Since today is Christmas and the season of joy, albeit socially distanced, I thought I’d share one of my joys of having this space every Friday. Luckily, I often cross paths with some of Santa Monica’s most talented and accomplished citizens. The downside is taking all the highs and lows of their often creative lives and find the writing skill to assemble them into a story that flows. (And hopefully has a few laughs.)
Today’s “featured Santa Monican” is the multi-talented Inga Neilsen, an actress, dancer and singer with movie and TV credits that fill a four-page IMDB resume. Actually Inga lives in Malibu but her husband, Richard (Dick) Orr, was a lifeguard and P.E. teacher here, so Santa Monica is where her heart is. Especially because Inga met Dick, the love of her life, at the beach right next to his lifeguard tower.
As Inga was giving her niece grape juice, Dick casually said, “Do you have anything for a thirsty lifeguard?” It must have been a pretty good pick-up line as they were married for 50 years! (Sadly, Dick passed in 2011 but, even with all her show business success, by far the proudest accomplishment in Inga’s life is her five-decade marriage to Dick and the raising of their son, David.
Handsome and masculine, Dick was a man of few words but had a great sense of humor. Outgoing, Inga could be the life of a party and enjoyed the glamorous part of her life but was equally as happy at home curling up with Dick watching an old movie. Even their physical height matched. Inga was 6’2” in heels, Dick was 6’4” in socks. (And David grew to 6’5 barefoot and, not surprisingly, became a top competitive swimmer!)
Hollywood is also Inga’s town, as when she was only 12 she danced in the 1952 movie, “Scaramouche,” starring Stewart Granger. All these years later, ever energetic Inga has just released online her album “Love Me With All Your Heart” which I’ll get to shortly.
Given Inga’s wonderful life, two expressions come to mind, “location, location, location” and “timing is everything.” For example, when Inga was 7 her financially struggling family lived in a tenement house but fortuitously moved from Chicago to Hollywood. Very soon Inga discovered dreams she didn’t even know she had. But she was exceptionally tall for her age and self conscious about it.
Her family took her to a seemingly insightful doctor who recommended that she consider ballet lessons so she might feel more graceful. That’s where location, location came in as the American School of Dance was very near where Inga lived. And it turned out she possessed exceptional natural talent. So much so the prestigious school offered her a scholarship and ballet became her life.
So it was many years later Inga,because of her vast dance experience, was cast as a featured actress in such films as “Funny Girl,” “Funny Lady,” “A Funny Thing Happened To Me on the Way to the Forum” and dozens of others. (Suffice it to say, they all didn’t have “funny” in the title.)
Though a leg injury ended her ballet dreams, as she grew to 6’ and stunningly beautiful, Inga was often cast as a showgirl, which then led to a career in Las Vegas. In fact four times she was selected as Vegas’ “Showgirl of the Year.” This, along with her ability to play the “dumb blonde” with uncanny wit, resulted in a myriad of TV appearances as the sexy foil opposite the likes of Johnny Carson, George Burns, Rowan and Martin, Dean Martin and the Smothers Brothers, to name but a few.
To promote “Funny Girl” and later “Funny Lady,” Inga, who, remember, at 7 had lived in a tenement, was sent around the world first class to London, Frankfurt, Montreal and Paris and chauffeured everywhere. After films with Dean Martin in Mexico, James Coburn in Jamaica and Zero Mostel in Spain, Dick and David decided they wanted to come along too, and on numerous future trips they did. In fact, because of his he-man looks and swimming skill, it was suggested Dick would be ideal as Tarzan but he passed, “One movie star per house is plenty,” he joked.
That brings us to Inga’s album, “Love Me With All Your Heart.” As renowned arranger and pianist Lee Lovett commented, “Some singers swing, some have a bluesy feeling but Inga does all that and even more. With a big bright sound, she makes the melodies of great songs from the past smolder and the lyrics come alive.”
Inga often appeared at the legendary Palm Springs Follies, the Gardenia Club and the Catalina and post-pandemic hopes to appear live again. Her jazzy, cabaret interpretation of classic numbers from the Great American Songbook, soulfully reveals her heartfelt passion for living and loving.
Inga’s album “Love Me With All Your Heart” is available to sample and purchase at Apple Music, Spotify and all major music stores online. (Type “INGA NEILSEN” in the search field.) To read a beautiful tribute to Inga’s beloved husband Dick, Google “Richard Orr Lifeguard at Will Rogers.” Jack is at: email@example.com and wishes everyone a Merry Christmas, adding “2021 can’t come too soon!”