Q&A: Susan Anton
Susan Anton parlayed winning the Miss California pageant into a career that took her to the heights of pop culture stardom and the stages of Las Vegas in the ’70s. Her singing voice led her to Broadway, but she kept coming back to Vegas and eventually made her home here. Her solo debut, Jan. 8-9 at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts’ Cabaret Jazz, is an artistic homecoming that could easily turn into frequent staycations. She spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen recently.
You’re calling from Vegas, right? This is your home?
It is. I’m actually in L.A right now. I had a show last night at this great club out here that Herb Alpert has. It’s called Vibrato (Grill Jazz). I was performing there last night and we had a fantastic time, but I’ll be heading back to Vegas this afternoon because that is home.
Herb Alpert has a current club called Vibrato?
Yeah, it’s a really beautiful jazz club. It’s in Bel Air. His daughter Eden Alpert runs it, but Herb, he did all the art, he did all the sound. Just a beautiful club. You should go online and look at it. I’ve played there a few times and we were there last night. We were kind of kicking off the holiday season. I had a really, really … just a beautiful evening.
Is this a new club?
No, surprisingly. It was new to me, but it’s been around quite a few years. It’s a gem up off of Mullholland, off of Beverly Glen. It’s just this little gem of a club. Great food, beautiful ambience, but it’s been around a while.
The impression I get is Mr. Alpert wanted this perfect place with the right atmosphere or something. I’m really surprised I haven’t heard about this before.
If you ever get a chance, if you’re in L.A., you’ve got to check it out. He did, he built something that’s very specific to … it’s like being in a recording studio. It’s so specifically designed to his ear and his tastes. The art in there is all his art. He’s an incredible artist and just a beautiful man. His club is beautiful, and the personnel that runs it, starting with his daughter … everybody. It’s just a real gem of a place here tucked away in the Hollywood Hills, kind of.
Was this show the one that you’re bringing to The Smith Center?
No. There’s elements of it that I’ll be bringing to The Smith Center, but we did more of a holiday show since it’s Christmas and we’re kicking off the season, so we had a lot of Christmas material in the show. We played some of the songs that we’ll be playing at The Smith Center most likely, songs like “It’s a Man’s World.” We have some really great charts on James Brown’s classic song, but our show at The Smith Center will be altogether different.
Is Already Home an existing show that you’ve been doing for awhile?
It’s a show that I put together several years ago with my L.A.-based band. These guys have been with me for like 35 years, and we played the Cinegrill over at the Roosevelt Hotel. It no longer exists, but we played the Cinegrill after we hadn’t been able to do a show for a really long time because I’ve been doing a lot of Broadway. So I got the band back together, and we decided to do a show that was comprised of all the songs we really cared about, that influenced us or affected out lives, or told a life story in a sense. And so we call it Already Home. That was the genesis of the original show, and then in the last six months we reconnected and did several performances of it in Palms Springs and here in Los Angeles. That’s when I called (Smith Center President and CEO) Myron Martin over at The Smith Center and I said, “I want to bring my show to Cabaret Jazz. I’ve been doing this and I’ve really enjoyed doing it, so let’s do it at the Smith Center.” He said, “Great!”
When was the last time you were onstage in Vegas?
You know, it’s been a long time. I had a lot of fun three years ago when Clint Holmes, Domenick Allen, Martin Nievera and I did several shows in a group called Vocal Soup. We performed at the Suncoast and The Orleans, and I would say that’s probably the last time I was onstage, other than benefits and things like that, in Las Vegas.
It sounds like The Smith Center is a more venue-appropriate setting for your shows.
Absolutely. That Cabaret Jazz room is one of the true gems I think that we have now in Las Vegas. It’s such a gift to entertainers, where it’s not about filling Cirque du Soleil-sized venues. For me personally it’s a throwback to what I originally loved about Las Vegas. When I was a young entertainer in the first shows that I saw, they were like in the Copa Room with Sammy Davis Jr. and Mel Torme. They were intimate rooms, and the talent was right there next to the audience, very intimate and exciting. I think Cabaret Jazz evokes that time. It’s one of the few places where you can come and do your show in a cozy setting with great acoustics and beautiful design. I am so excited to be coming there.
