by Len Lear
Imagine a career of 64 years performing for the public because there is no way even the FBI could tie you down to a 9-to-5 desk job. That is the story of Glenside singer Freyda Thomas, who first stepped onto a stage at age 12 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 in an earlier interview.
Thomas, who does a Broadway musical comedy act, mostly in retirement communities throughout the Delaware Valley and parts of Florida, told us last week she “was not meant for the type of work where you go to the same place every day and interact with the same people. (Teaching doesn’t count because the students change all day and every year, and I loved them all.) … That said, I applaud and admire anyone and everyone who enjoys the security and stability of going to the same place every day, doing the same things and keeping the American machine well-oiled and running smoothly. I prefer to entertain them when they want to go out somewhere and relax.”
Like everyone else, however, Thomas’ life and career have been somewhat altered because of the omnipresent coronavirus scare. “I have now had two jobs cancelled, one in Florida and one in PA. Most places are just asking us to stay three to six feet from the audience, no hugging or shaking hands. I have three more gigs between today (March 12) and March 19, when I head north to the auto-train to return home. I will sport an N-95 mask and gloves to sit in the waiting room with my fellow travelers, and I’m taking sanitary wipes to go over my room when I board the train.”
Born and raised in Oxford Circle, Thomas came into her own in the 1960s, 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 (She later earned an M.F.A. from California Institute of the Arts at the age of 59!), 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.”
Freyda also taught French at Penn State, Ursinus College and La Salle University, and French and English at JFK High School in Willingboro, NJ. 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.
To date, Thomas 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.”
If she had her life to live over again, would Thomas still be a performer? “I would not want to be anything else, but since I strongly believe in reincarnation, I would say the Dalai Lama has a great job, although I’m not spiritually evolved enough yet to tackle that one. He calls himself a professional laugher, and his job is to love everyone on the planet. Tough these days!”
What is the best advice Thomas was ever given: ‘“A sense of humor and a happy smile are a joy to behold. You have both of these: value them.’ That was given to me by my 9th grade English teacher in a note when my family was about to uplift us to move back to Philly from Levittown. I was 14 and not at all happy about the change.”
For more information, email Freyda1262@gmail.com. Constance Garcia-Barrio contributed to this article. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com