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Multi-hyphenate award-winning actress Nita Whitaker talks about her passion for music and healing, entering pageants to pay for nursing school, and working with icons like David Foster and Alan Thicke. Director of Marketing Nella Vera hosts... Read More

47 mins
Mar 13


Multi-hyphenate award-winning actress Nita Whitaker talks about her passion for music and healing, entering pageants to pay for nursing school, and working with icons like David Foster and Alan Thicke. Director of Marketing Nella Vera hosts.

For tickets and more information about Nita's upcoming show at 54 Below, visit 54Below.org/NitaWhitaker

Watch a sneak peek of Nita Whitaker in Sophisticated Lady: The Songs of Natalie Cole here: https://youtu.be/ivkw_tOhsvo

The 54 Below Podcast is hosted by Nella Vera and Macon Prickett, and produced by Michael Allan Galvez with support from the 54 Below marketing staff.

Original artwork design by Philip Romano.


[00:00:00] Nella: Welcome to the 54 below podcast. I'm Nella Vera, the club's director of marketing. Our guest today is singer, actress, and author, Nita Whitaker. She recently made her Broadway debut in the fabulous production of Alice Childress Trouble in Mind. And in 2019, she received the NAACP best supporting actress award for her work in the Broadway bound musical Born for This.

[00:00:25] Nella: On March 17th, she brings to 54 Below her show, Sophisticated Lady, The Songs of Natalie Cole, paying tribute to Cole's legendary discography. Nita, welcome to the podcast.

[00:00:37] Nita: Thank you, Nella. I'm happy to be here.

[00:00:39] Nella: You are the absolute definition of multi hyphenate, singer, actress, author. I read that you're also a former Miss Louisiana.

[00:00:49] Nella: And of course, you're a Star Search Hall of Fame Grand Champion, which you'll have to explain what that means for our listeners, and you're also a registered ICU nurse. [00:01:00] My goodness. How did you find your way first of all, through all of these I Different paths and then find your way to performing. And then also what made you decide to train as a nurse?

[00:01:13] Nita: Well, I think that as a creative, we're always looking for ways to be creative ways to express ourselves, whether it's at the bedside. I used to sing to my patients whether it's writing a book, I've written two award winning books, which was a surprise to me because writing wasn't on my list of things I wanted to do, but there it was.

[00:01:31] Nita: It just kind of oozed out of me. But I started with this love of singing music was in my home. My dad was a singer. I sang with my sisters. So I always performed at church and venues that were, you know, big events like the electric power company's annual Christmas party. I sang, I saw my kids in Santa Claus for about six years.

[00:01:52] Nita: That was my big soul. It was the Michael Jackson version and you're welcome. And so I knew that I loved that, but I also knew [00:02:00] that, you know, there's this practical side of living in the South that says you have to have a real job and no one that I knew personally. Was a singer and was making a living at it was always a side hustle because my dad, you know, worked jobs, but he else he's staying on the side.

[00:02:14] Nita: So I knew that if I wanted to do this, which I decided in my 1st semester of school, that I had to find a way to support myself. So I wanted to be a physician. calculus didn't the math, what math in this as she says, I was like, well, Maybe that's not my ministry. So I thought I'll just.

[00:02:31] Nita: Going to be a nurse and I could be right beside the doctor. So that would be it. And I'm not kind of a geek. I really love math and science. I just, biology, chemistry. I mean, it just, my brain lights up. I love it. I love it. I love it. So when I decided that I wanted to try and pursue singing, I had no idea how to do it, but I knew I had to support myself because my father was a single dad at that time.

[00:02:53] Nita: My mother had passed and I knew I didn't want to burden him with having to support me in this artistic journey. So I got [00:03:00] my degree I went summer so I could get it and get through with it and get out and start working and making some money. And then during those college years, I started competing in pageants because that helped me to have money to pay for scholarships.

[00:03:12] Nita: And for me, it gave me a stage. It wasn't about, Oh, you're so cute. It was, I get to perform. I get to be on stage and I think as a singer or whatever you do, you have to do it to get better. If you're an actor, you got to act. If you're a singer, you got to sing. So every time I had a stage, I felt like, and the response was always so powerful that I was drawn back to it again and again.

[00:03:32] Nita: So I entered pageants as a way to perform in a way to help pay my tuition. So my dad wouldn't have to come out of his pocket so much. And that was the way also how I moved to California. I signed with the traveling nurse company to move to California because it was either going to be New York or California and I like the warmth and I had a couple of aunts here who could cook for me if I got really hungry and I moved to Los Angeles began.

[00:03:57] Nita: But everything that I've done from writing a [00:04:00] book to getting the degree was all in pursuit of being able to get to a stage. the books that I've written about grief journey and about my dad, who is now 98 the lessons that I learned from him, I want to use my creative energies to put something beautiful and positive into the world.

[00:04:15] Nita: And nursing to me is not a far stretch from that. You know, there is this nurture thing that happens with nursing, whether you're giving a pill or helping someone feel better or just touching and holding a hand, standing at the bedside. So for me, moving to singing was a lateral move. Because that same nurture, music does that same thing, it is, can be healing, it can be elevating.

[00:04:38] Nita: So I feel like all the things that I've learned kind of bring me to now, where I can live in all of the things that I want to do and things that I want to do more of.

