Singers Field the Pressure : Baseball's Anthem Opener Takes Patriotism and Nerve

Johnny Mathis will be the first star to show his stripes for the California Angels and Old Glory this baseball season at Anaheim Stadium as he leads the opening-day crowd in singing the national anthem Monday.

Although anthem singers make it look easy, a lot of work, worry and wonder go into the brief production that precedes each game. "People don't realize what a difficult two minutes it is," said John Sevano, the Angels' director of public relations, who has overseen the selection of singers for the past three seasons.

Angels anthem singers share a bit of patriotism, a love of sports--and a nervous excitement every time they stand at home plate, facing an average crowd of 32,500, and sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"Angel Stadium is my favorite place to sing it," Mathis said. "They have the best set-up. You have the organ playing along with you . . . and you're right up in front of the fans, not out in the field like at some parks."

Mathis, 50, will be leading the fans Monday in the key of A-flat. "I never used to care or think about what key--just whatever was easiest for everyone involved. But once at a Dodgers game I had said it didn't matter, and so I started in. . . . By the end I was really screeching. I've learned to ask to sing it in A-flat."

"I'm always real nervous until that first note gets out," said Jo Letkins, 29, of Irvine, who sings several times a year for the Angels. But for Letkins, who works for a home-video distributor in Irvine, nervousness gives way to "the beauty of it when (the national anthem) is sung the way it was written, and when you make it sound like it's the first time you've ever sung it."

"It never ceases to be fun," said Judy Jeffreys, formerly of NBC's "Santa Barbara," who sings the anthem a cappella "at march tempo with a band playing along in my head."

"But you have to remember," she said, "people don't come just to hear you; they like to hear the anthem done with respect."

Free-lance broadcaster Lisa Bowman, 33, of La Canada, overcomes the jitters before singing by telling herself that not all the fans are seated yet. "But I still get nervous--my hands shake and my throat goes dry--but I'm used to that."

When Leslie Easterbrook of ABC's "Ryan's Hope" is singing the anthem, she prepares by writing the lyrics on a piece of paper, which she puts in her pocket. "I don't look at it, but I know it will always be there if I need it," she said.

Even veteran anthem singer Glen Campbell, 49, admits that he gets nervous. He said accompanying himself on the guitar helps him relax. "It helps me keep a rhythm and keeps me from worrying about sound-system delays. I can get into it--sing it from the heart--and not pay attention to the stuff going on around me."

And, said Sevano: "It's not only nervous time for the entertainer, but it's nervous time for the person who books the entertainer because of our (sound-system) feedback problem--and you worry that they may jazz it up too much."

The stadium's sound system has a 1.5-second delay, he said, but "when you're singing, it sounds like four days."

Joey English, 40, of Rancho Palos Verdes, said that about 10 years ago the anthem was sung from organist Shay Torrent's booth upstairs, "but I didn't like that. You just didn't get any feedback from the fans."

One game, English said, she asked the technicians to plug into the system a single, small earphone that she had brought from home. The device enabled her to hear the organ at full volume in one ear while she ignored the echo in the other. "It worked great except that I had forgotten one aspect of the delay: My son asked me later, 'Mom, why did you walk off the field before you got done singing?' "

Some Lip-Sinc to Tape

Today, headsets help singers cope with the sound delay, but some groups, such as the Heritage Singers, lip-sync to a tape because they outnumber the headsets.

Two years ago, Sevano said, one soloist turned down the headset offer.

"He got up there and sang, 'Oh, say can you see,' and didn't hear anything so he stopped. Then it started coming back to him from the speakers, and after he heard it, he proceeded with the next few words.

"The whole song was: 'By by the the dawn's dawn's early early light light .' It took him four minutes and 30 seconds to sing a one-minute, 17-second anthem."

Those who want to sing at the Angels' home plate won't make it to first base without a traditional rendition.

"(Team owner Gene) Autry is very adamant about the song being done 'straight,' " Sevano said. "Now that doesn't mean you can't put some inflection in the song, but he doesn't want you to make a Barry Manilow ballad out of it or a James Brown rock 'n' roll medley."

And, Sevano said, Autry is adamant about singers not raising the word free an octave near the end of the song.

