Polly Bergen's singing career went up in smoke--cigarette smoke. "I was a very heavy smoker, and I was either not capable or not interested in quitting," Bergen said recently from her New York City home, while preparing for her upcoming show in Tucson. "So I quit singing instead."
That was in 1969, after she'd made a string of best-selling records for Columbia; her most popular single was "The Party's Over."
"I never recorded pop songs because I had no concept of how you did 'Come on-a My House' or 'Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,' because if a song did not resonate with me, I did not sing it," she said. "I wasn't one of those big stars, so imagine my surprise when I came up with a hit song--and notice I said a hit song, because that was it."
"The Party's Over" was the theme of Bergen's TV variety show in the late 1950s. She'd broken into the business at age 14--she was born in 1930--then survived three Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin movies and a string of unmemorable films at MGM.
It was really her acting career as much as smoking that eased Bergen out of singing. She'd won an Emmy for the TV version of The Helen Morgan Story and was being cast more and more in straight dramatic roles, most notably in the original version of Cape Fear with Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck.
"When I'd get a chance to go out to sing, it would be very difficult for me, because I hadn't done it for months and months," she said. "I quit singing live around 1965. After that, I did a few television shows singing, but it was very uncomfortable because I never really felt that I was as polished as a singer as I had been. I didn't have the time to commit to singing. Singing is something you have to do every day if you're going to do it well. So I finally gave it up entirely; for almost 35 years, I did not sing."
Instead, Bergen continued to act, most prominently in the TV miniseries Winds of War and War and Remembrance (again with Mitchum). She also went into business, selling her own lines of cosmetics, jewelry and shoes.
She finally pounded out her last cigarette in 1999. "I ultimately had to quit smoking because I discovered that it wouldn't kill me, but it would cripple me," she said. "Dying, I wasn't afraid of, but being an invalid scared me. So I quit after 50 years.
"About three months later, I got in the mail some tapes of appearances I'd made in the '60s on a TV show called The Hollywood Palace. I was having great fun listening to myself singing--I turned out to be a lot better than I thought I was at the time. All of a sudden I heard myself singing along with one of the songs. Now, this was a shock, because I didn't sing at parties, I didn't sing in the shower, I didn't sing at all. Once you earn your living as a singer and you have a very good ear, anything that is less than what you want to sound like is not acceptable, so you just stop doing it totally. I wouldn't even go to cabarets to listen to other singers because I was so upset that it wasn't me on stage, knowing that I couldn't do it.
"So there I was singing along with this tape, and I was amazed that in a very short period of time after quitting smoking, the voice had as much clarity as it did."
Bergen started studying with an opera teacher, trying to rebuild her stamina so she could sing a dozen or more songs in an evening without strain. "If I could do that, I thought I would like to end my life with the kind of joy I had at the beginning of my life, as a singer," she said.
Bergen claims the teacher had no idea who she was--"A lot of people don't"--but after hearing one of Bergen's old albums and evaluating the current state of her voice, the teacher assured her that, with work, she'd soon be singing just as well as she had in the 1960s.
Two and a half months later, Bergen participated in a concert version of the musical Company in Florida. "I hadn't done anything like that in 35 years, but it was as if I'd never been gone," she said.
Bergen still wasn't fully satisfied with her voice, but someone in the audience booked her into a New York nightclub and advised her to audition for a revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. "They wouldn't audition me because they didn't know who I was," Bergen reports--she's her own worst publicity agent--but she got Sondheim to intervene, and before long she was in the show. After picking up Tony and Drama Desk nominations for her work, she moved on to six months in the acclaimed revival of Cabaret.
"I suddenly reinvented myself when I was 70!" she exclaimed. "No singer can do in her early 70s what she did in her 20s and 30s, but I'm closer each time I work, and I've had a wonderful reception everywhere I've gone. It ended up being my fairy tale."
Now, Bergen is doing her own cabaret show, which she's performing in Tucson under the auspices of Invisible Theatre. "It is sort of a biography without being a biography," she said, in one of her few unhelpful comments. "They're all songs that to some degree resonate with times in my own life, emotions and experiences I was going through, jokes about myself, and it's all very emotionally connected to me, whether it's comedy or drama or sad or happy. The songs are all connected in a very visceral way to me. I work primarily as an acting singer rather than a singing actor.
"I know 500 songs. All of them are wonderful, but I've only found 17 or 18 I really want to sing in this show, because they make the exact statement I really want to make at that moment. While I've led a life that's more glamorous than most, it's dealt me all the ups and downs and triumphs and tragedies that most people have in their lifetime. So in this show, I like to use all the emotional moments in my life that everyone can relate to, that strike a nerve in them, that creates an emotional response."
Today, Bergen sings "The Party's Over" only when an audience demands it. So what theme song could she adopt for this phase of her life, now that the smoke has cleared? It would be her big number from Follies.
"'I'm Still Here,'" she declares. "I am basically a survivor."