'Musical day' dawns for Jeanine Michaels
"Big Bear Life"
By KRESSE ARMOUR
Kids...get ready to rock. Dinosaurs are leading a musical menagerie right into your CD player, and they are definitely singing your kind of songs - funny, adventuresome and a refreshing change from tired old standards like "Old MacDonald." In fact, once you've got- ten an earful of these new lyrics, there's no way they'll keep you down on the farm.
Singer-song writer Jeanine Michaels has produced a brand new album that is all the rage with the 3- to 9-year-old set. The lyrics reach the imaginative heights of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Across the album's 14 selections, monkeys lead rain forest revolutions, and listeners are urged to imagine an "Upside Down World" where the oceans are dry and you can swim in the sky, and sharks are frightened out of their fins by Armani swimwear. And with appreciation to Ludwig van Beethoven, "Furry Elise," based on the antics of a real-life rodent, tells the tale of a piano playing hamster. Of course, the hamster in question was really a he, and the song is about a she, so in the spirit of creative license "he got his sex changed," Michaels laughed. "I don't think he minded."
Michaels' album, "Dinosaur's Musical Day," was a labor of love for the musician, and a long time in the making - a journey of sorts, which had come full circle. Michaels' own passion for music was sparked to life at the age of 6, urged along by a piano teacher who recognized her as a child with an exceptional gift.
Words and music flowed from her, like crystal water from a mountain spring. There were stories to tell, and she wanted to share them. "I credit God for all the music," she said. "I just feel lucky enough to have been able to hear it."
Growing into a mellifluously free spirit, a 19-year-old Michaels would one day sing her way across Europe. It was a journey which started with a heartfelt request. Raised as a Catholic, Michaels was, at the time, dating a Jewish boy. "And one day his grandmother says to me, 'I want you should take my son to Israel. This would make me so happy.'" Then she gave Michaels a couple of those affectionate cheek pats. "The family had been persecuted in Europe, and he'd never seen his homeland. So I said, hey let's go."
It was the early '70s, and throngs of young people were successfully globe trotting on the advice of the traveler's bible, "See Europe on $5 a Day."
"That was too expensive," Michaels said. "We did it on $1 a day. Wherever we went my boyfriend would say, this is my girlfriend and she sings. They loved American artists and would send us to a club down the street. I'd sing, and they'd give us a place to stay." Performing for intimate audiences across a continent, Michaels would even spend an evening performing for the King of Spain. Eventually arriving in Israel, the couple spent time in a kibbutz, but didn't stay long. "We were up at 6 a.m. picking grapefruits," Michaels said. "Not my idea of a good time."
The next stop was the Sinai Desert. A camel ride took the pair to an Israeli army base where the soldiers thought Michaels was Joan Baez. "I kept telling them I wasn't," she said, but they didn't believe her. Hot and desolate, water was a precious com- modity in the desert. After weeks of washing her hair in the salty Red Sea, Michaels' locks took on the untamed dimensions of a well-teased lion's mane. She decided being Joan Baez might not be so bad. "I thought, if this gets me a shower, I'll do it." A few autographs later she was lathering head-to-toe in fresh water.
Singing for the appreciative soldiers, Michaels and her boyfriend stayed on for a while, living mostly on fresh fish and sea urchins. When it was time to move on, the pair followed a star to Bethlehem and finished out their trip.
Returning to the states, the singer would also find success as an actress. She had earlier been cast as the leader of a scrappy band of defiant American Indians in "The Trial of Billy Jack." After a few parts in low-budget horror movies - the kind that never make it past the drive-in theater circuit but pay the rent, there were a few spots playing a nurse on Dallas. She recalls an episode of "90210," acting opposite Jason Priestly, that was especially fun. Then she landed the role of Abby's secretary on Knott's Landing. She was also in the movie "Serial" starring Tuesday Weld and Martin Mull. Her longest run on a series was a three-year stint as an extra on St. Elsewhere.
It was during her St. Elsewhere run, that she became the guardian angel of 13 puppies. She'd gone to the pound in search of the perfect companion mutt when she saw a harried mother with 13 pups. "They were going to be killed that day," she said. "I just couldn't let that happen. I took them all home." The pups were just four days old. Three days later, the mother apparently lacking in measurable maternal instinct, took off for less crowded pastures. "So there I was feeding 13 puppies out of an eyedropper. It was a nightmare." She eventually found homes for all but the one she decided to keep.
