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VOL. 43 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 9, 2019

Beehive love: singer celebrates storied girl groups

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Laura Powers, Rosanne Limeres and Michelle Giacopuzzi are The L.A. Party Dolls. They will bring their GIRLPOWER! musical tribute to World Music Nashville theater at 2 and 7 p.m. August 17. Tickets are $20 and $25. Tickets are available online at lapartydolls.us or at the door.  For more information about the show, visit the website. The theater is at 7069 US-70S in Bellevue’s Valley Plaza Shopping Center.

-- Submitted Photograph By Brent Backhus

Decades after standing in center-ring with legendary heavyweight prizefighter George Foreman, Laura Powers straightens up in the burgundy loveseat and launches into song.

Snapping her fingers, singing sweetly and swaying back and forth while seated in the living room of her comfortable Bellevue home, Laura, a music entrepreneur, performer, costume-maker and visual artist – with classic styles in each of those venues – captures my full attention and makes me smile, likely as broadly as the grill-peddling former heavyweight champ did in in Reno all those years ago.

“Lollipop… lollipop… Oh, lolli lolli lolli… lollipop… lollipop….”

She a cappella swings through her take on the classic 45 rpm version the Chordettes sang to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart (No. 3 R&B) back in 1958. It’s just one of many songs this woman and two great friends in The L.A. Party Dolls will bring to a sorta Happy Days-era stage show in Bellevue, where she’s lived since 1994, the year she selected Nashville as her first real hometown after a life of dream-filled wandering.

I’ll tell you more about the fearless encounter she and those pals – Michelle Giacopuzzi (“a bashful blonde” according to materials for their “GIRLPOWER!” show) and Rosanne Limeres (“a redheaded, feisty Jersey Girl”) – shared with the Rumble in the Jungle’s rope-a-dope loser to my old friend Ali later. But this column isn’t about Big George, who rehabbed his villainous ring image to become a sort of cuddly meat-grill salesman who packed among the hardest, if not the hardest, punch in boxing.

The three women – who sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” into the ring mic before eight-ounce gloves and blood started flying – likely wore bright smiles on that night in Reno. I know they were wearing glittery gowns and exaggerated beehive hairdos.

My own smile reflected that of Laura when I first walked into the home she shares with her partner for life – at least “for over 25 years” – Brent Backhus and their 20-pound cat Clark.

“He’s named for Clark Kent (Superman’s dullard, four-eyed alter-ego),” says Laura of the 14- or 15-year-old “Russian Blue” cat (with perhaps a dash of Polish alley-cat thrown in.)

“He (this giant cat) was roaming the condo complex where Brent lived in Los Angeles,” says Laura, hazel eyes shining, as they often do during our hours together in the sun-brightened home.

“We named him Clark, because he used to jump over very high fences” – remember, ol’ Supe could “leap tall buildings in a single bound” – in that condo complex, Laura points out. The handsome, loving cat has slowed down with age (“his shoulder hurts”) in his retirement after moving from the bright lights of Tinseltown into this house “on the hill behind Home Depot” in Bellevue.

“Clark’s a housecat now, but he sometimes comes out and sits with us on the patio,” Laura adds. “He doesn’t go anywhere.”

Hollywood was where Laura polished her careers in show business and in art. It also was the place she met Brent and his cat, who was born in Poland.

Seems that a Polish immigrant brought her cat along when she moved to America and lived in Brent’s condo complex. When family duties, death, tragedy, whatever called the woman back to that land known for its fine sausage, she left the stray in Southern California, where it never rains, of course, and where the cat had become a beloved part of the neighborhood and a rather content back-door beggar. The Polish woman apparently figured the cat would be well-tended during Hollywood days and nights.

“He was named ‘Crazy Cat’ or at least the Polish words for it,” says Laura, who clearly loves having Brent and Clark in the home they share after years of the committed couple “commuting” from her home here in Bellevue (she had a condo until the couple bought the house) to Hollywood and vice-versa.

