By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – The walls going up a staircase in Vickie Phillips’ Springfield home are lined with framed photos and posters depicting her more than 50 years as an award-winning musical performer. One whole room in her Victorian-style home is packed to the gills with photos, music and books that share the story of her musical career as a cabaret singer and off-Broadway performer in New York.
And Phillips, who celebrated her 80th birthday in April, shows no sign of slowing down.
On Dec. 6, she will perform at Temple Beth El’s Pre-Hanukkah Party for Adults, along with Dave Brinnel & Friends and Cantor Elise Barber.
Every couple of weeks, Phillips still heads into Manhattan to perform her one-woman cabaret show at the Don’t Tell Mama Caberet Theater.
And on her birthday she performed “Vickie Phillips Celebrates Her Birthday with Brel, Weill and Aznavour,” at New York’s The Metropolitan Room.
When asked if she plans to continue performing forever, she answered, “I hope so, I paid my dues.”
In March, Phillips received an award for “Outstanding Song Interpretation” at the 29th Annual Bistro Awards held at Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan. She was among several entertainers feted at the awards, including actor, singer and dancer Ben Vereen, who received the Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award. This is her second Bistro Award. She was honored for “Outstanding Achievement in Cabaret,” during the second annual awards, in 1986. The awards recognize achievement in Cabaret, jazz and comedy.
This is quite an achievement by someone from, in her words, “a little cockamamie town – Lebanon, Pennsylvania.”
“Our big claim to fame is: it is 12 miles from Hershey, Lebanon Bologna and Wise Potato chips,” Phillips laughed. “So to talk about a small-town kid actually making it in any venue in New York, I am pretty proud of what I did.”
Phillips said her love of music began early. Raised by her grandmother in Pennsylvania, she loved to watch MGM musicals and listen to Caruso records on her beloved victrola.
In junior high school she joined the school chorus. “I knew when I was in chorus in junior high that was what I wanted to do,” she said.
She later met a vocal teacher named Miss Sumi, who took her on as a student. “She had the most gorgeous voice I had ever heard,” Phillips recalled. She studied with this teacher for five years.
Professionally, Vickie started out as a band singer at the age of 18. She sang with many big bands, at the Hershey Park Ballroom and other local venues. “In those days you had songs…I mean, songs!” she recalled. “‘Sentimental Journey,’ ‘September Song.’ The songs that are now called the Great American Songbook – Gershwin, Cole Porter.”
Serendipitously, while performing one night, Al Morrison, a club owner and the leader of a big band in Harrisburg, Pa., heard her sing, and became her mentor. She began singing in his club five days a week. Before long, she began performing in Philadelphia.
“The big time! There were a thousand and one clubs there. I thought at the time – what did I know? – that it was certainly as great as going to New York.”
She got an agent and toured the region for some time before moving to Montreal. She performed in clubs in Canada for 18 months before returning home.
“I yearned to come back to the states – the good ole U.S.A,” she said.
While touring in New England, she landed in Pittsfield, Mass., where she met her first husband and settled down. While raising their two children, she performed for years with the Pittsfield Town Players in productions such as “The 7-Year Itch,” “The Sound of Music” and “Anything Goes.” She also volunteered in the music and theater programs of Heritage Academy and Kodimoh Synagogue, and performed with the Westfield Players.
After getting a divorce from her first husband, Phillips lived in Springfield and worked as secretary at a law firm. “My son Kirk said, ‘Why don’t you got to New York? Why are you working in a law office day after day, which you hate?”
She took her son’s advice and moved to New York in 1974, getting a studio apartment in Chelsea. “To say that my life changed…” she marveled wistfully. “I was the cat’s meow.”
Her first job out of New York was a six-month tour of an audio-visual production called “The Amazing Sea.” She travelled up and down the Eastern seaboard in a Volkswagen Bus. “I was the only person with a Pesach bus,” she laughed. “I had all my Passover things in the bus, I ate in the bus, and served Passover in the bus.”
She later worked in Nashville, performing and training singing waitresses at a restaurant called “The Fisherman.” Shows were broadcast live on the radio every Saturday night.
After Nashville, she returned to New York, studied with singer/actress Elly Stone, and began to hone her one-woman cabaret act, which she has performed regularly ever since.
Based in Springfield for the past 26 years – since marrying her second husband Stan – she taught drama at Longmeadow High for 12 years and now teaches at Bay Path College, where she directed “Chicago” two years ago. She has also participated in the New England Theater Festival.
For now, Phillips is looking forward to performing at Temple Beth El. The audience can expect quite a performance as Phillips belts out a few favorites from her cabaret show.
“Cabaret is an art which connects one-on-one with the audience,” she explained. “It doesn’t require the bombastic side effects and fantasy of an all-out Broadway production. It’s simple, it’s truthful and it is a connection with the audience that is very personal.”
Temple Beth El’s Pre-Hanukkah Party for Adults will be held Saturday, Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. The “Night of Cabaret Music and Dinner,” and will feature performances by Dave Brinnel & Friends, Vickie Phillips and Cantor Elise Barber. For more information, call (413) 737-0170 or visit www.tbespringfield.org