Actress Patti LuPone, who celebrated a birthday on April 21, has made her mark in theater, film, television and music, picking up two Tony and two Grammy awards along the way. LuPone's love of the stage started as a 4-year-old at her first recital in Northport. In 1991, LuPone sat down with Newsday and spoke about growing up in Northport, and the experiences and people who helped to shape her career.
This story was originally published in Newsday on August 26, 1991.
BACKSTAGE AT THE Ocean Avenue Elementary School auditorium in Northport, 4-year-old Patti LuPone tugged on her black leotard and black tutu. Minutes later, she fidgeted along with the other little girls of the PTA dance class as they waited for their cue.
The children filed out, and Patti took her place down stage right. After a few seconds, her eyes adjusted to the bright lights, and she found her mother and twin brothers sitting in the crowd.
"Then I noticed the audience, and I realized, "I can't get in trouble up here. I can do whatever I want, and they're still smiling at me,' " Patti LuPone, star of stage and screen, both big and small, said as she recalled her first performance.
That was all it took. She was hooked. LuPone does not remember the routine. But she remembers the audience. "I remember standing on the stage of the elementary school and falling in love with them."
Those long-forgotten dance steps - practiced as the teacher, Miss Margette, tapped out the rhythm with her cane - would lead to dance classes with Martha Graham and drama classes with John Houseman at the Juilliard School. They would result in a television series called "Life Goes On" and roles in films like "Driving Miss Daisy," "Witness" and "Wise Guys." And they would lead to the stuff of dreams for the stage-struck girl from a harbor village on Long Island's North Shore - starring roles in theaters from New York to London and Australia. She would win a Tony award for best actress in a musical in 1980 for "Evita," and its British equivalent, the Laurence Olivier Award, for her performance as Fantine in "Les Miserables." LuPone is the first American to play a principal part in a Royal Shakespeare Company production and the only American to win an Olivier.
Some of Patti LuPone's friends and family say she would have become a star no matter where she grew up. But the 41-year-old actress herself credits an inexplicable magic, an enchantment that permeated Northport in the 1950s and 1960s that shaped her character and enabled her to make a life in the theater.
"You know, in those days Northport was very rural," LuPone - who lives in North Hollywood while taping "Life Goes On" - said recently of her hometown. "It's a pretty beautiful - or when I was growing up - a pretty beautiful place, with a peninsula, Eatons Neck, Sand City."
Patti LuPone grew up with her older twin brothers, Robert and William, in a green clapboard house tucked back from the road, surrounded by towering oaks and gnarled apple and pear trees on two acres of land. There was room for badminton and baseball and basketball and football. But best of all for Patti, there were woods to explore and water to boat on and swim in. "Northport had a lot of magic, a lot of adventure," she said.
Enchantment filled a nearby swamp and touched the beaches on Northport Bay and Long Island Sound that yielded rich catches of clams and mussels. There was also the mystery of places forbidden to curious youngsters - an estate she knew as the Ingersoll compound, which contained its own island, and a century-old mansion called Chanticleer up the hill from her home, which she and her friends believed was haunted by its architect, who had died there.
"One of our activities would be to try to get up to the house and look in the windows," LuPone said. "They had a German shepherd, and the caretaker had a BB gun. So inevitably, we'd get caught . . . Then one day they called me to baby-sit. The only rooms that were utilized were the kitchen, the formal dining room, the den and the outdoor patio. The rest of the house was dark and empty. And I was in charge of the three-month-old baby. Well, I didn't look at that baby once. I was scared out of my mind but not scared enough. I went over the house from top to bottom. And when I went into what was the ballroom, I hit the central vacuum cleaning and freaked myself out because it went woooo."
And there were what she calls "extreme experiences" - the hurricane that ripped through town, raising the boats in the harbor out of the water and leaving them scattered like bathtub toys on dry land. The snowfalls that draped the woods and the village with its high-steepled churches in heavy white mantles. The construction of a Long Island Lighting Co. plant on the edge of the Sound with smokestacks, studded with red lights, looming over the shoreline. "I used to call it Mothra," she said, referring to the Japanese movie monster, "with the eyes, the red eyes." And more ominous events such as unsolved murders and the loss of 13 friends to auto accidents in three years.
