by Constance Garcia-Barrio
At age 12, Glenside singer Freyda Thomas strutted onto a stage at a Montgomery County country club in a prom gown and belted out “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Her father, Eddie Shaw, whose popular band played in Philadelphia for many years, had invited her to perform. “I still remember the chills up and down my spine as the trumpets, saxes and trombones blared behind me,” said Thomas, now 74.
That spring night marked the start of a career in entertainment that has blazed for more than six decades and, besides singing, includes acting gigs on “Murphy Brown” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Thomas was also recently profiled on WHYY-TV.
Thomas, who was born Freyda Spiegel and for a time went by the last name Shaw, grew up in a household steeped in music. Her father and his band enlivened local nightspots and private parties for more than 30 years. Her mother sang and played the piano while raising three kids. Her paternal grandmother, a former actress, used to take Thomas to Broadway shows. “When she was dying,” Thomas said, “she had theater tickets in her purse. She made me promise to go see the show, ‘Brigadoon.’”
Mentoring by Thomas’ father helped to ensure her success, but her mixed cultural heritage proved magical, too. “My father was Jewish, and my mother was Christian,” she said. “I’m half-Jewish, so I can tell a good joke, and I’m half-Irish, so I can tell a good story. I do Christmas parties and Hanukah parties; you name it.”
Born and raised in Oxford Circle, Thomas came into her own in the ’60s, a time when Philadelphia became known as a pulse point of American pop music. “You had Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker, not to mention American Bandstand,” she recalls. “Who could have asked for more than to come from a music town?”
After earning a B.A. in French — she spent her junior year in France — and a master’s in French and linguistics, Thomas tried careers ranging from high school French teacher and English teacher to secretary and actress. “I still did occasional singing performances, at least until 1986, when my father died of cancer, but I always did whatever jobs I could find to pay the rent. I discovered that I was not cut out for a 9-to-5 job. I sang on cruise ships that went all over the world. I picked a mango off a tree in Bora-Bora, and I stood on a glacier in Alaska.”
Thomas’ love of French led her to adapt some works by French playwrights. “I had grown familiar with Moliere, considered one of Western literature’s greatest masters of comedy. I felt drawn to adapt one of his plays, ‘Les Femmes Savantes,’ and bring it to New York because it lampoons academic pretension, among other things.” Edith Stapleton (“Edith Bunker” in TV’s “All in the Family”) starred in the resulting play, “Learned Ladies,” premiering in New York in 1991.
Thomas also wrote “The Gamester,” based on “Le Joueur,” a 1698 comedy by Jean-Francois Regnard, a French playwright. She dialed up the humor and added sex to heighten the appeal. To date, she has adapted seven French plays, all of which have been published and produced.
Life has given Thomas good times, but she has weathered tough times as well. “My brother, Eric Spiegel, a brilliant jazz pianist, died of a drug overdose years ago. I also had an early, unsuccessful marriage and two miscarriages during that time. I don’t regret any of it. I hope to go on having fulfilling relationships.”
Thomas’ performances continue to bring joy to many baby boomers. She credits her youngest brother, Marc Shaw, with guiding her to play for seniors and teaching her to use sound equipment. “Last week, I sang at a birthday party for a woman who had turned 107,” Thomas said, “and she got up and danced. I like singing now as much or more than ever.
“I recently sang on a dementia unit in Philly. At first, people were sitting in their wheelchairs with their heads drooping, but when I started singing ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Morning’ and other show tunes, they perked right up. Singing is the best medicine. It heals audiences, but here’s a secret; it heals me, too!”
For more information, email Freyda1262@gmail.com. Constance Garcia-Barrio is a Mt. Airy resident, retired professor of Romance languages at West Chester University and contributor to the Local and other publications. This article is reprinted, with permission, from Milestones, the monthly publication of the Phila. Corporation of Aging.