NEW YORK — For singer Margaret Whiting, returning to Los Angeles to perform at the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt means coming home, literally; the Roosevelt was Whiting's first home in Los Angeles when her father, composer Richard Whiting, moved his family from Detroit to work under contract for Paramount Pictures in the 1920s.
But the two-week engagement at the Roosevelt that Whiting begins tonight means more. Coinciding with the publication of her autobiography, "It Might As Well Be Spring," and the release of two record albums, the return to Hollywood proves Whiting's staying power in a fickle industry over five decades.
"I guess I shouldn't be the one to say it, but I think I've reached a plateau, a place all by myself that makes people think of me as a special person," said Whiting, 60.
Whiting, of course, has been special to many for a long time. By the time she was a teen-ager, her father had composed many popular songs, including "Beyond the Blue Horizon," "Til We Meet Again" and "Hooray for Hollywood," and Whiting was performing in her living room for such personalities as Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern.
However, the rest of her upbringing in a privileged Hollywood environment also provided Whiting with her "worst memory" of growing up--the difficult and frustrating experience of having doors closed to her as a performer as a result of being the daughter of a famous person.
"It was like being in a desert and very thirsty, and yet knowing that you were in a golden city with plenty of water," she recalled here recently.
Whiting said it was lyricist Johnny Mercer, credited in her memoir as her "mentor," who first encouraged her to perform professionally.
"He would come over to our house, sit at the piano and play the songs of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and, of course, my father's. And one night when I was about 7 or 8, my mother asked him to listen to me perform. I think she wanted his opinion, so she would know whether or not to encourage me.
"When I finished singing, he called me over and said, 'I've got two words of advice for you: Grow up.' Then, he said I should try and find a style that was uniquely my own.
"I listened to all the famous singers of the time, I took music lessons, and I followed my father's advice to acquaint myself with all forms of music," Whiting continued. "I started to sing like all the others I had heard, and then one day, I started to sing like myself."
The rest is history. After recording her first song, her father's ballad "My Ideal," Whiting went on nearly nonstop, recording more than 500 songs (12 of them are reported to have topped 1 million copies sold). She worked the cafe, radio and television show circuits up until the 1960s, when rock 'n' roll became preeminent and replaced, in Whiting's words, "singers like me and the good old songs we sing."
Whiting remained in Los Angeles for a time, but after a while, "had enough of barbecues with famous friends" and left her adopted home for New York.
"I thought there was much more to life and living than this," she said.
Whiting said that in the 1970s, she was stimulated by the diverse culture and company she found in New York, and also by the growing women's movement.
"I thought I had had difficulty getting the doors open, but then I started to see how really difficult it can be for a woman," she said. "I began to see how really spoiled I was, growing up in Hollywood. The awareness was so startling that I think I actually grew up as a woman."
Whiting credited what she referred to as "an awakening" with reviving her career. She undertook a national bus tour to perform around the country, where she said she could see the public "reaching out" for the standards she sang; she toured in a popular musical, "Four Girls Four;" she again started to record albums and play in clubs, such as Studio One in Los Angeles, where she last performed eight years ago.
After her Cinegrill engagement and a national book promotion tour, Whiting is scheduled to perform at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. And then she has plans to develop a musical about Johnny Mercer, another album, and a second book, "perhaps a novel," she said. "People in show business don't retire; you have to keep going.
"It's been pretty smooth sailing for me," reflected Whiting, a lively quick-witted no-nonsense sort of woman. "I've had my personal ups and downs, and maybe I should have pushed myself a little more--but I'm still here.
"I started out as a person who was musical, singing songs the way I was told they should be sung," she said. "Now, I am singing as a woman who has been through the ultimate experience of living."