This article was written by James Brannan, the president of PEPS, as part of The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon.
“Hello, Jim! I’m Michael!” I had buzzed the call box on the outside gate of a lovely home in a coastal town about an hour south of Los Angeles. The gate had opened, and I’d followed the brick path to the front steps. The door flew open, and there stood the one and only Broadway luminary, Michael Crawford! With a charming smile on his face, he greeted me enthusiastically and welcomed me in.
Now that I’ve got your attention, let me explain how I ended up walking through the front door of the iconic leading man of The Phantom of the Opera. As the owner of a property management company in a Southern California beach town which shall remain unnamed, I occasionally had the privilege of being under the employ of celebrity personalities, such as Vicki Lawrence of The Carol Burnett Show fame and former California Governor George Deukmajian. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined meeting, much less working for the Phantom!
I had provided housecleaning and window washing for a retired clothier and his wife who owned the above mentioned home. They sold the home and no longer needed my services, but shortly thereafter I received a call from their daughter. “Jim, you’ll never guess who bought Mom and Dad’s home!” Well, with the exciting news about the new owner, and being ever the opportunist, I went straight over. It was a rainy day, and no-one answered the doorbell. I scrawled a note introducing myself as having worked for the former owners and slid it under the mat. My hopes were slim as I drove away, imagining the blurred note floating down the curb toward a storm drain and eventually out to sea.
Several months later, I received a call from an unidentified woman asking me to come give a cleaning estimate at none other than the Phantom’s address! Which brings us back to the front door greeting in my opener. Once in the front door, Michael cheerfully showed me the layout of the home and gave instructions. “Jim, you’ll find the Hoovah in that closet, and cleaning supplies in the GA-rage.” He spoke to me like an old school chum. Think of it. I was hired and welcomed into the international superstar’s lair without having been investigated one iota. I was there merely on the assurance of the prior owners’ word, along with my name and number scribbled on a soggy note placed under a wet doormat. (I clung to one hope; Phantoms are great respecters of NOTES. Even soppy ones!) These days I would have had a background check and been researched inside out, backward and forward. By the way, this was the year 2000. People still trusted people.
Now, about Michael’s home and what I found inside. I was frankly surprised by the modesty of the home, for a rich and famous Phantom, that is. It was a two-story Cape Cod style with a swimming pool. (I would soon discover Michael to be an avid swimmer.) If not overly dazzled by the house itself, the treasures I would dust and polish on the inside
were beyond amazing! His bedroom upstairs was about what you would expect. The wardrobe was neat and ordered with a fine collection of suits and casual outfits. He had a dressing table with assorted men’s cologne and grooming things. Once when working downstairs, I heard him rehearsing there, singing high scales with his lovely Irish Tenor instrument. He may even have been rehearsing “Baby Mine,” which he would sing as a special feature on the 60th anniversary edition of Dumbo, released by Disney in 2001.
But, I digress. A passage from his master bedroom led to a loft area which was a library
with a desk, overlooking the living room. He had play bills from his many Broadway and film successes posted on the walls. I also dusted and straightened many personalized pictures from famous friends, including a picture of Barbara Streisand, signed by her with a very personal greeting. They appeared together in the 1969 picture Hello, Dolly! and evidently remained close.
I know it sounds like I was snooping a bit. Well, I was! Wouldn’t you? Now, to the two most interesting rooms in the house, the downstairs powder room and the mask room. First, the powder room. Why, you may ask, would a powder room be so interesting? On the walls of Michael’s powder room were framed cartoons from the London Times. They mainly poked fun, but very admiringly, at Michael’s tenacity at fulfilling his duties as Phantom, even to the point of checking himself out of the hospital wearing a truss for a hernia to make the matinee at Her Majesty’s Theater! One cartoon showed him onstage in full costume on a gurney with an IV drip, attended by a nurse! The copy on this particular cartoon described how Michael responded when asked why he would risk his life to make the afternoon show. He responded, “There was a dear lady who flew all the way from Japan for the matinee show, expecting to see Michael Crawford as the Phantom. How could I let her down?”