[00:04:49] Nella: Fantastic. Tell us about Star Search and how you ended up on Star Search. Love that. Okay. So I was a grand champion [00:05:00] also,

[00:05:01] Nita: right? Because there's a hall of fame.

[00:05:02] Nita: There's two of us that are hall of fame. I will explain. So I had auditioned from Louisiana for Star Search four different times. When I moved to California, I met a lovely man. Charles Randolph Wright, who was assistant directing this play that Sam Harris had written called hard copy was an original play.

[00:05:20] Nita: And he said, come and do this understudy. And I said, okay, cause I, I didn't know Sam, but I got to know him and we are still great friends to this day. He's just a beautiful human and just one of my favorite people. So I did the show with him and I go on several times and, and the show was done and he says, Hey, you ever thought about So, and I said, well, yeah, but I don't think this is show for me because I've tried four or five times.

[00:05:44] Nita: So he said, well, let me make a call. So about a couple of weeks later I get a call for an appointment to come in and audition. And I had gone before Nashville. I had gone to Texas think Dallas and Houston. I'd gone to audition at these big open calls that [00:06:00] they would have. Hoping to be seen, hoping to be heard.

[00:06:03] Nita: Meanwhile. I'd also auditioned for Natalie Cole's television show that was like a theatrical kind of a talent show called big break. So I auditioned within the same week and I just had, I'd had a two, I had, my baby was maybe two months old and oh my gosh, I was feeling so full of life and you know, my breasts were beautiful.

[00:06:21] Nita: I'll just say that.

[00:06:22] I

[00:06:24] Nita: was a nursing mom. So I go to the star search audition. And I walk in and there's nobody there, except for maybe three people, someone behind the camera. There's a guy here and there's someone up here doing audio. And I said, well, where is everybody? And they said, Oh, it's just you. I said, Oh, okay.

[00:06:41] Nita: So I did my two songs and I thanked them. They said, great. And then I left. And then two weeks later, I got a call from both big break and star search. Often a spot on the show. And I really thought somebody was pranking me because. How does that happen? Right? Wow. Yeah. So I decided on storage search because [00:07:00] it had a longer history and it'd been around longer.

[00:07:02] Nita: And I went with that show. So I get on the show and I'm thinking, okay, I'll probably be on. I'll win a couple of times. And I'm good with that. Because it seemed like the people that didn't win did better than the people that won. Right? So I thought, okay, I'll get on. And I kept winning and I thought that put me against every genre of singer.

[00:07:19] Nita: There was a country girl that was whatever. And I thought, you know, pop singers usually win, but there were a couple of ties and I was okay. Cause I had this little baby that was my world and I thought, well, if I lose, I lose, but at least I want to have a great performance. So I went undefeated. I went 12 straight times.

[00:07:38] Nita: I went undefeated into the semifinal round and then I won. So for the semifinal, I just sang, there was no one to sing against. And it was wild. So because I had 13 wins, me and Sam Harris hold that record. They have, they have an actual star of hall of fame somewhere in Florida. [00:08:00] With our names on a brick somewhere, I haven't seen it, but that's what they tell me.

[00:08:04] Nita: I love that. Yeah. It was a crazy fun journey.

[00:08:10] Nella: Incredible. And I also love, so I guess at that point, Sam had one and new people and. Yeah, I think he won the audition six. That's how I think he had.

[00:08:21] Nita: Absolutely. He had. Connections with the people that ran it because he was immensely, he was, he was with the little red tennis shoes.

[00:08:29] Nita: I remember I was watching him from my living room. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:08:34] Nella: Over the, over the rainbow. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. You're bringing back so many memories. I'm so glad

[00:08:39] Nita: that you know that because a lot of dark stars, this was the show before idol and before the voice. It was the show. I

[00:08:47] Nella: tried to explain that to my young staff, you know, it was like Carrie Underwood.

[00:08:52] Nella: Like, that's how exactly like Britney Spears was on there. I mean, just so many amazing performers came [00:09:00] out of there. I agree.

[00:09:01] Nita: Wow. I agree.

[00:09:03] Nella: So you began as the recording artist as a singer and you've worked with some of the greats. I read a list that had people like David Foster and Stevie Wonder and Andrea Bocelli, Lionel Richie, even Barbra Streisand, my gosh.

[00:09:17] Nella: And the list goes on and on. Do you have any favorite memories from your time with any of these artists?

[00:09:25] Nita: Oh gosh, there's so many. David, I met David through our mutual publicist right after source search, which was like 91 and, or maybe 92. he just took to me and said, we're gonna work together.

[00:09:38] Nita: And we did. We started, the first thing he called me for was to sing the demo for Bodyguard. I have nothing. They had just written it. And Kevin Costner, he called me to this is really name dropping. And I apologize. No, I'm going to drop some names. I decided after star search, because star search did not come with a built in management or record contract.

[00:09:59] Nita: [00:10:00] You got your a hundred thousand dollars minus what the SAG after scale at plus what the time times two. So my check was 83, 000, still very good check.

[00:10:08] Nella: Yeah.

[00:10:10] Nita: Yeah. So I said, let me try a cruise ship. So they had a little ship out of Ensenada down here near Los Angeles.

