the anthem done with respect."

Free-lance broadcaster Lisa Bowman, 33, of La Canada, overcomes the jitters before singing by telling herself that not all the fans are seated yet. "But I still get nervous--my hands shake and my throat goes dry--but I'm used to that."

When Leslie Easterbrook of ABC's "Ryan's Hope" is singing the anthem, she prepares by writing the lyrics on a piece of paper, which she puts in her pocket. "I don't look at it, but I know it will always be there if I need it," she said.

Even veteran anthem singer Glen Campbell, 49, admits that he gets nervous. He said accompanying himself on the guitar helps him relax. "It helps me keep a rhythm and keeps me from worrying about sound-system delays. I can get into it--sing it from the heart--and not pay attention to the stuff going on around me."

And, said Sevano: "It's not only nervous time for the entertainer, but it's nervous time for the person who books the entertainer because of our (sound-system) feedback problem--and you worry that they may jazz it up too much."

The stadium's sound system has a 1.5-second delay, he said, but "when you're singing, it sounds like four days."

Joey English, 40, of Rancho Palos Verdes, said that about 10 years ago the anthem was sung from organist Shay Torrent's booth upstairs, "but I didn't like that. You just didn't get any feedback from the fans."

One game, English said, she asked the technicians to plug into the system a single, small earphone that she had brought from home. The device enabled her to hear the organ at full volume in one ear while she ignored the echo in the other. "It worked great except that I had forgotten one aspect of the delay: My son asked me later, 'Mom, why did you walk off the field before you got done singing?' "

Some Lip-Sinc to Tape

Today, headsets help singers cope with the sound delay, but some groups, such as the Heritage Singers, lip-sync to a tape because they outnumber the headsets.

Two years ago, Sevano said, one soloist turned down the headset offer.

"He got up there and sang, 'Oh, say can you see,' and didn't hear anything so he stopped. Then it started coming back to him from the speakers, and after he heard it, he proceeded with the next few words.

"The whole song was: 'By by the the dawn's dawn's early early light light .' It took him four minutes and 30 seconds to sing a one-minute, 17-second anthem."

Those who want to sing at the Angels' home plate won't make it to first base without a traditional rendition.

"(Team owner Gene) Autry is very adamant about the song being done 'straight,' " Sevano said. "Now that doesn't mean you can't put some inflection in the song, but he doesn't want you to make a Barry Manilow ballad out of it or a James Brown rock 'n' roll medley."

And, Sevano said, Autry is adamant about singers not raising the word free an octave near the end of the song.

Sevano recalled two women who did: "One was here a number of years, and she just plain forgot. . . . And the word came down that Mr. Autry would prefer not to have her back."

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