How autobiographical is Already Home?
It’s not autobiographical like I was this old, this song came along and this song had an impact on me. It’s more the songs that are in the show are there because they evoke a memory or something that was going on in our world. … Recently, when we did the show we went from Bruce Springsteen “You’re Missing” to the classic “Why Can’t We Live Together.” The music that influenced me growing up was all from the ’60s. That was a time when music was really the voice of the people. Everything has a message and a meaning, and some of it’s just thrown in because it’s fun. That’s why I call it Already Home. It’s like Dorothy. You get out, you travel the world, you really want to get out and see everything. And you really realize your life evolves … I’m in my 60s now, and going from my 20s to my 60s I see that, as I’ve traveled the world, there really is no place like home. And you do come back home. In a funny way there’s been this full circle thing with Las Vegas and The Smith Center. This is where I started, so it’s kind of great to come back home.
Are you on a tour right now or was that show last night kind of a one-off?
Yeah, last night was a one-off. Every three months I come in and we’ll work out some new material at Vibrato. I’ve got a nice relationship with the people there so it’s a chance for me to come to L.A., which is also my original home where I’m from. So we have a lot of friends, a lot of family. And the industry is here. Because I’m in film and television, it’s a great venue for me to come to every couple of months and keep a presence.
What kind of material are you doing? I saw songs by John Mayer and Mark Cohen in previous sets.
John Mayer—we’ll definitely be doing that song. He has a great song called “Stop This Train” off of his Continuum album. That’s in there because it is about slowing down time. Like, you get how fast life goes, and he just says it so poetically and it’s such a beautiful message. Mark Cohen—he has the title song of the show, “Already Home.” Sometimes you’ve got to go back where they know you. We have Beth Nielson Chapman, a little John Lennon, the Beatles. It’s a real eclectic group. Bob Dylan.
Are you doing “In My Life”?
You know what, that’s on the list. I hope it makes the cut. Probably. I have so much material that I really love that, when it comes down to deciding which ones make the cut, I don’t know until I actually get with the players and we kind of get the show up on its feet and get a feel for it. Hopefully “In My Life” will be in there, because I think it’s one of the best songs ever written.
I heard you like to close with Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”
You know, it’s so true. I’ve been closing with that song for I don’t know how many years. We put it in many, many years ago, and every time I’ve tried to come up with a different closer, I always want to go back to that song, because every word in that song, to me, it just exactly right, exactly perfect. It’s everything I wish for all people, my audiences and everybody as we say goodnight and go our separate ways. I really wish for everyone what Bob Dylan says in that song, so that’s pretty much the standard in my set.
So you’re going to get with your band and choose the songs?
I was hoping to bring in my guys from L.A. because we’ve been together so long, but logistically, and their schedules, and stuff like that, I’m not going to have my L.A. guys but I’m going to be work with some of my fabulous people there in Las Vegas. Jeff Neiman, who obviously plays Cabaret Jazz a lot, he produced a Christmas CD of me, supertalented guy. He’ll be my musical director, and we’re assembling all Vegas guys. Vegas has some of the best players out there, so I’ll be cultivating a new brotherhood with my new band. That I’m looking forward to, but the material will all be material I’ve been doing for years.
Do you remember your first visit to Vegas? Was it after you became the Muriel Cigar girl?
Oh, no. My very first visit to Vegas, I was 15 years old and I was on a Greyhound bus with a bunch of other teenagers, and we were on a big summer discovery thing that my godmother sent me on. It was called Touring Teens, and it was just kind of like summer camp on a bus where you traveled around the United States, and saw all these great landmarks. I’ll never forget driving through Las Vegas. This goes way back, but going down the Strip and seeing all those lights for the first time was the most incredible thing I had ever seen. I’m from this little town in Southern California, raised on an apple ranch, you know? I never saw anything neon in my life. So there we were with the Flamingo, and at the time it was the Thunderbird and The Dunes and the Copa. All these classic hotels, so many them are gone now. That was my very first time in Vegas, but the first time I performed there was probably 1971-72 at the Hacienda Hotel.