[00:10:18] Nita: And I would do a four day cruise and then a weekend cruise. I did just for two weeks just to give it a try. Cause I didn't want to be away from my daughter that much, but I thought I'd give it a try just cause I wanted to, I wanted a stage. And I was doing a show pretty much of Whitney Houston music. Stuff that people wanted to hear stuck a few things from star search. And I was on that ship when I got a call and everybody was so excited, Nathan, David Foster's on the phone. He wants to talk to you. I was like, what? So I get a call. He says, I want, when are you home? I said, well, I'm doing this cruise ship and I'll be back on Monday.

[00:10:49] Nita: He said, can you come over to Alan Thicke's house? I said, sure. Just send me the address. Yeah. So I take, and I hadn't, I just got home. I took my baby with me because it was my only day with her. [00:11:00] So I said, I'm bringing my child and I'll bring in Danny so they can play outside, but I just need her near.

[00:11:05] Nita: He said, that's fine. So I go and I'm in this beautiful home of Alan Thickson and David Foster, Linda Thompson, and Kevin Costner. They had just played tennis together. They were tanned and just all of them, just gorgeous. I was like, how did I get Hollywood? Right. It's one of those. And so they had just written the song and they were playing it for me.

[00:11:25] Nita: They were teaching me, don't make me know what we're going to do. Don't don't make me. I said, okay. And so they taught it to me right there on the spot. So then the following Monday, I went into the studio and I recorded the demo because they wanted to convince Whitney to sing it. So that's how, that was my first time.

[00:11:42] Nita: And then after that, I worked with him for about 25 years. I would go all over the, he would do David Foster and Friends. I would do all of his Whitney stuff. And he introduced me to a world of people that with his tutelage, I was able to work with Andrea. I toured with Andrea Bocelli.

[00:11:59] Nita: Oh [00:12:00] my gosh.

[00:12:00] Nella: My goodness. What a memory.

[00:12:02] Nita: Yeah.

[00:12:03] Nella: That standing in,

[00:12:04] Nita: Mexico city for 40, 000 people and The cheer that rises up is I'd never heard anything like that. It was like a football stadium and they were cheering and Andrea had a lot of things to come off the stage and then go back until they start screaming and stomping.

[00:12:21] Nita: And, but we did a Somos novios together. We also did the prayer. I, I was the pop diva. He had three sections in the show. He was delightful. He figured out I was a nurse. He said, Nita, he does this, looks down, Nita, Nita, you a noose, you a

[00:12:37] noose.

[00:12:38] Nita: He was delightful. I mean, I have so many stories the time Barbara Streisand called my name and I thought I was going to pass out.

[00:12:45] Nita: I was at her home for an event, a political fundraiser. And she says, Oh, Nita. And I don't know that I think I blacked out. I, it was just so, so incredible. Cause she has been a huge influence. I, I was the girl, I was a [00:13:00] black girl in college. And the talent shows singing Barbra Streisand, everybody else was singing stuff off the radio and it was me singing Barbra Streisand.

[00:13:07] Nita: Always a huge fan. It's so funny. I love

[00:13:09] Nella: talking to artists because so many of them say the same thing about Barbra. Oh my gosh. There's no one who's

[00:13:15] Nita: had a career like hers and she has traversed every genre she wanted to. She didn't let, she didn't allow anyone to put her in a box.

[00:13:24] Nita: And I've always admired that about her career. I love all, I don't all genres of music. I don't really do bluegrass and I don't really rap, but everything else, I just, let me try it. I just think it's all such a beautiful creative expression because music is the thing that draws us together and communicates no matter what you like music gets in the cracks.

[00:13:44] Nella: do you think the music industry has changed since you first started out in the business?

[00:13:50] Nita: Well, I think it's a lot easier to get. seen using social media. I think that is a tool we have to embrace because it's here and it's not going anywhere. And [00:14:00] there was a reluctance, of course, to embracing, you know, posting your life or whatever on tech.

[00:14:04] Nita: I'm not interested in that, but I'm interested in music. I'm interested in sharing good stuff. but I do think it's, easier, but I think you have to be more careful. Some of the contracts, these 365 contracts that they want to own so much, Of every part of your life. I just don't think that that's fair to the artist, but I do hope that compensation can finally better with the streaming and all of this.

[00:14:27] Nita: I just think get a billion streams and where's the check for that. It just, it just, it just doesn't make sense. But I think the artist. Should have more control of creative control, which is 1 thing that Barbara was able to get early on in her career, but also, having a say in how much of your publishing you have to give up because, people shouldn't have died leaving all this work in the world.

[00:14:51] Nita: And they're penniless. That shouldn't that's just not right.

[00:14:55] Nella: Yeah, no, it's, it's true. it amazes me, you know, with the [00:15:00] streams, like you said, where people are going to have millions of streams and they have pennies are sent to them. And so who is getting that money? Yeah, I should be the artist. I always try to, it's funny.

[00:15:13] Nella: There have been two 54 artists in the last couple of weeks that have produced albums. And when I said to one of them, Oh, where can I buy it? They hadn't actually printed anything. And so it was just streaming. And I thought, well, I like to buy the CD, even though I don't even have a CD player in my house anymore, but I like to have them in my car.

[00:15:35] Nella: I have them, but I like to own it because I want to support the artist. But two of them recently, they didn't even have. A CD, a physical CD, and I said, well, how can I support you? Like, what can I do? Just, you know, it was really an interesting conversation and it kind of blew my mind. Cause I thought that was the thing that you do just put out an album and then make physical CDs.

