‘Dreamgirl’ Holliday to brighten Delaware State President’s Ball

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Tony and Grammy winner Jennifer Holliday will perform at the Dec. 12 Delaware State University President’s Scholarship Ball at Dover Downs. (Submitted photo)

In the early 1980s, Jennifer Holliday was the toast of Broadway. Her star-making turn as Effie White in the acclaimed Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” earned her a Tony and Grammy award.

In later years, she has recorded a string of Gospel and R&B albums and has had roles in TV shows and films, most notably a recurring part as choir director Lisa Knowles in the Fox legal comedy-drama “Ally McBeal.”

On Dec. 12, she will be the featured entertainer at Delaware State University President’s Scholarship Ball at Dover Downs.

The annual event raises money to support DSU students who may need financial assistance in order to graduate.

Best Bets logo CLEAR copyMs. Holliday says she’s only too happy to lend a hand.

“I’m not a wealthy person but I make a good living. But since I don’t have millions and millions of dollars to give to so many worthy causes, if I can use my celebrity and my vocal talents and trust that the money is going to go where it needs to go, doing an event such as this brings me great joy,” Ms. Holliday said Wednesday morning from her home in Atlanta.

For almost four years, she performed eight shows a night with “Dreamgirls,” earning her rave reviews and a standing ovation every night.

She admits it was a grind at times.

“But I made a commitment to myself and the audience to make it new for them every night. I was touted as this person of the moment and someone everyone just had to see. I couldn’t go in saying ‘Tonight, I won’t be that good because I was good last night.’ That’s not how it works,” she said.

“When I felt exhausted and knew I couldn’t do it anymore then that’s when I decided that I had leave and take a break. Especially with that song, it was so intense. It just took a lot out of you every night.”

“That song” became the Broadway staple “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Her performance of the soaring anthem for those who refuse to be kicked to the curb by a partner. or life in general. closes Act I of the show about a fictional 1960s musical girl group with a show-stopping flourish.

Although the film version saw Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson perform it, the song remains Ms. Holliday’s signature tune and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Can you imagine, if at age 55, my trademark song was something like ‘My Ding-A-Ling’?” she said with a rollicking laugh.

“I’m so glad that something this passionate and this loved has lasted more than 30 years. We debuted on Broadway 34 years ago this month.

“And I’m so grateful that I can still sing the song and I have something like this that will be mine until I leave this Earth.”

Released off of the musical’s soundtrack, the single earned her the Grammy Award in 1983 for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, besting such competitors as Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross.

Unlike many performers, she didn’t have a passion for the stage when she was young. In fact, she couldn’t even carry a tune.

Years of ear, nose and throat problems had her more attuned to school books than music sheets while growing up in Houston, Texas.

“I loved school. I really thought I was going into politics. (Former Texas senator) Barbara Jordan was my hero. That was my initial ambition as a young girl,” she said.

However at 12 years old, an operation to remove her tonsils changed the course of her life.

“I happened to be at my mother’s church choir rehearsal one day singing along and some people said, ‘Wow you can sing.’ I said ‘Can I?’ ” she recalled.

Years of singing in church choirs and as a soloist followed until one day a member of the touring cast of “A Chorus Line” attended her Houston church and heard her sing. He suggested she immediately head to New York and start auditioning for Broadway shows.

“My mother encouraged me to go. I graduated high school a year early and she was worried that I was becoming a bookworm. She thought it was a good idea that I go and see what it’s all about and if it didn’t work out, I’d still have time for college,” she recalled.

“Well, I never made it to college.”

At age 19, she got a starring role in a Broadway production of “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,” which led to her role in “Dreamgirls.”

After her Broadway days, her solo hits included “I Am Love,” “I’m on Your Side” and “No Frills Love.”

After her star faded due to what she blames as a lack of interest in R&B music, she fell into a period of clinical depression, bankruptcy and even a suicide attempt in 1990.

In an effort to get healthy, she lost 200 pounds through a combination of diet and a gastric bypass operation. But producers, who knew her mostly because of her large size during her Broadway days refused to employ her.

