Liza Minnelli, Mandy Patinkin and Tony Bennett are names that even the most casual music fan would recognize. But Andy Anselmo, the West Side native who made all of them better singers, is a name that even lifelong Western New Yorkers might never have heard before.
That’s about to change.
The Community Music School, long a fixture on Elmwood Avenue and the place where Anselmo got his start, is about to rename itself the Andy Anselmo Center for the Performing Arts.
“Isn’t it exciting?” Anselmo said. “That school just started me off, my career. Everything just worked out perfectly with that school. The teachers, the people at that school, they all got behind me and helped me, got me scholarships and money when I left here. They were just terrific. How can I ever forget that?”
Jennifer Koch, who has been the executive director of the Community Music School since February, sees the school’s new name as a new beginning.
“We really feel changing the name is going to help us rebrand the organization as an elite music school,” she said. “The name ‘Community Music School’ doesn’t convey the level of professionalism and talent that our school has.”
Anselmo recently made a seven-figure commitment to the school, a donation that will spearhead fundraising efforts. He will also be one of the performers at a concert at Canisius College’s Montante Cultural Center at 7 p.m. Jan. 14 – an event that will kick off a campaign that seeks to raise $3.5 million.
In June 2016, money permitting, the school plans to initiate renovations that will increase its visibility from the street. Also in the plans is a performing arts space on the third floor that would seat 150 to 200 people. Ideally, the renovations will be complete by June 2017.
Anselmo has plans for the school. He anticipates inviting singers and teachers from New York to give master classes, and doing everything he can to ensure that what he has learned is passed on.
“My vision of the school is like the vision I had for the New York school, which was to give someone who wants to be a singer all the tools they really need,” he said. “They have to develop their voice and their projection. They had to know how to act, know how to move. All the things that make a musical person work properly.”
The change in the school’s name will certainly raise the name recognition of Anselmo, who is well known in the vocal music community for founding the Singers’ Forum, a famous Manhattan vocal school that he led for decades. He returned to Western New York in 2011 and, at 91, continues to teach and perform.
He first walked into Buffalo’s Community Music School when he was 16.
“It was as if I was home,” he recalled Thursday, emotion in his voice. “There was something about the feeling of the school. It was elegant, and classy, and the people were so wonderful. It was like a whole different world opened up.”
The school sent Anselmo on to the renowned pedagogue, William Whitney, in Boston, Mass. Whitney, who had also taught the great opera diva Eleanor Steber, taught Anselmo centuries-old bel canto techniques.
“I just fell into the place in my first lesson with him,” Anselmo said. “It was uncanny. That was my voice.”
But it was as a teacher that Anselmo discovered his true calling. He found it upon meeting Geraldine Fitzgerald, the actress featured in the 1939 classic “Wuthering Heights.”
“I had a crush on her when I was 14,” he confessed.
Starstruck on meeting the flame-haired Irish actress, who he said was still beautiful, he ended up offering to teach her to sing.
“She was just sweet and we just hit it off,” he explained. “She said nobody would teach her singing because they said she had no voice. I said, ‘I have loved you all my life. And I know I can get you to sing.’ And I did. And she stayed with me for 35 years.”
Fitzgerald, who went on to star in musicals, was Anselmo’s first success. Word got around, and the distinguished acting coach Lee Strasberg asked him to develop the vocal program at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. Anselmo remained in that partnership for 18 years before founding the Singers Forum, in 1978.
Anselmo is one of the musicians included in the Community Music School’s Hall of Fame. Also included in that group are jazz musicians Michael Civisca and Bobby Militello, singer Faith Marion Robinson, “Glee” cast member Jacob Artist, and the late Grammy-winning concert pianist Leonard Pennario.
The school regularly presents free concerts, and Koch hopes that glimpsing them from the street will inspire passers-by to walk in and enjoy. She also imagines that the performing space could be rented to other organizations, thus earning new revenue for the school.
“We’re not ripping off the facade or anything of that nature, but we will be putting on new glass entryway on the first floor,” Koch said of the improvements planned. “We really feel that our building right now doesn’t convey ‘music school,’ There’s a sign, but for some reason people don’t see it. We would like to develop the front of the building to engage with the walkable Elmwood community and provide a space that can be seen into, so people walking down Elmwood can see what’s going on.”
This will not be the school’s first name change. Founded in 1924, the school was originally named the First Settlement Music School. In addition to its flagship location at 415 Elmwood Ave., there are five satellite locations, in Lockport, Clarence, Amherst, East Aurora and the Larkin Building in Buffalo.
Anselmo, meanwhile, said he is looking forward to the January concert.
“I’ve started to warm up and vocalize,” he laughed.
Tickets to the Jan. 14 concert at the Montante Center are $40. VIP tickets are $100 and include premium seating and post-event reception/birthday party for Anselmo, whose birthday is three days later.
For tickets or information, call the school, 884-4887.