Before I get to the mask room, I should mention that I ran across a scrap book which contained material describing Michael’s fortunes. The book was comprised of news clips showing how the lion’s share of his vast earnings benefited numerous charities. This came as no surprise to me given the fact that he wouldn’t let a mere hernia disappoint the lady from Japan!
Now, to the mask room. In hindsight, I wish I had taken pictures of Michael’s amazing
mask collection. Then again, it would have been a betrayal of trust. I am thankful that phones with cameras weren’t common back then. The temptation might have been too great. So, I will have to rely entirely on my memory of the masks. It has been eighteen years, so I can only recall a few. The room itself was a sitting room with lit display cabinets with glass shelves lining the walls. On the shelves were a collection of Phantom
masks and bronze mask statuettes sent to Michael from various people in the industry. One mask statuette was obviously from someone at Disney. It was a bronze Mickey Mouse in a full dress suit, wearing a Phantom mask. There were many others, even one from Gene Kelly who directed Michael in Hello, Dolly!. One thing is for sure; I was very careful when dusting these precious, irreplaceable keepsakes!
On September 11, 2001, terror struck the world, and people stopped trusting people. Our first daughter, Tiffany, was born on August 19, 2001. I recall Michael congratulating me with a gift and saying he loved the name Tiffany. Twenty two days after Tiffany entered the world, the planes exploded, and the age of terror had arrived. Just a few days after the towers came down, I was scheduled to clean for Michael. I remember entering and seeing him at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, obviously distraught about the terrorist attack. I made myself scarce and went about my work but couldn’t help overhearing his discussion with a close friend. Michael had been cast in the role of Count von Krolock in the musical Dance of the Vampires. Apparently he was scheduled to fly to New York later in September to join the creative team, many of whom were located in London. Due to massive flight cancellations, the plans for the production were postponed indefinitely.
After that, I didn’t see Michael much on my visits to his house. I do recall on one occasion handing him a copy of my wife, Terri’s, sacred flute recording, Just a Faithful Step. He was genuinely moved and thankful but couldn’t leave the favor un-returned. He went upstairs and got a CD copy of his spiritual album On Eagle’s Wings. It was one of his personal copies with no cover or print on the disc. I will always treasure it.
Now, my opinion about Michael Crawford’s voice. Without Mr. Crawford, Lord Lloyd Webber would not be half the success he is today. Of course, the dramatic opening organ music Webber put together strongly identifies The Phantom of the Opera. But, play a recording of Michael Crawford’s sweet and haunting rendition of “Music of the Night” on any corner of the globe, and people immediately think Phantom! My absolute favorite setting of Michael’s “Music of the Night” is with Olympic Gold Medalist Brian Boitano skating to it. YouTube can provide various videos of this, but there is one clip in particular I cherish; I wish there were a link right here for you to click. The setting is outside on a frozen pond, perhaps in Russia, but I can’t remember. Searching the internet, I can’t locate the footage, but Brian gently skates with Michael’s voice and the orchestra. The song’s climax is driven home by Brian doing his famous death spiral. If any of our readers know where this moment can be found, please share it with us!
I worked for the Phantom. I am proud to say I was his friend and hope he is well. Michael, on the slim chance you read this piece, forgive me if I got the facts wrong or said too much. Just know that I will always remember you as a swell chap and a true gentleman. It’s about time you became Sir Michael!
Beware of more articles over the next three days!
Come back in October for the third year of our annual Code celebration, The Third Annual Breening Blogathon! It is running from October 11-14 in honor of Joseph I. Breen’s 131st birthday. Whether you want to breen a film, review a new Code movie, or analyze some aspect of the years when Hollywood was governed by the Code, this is your chance to write about the topics which we always cover. What are your thoughts on the Code? This is your chance to play PCA-member or pretend that you are a member of PEPS. Let’s make this our most successful blogathon yet!
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