Debbie Does Holy!
A Diva Returns to Her Catholic School Roots
[Debbie performs "La Vie en Rose" at a benefit for Holy Names High School.]
Imagine this: You are standing on the stage of your old high school, performing 22 songs in front of former classmates, teachers and several hundred others. In the classic nightmare you would be unclothed, but in this version, you get to wear an evening gown and boa. Still scary? Well, apparently not to Debbie de Coudreaux, who dreamed the dream, then made it happen.
Of course, if you had already performed for Queen Elizabeth, Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger, then your high school biology teacher might not be so intimidating. Oakland native de Coudreaux has done all of the above and much more, and she considers Oakland’s Holy Names High School the place that nurtured her inner diva the most. So, on a recent night, she returned to perform a sold-out concert on the stage where, as a senior, she once belted out South Pacific’s “Bali Ha’i.”
Founded in 1868, Holy Names is Oakland’s oldest high school. Its stately granite edifice sits perched in the lower Montclair hills. Tonight, the medieval-styled auditorium of stone and carved wood has been transformed into a cabaret, with candlelit tables skirting the stage.
The evening’s program of show tunes evokes de Coudreaux’s post–high school autobiographical journey, with a heavy emphasis on her eight years in Paris as the headliner at the legendary Moulin Rouge. Only one other American, Josephine Baker, has qualified for that job. It is immediately clear why, as de Coudreaux commands the hall with a supremely expressive voice that effortlessly shifts from passionate to playful, soulful to sassy. A 4.2 earthquake erupting in the middle of one number doesn’t stop the show, but “La Vie En Rose” very nearly brings down the house.
During intermission a gaggle of de Coudreaux’s former classmates and teachers forms in the hallway. Many of them have kept in touch and followed her career since graduation (in a year that can not be divulged, according to diva rules.)
“I remember her as being very flamboyant in the halls,” says classmate Cathy Crosetti. Another friend, Sherrie Cotter, chimes in, “Yes, she was always glamorous,” which was no small feat considering that the school dress code was a white blouse and regulation Hamilton-plaid kilt worn no higher than 3 inches above the knee.
Remembering her very first day as the school’s new biology teacher, Sister JoAnne Quinlivan says of de Coudreaux, “She came right up to me and said, ‘Welcome, Sister. I am here to help you out and make sure you don’t get into any trouble!’ ” Apparently it was de Coudreaux who occasionally got into trouble. “But she was so endearing that she got away with it,” remembers classmate Judy Lamberti.
De Coudreaux differs with her classmates on the glamour part. “I was the biggest dork,” she says. Well, definitely big. By her mid-teens she was already 6 feet tall and, by her account, insecure and awkward. It took Sister Rose Collette, the Holy Names voice coach, to recognize and nurture the chanteuse within.
De Coudreaux got her professional start in Las Vegas revues and, after Paris, went on to star on Broadway, as well as appear in two Robert Altman films. Her biggest supporters, the Holy Names Sisters, are apt to show up wherever de Coudreaux performs. “Even in Vegas!” she says. “I asked them, ‘Do you know what kind of show this is?’ Because it was one of those big shows with topless dancers. But you know, these ladies are very hip. They were just thrilled because one of their students was doing well.”
Despite all that, the song lyrics for tonight’s show were carefully vetted by the school principal beforehand. Only one song got the axe, “In the Streets of Paree.” Surviving the censor was “Speaking French,” a bump-and-grind number about conducting foreign affairs in the native tongue, which had the whole audience singing along to a chorus of “ooh-la-la’s” and “aah! aah! aah’s!”
De Coudreaux, who moved back to Oakland to be with her elderly father, is wistful about having come full circle. “When I first came back, I thought my performing days were over. But I’ve found many opportunities here,” she says. She has performed for Bay Area audiences at the Empire Plush Room and Teatro Zinzanni and as a soloist with the Oakland East Bay Symphony. She is also working on her MFA, in hopes of becoming the kind of teacher who inspired her and set her on her path.
After the show, a benefit for the school, fans throng de Coudreaux. Among them is Sister Ruth Raftrey, who taught French at Holy Names. Decades of teaching have left her a little foggy about specific students, but she diplomatically remembers Debbie as a “good student.” Debbie, however, remembers her high school French career as being less than stellar. She had to scramble to learn colloquial French très vite when, as the new Moulin Rouge star, she found herself plunged into TV and radio interviews. Spotting the diminutive Sister in the crowd, de Coudreaux swoops down to bury her in a big hug. “Vous êtes merveilleux!” gushes Sister Ruth, “C’est un plaisir d’être ici ce soir (You are marvelous! It is a pleasure to be here tonight).”
—By Matt Dibble