When Peter Pan Came to Town

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

If you pause in front of 5451 College Avenue, you'll see this signature inscribed in cement: "Mary Martin 1985." Look closer and you'll see the handprints, now faint from age, that the Broadway legend left in the sidewalk.

You're at the threshold of Le Kube, a home-design shop. From 2001 to 2011, the storefront housed New Style Motherlode, a hip-hop dance studio. For 40 years before that, it was headquarters for Judy Davis, an influential voice teacher who coached Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Janis Joplin and - very late in her career - Mary Martin.

Davis created a series of vocal exercises that strengthen the vocal cords and help performers to enunciate and breathe properly. "I'm a vocal plumber," she liked to say. "I fix the pipes, that's all."

She was effervescent, larger than life. "She's a funny, charming lady who drives a long Cadillac," Gerald Nachman wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1981. "Smokes like a foundry and has opinions on everything, her eyes snapping as she talks with a husky whoop of a laugh."

Davis was beloved by her students, who ranged from wannabes to major names. In the early '50s, Sinatra flew her to Las Vegas to give his pipes a workout. In 1963, when Streisand was singing at the hungry i nightclub in North Beach - a year before she played "Funny Girl" on Broadway - she had voice trouble and came to Davis.

"Barbra was a very frightened girl because she was being catapulted into a position that normally we grow into [gradually]," Davis said. "She needed a hand to hold and a pat on the back."

Davis's studio was a low-key presence on College Avenue: windows blocked by thick curtains, a discreet sign saying "Judy Davis Studio." Nachman described the interior as "dinky, dimly litÉ like the office of a not overly successful chiropractor."

Three doors down was the eight-lane bowling alley that became Diesel Books.

Across the street was a Safeway that closed in 1963 and has housed Levant Rug Co. since 1965. "I'm always astonished that these great stars come to Oakland on College Avenue across from the Safeway," Davis told a reporter in the early '60s.

When Mary Martin came to study in 1984, she was 70 and hadn't sung in public in 11 years. Her glory days were the 1940s and '50s: she was the original Maria von Trapp in "The Sound of Music" on Broadway, the original Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific," and forever endeared herself to Baby Boomers with live-TV performances as "Peter Pan."

When she agreed to headline a gala concert at Davies Symphony Hall, Martin knew it was time to get her voice in shape again. The gala would benefit the Trauma Unit at San Francisco General Hospital, which saved her life following a 1982 car accident. She would not only sing that night, but wear her original "Peter Pan" costume and get in the harness that would fly her over the Davies stage.

I was a young arts reporter for the Chronicle, and in the weeks leading up to the concert I interviewed Mary Martin at the Telegraph Hill penthouse she rented. I always love it when a celebrity lives up to or exceeds my expectations, and Mary Martin was sweet and kind. She treated me like a favorite nephew.

She reminisced about her years on Broadway and raved about her son Larry Hagman, who was having a huge success on "Dallas" as J.R. Ewing. She mourned her close friend, actress Janet Gaynor, who was in the San Francisco car crash with Martin and who died two years later.

Martin's manager Ben Washer was killed in the crash and Martin suffered a fractured pelvis, broken rib and bruised kidney. She recovered rapidly, forcing herself to walk each day despite the pain. Without the Trauma Unit at S.F. General, she said, "I don't think any of us would be alive."

For two months Martin studied almost daily with Davis, gradually rebuilding her vocal chops. "I'm mad about this wonderful lady!" she told me. "She's a therapist, really. I wish I'd found her 11 years ago."

Time moved on. Martin died in 1990 - her 100th birthday was last December - and Davis died in 2001, two weeks after coaching her last student.

I missed Mary Martin's historic concert at Davies Symphony Hall in October 1984 - I had tickets to see Bruce Springsteen the same night - and I still regret it.

But each time I pass the old Judy Davis studio and see "Mary Martin" written in the sidewalk, I'm reminded of what a great entertainer she was. And I remember how lovely she was, many years ago, to a young reporter.

Edward Guthmann has lived in Rockridge since 1977. He was a staff film critic and arts reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle from 1984 to 2009. His email address is edward5430@comcast.net