“We’ve had a really long-running, long-distance relationship,” explains Laura, whose dreams and career as a singer, born when she was an Army brat growing up in Europe, took her to Los Angeles, where she sought a career in pop music.

She contacted an agent in Los Angeles with her aspirations to be a singer-songwriter and use her talents to explore the territory of Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and “Emmylou Harris on the country side of things.”

“I had an idea to have a band with two female singers. The agent said: ‘Let me tell you something: I have 12 bands like that, and my wife is in one of them.’”

Laura stops when I ask if any of those other groups have since found success, and she can’t think of one. She wasn’t really discouraged by the agent. Instead she felt encouraged to explore her options.

“I never wanted to do that again: Do something where a lot of people are doing the same thing,” Laura says, as she nibbles on a slice of apple and washes it down with a glass of chilled water with lime wedge – which she also served me to help chase away my chronic dry mouth – on our gentle afternoon.

“I just remember saying that the next time I called (the agent), it would be not about a niche that already was filled,” she recalls.

In October 1987 Laura unveiled The L.A. Party Dolls as a niche musical venture that would get her and her show-gal pals through the holidays.

“It was just going to be through Christmas,” says this young woman who tells me her age, but asks me not to use it. “Just saying that I’ve been doing this show since 1987 should help people figure it out,” she says. I always bow to the wishes of beautiful, intelligent and talented women of any age.

“I thought it was really, really fun and a little campy when I was first thinking about doing it,” Laura adds of the early Party Dolls months that cheerfully evolved into years, decades even.

Thirty-two years later, she and her costars are bringing that same schtick to Bellevue August 17. The L.A. Party Dolls – Laura and her two pals in beehives and glittery show gowns – will be performing in the 110-seat World Music Nashville theater for two shows that day.

The three women will be presenting the hit songs of the girl groups, Martha and the Vandellas, The Ronettes and more. “We have a whole closing medley of the Supremes” during the 90-minute show, she notes.

They do songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “To Sir With Love,” and even a happy, campy version of a classic from Phil Spector’s killer (and vice-versa) Wall of Sound: The Crystals “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

And the Queen of Soul’s sound is, of course, part of the proceedings, for good reason. “I remember hearing Aretha the first time. If your head could spin around, that would have happened to me,” Laura says.

The trio will pay their “Respect” with “that ultimate girl-power song” (even though it was written by iconic “[Sittin’ On] The Dock of the Bay” singer Otis Redding, who surrendered it to Aretha after he heard her version). It became the Queen’s signature song, of course. R-E-S-P-E-C-T indeed.

The L.A. Party Dolls have been swapping leads and harmonies at casinos – “we always were ‘the BIG lounge act” – and at other functions, mostly up and down the West Coast, for all these decades. “We tried to keep in driving range” for the other two who still live in L.A.

The group’s debut in Bellevue will be more than them dishing up a sampler from their 110-song repertoire.

“GIRLPOWER!” places these real Dolls at their imagined high school reunion. The simple plot is that they had been prevented from doing their Supremes stuff at their graduation, so this reunion presents a chance at redemption.

“The storyline is that the three girls – we are our own age now, we’re not pretending to be in our 20s or 30s – we’ve been invited to get together and sing for our high school reunion ….

“It’s the setting for the show, which is a lot of fun. We point out old boyfriends in the crowd, reliving our teenage tragedies of our high school years.”

The audience is enlisted as classmates, teachers, boyfriends, jealous rivals, etc. A man from the crowd will be invited up to dance, for example, when the women sing the old Shelley Fabares mating song “Johnny Angel.”

Laura poses with some of the props she uses to publicize The L.A. Party Dolls’ GIRLPOWER! stage show. Since her partners are in Los Angeles most of the time, she has to make do with cutouts of Michelle Giacopuzzi and Rosanne Limeres. The car cutout is just for good measure.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

“To Sir With Love” – sung by Lulu in that classic 1967 British film about race and societal issues in a school and the teacher (Sidney Poitier) whose tactics win over the kids – is in this case sung to someone from the audience. The women will look out into the crowd and “pick” a likely person to be serenaded as their favorite teacher, “a friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong,” etc.