[00:15:57] Nella: Now it's going to

[00:15:57] Nita: EPS, which are probably five [00:16:00] or six songs where it used to stand. It used to be 10 to 12 songs. So it is different. And I'm going to say this not to be negative, but sometimes there is a gumming down of what is great. Because we've had the Sinatra's and the Streisand's and the people who were singing these great lyrics, Ira Gershwin's and Cantorin Ebb, great lyricists who wrote clever melodies and great hooks.

[00:16:24] Nita: And sometimes there's just a mediocrity sometimes if it's catchy. Yeah, if it gets a lot of hits and I am, I guess I'm old school in the way I really love a lyric. I love to tell a story in a song. Not every song is going to be that, but usually every song comes out of a story. So I really love to be in service of the words, but you got to give me some words to work.

[00:16:50] Yeah.

[00:16:51] Nella: Yeah, no, I'm a literate so that

[00:16:53] Nita: way, but and that's what I love about Natalie Cole's music. I mean, she spanned the genres of R& B, pop and [00:17:00] jazz, and she started off singing this kind of. R& B stuff to create her own sound so that she would be separate. She didn't want to just be, I don't want to give much away, but, you know, she was really determined that she just wasn't gonna be a clone of her dad.

[00:17:14] Nita: So she had to find her own way. And all singers do that. We have to, we imitate and, pick up this from this person until we figure out what our sound is. But on the way, if she was always singing. She always had great melody. She had storytelling in her song. She was talking about, you know, love and loss and all the things that people that really experienced.

[00:17:33] Nita: You will never hear me singing booty, booty, booty, booty, booty. That's never going to be my jam. I mean, I love crazy and love gang. Go look. It's a crazy ride. I love that. But you know, that's not my kind of song. I'll dance to it because I think it's great. And I love, I love lady B. I love her. I love her.

[00:17:49] Nita: Because when I want to get my dance on, that's what I turn on. So music serves a purpose in all of our lives.

[00:17:54] Nella: Well, this is your solo debut at 54 Below and what, you know, [00:18:00] we're just talking about Natalie Cole. What inspired you to create this particular show at this time?

[00:18:06] Nita: Well, I was just thinking about what I wanted to do.

[00:18:09] Nita: I've, I've come to stage 72, the triad I've done Joe's pub. I've worked at 54 Below with my dear friend, Ben Marine a few Thanksgiving's ago, but I've never done my own show there. But I wanted to do. I wanted to pay tribute to someone who musically really affected me as a performer. And I have loved her music from the first time I heard her in high school or college, whenever I heard.

[00:18:32] Nita: And again, I lived in a, in a, my parents were devout Christian and, beautiful people, but we didn't have a lot of. Music in our house. That wasn't the Haley Jackson. I might have clouds of joy. But we would at school, you know, you heard it all. So I just think that her body of work has not been paid homage to the breath of her work.

[00:18:53] Nita: And it came to me in the dream. That I said, I'm not hearing enough of her music. Where is her [00:19:00] music? are we not hearing? This will be a miss you like crazy. There's so many great songs. And of course that great jazz album, she did tribute to her dad was really made her, you know, the name that everybody, everybody knew her then and the Grammy set she won, there's so much in her life.

[00:19:15] Nita: But the story that we wanted to tell was my point of view of my experience of her, because I've had some really intimate. exchanges with Natalie. I've been on stage with her as a background singer singing, This Will Be. I've done that. We did for David Foster and Friends. I have been at luncheons where she was the guest speaker.

[00:19:35] Nita: So I've been in her presence on different levels. And this show is really sharing my experience of her through our experiences together. So has been because I think the more personal you tell a story, the more universal it is. So I really wanted to share. The time's not where I was just looking at her from afar because I was a fan, but we had an exchange in a bathroom and it was the most [00:20:00] beautiful human experience in exchange.

[00:20:02] Nita: She just shared with me. And because she was a great friend with David Foster, I mean, she, she would tell me, she said, I get out of my clothes right after, cause you don't want anybody messing up your Valentino. So after a show, cause we did a bunch of Yamaha gigs together, she would get out and just be in some jeans and the t shirts.

[00:20:19] Nita: So that the gown was gone, but she was lovely and always kind. One of my friends saying background with her I call it support vocals for years. And I don't know what that life is like, but my interactions with her were very sweet. And that's what I want to share. And also my perception of the body, paying homage to the body of her work.

[00:20:42] Nella: Hmm. Love it. What a unique point of view to have, you know, somebody like you, who's been in our presence and that's going to be such a treat for our audience. And I love what you said about supporting vocals. And, I talked with Andre the shields for this podcast. And [00:21:00] I think at one point I might've said, Oh, and you know, you have amazing ladies doing your background vocals.

[00:21:05] Nella: And he said, no, Nella, they're the singers. Just call them the singers. And I said, Oh, of course, why would I

[00:21:12] Nita: make that mistake? It's really true because and some of the, even though I will read the Franklin records, it's the singers that Dionne Warwick, the singers. Elevated the whole song and it is a genre, I mean that 20 feet, but it's a genre that really makes a difference in the quality and elevation of a song.

[00:21:35] Nita: Not every song needs it, the ballads don't, but there's some songs it just, it makes all the difference. And we need to pay homage to those girls, too.

