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Debby King, 71, backstage aide known as 'soul of Carnegie Hall,' dies
A photo provided by Carengie Hall shows Debby King, the music venue’s artist liason, embracing the conductor Riccardo Muti after his final concert at Carnegie Hall as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra on May 4, 1992. King, who worked one of the more rarefied jobs in New York showbiz and acted as a one-night personal assistant to the maestros, soloists and artists who performed at Carnegie Hall, died on Sept. 20, 2021, at a hospital in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. She was 71. Steve J. Sherman/Carnegie Hall via The New York Times.

by Alex Vadukul

NEW YORK, NY.- Paparazzi, fans and police officers filled the street outside Carnegie Hall in New York City one fall day in 1987, waiting for Frank Sinatra to arrive for a show. Inside, a backstage attendant named Debby King was on edge, worried about Sinatra’s reputation for being difficult.

As Carnegie Hall’s artist liaison, King worked one of the more rarefied jobs in New York showbiz. Like a one-night personal assistant, she was responsible for taking care of the maestros, soloists and artists who performed there, and she doted on everyone, whether Itzhak Perlman or Sting, Audra McDonald or André Previn.

When Sinatra arrived, his limousine inching through the crowd, King went to fetch him. He lowered his car window.

“You can’t sing from the limo,” she said. “Do you plan on coming out?”

“I’m coming out,” he said.

He stepped out.

“You’re not that tall,” she said.

“Shh,” he replied. “Don’t tell everybody.”

They started laughing, and King escorted him to his dressing room, where she had prepared provisions including a bottle of Chivas Regal, chilled jumbo shrimp and Tootsie Rolls. She escorted him to the stage at showtime. Afterward, he gave her a jacket emblazoned with his name, a generous tip tucked inside.

King died Sept. 20 at a hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York. She was 71. Her granddaughter Sonrisa Murray said the cause was liver cancer.

Although conductors and soloists receive the standing ovations at Carnegie Hall, their performances are supported by a corps of ushers, doorkeepers and backstage attendants. And for 34 years, King played her part.

Specifically, she was responsible for the needs of the stars who used the Maestro Suite, a regal dressing room on the second floor.

“She’s the soul of Carnegie Hall,” cellist Yo-Yo Ma said in a phone interview. “She enables the transition that takes place between a person backstage getting ready to perform and then going onstage to share everything that is important to them. That transition for an artist is often when they’re at their most vulnerable.”

King called herself a professional nerve-calmer, and made it her business to know the preperformance rituals of her charges.

She knew, for instance, that violinist Kyung Wha Chung liked strongly scented flowers to be placed just outside her dressing room; that soprano Jessye Norman wanted a thermometer and humidifier in her quarters; and that conductor Riccardo Muti needed strong coffee waiting for him. When The Wall Street Journal interviewed King before Muti conducted a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1990, she stressed this detail.

“My honey’s not here yet,” she said. “When he gets here the first thing he wants is his coffee, and I must be sure that he drinks it before he goes onstage.”

At what proved to be his last concert at Carnegie Hall, Leonard Bernstein gave King a pin in gratitude.

King also glimpsed vulnerability.

When Sinatra played Carnegie Hall that fall in 1987, in King’s telling, he kept missing his lines as he struggled to read the teleprompter. During intermission, Sinatra’s handlers were hesitant to approach him, but King took him aside.

“You look like you’re having a tough time out there,” she told him. “But listen, you’re Frank Sinatra. You can do anything. They will always love you out there no matter what. If you’re in trouble again, just smile, or say hello to a pretty lady on the balcony.”

Back onstage, Sinatra took her advice, and he crooned with confidence.

King, who raised a daughter on her own, had a second full-time job, far from the bright lights of Carnegie Hall.

After the evening’s concert ended, she would rush downtown to the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner, where she worked until the early morning as an administrator, dealing with matters of the dead. Then it was back to her apartment in Harlem for some sleep before picking up her granddaughters, Oni and Sonrisa, from school and heading down to Carnegie in the late afternoon. She joined the city’s morgue as a clerk in the 1970s, then went to work at Carnegie, initially as an usher, in the mid-1980s. She juggled both jobs for years.

In 2004, her jobs collided when the executive director of Carnegie Hall, Robert Harth, died suddenly at 47. A co-worker called King to tell her that his body was on its way to the morgue, but she already knew.

“I’m sitting right here now taking care of him,” she responded. “I’m holding his hand so he’s not alone tonight.”

Deborah King was born on Oct. 4, 1949, in Manhattan and was raised in Harlem. Her father, John, was a deacon. Her mother, Margo (Shaw) King, was a homemaker.

Deborah aspired to become a cosmetologist, and in high school she applied for an internship at a salon. But because of a clerical error, she ended up at the morgue instead.

In addition to her granddaughters, King is survived by a grandson and a daughter, Cheryl Leak-Fox-Middleton. King took pride in putting both her granddaughters through college.

She retired from the medical examiner’s office in 2016 and was diagnosed with liver cancer a few years later. She retired from Carnegie Hall last spring.

Staff and family members gathered at Carnegie to commemorate the occasion. Cake was served, letters of appreciation from musicians were read out loud, and King told tales of her backstage adventures. A plaque honoring her was unveiled.

Just outside the Maestro Suite, near pictures of greats like Gershwin and Tchaikovsky, her smiling portrait hangs on its very own wall.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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