"We don't have big snowfalls anymore," LuPone said. "The weather is changing. It could be very much that I was little, but I grew up on the water. I grew up in the woods. We had animals and traffic accidents. It could have also been that I had a vivid imagination, and I loved having these experiences, and so they became very large in my mind. I hope that's not the case. I hope it was just the way I always thought it was - extreme experiences."
Those extreme experiences created a store of fantasy and emotion that LuPone was able to develop and bring to the characters she portrays.
"Part of being in this business is to suspend your disbelief," said the actress, whose wide eyes and expressive mouth are as much her trademarks today as they were when she played Nellie Forbush in Northport High's Powdered Wig Society production of "South Pacific." "I've always been willing to do that in anything. I have a very active fantasy life. Nobody was ever able to put that out, which is great. So when you're on stage and you can transcend . . . "
And for the LuPone family, life went on onstage. While 4-year-old Patti danced her heart out during that first recital at the Ocean Avenue Elementary School, her brother Bobby was tugging at his mother's skirt to get her attention.
"Mommy, I can do that, I can do that," he said. Many years later, the scene led to Zach's featured song in "A Chorus Line," a role that earned Bobby LuPone a Tony nomination. That same year, 1976, his sister was nominated for her role in "The Robber Bridegroom." They were the first brother and sister in the history of the theater to be nominated the same year. Neither won, but Patti picked up her Tony four years later - for "Evita."
Bobby and Billy, three years older than their sister, joined her in the Ocean Avenue Elementary School PTA dance classes. After a few years, all three switched to the Andre Dance Company in Huntington. "We took dance three or four times a week," Patti said. "Tap, jazz, ballet, all that stuff. It was work."
The Andres formed the LuPone children into a dance trio, called The Three LuPones, and booked them to perform for Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs from Manhattan to the East End of Long Island. The trio would enter and exit through the back door, and often, LuPone said, she did not know for whom they were performing or where.
"We'd do the waltz to 'Belle of the Ball,' and Bobby and I did the tango," LuPone recalled. "It was like a little traveling circus. I was actually at a makeup table with kids my age trying the lipsticks, putting on a new dress. 'Good Luck, Luella!' 'Good luck, Patti!' If you screwed up, you came offstage, got [angry]. If you did well, you knew it. It was tests at that early age which builds that hide you need for the real thing."
The teachers may have taught LuPone and her brothers the dance steps and musical scales and vocal technique, but it was their mother, Pat LuPone, who made sure her children got the training they wanted and the practice they needed.
"My mother is important in this configuration," LuPone said. "We all wanted - Bobby and I - wanted to dance and sing, and Mom encouraged us. She was not a stage mom, but she drove us to dance classes, she drove us to voice class, she drove us to instrument class whatever. Mom was with us for all these performances. It wasn't 'Go out there and do your damnedest, you're a kid of mine,' it was none of that stuff. It was 'the kids were doing something they wanted to do.' "
BUT LIFE WASN'T all pirouettes and arabesques. While she was growing up, Patti had to live through the highly public divorce of her parents, Pat and Orlando, who had been principal of the Ocean Avenue school. "I only saw the drama of it, and it was my life. It was very bad for my mother but not for me. I don't remember it being scandalous for me. I was too busy in dance classes. I don't remember any kind of embarrassment, maybe there was."
And if the enchantment of her childhood in Northport helped direct Patti toward a stage career, she also had to deal with the reality of growing up in a village of 3,000 people (less than half its current population of 7,572) and the pressure to conform. "You grow up in a small town on Long Island, and you don't think about anything that's out of that peer-pressure realm."
At Northport High School, Patti LuPone was known for high spirits and high jinks. The 1967 edition of Tiger Tales, the school yearbook, contains this description of the graduating star-to-be: "Most musical. Most dramatic. Class clown. Most well-known person in the school. Extremely talented. Exuberant. Peppy. Uninhibited. Will be long remembered."