[00:21:44] Nella: Absolutely. I love that. I want to ask you about speaking of voice. You were married to the legendary voice actor, Donna Fontaine, who our listeners will know lovingly as the voice of God, who [00:22:00] the actor who was associated with movie trailers.

[00:22:03] Nella: Particularly those that began with the words in a world where, you know, of course he voiced hundreds of other things as well, including documentaries and TV shows and commercials. But he was the most successful voiceover actor in Hollywood history. That's such an incredible and delightful career path.

[00:22:25] Nella: Just one. I didn't

[00:22:26] Nita: choose it.

[00:22:27] Nella: Yeah, I was going to say you as somebody who works with her voice. Why do you think people responded so deeply to his sound?

[00:22:38] Nita: I think Don had a really unique ability. And want to add that he was as incredible as a voice artist. He was, he was an even more incredible human husband and dad.

[00:22:51] Nita: I can't even say that enough. Anybody that ever knew Don LaFontaine will tell you. He was a prince of a man on every level. He wasn't [00:23:00] perfect, but he was the prince of a man. He really cared about people. He cared about people's careers, and he was always trying to help people rise up. I mean, that was his, his MO.

[00:23:10] Nita: But Don, grew up with such a love of words. He used to memorize encyclopedias because they couldn't afford books. So he would go to the library. He'd tell, tell me these stories and he would just lay the books out like this and memorize, how do you, his brain. So he had this love affair with words. So I think what he had, he knew, and because he had started as a writer, he was a writer hired by Floyd Peterson early in his career.

[00:23:39] Nita: This guy gave him a shot. And he started writing a copy and then 1 day, someone didn't show up. what was it? I forget the trailer that the 1st 1 that he did. I have a recording of it, and then he went on to do stuff like the elephant man. The guy didn't show up.

[00:23:54] Nita: He wrote that announced it. Odyssey 2000, there's some really good, but then all the [00:24:00] Schwarzenegger movies, he knew how to place his voice. He was a technician that way, so that it could cut through a Fiat or bomb sounding, how to drop it low or bring it high for comedy, but it was the love affair with words.

[00:24:13] Nita: Poetry would make him weep. He was such a so passionate about it. He read 300 books a year. I am not making that up. He was always with a book and 1 of the most intelligent people I've ever met. So, I think, because he understood language. And because he knows 30 seconds, he knew how to drop it in, because he used to write the copy he was now announcing.

[00:24:34] Nita: So it was a confluence of all the things that he had done that made him so great. you know, I was blessed to share life with him for 22 years.

[00:24:44] Nella: How beautiful. And I have to say, you know, there's a warmth to his voice and there's a quality about it that you trust the person saying those words, which I think why he was so brilliant for trailers, because they were commercials for movies.

[00:24:59] Nella: [00:25:00] And so it made you feel like this was perhaps sometimes in some cases more interesting than if they were. It's true.

[00:25:07] Nita: Well, his agent, Steve Tishman for 27 years, his agent said that. There were studios that were afraid not to use done because it actually helped sell the movie because people trusted his voice.

[00:25:20] Nita: They knew if he was telling you something, there was this excitement about it. He just, man, he was just so special in his ability to To know just where and just how to caress a word, how to cut it off. Sometimes there'll be a rumble at the end. I mean, I've studied his voice because I live with him and just his technique was so great.

[00:25:40] Nita: And there are a lot of people that want to have the sound that I've done that I think if I have a deep voice, I can do voiceover. And that's really not what it's about. It really is. It is really voice acting to serve. You know, telling about that particular trailer, movie, you know, documentary, whatever.

[00:25:58] Nella: Did you two [00:26:00] ever collaborate, even informally? You know, we

[00:26:08] Nita: did, we did a little movie Don, he had been a writer, he, and he had been an editor. So he always loved it. He would always edit my, acting reels and would edit them for our friends. He had always had an editing bay and downstairs somewhere.

[00:26:22] Nita: So he loved that. But we did this little movie with our kids. And it was a project called Sandman. Don wrote it. We got Ernie Lively, Blake Lively's father, to direct it. He had been my acting teacher for a while. And then Blake was in it. She was 10 years old. She played the Tooth Fairy. And we shot it at the studio with the green screen, and it was just all of us.

[00:26:44] Nita: We paid the kids 25 and 1 bill every week. They loved it. They were so excited. Like a big fat envelope. They loved it. And we did this little project. So he wrote some songs and I sang them and we worked in the studio together, but we never did any voiceover stuff together because I really [00:27:00] believe in, I'm going to let you do what you do well, I'm going to stay out of your way and support you.

[00:27:04] Nita: And then he did the same for me. Like, you can't tell a singer how to sing. I can't tell him, you know, so we really respected each other in the sense of, I know that's your lane and I'm going to support you by standing over here.

[00:27:18] Nella: But I'm sure you learned a lot from each other too, being in the same house.

[00:27:22] Nita: Absolutely did. and he, I think ultimately was a teacher. He did. He was the voiceover lab. There's a voiceover lab here in LA and there's a lab that's, that's, that's, that's, that's In New York, that's based on the same thing, free classes and sessions and a booth where you can go and work on your demo.

[00:27:38] Nita: That's free of charge to people that was based on what we started here in LA 10 years ago. Well, this will be the 11th year and he was a teacher. Ultimately, he wanted to teach, you know, at some point when you, when you know, you teach. And he really did. He mentored so many and was always flattered. I remember [00:28:00] once he said we were going somewhere and someone said, Mr.

