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Song of a Savant : Gloria Lenhoff’s Musical Talents Overshadow Her Other Limitations

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gloria Lenhoff sings opera in a beautiful soprano voice. She plays the accordion as if it were an extension of herself, effortlessly absorbing new pieces into her repertoire of more than 1,000 songs.

She can converse in a half-dozen languages, including Spanish, Hebrew, French, Japanese and sign.

There is an aura of genius about this woman. And because she excels in extraordinary areas, you forget her limitations in the ordinary ones.

“Gloria, if something costs a dime and you pay for it with a quarter, how much change will you get back?” her father asks.

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She stares at him blankly. Math, even simple math, is not a language she speaks. “Can you help me with the answer?” she reponds.

Lenhoff has Williams syndrome, a rare form of mental retardation that didn’t even have a name when she was born 35 years ago. Although she is quite adept at small talk, her conversation becomes halting and foggy when steered off the beaten path.

Gloria is a savant, someone who is mentally deficient but who possesses an extraordinary talent, much like the hero of the 1988 movie “Rain Man.” Unlike Dustin Hoffman’s character, who was autistic and had superior mathematical skills, Lenhoff’s gift lies in music.

While her parents learned of her mental disability when she was an infant, they didn’t recognize her interest in music until she was 11. She enjoyed singing and putting on make-believe shows for them, so they gave her lessons in voice and accordion--with no great expectations.

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It was at his daughter’s bat mitzvah that Howard Lenhoff realized how far her musical skills had grown. The 13-year-old girl sang Hebrew hymns with a voice that moved the congregation to tears.

“My wife thinks I place too much emphasis on the bat mitzvah as the turning point,” says Howard Lenhoff, a UC Irvine biology professor. “But that was the first time I saw the effect Gloria has on an audience. Before then, she just sang around the house for her own amusement.”

Ever since, his daughter has been taking her act on the road. She gives performances at synagogues, convalescent homes and Leisure World. A couple of times a year, she steals her father’s thunder at his biology class.

The students had waited months for this night--the grand finale of their undergraduate course, “Conception to Birth.” Lenhoff presents his last lecture of the quarter, ending with a brief discussion of birth defects.

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By the law of averages, about a dozen of the people in the room someday would have a handicapped child, the instructor says. What would they do? Would they treat the experience as a tragedy, or as a challenge?

Then, Gloria steps onstage, smiling brightly. She is dressed in casual slacks, as though she were performing for a few friends rather than a few hundred strangers.

Calm and self-assured, she introduces herself.

Then she begins to sing Gluck’s aria, “O Del Mio Dolci Ardor,” her voice strong and lovely. The audience thanks her with a roar of applause as her father stands in the background, beaming.

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There is still more for Lenhoff to show off. He suggests the students greet Gloria in foreign languages. “Comment allez vous? " someone asks. “Je vais tres bien, merci,” Gloria responds.

One by one, members of the audience engage Gloria in chitchat in whatever language they throw her way. Finally, a man yells out something she cannot discern. “I didn’t understand,” she apologizes. Is she finally stumped? He repeats himself. Oh! And she rattles on awhile in Japanese.

Next, Gloria sits down on a stool with her accordion and plays a couple of lively waltzes. Two students leap to their feet and dance.

After awarding Gloria a standing ovation, her newest fans line up to hug her and give her written notes of praise.

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A few days after the performance, Gloria sits in the living room of the Costa Mesa home she shares with her parents. She is sifting through the students’ notes.

“Listen to this,” she says. She slowly reads one of the letters aloud, occasionally soliciting her mother’s help.

“I first heard you sing at Temple Bat-Yahm in 1977,” it begins. “My sister is handicapped too. . . . When I was pregnant, I was never afraid of having a handicapped child because of (the achievements of) you and my sister. . . .”

How does it make her feel to know that she affects people so positively?

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“I really feel a great deal of love,” Gloria says.

The conversation turns to a more trying time, her early life.

“You don’t mind if we talk about this, do you?” her father asks. “You don’t mind because you know how good you are--better than most of us.”

Sylvia Lenhoff, a UC Irvine administrator, lets her husband tell the story.

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Shortly after Gloria was born, the Lenhoffs were told she had a mental handicap.

“It was more shattering to me than it was to my wife,” says Lenhoff, who was doing his postdoctoral apprenticeship in Connecticut at the time. “I was the sort of person--and I still am--who makes everything in life go right. When I was a kid going through college, I was always at the top in everything. For the first time in my life, I had no control. You feel like, ‘Why me?’ ”

But the couple adjusted. Three years later they had a second child, Bernie, who now is an actor and musician living in Los Angeles.

