At 92, late-starting Reiner still keeps the joint jumpin'

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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

That wonderful singer Estelle Reiner has lived in the same Los Angeles house for 45 years. The paintings she did when she was growing up in the Bronx hang on the walls, her five grandchildren come calling, she's got her John Pizzarelli albums on, and it's quite a nice life, isn't it?

"Yeah, it is," she says. "I have nothing to complain about." She pauses, using her timing. "But that doesn't stop me."

It was her painting avocation, she feels, that kept her from a singing career until after she moved to the coast and turned 65.

"I didn't see myself as a performer," she says. "I'm kinda, I'm a very regular person, and I didn't have a desire to stand out in that way. But I was very musical."

Tonight at the Gardenia in West Hollywood, she will demonstrate that talent as she socks it to 'em with her deftly chosen repertoire of gems from the great American songbook.

She's 92, born in June 1914, so she was in her 20s when a lot of them were written. This has left her with a generation-spanning slant on such numbers as "The Joint Is Jumpin'," written by Andy Razaf and Fats Waller in 1938.

She actually swings when she does this one, honest, with bass player Chuck Berghoffer and pianist Tom Garvin rolling along beside her. When she whips out the fast-moving lyrics, "check your weapons at the door, be sure to pay your quarter, burn your leather on the floor, grab anybody's daughter," you can hear every word, and you can imagine that she might very well have been at the rent party she's describing.

Coming from the wife of Carl Reiner, the mother of Rob Reiner and the friend of Mel Brooks and his wife, the late Anne Bancroft, "Get your pig feet, bread and gin, there's plenty in the kitchen!" has a convincing ring.

It was Bancroft who got it all started, the singer recalls.

"She was studying directing at AFI and she had two half-hour television shows to do," she says. "She asked me if I would act in one. I had never, never acted before. ...

"So I did it and she liked what I did, and she wrote a movie called 'Fatso' (produced in 1980 by Brooks' Brooksfilms). She gave me a big part in it, and that was the beginning. I was getting out of the house, and I went over to 20th Century Fox, 10 minutes away, and I worked with adults, and I loved it. So I said, 'Gee, I really oughta learn how to do this,' " she says.

"So I started taking acting lessons," Reiner goes on. (These served her well when she delivered the line "I'll have what she's having" in "When Harry Met Sally ... .") "But before long I realized, once I was up on my feet, that what I really know how to do is sing. Even though I wasn't a singer, I knew I could do it," she adds.

OK, sure. Highly unlikely, but wait!

"So I went to Phil Moore (the legendary voice coach)," Reiner says, "and I studied performance, you know, just getting up in front of the class and singing. I studied with him and his wife for about two years, and then that was it, I became a professional.

"The first outing was in the Valley at Le Cafe, and I'll never forget it because I was getting over a cold and I had this condition where I couldn't hear my voice," she says. "So I called somebody to come and back me up, Ruth Price. I said, 'Put your eyelashes on and come in case I can't do it.' "

But she could and she did.

"I sang a few songs, and it was pretty, uh, not great. And I said to the people -- and I had a lot of celebrities there -- I said, 'I'm sure you didn't come here to hear this voice, do you want me to continue?' And they all wanted me to continue. And my voice sorta crept back a little bit, and they liked what I did with the songs."

Which is pretty much what happens when she sings at the Gardenia, wringing tears, cheer, giggles and so forth from numbers such as "Blue Skies," "The Lady's in Love With You," the poignant "What'll I Do" and her pal Brooks' witty composition "I'm Tired."

She seems to get as much of a kick out of the night as the audience does, and likes to end it all up with another Fats Waller pearl, which advises:

Find out what they like, and how they like it, and let 'em have it just that way.
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