[00:28:02] Nita: LaFontaine, can I get your autograph? And he looked at me, he says, who does he think I am? He never took it seriously. Never took it seriously.

[00:28:13] Nella: His passing in 2008 led you to another journey as an author.

[00:28:19] Nita: Yes.

[00:28:20] Nella: Can you talk a little bit about that?

[00:28:21] Nita: Well, anyone who's been through loss will tell you it's an extraordinary journey that you don't know until you're there.

[00:28:28] Nita: You have no idea. I had been through loss before. My mother had passed when I was a teenager. And at 17, 16, you don't even know how to grieve. You're just holding a lot of the angst and sadness and it shows up when you have big events and you want that person to be there. And, you know, those tears will come.

[00:28:50] Nita: Losing Don was enormous because I also. I was raising our two daughters who were now not going to have a father. I knew I had to show them [00:29:00] how to keep going. If I fell apart, who was going to parent them, who was going to be there for them and show them the way that after a storm, you still can play, it may take a little while.

[00:29:11] Nita: So we just kept going. And I found this class, it was called writing to heal was in my neighborhood. I was leaving my. Then to eighth grader seventh grader at home alone for about one hour and I went to this class and I would where she'd give us a prompt. I'd write and cry. I'd write and cry. They just they didn't know.

[00:29:29] Nita: I didn't tell anybody in the class. It was a small group and I started to do these emails because I didn't want to talk people. How are you? I don't know how I am. I don't know. I can't even tell you. I'm I'm just I'm here and we're doing the best we can. So I would send out emails and people said neither.

[00:29:44] Nita: You should share this. You could help other people. I said, well, how do you do that? I have no idea. So, I kept hearing that, kept hearing that, and I had an epiphany one day while I was sweeping outside about it's a metaphor for life. And I ran and I wrote this thing [00:30:00] down and I call my children, listen to this, listen, this, is this any good?

[00:30:03] Nita: So I, I said, mom, you're such a Disney mom. I said, well, this is how it comes out of me. So I wrote it. And then I found publication that was called Inspired Woman. It was an online thing. I sent it and they published it. Well, what's that? So then I kept going. So. I went to my acting teacher, my acting, the workshop leader, and I said, I think I want to share what I'm learning because other people are going to have to go through this.

[00:30:32] Nita: And I want to share my journey because maybe it'll help somebody. And she said, I said, I think there's a book in me. She said, I was waiting for you to figure that out. I was like, Oh, okay. So now what do I do? So she kind of helped me, Jackie Parker. She helped me write the marketing and she said, let's just write, you write the chapters.

[00:30:49] Nita: So I started writing. We found a a literary agent. Who called me and said, did you write this? I said yeah, I did. I mean, I had no sense of what's good or bad. I know what I like to read, [00:31:00] but as far as judging my own work, being such a novice, I didn't know, so I was signed with them and it would, the journey was the journey, but I wanted to share the lessons and how we are meant to keep going, we are meant to, even though the pain is in this, is I write it, I write From the bedside, because I remembered every detail of what that last day was like.

[00:31:25] Nita: Every moment. I remember the time. I remember every second of that letting go. So painful, so painful. Then having to tell your children, Oh my gosh, that was the worst. But we are here and we survived. And I knew that I wasn't going to let them go. I wasn't going to go into a hole because I had to be here for them.

[00:31:47] Nita: So the book , was the journey and the journey was to help other people who would walk down that road and be in this sisterhood that none of us want to be in. But it was a great loss to our family, a [00:32:00] great loss to the voiceover world, to the movie industry. My goal and hope is to do a documentary.

[00:32:06] Nita: About his life. I'm going to work on that. Yeah.

[00:32:11] Nella: I can't imagine there would be such, I'm going to put on a producer hat. Yeah. That's your next, your next.

[00:32:20] Nella: So tell us quickly, you founded a nonprofit called in a world with books. Great name, by the way, that has put 18, 000 plus books into the hands of thousands of children. Yeah. Can you tell us what inspired you to create this organization and how it came about and what you do? Obviously,

[00:32:43] Nita: the number is actually 26, 000.

[00:32:45] Nita: Now we've been updated. it is a life work. I remember hearing something, I don't know who said it, but you want to start a work that outlives you. And. This nonprofit, it, again, it came just like this [00:33:00] Natalie show, I kind of wake up and there it is. It's like, do this. And I was like, really? Okay.

[00:33:05] Nita: And I thought, listen, I don't have time. I don't even know what, I don't even have to start a nonprofit again. I was just new at all of this, but I knew about Don's love of books and how much he wanted to own books. He would never go to the library. He had to buy books. You see the books.

[00:33:23] Nella: Yes, I can see them in your background.

[00:33:26] Nella: Every one has

[00:33:27] Nita: been read three, four or five times, all of them. He loved books and he loved to make sure everybody was reading. And I was like, how can I pay homage to him in a way that would live on? My children will carry it on after that. So I came up, give books, give books to kids who can't, who was, who were like done.

[00:33:46] Nita: And my mother had been, A librarian on the bookmobile. I don't know if you know what that is.

[00:33:52] Nella: Absolutely.