Gloria, who has an IQ of 50, went through public school sharing special education classes with Down’s syndrome children, although she was more verbal than most of her peers. No one seemed to know how to classify her own type of mental disability.

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In fact, the Lenhoffs didn’t learn the name of Gloria’s condition until 33 years after her birth. In 1988, Gloria starred in a PBS television program that focused on her unusual talents. After it aired, the Lenhoffs received letters from parents who told them that their daughter had Williams syndrome.

“My first reaction was, so what? What good will a label do us at this point?” Sylvia Lenhoff recalls.

However, as she and her husband learned more about the syndrome, it became the missing piece in the puzzle of Gloria. Right down the line, the list of indicators fit: heart murmur, odd gait, superior hearing, crossed eyes, a charming demeanor known as “a cocktail personality” in Williams syndrome circles, and elfin features that--through her father’s eyes--give Gloria her “adorable face.”

Last year, the Lenhoffs attended a convention in Boston for Williams syndrome families. Says Sylvia Lenhoff: “For Gloria, it was like finding her soul mates.”

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Gloria can’t read music, much less analyze it. She knows an F sharp when she hears one, but not when she sees one written down. And she can show you a B flat on a keyboard, but she can’t tell you where it is.

“Gloria, how many buttons down from a C is an A?” asks her accordion instructor, Roek Willemze.

“Can you help me with the answer?” asks Gloria, loath to disappoint.

“It’s not important, honey,” he assures her. “You don’t need to know.”

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In his 20 years of teaching the accordion, Willemze has “never seen anyone like Gloria.”

“No one comes close, to be honest,” he says. “You play something once for her, and she can play it back for you the next week. She picks up every note in a composition, just the way she hears it. Then she never lets go of it. She’s unbelievable--I myself can’t remember all this stuff.”

The day has been long and tiring for Gloria. She spent all morning at the preschool where she volunteers as an aide, then rushed home for her music lesson. Her spunky “cocktail personality” waned.

But when she sits down with her accordion, she gets an energy burst. She laughs and smiles and taps her feet as she gracefully segued from Beethoven sonatas to polkas.

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Howard Lenhoff dreams that someday Gloria’s talents will help her to earn some money for herself.

“Professionally, I see a lot of potential in her and I want to guide her all I can,” he says. “The greatest concern of any parent who has a handicapped child is what happens when you die.”

Gloria’s parents look after her as if she were a 12-year-old. “It’s like having a child who never really grows up,” Howard Lenhoff says. “But she’s a lot of fun to have around.

“Our next great move is for her to live independently of us. There’s a home for mentally handicapped people right around the corner from our house, and we’re hoping that within two or three years she’ll try it. She ought to get used to living away from us before she loses us, although we like having her here.”

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“She does not expect marriage and children at all,” her father says. “She just enjoys her life as it is.”

So far, Gloria mostly has garnered only tokens of appreciation for her performances. “You know what? Leisure World paid me $30,” she reveals. “I bought a television with it. My mom and dad helped me pay for it.”

Normally, Gloria catches public buses to and from her volunteer job at an Orange preschool. “I take the 53 bus, and I stay on the 53, then I transfer to the 54 and then I get off at Yorba. . . ,” she proudly explains.

As fathers will do, Howard embarrasses her with a bit of family folklore. “She’s gotten on the wrong bus a couple of times and scared us to death,” he says.

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“That’s in the past,” she interrupts.

One recent afternoon, she catches a ride home with a visitor, who spent the morning with her at the Orange Unified Child Development Center.

Gloria helped the children tie their shoes, wash their hands and put out their mats at naptime. She gave them pushes on the swing, hugs and songs. That day, they had gathered around her and--with attentiveness unusual for 4-year-olds--listened to her sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

On the way home, she is full of girl talk. “Do you have a boyfriend? I do. And you know what? One day he was in my swimming pool and he splashed water on me.

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“Did you like the lipstick I had on yesterday? Did you think it was pretty? I like to buy Avon makeup. I like to put on makeup.”

She is asked a question almost anyone would find too complex for a simple yes or no: Are you happy with your life, Gloria?

“Sometimes I’m not happy,” she replies. “Sometimes people tease me on the bus. Sometimes I want to do things other people can do that I can’t do. But when I’m performing, I try not to let those things get to me too much, because then I won’t be able to think of all the good things coming up.”

What song does she most enjoy singing?

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“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Lenhoff says, decisively. “It makes me not feel lonely. The verse I love is. . . . “

And then she sings:

‘Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, that’s where you’ll find me.”


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