The Time of Her Life : Estelle Reiner Slips Into Sequins and the Spotlight

<i> Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer. </i>

The music begins, and from the back of the Gardenia supper club, Estelle Reiner struts out in a low-cut, shimmery black dress, long, dangling earrings and sparkling black slippers. She slinks and shimmies through the room, past her family and friends, past regulars and newcomers. Dipping backward over the piano and caressing the microphone, she tosses off lyrics like “you intoxicate my soul with your eyes.”*

Sultry on a raunchy blues classic one moment, raucously interpreting Randy Newman the next, Reiner is no ordinary chanteuse. She’s been married for 41 years to actor-director Carl Reiner, raised three children--among them actor-director Rob Reiner--and been through one career as a painter. Her audience is as likely to include friends Mel Brooks and Dom DeLuise as people from the neighborhood.

What makes a woman past 60 slip into sequins and stand up before a crowd to sing? For Reiner, it isn’t the money, since, after paying the musicians, she rarely breaks even. And it isn’t the promise of a good life, because she has that already.


Her desire to perform began as a teen-ager in the Bronx. She sang twice on the radio, 15 minutes a shot, accompanying herself on a ukulele. They wanted her back, she remembers, but she had nothing left to sing. “I used up my entire repertoire.”

Nevertheless, she kept the ukulele handy, singing at friends’ homes or at the Carl Reiner tennis tournament in La Costa. When her youngest son, Lucas, now 24, was very young, she sang to records of background instrumentals that her husband brought home. He first heard her sing at an adult summer camp in New York, where they met, and says that he’s been nagging her to perform ever since. “I’d been telling people for years what a good singer she was, and I could never get her to stand up and prove it.”

Although Reiner admits that her husband’s prominence has certainly not hurt her singing career, she says that it also kept her home for years. “Being the wife of a celebrity made it difficult for me to strike out on my own,” she says. “I had to be satisfied with smaller stuff. It’s kind of expected that someone married to a prominent person either does nothing, so she can give him support, or does something really big. That part was hard, being Mrs. Carl Reiner and doing this.”

Anne Bancroft, a friend of 20 years, made it easier, casting Reiner in the film “Fatso” a few years ago. “It was the first time I got out of my house to go to work since I was married,” Reiner says. “I loved it. They loved what I did. They paid me.”

As she tells husband Carl Reiner on the record jacket of her debut album, “Just in Time,” the “Fatso” experience “made me realize I liked performing.” It provided liberation--”I was a mother for a long time, a nurturing mother”--and it gave her confidence. “I thought that a person who performs is special, and I didn’t see myself that way.”

“The big thrill is to see this woman up there doing it,” Bancroft says one evening after the show. “The greatest remark was made by Carol Matthau, Walter Matthau’s wife, who said that other women her age are out getting divorced, seeing psychiatrists, taking sleeping pills--and Estelle’s out singing in nightclubs. It’s really a wonderful phenomenon. But aside from the courage, which we all admire, she does some musical things that are genuinely thrilling.”


Those “musical things” didn’t just happen. After “Fatso,” Reiner studied acting and singing. When the owner of Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks asked her to sing there, Reiner says, she asked for a date six months in advance “because I had a lot of work to do. And in those six months, I worked like a dog. There’s a big difference between wanting to sing and getting up and doing it.”

Opening night was in December, 1982, and Reiner’s bad cold had turned into laryngitis. A throat specialist gave her a shot, assuring her that she’d be fine by show time, but her voice never really came back. Two songs into the show she stopped and asked the audience whether she should go on, and “there was thunderous applause. I don’t know why.”

Producer Norman Lear knows why. One of several celebrity friends in the room that night, Lear says that he “loved the fact that I was watching someone at the very peak of her joy of life. It was an extraordinary experience, and I think that everyone felt that way. It’s very rare that a group of people can watch someone and think: ‘I am looking at that person at the happiest moment of that person’s life.’ She exuded the hard work and the thrust and the joy of it.”

Reiner won’t reveal her age, saying that since her audience doesn’t seem to notice it, she’s decided not to think about it either. “Women feel so grateful that someone my age gets up,” she says. “People can see I’m really on in years. They don’t need to know my age.”

Indeed, the singer often seems ageless, snapping her fingers and gliding past tables. At one moment she embraces melancholy ballads reminiscent of those Billie Holiday might have performed; at another she leans toward Sophie Tucker’s red-hot-mama style. She has drawn heavily from tough, brassy Bessie Smith songs, which often reflect very independent women.

Her first audiences were nearly all friends and her husband’s business contacts. Celebrities still dot the room, and Reiner’s on-stage remarks often draw clever responses from those at the front tables. How did her manager, George Shapiro, first meet her? “She’s my aunt,” he says. “I’ve been involved with her since I was born.”

Others in the audience are simply admirers, such as the 50 or so members of her fan club--or the young couple that shows up week after week. They are businessman Paul Dahringer and Ruth Waytz, herself an aspiring singer. “I thought it was really unusual,” says Dahringer, who first caught Reiner’s act after hearing her interviewed on the radio, “that somebody who was a member of the privileged Hollywood set would have that kind of ambition and take that kind of risk.”

Reviews have praised Reiner’s styling more than her voice, and she clearly works at creating a mood. In fact, her oldest son, Rob, 38, admits discomfort at how well his mother turns a phrase. “She sings those sexy songs that a mother shouldn’t sing--like ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg,’ ” he says. “It was terribly embarrassing to me. I wanted to run up on stage and say, ‘No, it’s not my mother doing these things.’ ”

Carl Reiner, in turn, describes his role as “being a supportive husband.” He laughs at his wife’s jokes, greets guests, helps her work the crowd. He also carries her dress and her music and outfits the stool near the piano with cold water, a rundown of the show and one of his pocket handkerchiefs. “I like the way she sings, and I like that she does sing,” he says. “And whatever is necessary, I do.”

Asked whether her life has changed after three years of performing, Reiner says that she’s a lot busier these days, what with researching songs, rehearsing, assembling a wardrobe and drumming up publicity. Then she adds that yes, there has been a tremendous change in her image of herself but suggests asking an outsider to assess that change. Responds outsider Rob Reiner: “I think it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to her. She’s happier than ever before.”

Not that Estelle Reiner had been exclusively a homebody. Besides raising a family, she’s achieved some success as an artist. She has had four one-woman shows of her paintings--in Los Angeles, New York and Palo Alto--and her canvases cover the walls of the Reiners’ Beverly Hills home. “I think that she’s quite talented,” says artist Kenneth Noland. “I liked the work I saw when I was at her house and was surprised because she was very modest about it.”

She trained at New York’s National Academy of Design, did isometric drafting during the war and has been painting since before her marriage. A canvas in the kitchen is signed with her maiden name, Lebost, and another hangs over a mantel where some of her husband’s 11 Emmys are displayed. But she shakes her head when asked if she still paints. Today she rehearses in the bright, sunny corner that used to be her art studio.

Reiner has played several clubs in New York and Los Angeles--a total now of about 200 performances--and has just finished a second album, which she’s shopping around to potential distributors. According to her husband, “Estelle keeps saying: ‘If I do this long enough, I’ll get good at it.’ I say, ‘But you’re already good.’ And she says, ‘I mean really good.’ ”

* From “You Go to My Head,” written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie; 1938 (renewed),

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