[00:33:54] Nita: They used to come to the school before there were libraries at the schools. And my mother was the one, one of the [00:34:00] librarians on the bookmobile for she, I would see her twice a week at my school. She did something unusual.

[00:34:05] Nita: She would have the driver, but she didn't drive it. She just, she would always bring us books and read this and read this and read this. And she was teaching my brother who had special needs how to read, but she would take it out in the rural area and go house to house and give kids books. And say, I'll be back next Tuesday.

[00:34:20] Nita: Read it. You tell me what you read. She was teaching people how to read in our living room. I found this out just recently. People who had not had a chance to learn how to read. We would go in the back and some of the ministers would come who couldn't read. They could read the Bible, but they couldn't read anything else.

[00:34:35] Nita: My mother was teaching them how to read. All of it. I woke me up and said, you have to do this. I said, okay, how do I begin? So I started looking up nonprofits, how to, so I figured that out. I went through legal zoom. I didn't know what I was doing, but I ended up having to, I mean, because I really was trying to learn, see how I could do it on my own.

[00:34:56] Nita: That is incredible. Yeah. And so I, I ended up [00:35:00] having to have a lawyer help me with the last part of it, but I started it in honor of Don and my mom, because. They had such a love of books and the thing that I want to keep going is reading. I don't want kids to stop reading books. We have tablets, we have old Kindle, but I go on a plane.

[00:35:19] Nita: I don't see a book anymore. I don't see books. Sometimes I carry them in a swing and if I see a child, I'll just hand them a book with pretty pictures and it's a work that is so fulfilling. So we, we just gave. I think it was it right right before Christmas. We gave 1500 kids books. we try to go in the cracks, the shelters and the places where.

[00:35:42] Nita: Where they aren't getting, you know, they don't have those resources, sometimes under resource schools. We've given books to put bookshelves there and we replenish the supply. And I said, I want the children to take a book home. I want them to know they can have ownership of the book. That's an homage to Don and my mom.

[00:35:58] Nella: What a beautiful [00:36:00] story. Oh, I love it. You know, I, my first job in the world was in the public library and I had a lot. So this is very close to my heart. I had to lie and say that I was 15 and a half when I was only 14 to get the job. And of course that was before Homeland Security or whatever

[00:36:18] before anybody checked,

[00:36:19] Nella: they just said, Oh, okay.

[00:36:21] Nella: You're 15 and a half. You're going to be 16 when I'm like, yes, I'm going to be 16 soon. And like, okay. And they would just let me what an honor they would let me. Put all the books back and they would let me check out as many books as I wanted. I, I honestly, I would have worked there for free. There's such a

[00:36:39] Nita: feeling in a library, isn't it?

[00:36:41] Nita: Just the walls and walls. It's, and children who haven't been read to usually don't read. So before COVID, we used to be able to go in to the shelter and we would read a book. And bring the book to life because I'm an actor, bring the book to life and then give them a book and it would have the weight of I get to [00:37:00] keep this. Yeah. And 1 little boy, I was working at a school. I was a reader weekly reader through screen actor skill. They had a reading program where you're assigned to school and this 1 little boy for Christmas. I gave them all a book and he hugs us to his chest and he said, I'll never forget you.

[00:37:16] Nita: Oh, what else do you need? What else do you need? There's so many moments like that where the children are so grateful to get the book. Now you get into high school and there are some kids that are readers and there's some kids that aren't, but we really hope to get them reading in elementary school because the statistic is they determine how many prison beds they need, but how many kids are reading by fourth grade.

[00:37:38] Nella: Exactly. I saw that same statistic.

[00:37:41] Nita: Yes. Isn't that shocking and horrible at the same time? So I, our endeavor is to get in there, but if it means giving a high school or a book, we'll give them a book too, but we really try to reach the elementary school and younger so that they can have access to books in their home.

[00:37:58] Nella: I was volunteering at the [00:38:00] children of Bellevue here in New York, and they even, you know, they try to encourage the moms when they're babies to read to the kids, even if the kids can't read yet because of language development and, brain development associated with language skills and, and they even started, they piloted a prenatal program where they said to moms.

[00:38:20] Nella: Read to your baby while he's in the womb. And, you know, they're like studying the effect of that now, which is, it's so incredible.

[00:38:28] Nita: It is. It makes a difference for the child to hear the language. They get it faster. we've gone to high school unwed moms and gone in there. And they, the questions were like, well, when do I read?

[00:38:40] Nita: When do I have time to read? I said, it doesn't have to just be a bedtime. It can be anytime that you can find three minutes and maybe it's just two pages. And because they, they have so many questions because they're, again, novice moms are young. Yeah. But reading is fundamental. That old saying it's really true.

[00:38:57] Nita: Don couldn't have done what he did if he [00:39:00] didn't love reading so much.

[00:39:01] Nella: What a beautiful tribute to People in your life just loved reading. Oh, I want to ask you before we log off. I want to ask you about your Broadway debut in trouble in mind. a Broadway debutism is a milestone and it came for you after you had a long established.

[00:39:22] Nella: Recording career and had done other stage work. How did that come about? And how did that feel to make your Broadway debut, already as an established artist?

[00:39:32] Nita: it's unlike no other stage Broadway held an allure for me for a long time. And I always thought I would go with a Musical, because if you're saying they kind of, you know, you do a musical, I was invited to Emerson.

