FROM THE HEART - JOHN DENVER'S LEAVING ON A JET PLANE
A Bite of 'Sliced Bread' - by Rosemary Phillips
Harrison Baths and Swimming Pool sits quietly on Stephanie Street,
a side road off busy Queen Street West in Toronto. I met Art Dufresne,
the manager and swim coach, at a Ryerson swim team party (in 1971),
and when I mentioned I was looking for a job he offered me a part-time
position as cashier and towel attendant.
This unique one-of-a-kind facility, run by the City of Toronto,
doubled up as a swimming pool and bathhouse. Apart from all the
children in the neighbourhood who came for fun, or for swim training,
and adults who came for their exercise, there were those who came
in from the street to have a shower or soak in a tub. These men
lived in the alleyways, cellars, on park benches, or anyplace they
could call home. Some came regularly, once a week, like one old
fellow who said, "I'm gonna die one day. I wanna die clean."
Over the months I got to know some of the folks and on one particularly
cold Saturday afternoon I noticed that one of the regulars hadn't
been in. "I was fine," he replied when asked about it
the next week. "I found a warm place to stay for a while, under
a building, so I decided not to come out."
Christmas was a particularly hard time for these folk. In the doorway
we had a Christmas tree covered in bright decorations and lights.
One old patron stood looking at the tree and his eyes filled with
tears. "My family won't accept me," he sighed. "I
chose this way of life, and because I live on the streets they won't
let me come near them."
One Sunday afternoon, when I was getting ready to open up the doors
for the public, a short dark slender woman, dressed for the cold
weather and wearing black from head to foot, walked by me pulling
a shopping cart as she came out of the change room. Her drawn face
was covered with a protective layer of gel, and her finely arched
black eyebrows shone. I hadn't met her before so Art introduced
us. "This is Gloria Ferrer. She comes in early on Sundays to
swim lengths in the pool before the children come in and crowd her
We chatted for a while, then Glo mentioned that she taught singing
in a studio on Yonge Street. At hearing this I told her of my own
secret passion to sing.
"Why don't you come and have a few lessons?" she suggested.
"I have a special rate for students."
"I'd love to," I replied, "but I'm scheduled for
a tonsillectomy over the Christmas Holidays. I've been getting a
lot of sore throats and colds, and at times can barely talk, never
"Well, when your throat is better, give me a call. We'll test
it out," she laughed as she headed out through the door and
into the cold white wintry street.
It was quite a while before I felt comfortable enough to phone
Glo and book a lesson. I was nervous about taking this step forward,
to actually do something about that which I so enjoyed and yet was
so shy about. In no time Glo had me bouncing all over her studio
on the rough woven floor mats, dancing my way through the sun's
rays as they poured through the windows overlooking Yonge Street,
while I sang scales and fun vocal exercises. Glo encouraged me on
as she sat buoyantly behind her grand piano and played scales for
me to sing and waved her arms in time.
She had me prepare a song
of my own choice for a get-together with all of her singers. Here
I met professionals, including members of the cast of Hair which
had just finished playing at the Royal Alex Theatre. Some of her
students were preparing for auditions for Godspell the next major
musical, and others were practicing with bands that were going on
tour. I was intimidated. My first song in front of these people
was a soprano ballad from My Fair Lady. It sounded really flat,
without feeling and energy, and was basically a very uncomfortable
At my next lesson Glo handed me some music, and said, "Here,
try this one."
It was John Denver's 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' as recorded
by Peter, Paul and Mary. It was a big hit on the charts and Glo
figured that I could sink myself into it. While we were rehearsing
she said, "I can teach you all the technique in the world but
it won't help the song. You have to sing from the heart, and feel
each word, each line, and live the story. Then the voice will follow."
At that time I was experiencing my first real romantic heart break.
The pain was compounded by my feelings of loneliness, the frustrations
I had experienced with my thesis work at Ryerson, and by the sadness
I felt for the street people who frequented Harrison Baths. I put
all those feelings into the song, and imagined myself standing beside
someone, telling them that I was leaving, that it hurt, and that
I didn't want to be alone. The end result was nothing like Peter,
Paul and Mary's recording. I slowed the tempo down before the last
verse and could actually feel myself crying as I choked out the
last chorus, then finished the song with a soulful plea.
At our next Sunday gathering I sat on an old chair in front of
my fellow singers who occupied bleachers on the other side of the
room. We were in an old dance studio that had wooden floors, grab
bars, and huge windows that were ablaze with golden sunlight. I
propped my guitar up on my knee and began to sing and play. My voice
reverberated all over the room and the guitar strings hummed. I
closed my eyes as I came to the end of the song and felt the tears
on my cheeks. When I finished I opened my eyes and through blurred
vision saw tear streaked faces on my peers in the bleachers. The
song had worked.
Glo then arranged for me to take the song to audition for Godspell.
When I went for my initial interview I shook with nervousness, and
the interviewer, who had welcomed me so warmly, said, "Do you
realize that your voice has come down a full octave from when you
first came through the door." He explained how when we are
nervous our voices go very high, then as we relax they come down
to our normal voice range. He then booked me in for an audition
at the Masonic Hall for the next week.
In addition to singing a song I needed to work out a mime to the
parable of the Good Samaritan. Here was my downfall. The only mime
I had done was of my own creation in high school. I had no formal
training. I did my best in creating some form of dance and movement
to the story.
Upon arriving at the hall I stood alongside many others who were
getting ready for their audition, some warming up and doing stretching
exercises, others preparing their voices. My insides were in turmoil
because I didn't feel I belonged, after all, I was a student of
interior design, not a professional musician and performer. I loved
going to the theatre and had a secret passion and dream to be a
part of it, but it was a world I was totally unfamiliar with, and
therefore most shy about.
When I was called for my turn I took my guitar up on stage and
sang 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' and while remembering
Glo's instructions, sang passionately from the heart. The adjudicators
let me sing the whole song then asked for my presentation on the
parable. Here I failed miserably and knew it, and shyly left the
A couple of Glo's students made it to the cast of Godspell, joining
the likes of Gilda Radner and Martin Short. I did finally get to
see the production and wondered what might have happened with my
life had I felt more secure in my talent, dreams and passions and
projected more confidence in my audition and really seized the opportunity.
Life would certainly have taken a different turn. Who knows?
I returned to being an interior design student, and moved on with
life's many twists and turns. Now when I perform 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' I close my eyes and imagine Glo beside me,
prodding me on, saying, "Feel it, from the heart."