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Oh! Say, Can You Sing . . . : Many Audition, Few Are Chosen to Perform Anthem for Angels

June 25, 1988|PATRICIA GERBER | Times Staff Writer

As a boy, Mark Miller wanted to work in show business. At 14, he auditioned for the "Ed Sullivan Show," belting out a medley of Al Jolson tunes.

But after listening to the lad, Sullivan's booking agent said to Miller: "You know, you're a nice Jewish kid. Why don't you go to medical school and become a doctor?"

Miller, now 40 and a cardiologist in Fullerton, chuckles at the memory. He could not convince Sullivan's agent of his talents all those years ago, but his rendition of the national anthem on an audiocassette impressed the Angels' booking agent and assistant director of marketing, Corky Lippert.

On Memorial Day, Miller stepped up to home plate and for exactly 1 minute had his moment in the sun as, accompanied by an organ, he sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" to about 64,000 fans. And at the seventh-inning stretch, he had a go at "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Was he nervous? Well, it wasn't the same as singing in the shower, in the car stuck in traffic or while making his hospital rounds--his principal rehearsal halls. The fact that it was Bat Day at the stadium didn't help calm him either ("Can you imagine singing a song as difficult as 'The Star-Spangled Banner' (to people) with bats in their hands?").

And, with all due respect, he says that the song, technically, is "probably the most horrible thing to sing in the world."

Miller is just one of many amateur and professional singers selected annually from hundreds of candidates to sing the national anthem at the Big A. He follows in the footsteps of such show-business names as Johnny Mathis, Glen Campbell, the Lettermen, Asleep at the Wheel and Ray Anthony (who played the anthem on his trumpet). The anthem has also been performed at the stadium by an award-winning, 87-piece high school marching band from the Midwest and the First Baptist Church Youth Choir from Monroe, La.

No one is paid, but everyone gets a free ticket for a seat behind home plate and a parking pass. Extra tickets for family or friends are often thrown in.

In at least one respect, pros and novices alike are placed on the same level: no one is given rehearsal time. And because of the stadium's configuration, there is a disconcerting sound delay from the microphone at home plate to the speakers in the field--something akin to hearing yourself coming and going. Angels' management considerably eases the problem by providing singers with headphones that muffle the feedback.

Lippert said she receives up to 10 requests weekly from professionals and non-professionals alike, although most of the novices have had some singing experience, usually with choirs or at local nightclubs. (Miller sang in college in an a cappella men's group and occasionally is asked to sing at the wedding of a nurse). Some singers, like Miller, are invited to sing as representatives of large groups attending the game--in his case, the Orange County Heart Assn., of which Miller is president-elect.

Professional singer Helen Hudson, who commutes between an office in Cardiff, San Diego County, and a home in New York, until a couple of years ago didn't realize people even sang the national anthem before ballgames until her new husband took her to one. Now she sings the anthem not only for the Angels (four times so far) but also for the Dodgers, the Mets and even the Knicks basketball team at Madison Square Garden.

Hudson's professional credits include a cabaret act, backup singer to pop groups, Off Broadway productions, two records--pop and country--and an upcoming run at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

What some singers consider a technical time bomb, Hudson hails as a challenge.

"If you can sing (the national anthem), it shows your whole range," Hudson said. "It separates the men from the boys."

She has nothing but praise for Angels management, calling it the "most professional" from a performer's point of view. She notes that singers are given two microphones, one acting as a backup in case of a technical failure.

Lippert, who has been conducting auditions for three years, said she has been surprised by the number of singers who aren't quite sure of the lyrics; changing "fight" to "flight" is common on audition tapes.

"You won't believe this, but most of the tapes I get, they don't know the words," Lippert said.

But no one, to her great relief, has ever forgotten the words during a performance.

The selection process is simple, Lippert explained. "Unknowns" must first audition by means of a taped audiocassette. And the Angels organization knows exactly what type of rendition it wants: traditional. No jazzed-up versions, certainly no rock 'n' roll or blues, and forget gospel. Hit the notes exactly as they were intended, and no showboating on the high "free," Lippert said.

"We like it sung on a nice tempo, not a requiem," Lippert said. Angels owner Gene Autry "likes it sung straight," she said, "the way it was written. It is a hymn. You would not disgrace a hymn."

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