[00:39:49] Nita: we had done a reading of the born for this that ended up that I want to end up award for at Emerson and. The gentleman who was over the program, they were holding a fundraiser and they said, we're going to [00:40:00] excerpt from a play, which you come up and do it. It was Alice Childress's Trouble in Life.

[00:40:06] Nita: So I read the play and I said, why don't I know this woman's work? I was so moved by the eloquence and the precision with which she wrote, but also that even though it was written 60 something years ago, it was still very relevant today. She just, you know, Had a beautiful way of expressing the experience that she was experiencing as a woman, a director, a black woman in her day.

[00:40:35] Nita: And I, I just thought it was brilliant. Fast forward. I did rag time in Los Angeles and I understudied LaChanze , in that show that was 25, 20, I forget how many years, 97, whatever that was. And It was a glorious experience. And I probably went on about 30 times as Sarah. So LaChanze and I have this [00:41:00] parallel existence in that we both lost husbands.

[00:41:03] Nita: We both have two daughters. We both, she continued her career on the East Coast. I continue mine on the West Coast. I have so much love and respect for her talents, for what she's doing now. So, the director called me up and said, Do you want to do this? And I said, Alice Childress's play. Are you kidding me?

[00:41:22] Nita: Yes, I will pay you. And I just finished doing a reading of something that Angelique was doing in Massachusetts and I came right from that to this. I was, everything lined up beautifully. I had a place to stay. could not have been a more glorious experience. And I remember that I had COVID. I tested positive for COVID 10 days to the day before I was supposed to go on.

[00:41:50] Nita: So I couldn't be in the theater for 10 days. And the first thing they said, you tested positive and I was so, I wore my mask on the street. I was so careful. I had no [00:42:00] symptoms. Thank goodness. I said, what about my show? So they had designated a couple of shows that I would do cause it was a, it was a limited run.

[00:42:08] Nita: Yeah, and the houses were thin because of covet people on the crown was raging and that kind of thing. But my sister came out, my daughter was here. My, my husband, Scott was there. we walked the entrance was she walked through the theater. And the moment my foot hit the stage, it makes me emotional when I talk about it.

[00:42:27] Nita: There was a thunderous applause because everyone knew. What's that meant? And 12 of us made our Broadway debut in that in front of, and so it was, it wasn't just for me, but the moment my foot hit that stage, I couldn't get the next sign out because the applause just kept going and kept going. And I said, okay, neither don't come out.

[00:42:47] Nita: You got to stay in your character because I wanted to just kind of bask in it. But it was the beginning of the place. I had to keep going. It. Was it was beautiful. It was seamless. The cast was so [00:43:00] brilliant and it was a moment. I will never. It was a mountaintop moment. That's what I call it. It was a mountaintop moment and I want to thank Charles Randolph, right?

[00:43:08] Nita: Who should have been nominated for best director and LaChanze for opening their arms and saying. Come and do this.

[00:43:15] Nella: Such a fantastic production. And just what blows my mind is how long it took for this play to finally be produced.

[00:43:27] Nita: 66 years, you know, and so the play was making its Broadway debut.

[00:43:32] Nella: Yeah. And everybody assumed it was a revival.

[00:43:34] Nella: And, you know, the story of course, is that she Refused to she pulled her play from production when they told her she had to tone down the racism and until now the woman character. Absolutely. And he said not doing it. And then, you know, I hate phrase it this way, but it feels like then they punished her.

[00:43:54] Nella: The play kind of never got produced, but then came back in such a sensational [00:44:00] production. So congratulations and

[00:44:02] Nita: Charles. Taking this play to them 15 years before it just was the right time that it all came in that gentleman who was running the theater. I think he passed away.

[00:44:14] Nella: Todd Haymes. Yes, he passed.

[00:44:17] Nella: Oh, he just in the last year and a half. I think. Yeah,

[00:44:19] Nita: exactly. He was so kind to all of us. So all of us, like I said, 12 of us, I think our PSM, there were two or three people in the, company that were making their Broadway debut. And it was, it was glorious, but it was a lot of words.

[00:44:34] Nita: And I love the challenge that I didn't have music to rely on. It was just the storytelling. I would do it a hundred times again. I loved every second of it.

[00:44:44] Nella: Well, we hope to see you on Broadway at some point soon, but in the meantime people can come see your show on March 17th at 7 p. m.

[00:44:55] Nella: Nita, it's been so delightful to talk to you. Thank you. It's been [00:45:00] delightful speaking with you. Thanks so much for your time today. And again, you know, we are so looking forward to having you at 54 Below. The name of the show is Sophisticated Lady, the Songs of Natalie Cole. So if you're listening out there, you can see Nita live and in person and no more than 24 feet away from you because we have a tiny menu.

[00:45:21] Nella: Which will be different than some of the big arenas that you played at. So it's a

[00:45:27] Nita: really fun show and we, we hit all of her essential songs and then a few others, but just love her body and work and I'm honored to honor her. And I hope that people will come out and enjoy and there'll be, there's laughter.

[00:45:39] Nita: There's a few surprise guests. So I always like to keep you guessing. Yeah.

[00:45:44] Nella: Fantastic. Well, we look forward to it. And again, thanks so much for your time and thanks to everybody listening at home. We'll see you in 54 below soon,

[00:45:54] Nita: Thank you, Nella.

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