During the last week before he was shipped out to the Pacific as an Air Force photographer during World War II, 18-year old Richard Connema and a few of his Air Force buddies took the one hour train ride from Fort Dix in New Jersey to Penn Station in downtown Manhattan.
"Whenever we went to New York City, we'd arrive and go straight to the USO," said Connema, a theater writer and critic who lives in San Francisco.
"It was located near Times Square (on 44th or 45th, I think, right off Broadway). The first thing we'd do is find out what kind of comps they we're passing out for Broadway shows and other entertainment."
"That particular night they offered us complimentary tickets to see Florence Foster Jenkins at Carnegie Hall," said Connema. "I was floored - but in a good way. I had heard her recordings when I was in high school. She sounded like a cat in heat. The other guys didn't know who she was. So, I told them 'Hey! Do you want an experience? Let's go, you might just get a big kick out of it.' "
"The place was packed, but it turns out that we had orchestra seats," said Connema. "Everyone was in uniform, it seemed. There were officers and enlisted men from the Navy, Marines, Army and Air Force," said Connema.
"The pianist (Cosmé McMoon) came out first and made a presentation and noted that the concert was a benefit for USO and Army Relief Fund. Then Florence came out. She wafted out in a black gown. Yeah, I'd say she sort of floated out to the stage," said Connema. "I remember that she earnestly faced the audience and began to sing."
Richard Connema recalls the rest of this story at a special post show conversation and Q & A with the "Souvenir" cast and crew following the 2 p.m. Sunday, May 20 matinee performance of 6th Street Playhouse's production of "Souvenir."
"Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins" by Stephen Temperley recounts the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy, tone deaf socialite who dreamed of being a great opera singer. Memories and experiences are recalled by her accompanist and friend, Cosmé McMoon in this poignant comedy that celebrates the spirit of a woman who defied criticism and followed her bliss.
Perhaps more famous now than when she pursued her dream, Florence Foster Jenkins efforts to become a great coloratura soprano led to fame and notoriety with annual private recitals at the Ritz Carlton Hotel; a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944; and an impressive list of celebrity fans of her day including Cole Porter, Enrico Caruso and Tallulah Bankhead. Florence Foster Jenkins celebrity continues even today by enthusiastic fans who discover her story and her notorious vocal recordings on the Internet.
Featuring award-winning actress Mary Gannon Graham as Florence Foster Jenkins and John Shillington as accompanist, Cosmé McMoon - "Souvenir" takes audiences into Jenkins' world completely and even reveals the beautiful voice she believed to possess.
Directed by Michael Fontaine, the show runs now through May 27, 2012.
Tickets are $15 to $25. Ticket prices 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays: General $25; Senior (62 and over) $20; Youth (13 to 21) $20; Children (5 to 12) $10. Ticket prices 8 p.m. Thursdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays: General $20; Senior (62 and over) $15; Youth (13 to 21) $15.
6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre is located at 52 West 6th Street Santa Rosa, Calif.
For tickets or more information call 707-523-4185 or visit www.6thstreetplayhouse.com.
Pictured: 1944 Carnegie Hall Concert Program (first page)