Sevano recalled two women who did: "One was here a number of years, and she just plain forgot. . . . And the word came down that Mr. Autry would prefer not to have her back."

The second, Easterbrook, said she took free up and stayed with higher notes to finish the song at Anaheim Stadium for several years and heard no complaints. But one day, she said, she received a warning "about a minute and a half before I was to sing, but I decided to do it my way. And I haven't been back."

And Sevano said the Angels won't ask her back.

Problems Outside Park

Problems sometimes arise outside the ballpark.

Susan Richardson, 33, of ABC's "Eight Is Enough" phoned Sevano one day last year from her limousine, which was stuck in San Diego Freeway traffic in Long Beach just before game time. "I got a limo to pick up the members of my rock band and me, and (I had) told a hundred people I'd be singing the national anthem," she said.

The game had been under way for about 20 minutes when Richardson arrived at the stadium.

"When we got to Anaheim, the people in the stands whom I had asked to come were mad, the band was mad and I was sweating in 100-degree heat in this $700 designer, white tux, and I was mad. . . . But the band and I sang the national anthem on the way home with the windows rolled down," she recalled.

When Richardson failed to show up on time, organist Torrent, who lives in Santa Barbara, came to the rescue, playing as the fans sang along. But sometimes one singer's misfortune is another's opportunity.

"I had sung the national anthem for the Buena Park American Legion, so people knew that I did it," said Ed Hoffman, 74, of Anaheim. "But one day about 10 years ago while I worked as an usher out at the stadium, one management fellow came along and asked me if I would like to sing it. I said, 'Sure. I'd love to. When?' And he said, 'In about five minutes.' "

Anthem singing isn't limited to celebrities. Organizations may nominate someone when they buy big blocks of tickets; other individuals inquire on their own.

All one needs is a good voice, a demo tape and the courage to belt out the song in front of thousands of baseball fans. For their efforts, singers receive a parking pass and four seats behind home plate; munchies are not included. Encores are limited to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" at the seventh-inning stretch.

Some 'Pretty Comical'

Some who ask about singing are actors or new recording artists looking for a break or television exposure, Sevano said. "Others sound marvelous in the shower and think they are going to sound marvelous out here. Some, I'll admit, are pretty comical, and you just very politely say, 'We don't have an opening at the moment.' "

There are 81 home dates this season, and 15 to 20 of them are open, Sevano said. "A lot of ours is return business. When you get a good singer, you keep asking them back."

The Indian River Boys, a country-Western quartet, tentatively has 19 dates scheduled, according to Richard Yancey, the group's manager. "We also have first crack at a playoff game," he said. "First, that is, after Glen Campbell, The Cowboy's (Autry's) favorite."

Many of the Angels' anthem singers have opened games for other teams in the Southland and elsewhere.

Torrent, now beginning his 21st season at the keyboard for the Angels, previously played at Chicago White Sox games, where he backed up such heavy hitters as Nat King Cole ("He had the words on a piece of paper in his hat, but sang the wrong ones somewhere around 'the rockets' red glare.' ") and Danny Thomas ("He got lost with the echo and shouted into the mike, 'Stay with me!' ").

'Furnished in Early Red Wing'

Joey English, who has appeared in Las Vegas shows "and a lot of nightclubs in the Midwest that are now parking lots," was revered by the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. She said she sang at every home game for four years "and got a lot of Red Wing gifts. My house was furnished in early Red Wing."

When Jeffreys, of Glendale, sang the anthem at the Cleveland Air Show, she had to begin as a sky diver, leap from a plane and finish when she hit the ground. Less precise timing was required when she sang before the 1980 Reagan-Carter debate at the Cleveland Convention Center.

Easterbrook's husband volunteered her for her anthem debut, hoping to get tickets for a Los Angeles Lakers' basketball playoff game a few years ago, but the series didn't last that long. Her singing at Super Bowl XVII at the Rose Bowl helped console him.

And Hoffman, a post office employee and retired professional singer, was given the red-carpet treatment in Boston a few years ago on opening day. His son Glenn, a shortstop for the Red Sox, had it written into his contract that his father would sing that day. "I was thrilled. And after I had finished, Glenn walked over and put his arm around me. I can't tell you how wonderful that felt."

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