REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — Pamala Stanley, the disco diva with both a penchant and the pipes for a Broadway show tune, spends summers in Rehoboth and winters across the seven seas. Fortunately for Rehoboth Beach goers, she performs Sunday through Thursday evenings at the venerable Blue Moon, the popular bar and restaurant on Baltimore Avenue.
She plays to packed houses in summer and fall, and in the off-season, she’s often gay cruising (as in the ship). Her love affair with the gay community may be marked by her dance hits in the ’80s, but it really started when she was 8. We recently caught up post-performance with Stanley and her two Blue Moon benefactors and close friends, Tim Ragan and Randy Haney.
Fly Me to the Moon
And let me play among the stars. She owes her life in Rehoboth to Tim and Randy of the Moon.
“She’s not only changed the face of live entertainment in Rehoboth Beach, she’s enabled us to lure other stars like CoCo Peru and Miss Richfield because she’s our ambassador as she sails the seven seas off season,” Ragan says. He and Haney, together 32 years, fell in love with Stanley in Puerto Vallarta eight years ago. They invited her to play the Moon for a limited appearance, and she was an instant hit. A few months later she called to say her cruise ship had been dry-docked and they brought her back to town.
Her hit disco single, “Coming Out of Hiding” in 1984 foreshadowed what was to come: “Standing in the shadows for too long.”
Tonight, at the Blue Moon, with a wall-to-wall crowd swaying and twirling to her every note — from Gershwin to Gaga — Stanley, 59, is having her day in the sun, at the Moon, as the star. There’s not a shadow in sight. She’s one sultry dame, and does it with that rare combination of grace and camp.
“As we all age a bit, even my straight audiences on the cruise ships love a saucy tale or two,” she says.
Her nightly event is bookmarked on a lot of iPods and calendars. From Poodle Beach, where the young and fit Gaga-leaning fan base frolics and cavorts, all the way out to North Shore, where the Gershwin crowd naps and reads, one can picture the visitors to Rehoboth’s gay beaches heading home en masse at 5 p.m. to shower and primp. Then, they arrive sipping and twirling around one another on the Moon’s patio. Around 6 p.m., she takes the stage and everyone, it seems, has a favorite spot to soak in the divine Ms. Stanley. Her rapport with the audience is dually heart warming and heart thumping and she routinely invites fans on stage to dance. Her show changes nightly. You might hear Madonna’s “Vogue” and Gaga’s “Born this Way” one night, and the next it’s the Beatles and Cole Porter.
She has incredible bona fides: Stanley auditioned for the legendary Hal Prince for the title role in “Evita” and nearly eclipsed Patti LuPone. Later, she came in fourth among three spots for Bette Midler’s Harlettes.
Though best known for her four top 20 dance hits, she has released several recent albums, including 2007’s “Seasons of My Heart,” an adult contemporary work with country influences and 2009’s “I Am There,” featuring original Christian songs. There’s a new dance album in the works, tentatively slated for a December release, according to her website.
Today, throngs await her in Rehoboth. She adores her life here and the combination of fame and anonymity. If there was a Fame-Anon 12-step program, Stanley would be president.
“I can shop without makeup,” she says as she slips on her flip-flops and a baseball cap and joins her buddies at the nearby Purple Parrot for lunch.
The disarmingly nice girl from Norfolk was the head cheerleader, the homecoming queen and came from “a very talented and musical family” according to her childhood neighbor and friend, Michael. “The whole damn family was gorgeous, talented and nice.”
She has collaborated extensively with her brother, James Lee Stanley, a writer, and worked with several of her family members.
In 1977, she was a Broadway Baby wannabe working in a gay piano bar at West 46th Street in the Manhattan theater district. By day, she’s “walking off my tired feet, pounding 42nd Street” and missing top billing by a nose when talent scouts from EMI Records in Germany came into the piano bar one night. They had their eye on her white grand piano that they wanted for a photo shoot. They ended up loving her voice instead. And thus the talent scouts left the piano behind but took the talent with them, and Pamala Stanley’s meteoric rise began.
Life after disco
EMI Records flew her to Berlin first class on Lufthansa. The Germans wanted to morph her into “a white Donna Summer.” She hit it first with “This Is Hot” — and much later in life she shows her Broadway show tune roots as she smoothly transitions from her own disco creation “This is Hot” to brilliantly and soulfully croon Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot.”
She continued her climb in Deutschland, becoming a star with hits such as “Coming Out of Hiding” and “If Looks Could Kill.” She talks candidly about working in a recording studio that stared into communist East Berlin. The perky girl from the west side of Manhattan, working in West Berlin saw a very sad sight to the East. It was as “gray and depressing” as one could imagine and as she tells the story, she gets teary eyed.
When disco officially and abruptly died, she flew to Ecuador to perform for a rich gay man’s birthday party. She became a hit there when her disco fame and her fluent Spanish merged. In Ecuador they decided she was the “American Charo.” And then Ecuador’s government fell to a coup d’ etat and everything closed down. She tells these tales with wistful adventure and zany recall, reminiscent of Lucille Ball.
Unlike the legendary Mama Rose of Gypsy fame, the late Mary Grace Immaculate Borio encouraged her daughter Pamala from heaven and not hell. She owes everything in life to “my sweet mama” — and more than anything, Stanley has the supreme satisfaction of having a conversation where her mother proudly encouraged her daughter for “living your dreams.” That’s priceless currency for someone who’s traipsed through Germany and Ecuador to get here.
Stanley is twice divorced and has one son who lives in New Jersey.
“My kid Frankie loves my gay audience,” she says. “He often says, ‘Eight or nine of my dads are gay!’”
I realize that it’s her mama who gave her a heart as big as Texas. I ask Stanley who her first gay boyfriend was, and she immediately replies, “We were 8 and we played Barbie dolls together.” Aha! It was the neighbor, Michael.
Asked about this, Michael replies, “Well first off, when she was 8, I was 6 and while we did play Barbies together, my fondest memory of Pamala was the day she rode as queen in the homecoming parade, sitting atop that Cadillac convertible. I’d never seen anyone as beautiful.”
Stanley plays the Moon through Sept. 29.