Sitting in the second row at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, watching enraptured as Marilyn Horne sang romantic arias from famous and not-so-famous Italian and French operas backed by an orchestra of black-suited musicians, Terry Barkis let out a little exclamation of his own.
"At 16 years old she used to sing like that at our dining room table," said Barkis, 54, a salesman in the oil industry who does not particularly like opera but loves this particular opera star.
Back then, of course, Horne was not the internationally acclaimed diva considered by many to be the best mezzo soprano in the world and by some to be among the nine or 10 greatest of the century.
Back then she was just plain Marilyn, a member of the Poly High School graduating class of 1951, Girls League treasurer, French Club member, singer in the a cappella choir and Barkis' steady date. "She was one of the most popular girls in the entire class," the oilman recalled of his one-time girlfriend. "She used to sing Ave Maria and make my uncle cry."
Indeed, there was more than one pair of moist eyes in the audience last week as dozens of former classmates and friends shouted bravos and tossed posies on-stage to mark Horne's return to the locale of some of her earliest artistic triumphs.
In town for a concert put on by the Long Beach Opera as part of the city's centennial celebration, Horne acknowledged the affectionate adulation with a modest nod. "I would like to say that it feels wonderful to be home, but I really don't recognize the place," she quipped to the audience, referring to the major redevelopment process that has changed the city's face in the years since she saw it last.
Those years have been good to Horne, also 54, who after making her stage debut as the lead in Poly High's production of "The Merry Widow," went on to study voice at USC before becoming a regular performer at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, as well as on every other major stage in Europe and America. Now a New York resident, she eventually married--and later divorced--a man she met at USC and has a 22-year-old daughter who works in the publishing industry.
During a private reception after last week's performance--her first in Long Beach since 1978--the mood was nostalgic and emotional as Horne and her childhood friends, many of whom had not seen each other in 37 years, embraced and spoke of old times.
"She was everybody's buddy and all the boys adored her," recalled Janet Ward McNeil, a former sorority sister whose only contact with Horne in recent years has been catching her occasionally on the Johnny Carson show. "She could tell the dirtiest jokes and get away with it."
Another high school sorority sister, Dawn Eden Fletcher, recalled how Horne once helped her get into Phi Gamma Chi by smashing a snail on her leg. "As part of the pledging process we had to let a snail crawl up our leg and smash it on our knee," said Fletcher, who later opened a book store in Northern California that, among other things, sold copies of Horne's autobiography. "I couldn't do it, so Marilyn took my hand and smashed the snail and I was a Phi Gam forever more."
Horne, for her part, seemed deeply touched by all the attention. "It's very heady," she said. "I feel surrounded by so much love. It's wonderful to see all these people I spent my youth with."
Not everyone, of course, recognized the future diva's extraordinary talents during her early years in Long Beach.
Mike Newton, who graduated two years behind her and is now an insurance executive, confesses that he and other "irreverent teen-age boys" used to slouch back in their chairs during school assemblies and groan in complaint at the prospect of yet another Marilyn Horne performance.
"We didn't know what we were hearing," admitted Newton, 52, who said he attended the recent $35-a-ticket concert to offer "belated accolades" to the opera star. "Now, even (those who) ditched the assembly would probably swear that they were there."
Ditching did not seem to be a problem at Poly the next day as Horne met with the school's current crop of music students after performances by several of them in ensemble and as soloists. Although many of the youngsters admitted to being less than opera aficionados, they had been sufficiently briefed by their teachers to appreciate the stature of their visitor and the value of her words.
"It was just awing to have someone that famous here giving us advice," said Eileen Everett, 17, a member of the school's vocal jazz ensemble. "I learned a lot just from the few minutes I heard her. She said a lot of the same things my director says, so it made me know he's right."
Horne later allowed that she found the students' performances "really marvelous" and was surprised at the high level of their talent. "This is a real nostalgia trip," she said, glancing about the campus. "I really had been warned that Poly is practically an armed camp now, but that's a gross exaggeration. To hear these kids' talent is wonderful."
On a different note, after a performance by the Poly orchestra in the school auditorium where, after playfully chastising principal Wayne Piercy for the structure's lack of good acoustic qualities, Horne offered to someday perform at a benefit concert to help raise money for an acoustic shell to enhance them.
"I never realized I had such an uphill battle," said the diva, indicating the rickety stage on which her career had begun.