Let me start by assuring you I was not in fact a Shangri-La. Not in the sense of being one of the original Shangri-La’s from the iconic sixties girl-group made famous by the motorcycle-bad-boy hit “Leader of the Pack”. That would make me faaaar older than I already am and who needs that? I wasn’t even a younger addition to the group in its later years, like Bruce Johnson with The Beach Boys. But I was almost a Shangri-la. Confused? You won’t be, when you read this little story about the less glamorous side of show business.
It all started for me during the final days of my year-and-a-half in Miami, post-college. By this time, it was 1991, Armani had just moved to Miami Beach and the area was starting its evolution from sleepy retirement neighborhood to swanky celebrity hangout-by-the-sea. I had moved to the area six months before and was well into my decline from dewy-eyed theater hopeful to increasingly freaked-out bum-t0-be (long story). I was almost 22, and after some promising roles in regional theater, I’d been out of work for months and was trying to figure out my next step – though I’d been showing abysmal judgement since I’d left Jacksonville. Remember that phrase “Bangkok’s got him now.” from The Hangover 2? It kept reminding me of how I felt in the weirdest of the US metropolises. South Florida in particular is a maelstrom of cultures and vibes where events never seem to take their normal course but veer off into Twilight Zone territory with unnerving regularity. For example, the severed arm found in the washing machine of a laundromat. An actual news item from that time.
But I digress.
So I was looking for work, a gig, a casting for (almost) anything and doing the usual, combing the local casting papers for auditions and such, when a certain ad caught my eye. It was looking for young female singers to perform at convention centers and trade shows. Good money. No nudity or skimpy clothing required! This sounded right up my alley, so I made the call. The interview was in a hotel lobby further up in North Miami Beach. Which meant I could take the jitney bus, which was a relief since I’d had to sell my car to pay rent and avoid the toxic cloud of old parking tickets stuffed and ticking in the glove compartment. Yes, I was that girl.
But, again, I digress.
I dressed in my most demure business-y outfit, a modest black skirt, flats and patterned blouse with a high neck. It was cute but didn’t give the auditioner any ideas (if I was lucky.) In the lobby was someone who I’ll call Arnie. Arnie was a type you came across quite a bit in South Florida in the early nineties: liver spots, potbelly, skinny legs, balding, leisure suit, white shoes, gold watch, briefcase. He shook my hand with a nice-to-know-ya smile and an extra pat from his other bear hand. He showed me to a seat in the lounge and got right down to business. He asked if I knew anything about the group – of course I’d had, they played “Leader of the Pack” a bunch on the oldies station in Jacksonville. He explained that The Shangri-La’s were a manufactured group and had always hired new performers every few years for corporate events. And they were looking for the next batch of girls. They traveled to well-paying gigs in the region and there wasn’t much time for rehearsals, but if I was chosen it could be a great opportunity. That all sounded fine to me and he showed me into one of the conference rooms where a boombox waited on short table towards the back of the room. Some other girls were milling about, each scrutinizing a sheet of paper and moving her lips. Some glanced up at me as I passed, wary and wondering.
Arnie handed me the lyrics to “Leader of the Pack”, walked over to the boombox and pressed play. I sang along to the karaoke tape and easily handled this song that had apparently been tattooed on my brain via FM radio. Arnie beamed as I finished and said it was right on the money! He gave me another song that I wasn’t so familiar with, “Remember” – again I sang along to the tape and after faltering a bit at the beginning, I seemed to figure out the song and finished strong. Arnie had pulled in another associate whose name I never caught and they both nodded vigorously while muttering to each other. And it seemed like good muttering. I was so relieved, auditions almost always suck but when you get any kind of good response, it’s just so gratifying. Arnie sent me home and said they’d call and let me know soon.
I didn’t have to wait long! They’d chosen the three girls and rehearsals would start next week. And it was fun! The other girls were very nice, though it seemed I was the only one who had a performing background. But still the songs were cool and there was a choreographer who coached us through some steps. It was like a grand game of make-believe, playing old pop stars and dreaming of the fame and glory sure to be hanging just around the corner. Arnie kept promoting me to the lead singing spot (formerly occupied brilliantly by Mary Weiss) and I had a blast with these cool bad-girl pop tunes.
But the bottom was rushing up to me. I wasn’t getting paid for any of these rehearsals and I didn’t know when I would be. My string of bad luck was going strong as I was evicted from my South Beach efficiency after a friend’s drunk ex-girlfriend beat down the front window with her hands (another long story.) And then the calls just stopped coming. I tried Arnie’s number but got no answer. Suddenly The Shangri-Las had shoop-ed right out of my life. It was the beginning of a denouement that led to my moving back home to Jacksonville. Ah what could have been, I’d thought. I was almost a Shangri-La.
Turns out these folks weren’t related to the original group at all. But the real Shangri-La’s had never registered their name. So a certain fella just went ahead and registered it for himself, then started putting together girl groups under “his” name. There had been a whole expose about it on Entertainment Tonight in 1989 but I hadn’t a clue. And I’m so glad that I didn’t make a career out of being a singer in a fraudulent girl group. Instead, before I finally tucked my tail between my legs and headed back upstate, I started writing my own songs and playing them out with my guitar. Which put me on a whole different route than I’d ever planned. Thank God for hard-left turns.
Still, whenever I hear “Leader of the Pack”, I sigh a little inside.
Image courtesy of mtarvainen on Flickr.