“Most of the time I had to sing “And I’m Telling You” before we could start the audition because they didn’t believe it was me,” she said.

Even David E. Kelley, writer and producer of “Ally McBeal,” was hesitant to hire her even after searching her out for a role in the show.

“I had been out of work for three years and desperately needed the job. I got a call from David’s office one day asking me to clarify if I was really the Jennifer Holliday from ‘Dreamgirls’ and if I had lost weight. I said I was down to a size 8. The woman told me that David was looking for the old Jennifer,” she said.

“I told her I really needed the job and would do it for free it was necessary. A few days later they told me I had gotten the job.”

Just as that role brought her new fans, so too did the “Dreamgirls” movie although she wasn’t cast in it.

Again, her signature song was the key as she performed it in 2007 on the BET Awards with Ms. Hudson and again on “American Idol” in 2012.

“It really did open me up to a younger audience who started Googling me to see what I was all about. I think at one point I was being Googled 10,000 times a day,” she said.

“Before Jennifer Hudson sang the song, many young people didn’t realize someone else sang it. Although I don’t think of myself as an antique, people don’t realize that I was so young when I was on Broadway and I feel lucky to be discovered by so many young people today.”

During her days on “Ally McBeal,” she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and has been a fierce advocate for those with the disability.

She says these days her condition is in remission.

“It’s a very unpredictable illness. A lot of people don’t know much about it and we don’t have a cure for it. I have to avoid stress, eat right and exercise. But right now I’m in a good place,” she said.

Along with a performance by Ms. Hudson, the President’s Ball will consist of a cocktail hour, dinner, dancing and a live and silent auction.

It will be hosted by Aaron Spears from the reality show “Being Mary Jane” and a DSU alumnus.

For tickets, visit www.desu.edu/psb or call (302) 857-6055.

‘Snoopy’s Holiday Surprise’

The Centre Ice Rink at Delaware State Fair in Harrington is ushering in the holidays with Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang in “Snoopy’s Holiday Surprise,” to be presented at 6 p.m. today and 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday.

“Snoopy’s Holiday Surprise” features an original holiday story choreographed with a variety of familiar music including well-known “Peanuts” piano themes.

Approximately 70 local skaters of all ages and levels including Bay County Figure Skating Club members as well as students and coaches from the rink’s skating programs will perform.

The show also will feature previews of 1st State Ice Theatre’s competitive programs for the 2015-2016 season, which will culminate in competing at Theatre on Ice Nationals in Alabama in June. Coached by Jerry Santoferrara and Tom Harrison, 1st State Ice Theatre has an adult team and an open team.

Tickets cost $10 for adults and $8 for children, with free admission for children younger than 2. Tickets will be available at the door. To purchase advance tickets, or for more information, call (302) 398-5900.

Picara, Hot Breakfast!

Noelle Picara and Hot Breakfast! will perform during an ’80s-themed night at Cooldog Concerts Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

Suggested donation for the house concert is $15 per person and $12 for ages 10 to 18 and active military.

Ms. Picara began playing the piano as a toddler and later pursued an education in classical voice before breaking out as a singer/songwriter. She walked a long and thorny path through child sexual abuse, drugs, alcohol and depression.

Inspired by Tori Amos, P.J. Harvey and Ani Difranco, she works to be a warrior in the battlefield of the mind: to expose corruption and lies, to give voice to the voiceless and to inspire the beaten-down to crawl, walk, run and then fly.

Jill Knapp and Matt Casarino of Hot Breakfast! first bonded in 2002 over a shared love of hopelessly outdated 16K computers and dorky wordplay. They started making mu-sic a few months later.

Their new album “The Big Reveal” was recently released.

For more information, visit www.cooldogconcerts.com.

Now showing

New this weekend in theaters is the holiday horror-comedy “Krampus” and the drama about Mother Teresa, “The Letters.”

On DVD and download starting Tuesday is the animated “Minions” and Paul Rudd superhero film “Ant-Man.”

Reach features editor Craig Horleman at chorl@newszap.com

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