Singing every night 'a wonderful job'

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2012 - 1:27 PM

Helen Rice

Helen Rice of Minneapolis saw it all as a gifted soprano: performing on Broadway, mingling among stage stars -- with a little bit of murder and devoted love thrown in.

Rice, who during 10 years away from Minnesota chased and caught her dream of singing on Broadway and at Carnegie Hall, died Monday in Minneapolis after recent complications from surgery. She was 89.

Adam Walker, Rice's son who embraced being her biographer, recalled in his writings of when he and his sister, Anne, would eavesdrop on his mother tutoring voice students at the family's East Isles home in Minneapolis.

"Anne and I certainly knew that very, very few of our mother's students had voices anything like hers," wrote Walker, who also merged his writings with a CD set of Rice's music.

"This was the truth, not merely the opinions of her devoted children," he continued. "There has always been a scintillating, crystalline quality to her sound, a type of purity that reaches right to one's core."

After graduating in 1945 with a sociology degree from the University of Minnesota, Rice moved to New York City with ambitions of making it big. Her most notable credits in her nine years in New York included performing the entire 1,000-show Broadway run of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate" as a chorus member and understudy.

Socialized with the stars

She also was in "Wonderful Town," which starred Rosalind Russell, boasted a score by Leonard Bernstein and was directed by Broadway legend George Abbott. The show opened to rave reviews, earned five Tonys and played more than 500 performances.

In a 2001 interview with the Star Tribune, Rice recalled a jaw-dropping experience after accepting Abbott's invitation to his Long Island estate.

"It was like something out of F. Scott Fitzgerald," she said. "Mr. Abbott really liked young women, whereas Lenny Bernstein liked men and women. Everybody had the hots for him."

She described Russell as "very lady-like. She knew who she was, and she also knew exactly how she was going to be photographed. When I sang my Carnegie recital, she sent me a nice note."

Asked whether a long run on Broadway could get boring, Rice responded, "It's a job, and a wonderful job. Also, you're in front of a live audience every night. How boring can it be?"

And then there were the unexpected events, she said. The wife of one of the show's leading men became deranged and murdered their child, and the father, obviously a real trouper, went onstage that night anyway. A chorus girl, Florence Forsberg, with whom Rice shared a dressing room, also was murdered. Her naked body was found in her Manhattan apartment.

Family, career in Minnesota

Following Rice to New York from the Twin Cities was Arnold Walker, who was pursuing similar artistic ambitions as a baritone and who would eventually become her husband.

Adam Walker, in an admittedly loose paraphrase, said that the couple returned to Minneapolis in 1954 after his father said to his future mother: "'Well, Helen, I'm going back to Minneapolis. You coming with me?'"

Back home, Rice "befriended and was a close friend of a number of composers who had their roots in the Midwest," Adam Walker said, pointing specifically to Eric Stokes and Paul Fetler. "She loved nothing more than to dig into and reveal new music in the Upper Midwest."

Rice quickly became an in-demand classical singer and teacher in the region, appearing in operas and operettas and performing as a soloist with orchestras in Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead and Minneapolis.

While raising two children, she sang leading roles with St. Paul Civic Opera, appeared more than 20 times with the Minnesota Orchestra and served for 20 years as chief soloist at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church.

Along with son Adam and daughter Anne Langaard, Helen Rice is survived by her husband, Arnold W. Walker. A memorial service has been scheduled for 11 a.m. April 21 at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, 900 Mount Curve Av., Minneapolis.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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