Today’s Diary is the completion of Bob Schulenberg’s memories of first meeting Barbra Streisand back in 1960. Motivated by her best-selling memoir which is out now. We are re-running two more of Bob’s Diaries go into the detail of how quickly the young performer’s career came together into almost instant stardom, and how the artist influenced her choices in presentation (makeup/hair/costume) that established her public presence and her management of that image which took everybody by storm.
After getting a Master’s equivalency in Animation at UCLA, I was offered a position as an Art Director at West, Weir & Bartel, the New York advertising agency of the father of my good friend at UCLA, Paul Bartel.
I arrived in New York in the early summer of 1960 quite late at night as there were no direct non-stop flights from Los Angeles yet. I was invited to stay with another friend from UCLA, Barré (Barry) Dennen who’d earlier come to town to be an actor.
His parents had given him the unusual spelling of his name and he’d had the chance to do some acting jobs far from Broadway.
He’d recently been in The Insect Comedy and was to have a small part in Henry V with Shakespeare in the Park later in the summer.
I unpacked my things, we talked a bit, and since I’d not had dinner, we decided to go out. It was around 3:00 AM. Although it would’ve been very quiet at that time in LA, Barré lived on West 9th Street in the Village and there was still a lot of activity.
As we were walking toward Sixth Avenue, a young girl carrying shopping bags came running behind us calling his name. We stopped, she joined us and we ended up at the 24-hour Pam Pam restaurant on Sixth Avenue. We were introduced on the way and I was told her name was Barbra Streisand.
She had been in The Insect Comedy with Barré and knowing that she wanted to get away from her home and family in Brooklyn, Barré suggested that she participate in a talent show at The Lion, a gay bar/restaurant across the street from his apartment. She had been the winner and the prize was an engagement at the club (with dinner included). It was her last night at The Lion and the shopping bags held a collection of beaded clothing, satins, furry items, feathered accessories. Along with an armload of exquisite Venetian glass bracelets and dangling 1920s earrings, she wore a pair of perfect gold trimmed red satin T-strap evening sandals from around 1927. I recognized the shoes from my large collection of 1920s Vanity Fairs, Bazaars and Vogues!
I had done some freelance historic costume designing for Western Costume while at UCLA and I’d also designed a “Parade of the Nations” number for the Ice Capades; and Barbra’s sequins, feathers and satins made me a bit nostalgic. After all, I’d been at Ice Capades with Billi Livingston, the designer also of the Copacabana shows, and the man who INVENTED the mirror’d sequin!
When we arrived at the Pam Pam, Barbra loved that I could tell her about the shoes which, remarkably, she’d found in a Thrift Shop! As a matter of fact, she told me that pretty much everything was found at Thrift Shops!
Barbra was fascinated that I’d had lunch in Westwood in California with my mother and now was having dinner with her and Barré in New York! She wanted to know, step by step, absolutely every detail of how our lives were lived in Los Angeles! At just barely 18, she had all of the instincts of an accomplished researcher.
I learned that in addition to working at The Lion, part of the prize was to audition for the Greenwich Village nightclub, The Bon Soir, which was just a block away from the Pam Pam. Barré told me that Barbra was an excellent singer and had an interest in popular music and just about everything from the ’20s and ’30s (this coincided with our own interests and collecting). The audition was just a few weeks away.
In the meantime, I’d found an apartment in the same area on Gay Street, the shortest street in Greenwich Village.
I was on the ground floor of number 16 and discovered that just next door was the original basement apartment of sisters Ruth and Eileen McKenney, which was the setting for the book and movie, “My Sister Eileen.”
I loved the Village; for me it was like living in a movie studio back lot except that when you went into a building, there was an interior right there! In LA, if you walked through a movie set door, the interior was a distance away, temporarily constructed on a Sound Stage! This was all real.
There were even push carts on Bleecker Street a few blocks away, an open air market!
Back in the days at UCLA, I had drawn a portrait of Paul Bartel in the style of the French artist Jean- Auguste Dominique Ingres; I was fascinated by the drawings of Ingres.
Since Barbra was now one of our confederates, I did a drawing of her with a vaguely Ingres-style look to it.
Before drawing her, I asked her to pull her hair into a then-popular, high-style beehive; I made up her face to maximize her best feature, her eyes, and reinforced cheekbone shadows as she was still so young that her face still had a youthful look.
She loved the look and asked me to teach her how to do it herself.
And then the day came for her audition at The Bon Soir. Barré and I accompanied her and she sang.
I’d not heard her sing a single note until that day.
Barré and Barbra had decided on “Sleeping Bee” from the musical, “House of Flowers.” And Barré, as a brilliant director/coach, had given her acting motivations for interpreting the lyrics. Barbra had been attending acting classes and I remember her telling me about an exercise in which she was an uncooked chocolate chip cookie put in an oven — and baked! She wondered at her chocolate chips melting and her dough rising. It was fascinating!
While I was an undergraduate at UCLA I’d attended a performance of Edith Piaf as she visited Los Angeles. It was a stunning revelation as to the possibilities of what one woman could do singing alone on a stage and wearing a very simple black dress, and I believe wearing what looked to be carpet slippers! She was, as the term goes — present!
Here, women singers wore flashy gowns and the true meaning of the lyrics was barely indicated. While smiling broadly, a singer might sing “I’ll never smile again” or a song about misery and loss wearing thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing.
After the Piaf performance, which I attended with a UCLA friend whose father was a friend of Piaf’s, we went backstage and I got to meet her. She was well under 5 feet tall! I wondered why we Americans couldn’t have a powerful personality like that and I compared every pop singer to Piaf.
At Barbra’s audition, when she started to sing, it came to me like a thunderclap, lightning and an earthquake, I realized that this new best friend, my first in New York — Barbra was IT! The One!