Striving to keep the cupboards full, Michaels worked from time-to-time as a waitress during those early acting days, but admits that she wasn't very good at it. Her last day behind the apron was Mother's Day, 1982. She was working at a restaurant called Dresner's in New York. It was crowded with women who had come in for culinary pampering. "We had fifty-
thousand special side dishes that day. I had a hard time keeping the orders straight and getting them back to the right tables." Adding to her strain, the moms kept making special requests - on top of the already-modified menu. Michaels passed the requests on to the Chinese cook, who was growing more frustrated by the order. And then he cracked. "One of the moms wanted garlic in her potatoes," Michaels recalled. It proved too much for the cook. "He picked up a big meat cleaver and started shouting 'I'll kill you' and chased me all through the restaurant." New to the states, Michaels remembers that "I'll kill you," was the most English any- one had heard him say. Somebody else could deal with hot-tempered cooks. It was a good time to move on.
Around this time, Michaels' good friend Mark Abraham invited her to spend some time in his Sugarloaf cabin for some R&R. "It was supposed to be a retreat," Michaels said. "I only packed jeans and T-shirts - no fancy clothes, no makeup." That weekend there was a party invitation.
"I don't have anything to wear," Michaels protested.
"You look fine," he said. "Besides, a lot of cute guys will be there."
"Cute guys?" Okay, she'd go. "
The party was at Lynn and Dixie Wheeler's house, and the evening was delightful. And so began Michaels' enduring tie to Big Bear. New friendships inspired roots which have taken a permanent hold in the Valley.
When Michaels met her husband Curt Leftwich, the two were married at Meadow's Edge, on Big Bear Lake. The newlyweds, who settled in the San Fernando Valley, bought a cabin and have been a part of Big Bear ever since. "Someday we'd like to move up here. My ultimate dream is to have a house on the lake. I really am a lake monster," she laughed. "I grew up on a lake. I used to spend summers in Wisconsin with a maiden aunt."
Michaels has two children, son Brendan, age 8, who inspired the dinosaur theme of her new CD, and daughter Meghan, age 10 - also known as "Queen of the Universe," her mother teases. "It's a hard job, but she does it so well." As with the other adventures of her life, the children would send Michaels into entirely new directions.
When budget cuts forced the end of music programs in the school district's curriculum, Michaels began to volunteer at Beckford Avenue School. "I think everybody should do some kind of volunteer work," she said. "Something to help other people. One thing we do as a family is that each of us does something nice for someone every day - it doesn't matter how small. I really recommend this. The benefits and blessings are so amazing. If everyone did it, can you imagine how much more civilized our world would be?"
Over time, music and children began to intertwine in an inspiring way. Helping others had helped Michaels find the path she had been searching for. "I still wasn't sure what I really wanted to do, what direction to take my life," she said, "and one night in Big Bear I was looking up at the sky, and there were shooting stars, and I said, 'God, what should I be doing now?" Do chidren's music was the immediate answer. It happened very easily once I was committed to it. I found my niche."
So Michaels staked her entire savings on a dream that is coming true. She had already written a number of songs - more than enough to launch several albums. "I got the ideas for the songs by watching my own kids, and the kids at school. They would do hysterical things. I also learned what mattered to them, what makes them laugh, what makes them feel better. I wanted to relate to them. I'd sing the songs and they'd say, yeah!
"Things fell into place like they were meant to be," she continued. "One day I remember saying that I needed a violin player." The next day a call came in that put her in touch with a woman who was touring the country exposing children to all types of music. The woman agreed to play for Michaels. It is her Stratovarius that is heard on the CD.
Working with educators, Michaels sought their input on the project. "We live in such politically correct times," she said. "I wanted my lyrics to be bullet-proof." Teachers are already using her CD in the classroom. It's helping students to learn about everything from dinosaurs to musical instruments.
During the final phases of production, Michaels' mother died after a long illness. The album is dedicated to her memory. "She'd lived with us for six months. I'd sing happy children's songs all day, and then come home to feed her and take care of her. I did the vocals for the Teddy Bear song three days after she died. That was hard."
Michaels has encouraged her own children to study music. One embraces the medium with passion, the other with somewhat less enthusiasm. Still, she says, "I'm a great believer in kids learning music. It's a great left-brain activity. It even helps with math. When you can play music, it draws people to you. People love to listen."
Check out the new CD, "Dinosaur's Musical Day." It's available at Village Music, on Pine Knott Boulevard, and The Children's Closet, on Village Drive.