That was Turn It On?
Yep. That’s right.
What was that show about?
Laugh-In was still a big hit on television, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. So this was kind of a live version, sketch comedy with music. And then it had a singing star, Jean-Paul Vignon from France. I guess he had a hit record at the time. I didn’t really know who he was, but I was a part of this company of players, and when that show ended, Pepper Davis, who booked the talent for the Hacienda Hotel, decided I should be promoted to headline singer and they built an ice skating show around me. I would come out and sing about seven or eight songs in the middle of this ice skating production. That was really the first time I was there as an entertainer on my own.
How soon after your pageant career did that happen?
It was within three years. I was Miss California 1969-70, so this was like ’72, right in the early ’70s. It kind of happened pretty fast.
I understand you rode a horse to a one-room schoolhouse.
I did. I was raised in a little area between San Bernardino and Palms Springs. If you go up into the mountains, you come to a place called Oak Glen. My great-great grandfather and my grandfather … family pioneered that area as an apple-growing community, so I was raised up there with my three brothers and my sister Peggy. There was a one-room schoolhouse there that was our school. I rode my horse to school and I had my dog sit under my desk. There were only two people in my grade.
I’ll bet you were the hottest girls in school.
There you go! I was (laughs). I’d have been just about the only one but I was.
There are some videos from your 1979 NBC variety show Presenting Susan Anton and, in one, your mom is interviewed and says that you started singing for the Miss Redlands competition.
That’s right! My brother sent me that exact clip the other day because my mom (has) passed away, but it was her birthday and I revisited that clip. And yeah, she’s right.
In that same episode she said if they had to name a sandwich after you, it would have to have a lot of ham in it.
She’s right about that. My momma knew me well.
Were you hamming it up back then in Oak Glen?
Well, I had big dreams. I don’t know if I was a ham, but I’d take any opportunity I had to get up and sing, entertain. I was always the first one. I was ready to do it.
Was Miss California the pivotal point? Was it like everything that came before was leading up to that, then afterward all of the opportunities started opening up?
In a way. When I was growing up I didn’t have a real plan. I had no idea. I thought I was really going to go to college and just get married and probably be a nursery school teacher. I didn’t have aspirations to be in show business. I had fantasies about it. I loved watching the musical on television and I thought it was all so glamorous and all so exciting. I loved the idea of it, but there’s no background in my family, no connection to it on any level.
So it wasn’t something that I was pursuing, and then when the Miss Redlands pageant came along there was a talent portion. I had this secret feeling. I thought “I’m going to enter that and sing. I could sing.” I had never sung in front of anybody, but I just had a feeling I could do it. I decided to enter that pageant and I won, and that then sent me to Miss California, which sent me to Miss America. I finished second runner-up to Miss America, and so singing onstage and being in front of an orchestra and performing for an audience, I realized that this is what I really wanted to do. So then I set about trying to figure out how to do it, and I didn’t have a clue. I asked people in the pageants, “Who should I talk to?” and “How do I go about this?” I got a little help here and a little help there, and things just started to happen.
I would be amiss if I didn’t ask: Do you miss Dudley Moore sometimes? I know that’s a terrible question …
Oh, no. That’s not a terrible question at all. Dudley was one of the dearest people in my life. He was a very important person in my life. I miss his humor. I miss seeing him. I see movies and I watch Steve Carell, whose work I love, and I go, “That would have been a part that Dudley would have loved to have done.”
I never connected those dots before but you’re completely right.
Yeah. I miss him at those times. I really miss being able to enjoy him up there doing his comedy. He loved his craft so, so very much and he was such a great musician. I miss the man and I really miss his contribution to our entertainment world. He was a real blessing.
You guys were like a super-couple link between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, and modern contraction-bestowed couples. The Bennifers.
Now everybody has that were they take the two names and they make them, like, “Brangelina.” I wonder who we would have been. “Suddenly?”