Tata Vega wants to walk through her Sherman Oaks apartment complex and hear music pouring from every door and every window. An opera singer warming up on the left. Piano notes floating in from the right.
"That's the dream," she said, "of walking down here and hearing someone going " and, without missing a beat, Vega breaks into an operatic trill. "And another person doing piano. That would be awesome."
Vega's dream is actually coming true, thanks to an organization that bought the 24-unit complex on Murietta Avenue this year.
The not-for-profit Society of Singers Inc., which closed escrow on the property in January, isn't just out to create a community of singers. In time, as current residents move out, the Society of Singers will move in those of their profession who may be facing troubled times - such as financial problems or poor health - at subsidized rents for as long as they need to live there.
It's one of a handful of facilities run by mutual self-help foundations in the region, such as the Palm View, a 40-unit West Hollywood apartment complex opened in 1998 by the Actors' Fund of America for people in the entertainment industry diagnosed with AIDS.
The law allows such organizations to set aside housing for people of specific occupations, so long as they do not discriminate by categories such as race or gender, said Jay Cooper, senior partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP.
Vega, 49, whose anonymous voice has been heard for years in theaters and homes across the country, most notably as the lead in "The Color Purple," is one of the first singer residents to move into the Sherman Oaks complex.
Plagued by problems
Throat surgery and related medical problems made it nearly impossible, after 33 years in the business, to support herself and her 10-year old daughter. She held on as long as she could, performing soon after her throat surgery, before she really should have.
"It was scary for a minute there," Vega said. "I wasn't working. I couldn't work."
Few musicians plan ahead for a rainy day, said Wendy Garfinkel, social services director for Society of Singers. When unexpected problems or imminent retirement loom, many are left out in the cold.
"Very few people have established a savings account or a retirement account," Garfinkel said.
That's the point of Society of Singers, founded in 1984 by Ginny Mancini to assist singers in crisis with financial advice, financial aid and help with transitioning into other careers.
Mancini said many of the singers she knew 60 years ago, around the time she was performing with Mel Torme and meeting her husband Henry Mancini, today are struggling to make the rent and schedule medical appointments. Mancini said she was fortunate to marry someone whose star was rising; most were not as lucky.
"I was a professional singer before I was anybody, and I made a good living doing it," Mancini said. "But never once did I think about what would happen to me when I couldn't sing."
So the organization worked for years to pull together plans for a retirement home for singers. At one time, Society of Singers tried to partner with the Motion Picture & Television Fund's retirement home, now undergoing a major expansion, to build a wing for singers. Instead the 12-year effort has culminated in the $1.7 million purchase of the Sherman Oaks complex for singers of all ages in need of low-cost housing.
"We've been dreaming about having a place for singers for a long time," Mancini said.
The organization hopes to buy another complex if the money can be raised.
"We'll see how this goes," Garfinkel said. "I hope that building will be full soon and, as soon as it's full, we'll move on to the next venture."
Mancini is hoping that big-time music stars will make financial contributions to the effort, possibly in exchange for having their name put on a particular apartment unit, or even an entire wing of a complex, depending on how much they give, just like at universities and museums.
She envisions Vega and other residents one day strolling through that song-filled complex past The Dinah Shore Apartment or the Neil Sedaka Wing.
The group can't help all the bathroom divas out there, though. To move into the Sherman Oaks complex, apartment applicants must have earned their primary living as a professional singer for at least five years.
"They may be back-up singers, session singers, cabaret singers, club singers," Garfinkel said.
In the meantime, Vega said, her professional prospects have picked up. And she is getting voice therapy.
"While other people reject you and figure you're finished and washed-up, this organization has really put a lot of hope in me," Vega said.
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