A Long, Winding Road Home
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When Thomas Lauderdale’s parents got divorced in the early 80s, he and his mother moved from Kosciusko County to Fort Wayne.
Lauderdale said his mom took him to see classic Hollywood films at the Embassy Theatre. This was at a point in that venue’s resurgence when it did not yet qualify as having been fully rescued.
“We saw movies like Auntie Mame and Gypsy,” he said in a phone interview. “Those were really great years.”
These days, Lauderdale is the leader of a small-but-mighty jazz orchestra named Pink Martini.
When Pink Martini performs with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic on March 4, it will be the first time Lauderdale has visited the Embassy Theatre in more than 30 years.
Those movies Lauderdale saw at the Embassy are part of the reason Pink Martini exists today.
Lauderdale wanted to recreate in music and on stage what he had seen on the screen: a golden age philosophy of entertainment.
The mission of the band, or one of them, is to preserve sounds that Lauderdale believes are in danger of being forgotten.
“Our cultural and historical memory is at an all-time low,” he said.
Lauderdale cites the plot of the 1953 film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (the only film written by Dr. Seuss) as an example of how much things have changed in the world.
“The whole proposition is that a boy falls asleep in his piano lesson,” he said. “This film would not fly today because what American boy is studying piano? But back in 1953, every American boy and girl played piano.”
Lauderdale said the music that Pink Martini perform is “completely new terrain” to many millennials who weren’t brought up on classical and other orchestral music in the way that children of the past were.
Even the music of the 60s is fading into obscurity, he said.
“There’s so little awareness and, seemingly, so little curiosity,” he said.
When Lauderdale graduated from Harvard University with degrees in history and literature in the early 90s, he had no intention of pursuing a career in music even though he had studied piano aggressively and passionately throughout high school.
He returned to Portland, Oregon, where his family had moved after living in Indiana, and entered politics with a dream of becoming Portland’s mayor.
“The mayor really sort of set the precedent for the city,” Lauderdale said. “In high school I was very interested in politics. My parents were really politically progressive.”
Lauderdale fought an amendment to the Oregon Constitution that would have made homosexuality illegal. He helped organize fundraisers and procured the entertainment for those fundraisers, and that is how he ended up hiring the services of the Del Rubio Triplets, a group of kitschy pop singers often featured on Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
One night an opening act canceled, so Lauderdale donned a gown, gathered some musician friends and performed under the name Pink Martini.
Pink Martini continued to perform at special events in that campy, ironical mode for several years.
But eventually Lauderdale decided to get serious about the band.
“I realized as we were working on the first album that I wanted the band to be less campy,” he said. “I wanted it to be just as fun but more earnest. Camp only goes so far. There’s so much smirking in our culture anyway. We don’t really need more of that.”
A song called “Sympathique” that Lauderdale wrote with his lead vocalist, China Forbes, became a hit in France, and Pink Martini transformed into a much more earnest endeavor almost overnight.
“We wrote a French song completely not ever dreaming that we would ever play it in France, or ever play in France,” he said. “And it became popular in France. So we went from Portland to France, and that was the start of our European career.”
That was 20 years ago.
Lauderdale agrees that the longevity of the band is almost a bit preposterous, given how eclectic and idiosyncratic it is.
“If I were to start the band now,” he said, “I don’t think it would work. Because of the time and the era and the fact that things unfolded organically – I had no plans to even get into a band let alone run one – the whole thing has been a lovely surprise. How great is it that I am getting paid to come to Fort Wayne?!”
Lauderdale has an enormous list of still-living legends with whom he wants to collaborate. He said he doesn’t understand why Beyonc? instead of Etta James performed “At Last” at President Obama’s 2009 inaugural ball.
When he was coordinating a memorial service for Packy the Elephant (formerly of the Oregon Zoo), Lauderdale wanted to make use of the New Christy Minstrels song, “Green Green.”
So he flew in Barry McGuire, one of the founders of the group, to sing it.
Some of the other people involved in the memorial service didn’t understand why Lauderdale was going to all that trouble.
“The people at the zoo were looking at me like, ‘Why are we flying Barry McGuire from Fresno to Portland?'” Lauderdale said. “And it’s like, ‘This is the person who sang it in 1962.'”
Lauderdale said it is important to honor and respect originators like McGuire.
“If there is an opportunity to work with them,” he said, “why not spend the time and find a way to work with them? Some of these people were alive before television or widespread electricity. Why would you not want to talk with them?”
Lauderdale said he has “a great fondness” for his childhood in Indiana, and he is excited to make a return trip to Fort Wayne.
“Growing up in Indiana, I loved it,” he said. “I loved the thunderstorms. I loved the fireflies. And I loved the sound of laughter as my parents entertained downstairs while I was supposed to be asleep.”