“My character has a tendency to give out unrequested love and beauty advice,” says Laura, referring to her interactions with her costars and the crowd.

The show has had a couple of shakedowns out West, but this is the first time the tightly scripted and brightly choreographed show will appear in its finished 90-minute running time.

“This is our kickoff, and we’re going to do some national dates,” Laura adds. “We need to practice, pull in a few more elements here.”

The show travels light, making use of portable audio and video equipment which will punch out the backing tracks and background sights while the women sing.

Onscreen will be “fun images of the ‘60s,” including people, places and psychedelic colors and flowers.

In that spirit, the girls will lead singalongs to theme songs from TV shows like “Mr. Ed” and “The Addams Family.” So, you might want to tune up your personal version of “A horse is a horse, of course, of course….” and “They’re creepy and they’re spooky, they’re altogether ooky…” if you plan to attend.

A singalong delight will be The Dolls’ version of The Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love”: “Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get ma-a-arried” and etc.

“Brent is our tech person,” Laura says. “We work on the audio and video together. It’s not a problem in a bad way. I feel very comfortable with him at the helm. We do the imagery and the whole thing we show on the screen.”

That tech person, Laura’s love, disappeared with Clark into another room during our smiling conversation in Bellevue.

“He makes it happen,” she says of the confirmed Beatles enthusiast in the other room.

And then there are the hairdos and costumes, basically the same sequined, campy and flashy stuff they used when hanging out with Big George and also when singing ‘The National Anthem’ before a Los Angeles Lakers game. Laura, The Dolls’ seamstress, was finishing up these fashion creations at the time of our interview.

“I am the one with the tall, black beehive,” Laura says of her on-stage Dolls character. “Somebody’s got to do it. Somebody’s got to wear the beehive.”

A beehive means never being able to put on the show costume at home, she laughs. “If I put that beehive on (when) I get in the car I have right now, I cannot bend my head. It sticks to the top of the roof (of the Honda Civic).

“I tried half-reclining the seat, but that’s not a safe way to drive. I tried to merge properly, but I couldn’t turn my head.”

The beehive is for the show biz part of her professional lives. She doesn’t wear it to her work at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, where she helps deal with serious issues and precious patients.

“I love my team here,” she says. “I work at the Junior League Family Resource Center on the second floor of the hospital.

“We support families, doctors and nurses.”

She says the team provides comfort and information, in whatever language desired, that may help those who are going through traumatic and dramatic experiences.

“There’s a lot on their plate when they first get the diagnosis. We are there to guide them, let them know they are not alone…. I’ve been doing it for 14 years-plus. It’s a wonderful mission and a wonderful team.

“It’s very rewarding to come to work and help out families.”

That serious mission is far from her campy “GIRLPOWER!” and life as an L.A. Party Doll.

Laura Powers

But it’s not all girl-group songs and smart-alecky beehive persona for Laura and her music.

When she’s not all “Dolled up” and robustly singing retro girl-group classics, she is a singer-songwriter of Celtic songs, which she records and releases on her own Red Harp Records label.

She unwinds her legs to get up from the loveseat and go to another room to rescue a half-dozen CDs of her Celtic music. It’s a niche market, she knows, but then again so are The Dolls. It’s just that those niches are as disparate as Chuck Berry and Beethoven.

She adds her Celtic music is “in the same vein as (Irish star) Enya, for those unfamiliar with Celtic music.”

“It feels good to be here in Nashville and doing something different, different type of music,” she says of being a Celtic singer in a music town where beer, pickup trucks, moon-soaked sex and tight T-shirts are common song elements. “And it’s fun. It’s kind of Arthurian imagery with a female perspective. It’s really different.”

