Volunteers are working overtime to prepare tiny Espenschied Chapel in Mascoutah for a concert by folk icon Judy Collins.
They’re renting a Steinway grand piano, hiring professional sound and light technicians, planning a healthy meal for Collins and her two-person entourage, gathering requested items for her dressing room and doing lots of cleaning and sprucing up.
“We can hardly believe that it’s happening, just because we’re fans, and she’s such a big star,” said Jeanne Bullard, 66, president of Mascoutah Cemetery Chapel, Inc., a non-profit organization that operates the 100-seat concert and wedding venue. “When I was in high school, I practically wore out one of her records. I played it every day.”
Collins, 79, will take the stage at 7 p.m. Dec. 2. Tickets cost $150. About 20 are still available.
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The Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, author and activist has been performing for nearly six decades. She recently toured the United States with Stephen Stills, formerly of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Their venues ranged from amphitheaters to wineries and casinos.
“It’s all doable,” Collins said Wednesday in a phone interview from her home in New York. “It’s all wonderful. Whether it’s 500 people or 5,000, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about performing. I love it.”
Espenschied organizers found Collins’ requests for accommodations and equipment reasonable.
The 1928 chapel already has a square grand piano that’s been refurbished, but it dates back to the mid-1800s. Collins asked for a Steinway, which cost nearly $900 to rent from a St. Louis music store.
“I didn’t know this until I read her bio, but she was on track to be a concert pianist before she fell in love with folk music,” Bullard said.
The $150 ticket price is the highest ever charged at the chapel, but organizers didn’t think it was out of line, considering Collins’ legendary status, the intimate setting and higher-than-normal production costs. They charged $100 for Arlo Guthrie in 2007.
The Collins concert isn’t expected to be a big money-maker, but that’s not the organization’s goal.
“We take on these big shows is to do something great for the community and to bring more folks to the chapel, which is all part of our mission to keep it in use,” Bullard said.
Wardrobe assistant and healthy meal
Espenschied has hosted about 50 concerts in the past 13 years, including a few national acts such as Guthrie, Melanie, Ronnie Cox, Tom Rush and Geoff Muldaur. Collins was the first to request a wardrobe assistant. Cathy Hort volunteered for the job.
Hort, 59, of Mascoutah, is a chapel supporter who works in accounting for a property management company. She’s also a seamstress.
“(Collins) seems very down to earth,” she said. “I’ve done quite a bit of research on her. I listened to her sing and watched a bunch of old documentaries on YouTube. I just wanted to understand her and get a feel for her as person. I wanted to be prepared.”
Hort is bringing her parents, Maurice Riely, 82, and Opal Riely, 90, to the concert. They are big Collins admirers.
Hort isn’t exactly sure what her wardrobe duties will entail, but she’s prepared to help the singer in any way she can.
“I’m excited,” she said. “It’s not very often that you get the opportunity to work one-on-one with someone who is famous and so well-respected in the arts.”
Espenschied didn’t have a dressing room until last year, when the organization built a $300,000 addition that also includes a reception area and handicap-accessible bathrooms. For Collins, volunteers equipped the dressing room with an ironing board, steamer and wooden partition with mirrors.
Collins and her entourage will be eating a meal after arriving at the chapel. Volunteers and cousins Kay Connolly and Nancy Larson are in charge of preparing it.
“(Collins) had some specific requests, but to be honest, I was surprised that she wasn’t more particular,” said Connolly, 66, of Mascoutah, a retired occupational therapist.
Collins asked for a healthy meal with roasted chicken, vegetables, a mixed-green salad with choice of balsamic vinaigrette or light ranch dressing, a fruit-based dessert and fresh-brewed, unsweetened ice tea. She also wants fresh fruit in her dressing room.
The contract specifies that the meal be served with real dishes and utensils. Connolly plans to use her Christmas china on a red tablecloth. She’ll get fruit pies at Eckert’s Country Store.
“I think it would be nice to introduce her to something local, and my family loves their pies,” Connolly said.
Keeping fit with exercise, no grains
Collins has released or collaborated on 50 albums. She’s known for her interpretations of traditional and contemporary folk standards, as well as original compositions.
The singer and musician first gained international acclaim for her 1967 rendition of the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now.” Her version of Stephen Sondheim’s ballad “Send in the Clowns” won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1975. She has had several Top 10 hits and gold and platinum albums.
Her books include “Sanity & Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength,” “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music” and most recently “Cravings: How I Conquered Food,” described as a “no-holds-barred account of her harrowing struggle with compulsive overeating, and the journey that led her to a solution.”
“She is a modern-day Renaissance woman who is also an accomplished painter, filmmaker, record-label head, musical mentor and an in-demand keynote speaker for mental health and suicide prevention,” according to her bio. “She continues to create music of hope and healing that lights up the world and speaks to the heart.”
Collins performs about 130 concerts a year. She has appeared three times at the Wildey Theatre in Edwardsville, which seats about 300 people.
How does a 79-year-old keep up the pace of show business?
“I eat well,” she said in Wednesday’s phone interview. “I work hard, but I sleep well. I exercise every day for the most part. I meditate. I don’t drink. I don’t eat any crap.”
Her home exercise equipment includes a stationary bike, treadmill and mini trampoline. When staying in hotels, she runs around her rooms and does crunches and stretches. That helps her stay at a slim 119 pounds, along with a diet that excludes sugar, flour, corn or wheat.
Collins always has been a social activist. At recent concerts, she’s been singing her original song “Dreamers” about the plight of immigrants and asylum seekers in America.
“I’m just depressed and terribly upset,” she said about the current U.S. debate on immigration. “We have dug ourselves in a terrible hole. We have to realize that we all came from somewhere else.”
Audiences at Collins’ concerts generally expect to hear “Both Sides Now,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Someday Soon” and “Amazing Grace,” and she includes at least two of the four. She also likes to tell stories.
“I have a good time, and I make people laugh,” she said. “That’s the best part for me.”