The memories that friends and former teachers have of LuPone are of impromptu performances - Patti making a speech in the commons from the top of the lockers while standing in a trash can. Or playing the tuba while she sat - homecoming queen-style - in the back of an MG as a friend drove it around the walkways of the old high school.
"She was the square peg in the round hole," recalled Esther Scott, who taught LuPone in choral groups and music classes in junior high and high school. "She was a live wire. She had a presence about her. Bobby did too. You just noticed her. She always wanted to be right in the middle of the puddle. She was not retiring."
Patti Lupone remembers other teachers with affection - social studies teachers like Richard Streb and Nicholas Econopouly. But she put most of her life into music classes. "I was hardly there except for music. They were great teachers. Then there are some real jerks that never left me. "
Like the high school coach who made her choose between cheerleading and music. She stuck with music. Or the high school counselor who did his best to encourage her to concentrate more on "hard" academic subjects and to forgo all the music courses.
"These people don't leave your body," LuPone said. "They are there for the rest of your life. Perhaps it's different in high school now, I don't know. The kids that excel in, say, music, they don't like to encourage that. Because it's not academic. But, I guess, I don't have an academic career, do I? And, I guess, I'm doing pretty good aren't I . . . ?"
The music department was LuPone's refuge.
Scott recalls one day when Patti scooted past her in the hall and disappeared into one of the practice rooms. Scott knew from experience that Donald Hewson, the assistant principal, would soon be after her. "Sure enough, a second later he appeared. 'You seen Lupone around here?' he asked."
"When he left, she stuck her head out . . . 'Is it safe?' she asked. 'Yes, Patti, it's safe,' I told her. Lord knows why he was after her."
LuPone sang in the choir and madrigal group and played cello in the orchestra. When she took up the sousaphone, she joined the marching band and became part of Northport's all-girl sousaphone line. "We were so good that we were chosen to march in the World's Fair in New York where they put up all that stuff in Queens," LuPone said.
Although Patti had many friends in high school, she was nobody's sweetheart. Her first boyfriend was an outsider - all the way from neighboring Centerport. LuPone met Al Stegmeyer at a rock concert in Heckscher Park. She was 16 when they started dating, a romance that lasted a year. "I never had a boyfriend from Northport," she said. "I knew them too long. Well, nobody was interested in me, too. You know, I was not exactly a pretty child."
By then Patti LuPone was a seasoned performer in and out of school. And the same peer pressure that swept her onto the cheerleading squad through her sophomore year in high school, into the orchestra and band magnified her differences from many of her classmates. "There were a few of us that broke all sorts of rules before we knew we were breaking rules," LuPone said. "We had to for survival. You had to live, you had to be who you were."
Her senior prom was one of the times when LuPone decided to be herself. She had no date, and Patti and her friends, Mary Feeny and Kathy McCusker, all asked Tom Nugent, a football player, to the prom. Tom - described in the yearbook as "a free thinker" - accepted.
"I wanted to go to my prom, nobody asked me, nobody asked Kathy, nobody asked Mary," LuPone remembers. "It wasn't that big of a deal, really, to us, but it was the only way we were going to go to our prom. So it didn't really seem as though we were breaking any rules."
But suddenly, being a kid in Northport crashed into being a kid on the stage. The Three LuPones won an audition on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour. Her priorities clear, Patti chose to forego the school dance to dance on national television. She agreed to catch up with the other three at dinner, after the show. At the restaurant, another extreme experience occurred.
"I'd been in that New York studio all day long. I had to change into this prom dress in a car. I hadn't bathed, and my hands were dirty, everything was dirty. And somebody said something real rude and derogatory, and I just went into the bathroom in tears. It didn't bother me that I wasn't at the prom, what bothered me was the comment. 'You was at the Ted Mack Amateur Hour? Oh, cool man. Did you have fun? Did you have fun?' None of that stuff. Just 'You look like a pig,' something like that."
