By Dave Irwin
OCTOBER 26, 1998: CHRISTINE LAVIN WAS a secretary who dreamed of being an entertainer. In 1984, the irrepressibly wacky and persistently perky singer/songwriter finally quit her day job and followed her heart full-time. She's been so successful that her concert tours are now planned out as far as two years in advance. Of course, there aren't many 40-something singers who can successfully work baton twirling into their act--so she does have, as they say, a market niche.
"This is such a hard business," Lavin says in her exuberant voice. "I'm so lucky that I'm able to make a living at it. I'm really, really happy to be a performer. But if I want time off, I have to know that at least 12 to 15 months in advance."
Few entertainers work harder to make sure everyone has not just a good time, but a great time. At intermission, when most performers seek respite from their audiences for a few minutes, Lavin is out in the lobby introducing people to each other, handing out things like books she's read, a Mensa test or a recent editorial. She's even been known to offer on-the-spot manicures.
"I love to meet the people who come to the shows," she enthuses. "During intermission, sometimes before the show if I have time, I set up a little table in the lobby or on stage, and I invite people up and I put nail polish on them. I mix up my own batch of sparkle nail polish. It's like a little souvenir. When I sign CDs and autographs after the show, that's always so rushed. This way I get a few minutes with them."
She plays special music at intermission to showcase other performers she's found that she thinks her audience would like. "I bring a lot of half-time entertainment," she acknowledges.
By the time Lavin quit her secretarial job, she'd already been on the folk circuit for several years. Her first album came out in 1985. Other projects have included showcasing other songwriters, creating coloring books, and writing a children's book. She was a founding member of Four Bitchin' Babes. Highly respected as a songwriter, Big League Babe: The Christine Lavin Tribute Album Parts I And II featured her songs performed by artists like Dar Williams, David Wilcox, Patty Larkin, Dave Van Ronk and others.
Her most recent album, One Wild Night In Concert, faithfully captures her vivacious, hilarious show in all its spontaneity. It also features a new version of the ruthlessly lampooning song that she co-wrote with John Gorka, "Sensitive New Age Guys," as a hidden track. "This music is kind of off the beaten path," she admits.
Lavin is a risk taker who's not afraid to be utterly human...like the time she played a nudist colony gig.
"They decided to have a three-day folk festival at this nudist camp. The name of the place will just kill you," she giggles. "It was at Paw Paw, West Virginia. So I got there the night before, and the owner of the place and two other friends were in the main clubhouse playing cards and they were stark, buck naked! So I walk in with my guitar and everything, and they were so nice. They just couldn't have been more pleasant and natural, and I'm staring straight into their eyes because I'm afraid to look anywhere else. It was just this weird feeling, like if you walked in on somebody in their bathroom. They're bare naked, for God's sake! So I had a long talk with them...about the traffic on Route 7...and I'm wondering if they're wearing shoes; but of course, I wouldn't look.
"I went to my room and there's no phone or TV set, because they don't want you to stay in the room--it's all about having you circulate with all the other people. And there's only one dining room. So I had to totally get with the program. I never took my clothes off, but I had to hang out with them all the time. It was very interesting to see how I started out feeling and by the end, I was standing there posing for pictures with all of them. The funny thing is, I did not sell a lot of CDs there because, let's face it, they don't have any pockets! They don't exactly carry credit cards around with them."
Lavin also recalls the time Julia Roberts polished her shoes on stage at a benefit for Paul Newman's Hole-In-the-Wall Gang charities. In a skit with Roberts as Cinderella and Lavin as one of the wicked step-sisters, Roberts knelt and polished Lavin's shoes to prepare her for the Grand Ball. Impulsively, Lavin noted that Roberts had missed a spot, stopping the show while she redid the job.
Lavin does have a serious side. Her tragic song, "The Wild Blue," about a WWII kamikaze pilot ashamed that he did not die in combat, is in development as a musical. She admits it was difficult for her to show that side of herself.
"It took me a long time to get comfortable doing serious stuff on stage," she says quietly. "Doing funny stuff came a lot more naturally. Also, when you're being funny, it doesn't matter how good your singing is because that's not as important as the funny story you're telling. But when you do serious material, your music is more exposed."
"People ask me what's the secret, how do you become a successful performer? I tell them (whispers), 'There's no secret.' It's just practicing, working for hours and hours at home so that when you get up on stage in front of an audience, you know that you can reach a certain level of professionalism; but man, it takes a lot of work."
She also notes proudly that had the leap of faith from secretarial pool to the limelight failed, "I do type 90 words a minute, and I'm a good speller."
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