Artist of the Month:
Shock Value Music Webzine
Jeanine Michaels' resume reads like a novel, she is a singer, songwriter, musician, mother, teacher, writer and an actress, but not necessarily in that order. With a full plate like that, it's a wonder she was able to get into a studio to record Dinosaur's Musical Day at all. Dinosaur's Musical Day is a unique genre for Shock Value, it's the first of its kind to be featured in an Artist of the Month article. If you couldn't tell by the title, it's a CD for kids (and their parents). If you have kids or nieces and nephews, etc. that visit often, I'm sure you've had your fill of Barney tunes, and Dinosaur's Musical Day could be just the thing to get you out of that dino-rut. It's a musical journey of a day in the life of a little boy who thinks he's a dinosaur. It's sweet upbeat tunes will get those kiddies singing and dancing in their little dino-worlds. Each song is a short story of its own, as well as contributing to the whole, and the characters are going to be part of an illustrated book and story that go along with the CD. Dinosaur's Musical Day was independently produced by Jeanine and her company, Mother's Heartlight Music.
Jeanine started playing piano at the delicate age of six, then moved into guitar and voice training which eventually lead to her musical career. In the early 70's, Jeanine sang her way across parts of Europe, including an eventful evening performing in Majorca for King Juan Carlos of Spain. Dinosaur's Musical Day is her first release, aside from several demos, but Jeanine is also coming out with an "adult" album soon. Jeanine has dabbled in many genres of music, including Top 40, R & B, Reggae, Folk, Country, Gospel, and Jazz, which is evident in the many musical styles of this CD. She has done pretty well with her acting career as well. Her first big gig was playing a student in the movie, The Trial of Billy Jack. (Her character worked with Billy Jack at the Indian Center.) She has also had parts in several television shows, including Dallas, Beverly Hills 90210, St. Elsewhere, and as Abby's secretary on Knott's Landing.
Jeanine hails from the Los Angeles area, and draws inspiration from her husband and two children. Children are a prime focus in her life, especially teaching them music and singing as she does in many elementary and preschools. Dinosaur's Musical Day will take you and the children in your life on an educational journey through magical adventures. You'll cozy up to teddy bears, and snuggle buggles, and be entertained by a piano playing hamster. Where else could you visit an Upside Down World, and a Magical Vegetable Garden? One thing I like about this CD is Jeanine doesn't talk down to the kids. The ABC song isn't the only thing they are capable of singing along to. Her lyrics are for kids, but she doesn't assume they are simple minded. One example is a great song about a piano playing hamster named Elise. The song, Furry Elise features intelligent kids' lyrics like "Nighttime concerto in Hamster, A Flat...Arpeggios running away from the cat." It's a fun song, and kids are perfectly capable of understanding, not to mention singing along. It also has great piano solos. This CD is great for parents who don't baby their kids. Kids are capable of so much more than they are given credit for and Jeanine is well aware of that.
Teachers and care givers are using Dinosaur's Musical Day for education and entertainment in the classroom. The first cut, Dinosaur Day, will teach them all about the different kinds of dinosaurs there were. It has an interesting bluesy kind of swing to it. This isn't your typical kind of kids' CD. You can hear the Caribbean sounds of Monkey Revolution, a cute feel good song about monkeys living in a deteriorating rain forest looking for a new home. The lyrics range from the serious, "We live in a vanishing world, It was a tropical paradise," to the childlike sentiment of "Help us find a home in the banana zone." The Caribbean beat goes on in Give Up The Lemon For The Lime, which starts off with the sound of the ocean and evolves into a tropical vacation adventure. Upside Down World has that early 50's feel, while Teddy Loves Me is more of a folk tune. Country has a strong influence on a lot of Jeanine's songs, like Driving Around, and the classic country tune, Test My Wings. Magical Vegetable Garden had an interesting mix of a kind of light acoustic Mexican salsa, and rockabilly is evident in the very cute, Snuggle Buggle. There's even a soft rock lullaby called Home Soon that end the musical journey. I must give honorable mention to Mrs. Johnson's Chihuahua, it reminds me of several songs on the Cats soundtrack, and really highlights Jeanine's operatic voice training.
My favorite tune on Dinosaur's Musical Day, though, must be Making Music. It just has great kid appeal. It has a choir of kids for the chorus, and an amazing arrangement of various instruments, including horns, oboe, and flute among many others. It definitely has marketability. Jeanine is proud that her CD is being used by teachers to educate and entertain their students. She has plans to follow-up to Dinosaur's Musical Day with a collection of songs for parents, about children. As I mentioned earlier, she also has an "adult" CD coming out soon, called One Light and also plans to continue her work educating children. Jeanine Michaels dedicates her life to educating and enlightening children. The days of The New Zoo Review are over, it's time for Dinosaur's Musical Day."