Over the years, LuPone has made her peace with the conflicts of her childhood. During the four years she spent in the inaugural class of the Juilliard School's drama division, she returned home nearly every weekend and whenever she could once she was graduated from Juilliard and began touring with John Houseman's Acting Company. Five years ago, she came home and talked to Northport High's senior class. "I was never happier than when I got out of this joint," she told them. Afterwards, she said, "the class president pinched my bottom."
NOW, SHOOTING the third season of "Life Goes On," a television series about the family of a Down's syndrome child, and two films set to come out next year, LuPone does not return to Northport as much as she would like. Married to Matt Johnston, a cameraman she met in 1986 while filming "LBJ: The Early Years," in which she played Lady Bird, she makes her home in Connecticut. One of the reasons is to give her young son, Joshua Luke, the same type of childhood she had - the pleasure of growing up in a small town. For Patti LuPone, Northport has grown too big.
"I'll tell you something: It's difficult to go back to Northport now, because I don't know anybody there anymore. It has soooooo changed."
The Teacher She Left Behind
IN JUNE, 1967, Esther Scott directed Patti LuPone for the last time.
"We sang at our high school commencement and I was so proud to do that," LuPone recalled. "We did so well. This was Esther's group. Esther taught me - a sense of pride, I think, is the key phrase. Because you don't get that unless somebody has faith in you, encourages you and challenges you to accomplish something."
Now, 24 years later, LuPone still phones Scott - not only for help through musical rough spots, but to stay in touch with the woman who so inspired her.
"You teach with integrity and what you believe in," said Scott, who turned 70 last spring. "For those that understand it and accept it, they seek you out afterward. I just do what I do. The ones who do seek me out - we do have a communication that's deeper than the teacher / student relationship. I've never considered myself a great teacher, but I hope I am a fine human being."
Scott retired from the classroom in 1980, but still teaches voice to a few private students and also judges contests. Each June, she runs a week-long arts seminar on Shelter Island, where one former student comes from as far away as Salt Lake City, Utah.
The daughter of a Methodist minister, Scott grew up in northern New York, where "music was always a part of our lives. There was never any question in my mind - I was going to be a music teacher."
After earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in music education program at the State University of New York at Potsdam, Scott married and had three children. When her marriage failed, she moved to Long Island with her children to teach music classes at Northport Junior High school. After two years, she went into the high school, teaching music theory, humanities and vocal music. She was the music director for productions that included "Here's Charlie," in which Bobby LuPone played the male lead, and "South Pacific," in which his sister played Nellie Forbush.
"Teaching in Potsdam I always felt like I was out of whack," she said. "When I got out here it felt like I had come home."
The groups she directed participated in all-state chorus competitions, singing the works of major composers such as Mozart and Frankenpohl. Scott tells how LuPone, who had a soprano solo for a Te Deum one year, sang with a fever well over 100 degrees. But LuPone says it was Scott who inspired her to sing that day.
"Esther took us into a room before we sang and told us about the mentally retarded child she had that nobody knew about who only responded to music and just asked us to give this performance for him. We'd known Esther for years and nobody knew that she had a child that was retarded. We were just blown away. But the way she talked about him, and the light in her eyes and she said what a wonderful experience music was and how, through music, this child communicates. And would we please think of him when we sang. And we went out there and we did it."
Being the parent of a retarded child and surviving the break-up of her marriage, Scott learned that one does something when one is ready to. "When you learn to do that and come out stronger for it, the rest of it isn't really that humongous," Scott philosophizes. "To learn not to see the forest for the trees is really a sad commentary."
Scott has not only learned to see the trees and the forest, but to understand her need to be surrounded by nature. Long Island Sound stretches across her back yard in Wading River. A hammock hangs from a tree in the shade and baskets of impatiens and fuchsia hang from the trees.
"It's not by accident I ended up here," she said in a recent interview in her back yard. "I've stayed here on Long Island longer than anywhere I've ever been."