She looks across her coffee table, from her stack of Celtic discs to the one by the L.A. Party Dolls.

“The interesting thing is they are both a part of me,” she says of her serious side and the campy woman with the beehive and mature sex appeal. (By the way, WNPT has used her Celtic stuff for station ID spots.)

Main things the Celtic and campy sides have in common is the heart of the woman with the bright hazel eyes and the damn big cat.

Another part of her is the artwork, displayed on the walls of the couple’s (and the cat’s) Bellevue home. The mostly classic style (I’m not an art expert: Dennis Hopper’s fatal “Easy Rider” salute is more my decorating style) is, like the music, spun off from a multi-faceted love of the arts that was encouraged during her youth as an Army brat, growing up in Paris and in Germany.

“My dad was a career officer,” she says of Major General Patrick William Powers, as she points over her shoulder. “That’s a watercolor I did of him when I was 18. I think he liked it because he looks kind of like MacArthur there.

“All my life I’ve been involved in music, painting and dabbling in film.”

As an Army brat raised in Paris, “my mother insisted we go to the French school. She was very excited about us embracing the language and the culture wherever we went. Later in life she told us that she was very excited that in France they serve wine at PTA meetings, so there was that, too.”

Her French upbringing and love of that language and culture did help launch her music career. “I had moved back to Paris as a young adult. I painted and I had a record deal in Paris. I sang French pop-rock.”

Her musical pursuits took her to the world recording capital Los Angeles, where she continued her singing and, especially, her songwriting, which really is what drew her to Music City 25 years ago.

With her looks and voice – she breaks into song several times during our conversation – she could easily have fit the mold that launched Martina McBride, who she admits is among her favorites.

Perhaps she already was too old when she got here, she acknowledges without lament, as she describes her country music career that included some recording, mostly demos, but never flourished into star status.

Songwriting in her Celtic genre and otherwise is her preference. “I love being a part of the Nashville music community,” she says, noting that a similar close-knit community does not exist in Los Angeles.

Right now, her focus is on the show and getting together with “the girls” she’s worked with since the late 1980s, thrilling a few folks here and perhaps growing their fame beyond the West Coast community center and casino worlds.

“When the three of us walk into a room, it’s a party,” she says. “And there’s that amazing bond that happens when you sing harmonies with someone else, when you share the moments and the spotlight with your group members.

“I love to see them shine.”

She laughs again when I bring up the music selection, at least half of which is from Motown. There is no attempt to imitate nor emulate the original vocals. “We know we’re not Aretha, but we do the best we can,” she says. “We have our own kind of soul and we respect the music that broke down barriers.”

And, whoever is singing those songs, “the fun factor has always been there.”

Laura nibbles a bit of an apple and picks up her lime water. “You need more ice?” she asks me, before noting that one of the best things about the upcoming production is that it is being staged in this, the first city that she’s ever considered “home.”

“Home is where I want to be,” says the Army brat, Parisian artist, L.A. showgirl and so much more who finally has found a place to plant lasting roots after a life’s wandering. “We all need a home base somehow, sometime.”

I can’t end this column without delivering more about George Foreman, the great boxer and red-meat-cooking-machine spokesman.

“We do a tremendous version of ‘The National Anthem’ in three-part harmony,” Laura says, noting that The L.A. Party Dolls have delighted with their true and soaring version most of the time (except once when they started too high and realized it and adjusted mid-song before “rockets’ red glare” disaster).

The most memorable version came when they were asked to leave the casino lounge stage for a few minutes and sing of bombs bursting in air in the Reno ring before the prizefight featuring the great heavyweight and some Palooka (Laura at first can’t remember the grill-master’s opponent, but my research reveals it was Jimmy Ellis, who, according to boxing archives was “out on his feet” early in that ’91 slaughter. … So much red meat for the grill-master.)

“We stood in the ring, with George Foreman just a few feet away,” says this lovely woman whose beehive is in another room of her Bellevue home.

“George made very quick mincemeat of the guy.”

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