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AL MARTINEZ

Someone Who Used to Be

March 05, 1996|AL MARTINEZ

When I came to work in L.A. about 25 years ago I saw a woman at a restaurant who looked vaguely familiar.

I knew I'd seen her in a movie or a television series, and it was really bugging me that I couldn't remember her name.

Her face kept floating in the darkness at the edge of memory, looking the way it had maybe 15 years earlier, before time had etched out its youth.

My inability to place the woman frustrated me so much I finally asked the waiter who she was. He glanced over toward her, shrugged and said, "Just someone who used to be."

The phrase rang in my head like the sound of a gong because of its classic dismissal of yesterday's someone, as though she never really mattered much and now she doesn't matter at all, sitting alone and only vaguely recalled.

Over the years I've come to know what the man meant, having had experience writing for television and watching the someones come and go.

Show biz has a place only for winners of the moment and quickly forgets those who, for whatever reason, are beyond their winning seasons.

I allude to the cruelty of success today because I've watched a little girl become a big girl, fluttering on the brink of stardom with a voice that wrings you dry, and I'm wondering where it's going to take her.

*

Her name is Renee Sands. I met her 14 years ago when she was a bright and animated 7-year-old with a voice powerfully disproportionate to her age.

I kept hearing that she was a new Judy Garland and that her parents had so much faith in her talent they'd given up a home and a business in Worcester, Mass., to be "where things happen."

Bob and Mary Sandstrom, their real name, weren't stage-door mamas. There was nothing in the world that little girl wanted to do more than sing, and the music in her soul was not to be denied.

I heard her at the behest of a friend who called her voice a miracle. You can't imagine how many times I hear that kind of description. Their voices are miracles, their scripts breathtaking, their poetry like whispers from God.

All the superlatives ever uttered come down on L.A. like slowly falling rain, leaving faint puddles of memory that vanish when the sun comes out.

In Renee's case, I was finally badgered into paying the family a visit. First they showed me a film of the little girl at age 2 singing "I Only Have Eyes for You," then she stood in the kitchen of their Northridge home and belted out "New York, New York."

It was a stunning performance, and I went back to the office and added words to the rainfall of superlatives about a kid on the brink of tomorrow.

I wondered about her over the passing years, but never did check back to see how she was doing until just the other day. The little girl is a big girl now and all her dreams seem to be coming true.

*

At age 22, she's progressed from singing on the television series "Kids Incorporated" to performing on stage as an opening act for stars like Wayne Newton, Bob Hope and Debbie Reynolds.

There've been more TV shows and charity events than she could remember standing there in the kitchenette of the family's new Granada Hils home, her green eyes glowing the way they did when she was an impish 7-year-old.

She writes a lot of her own music now, sometimes with her brother Bob, also a talented composer, and at other times with friends Stacy Ferguson and Stefanie Ridel who, with Renee, comprise the vocal trio Wild Orchid.

That's where her interest lies now. RCA Records is producing their first album this summer, and you can already hear their voices doing the theme song for the TV series "Hope and Gloria."

Renee played me a medley of Wild Orchid's tunes on tape, pop and jazz and rhythm and blues. Then I asked her to sing for me in person, the way she had back in 1982.

I was still thinking of the little kid she used to be when Renee, wearing jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, kind of half-closed her eyes and sang an original tune called "No Words," a love ballad full of tears and longing.

In that one isolated moment, with sunlight streaming through a window and her voice floating through the house like ribbons of satin, she represented both the passage of time and the innocence of youth in a hard environment.

I sense a good life for Renee Sands on different levels. She has talent all right, but mostly she has the stability of a family that'll be there when the stage goes dark and the audience goes home.

In the area of support and security that exists beyond applause, she's likely never to become a lonely someone who used to be.

Al Martinez can be reached through the Internet at al.martinez@latimes.com

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