Gloria Parker, maestra of the musical glasses, dies at 100

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Gloria Parker, maestra of the musical glasses, dies at 100
Gloria Parker plays the musical glasses at her home in New York on March 19, 1984. Parker who played many instruments and appeared on radio and television, but was best known for the skill that led to a role in Woody Allen’s“Broadway Danny Rose, " died on April 13, 2022, in a hospital in Syosset, N.Y., on Long Island, near her home in Laurel Hollow. She was 100. Vic DeLucia/The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- As the title character in his film “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984), Woody Allen is a hapless talent agent known for his stable of weird, hard-to-book novelty acts: a blind xylophone player, a stuttering ventriloquist, a balloon folder — and Gloria Parker, who plays music by rubbing her moistened fingers along the rims of 28 crystal wineglasses.

“She is the Jascha Heifetz of this instrument,” Danny says in one scene, pitching her to the skeptical owner of a summer resort as she plays “The Band Played On.” “It’s incredible. Never took a lesson. This is self-taught. Next year, my hand to God, she’s going to be at Carnegie Hall.”

Parker would later say that the film — in which she also performs for Danny’s clientele at a Thanksgiving dinner — led to an uptick in offers for bookings and increased attention for her mastery of the “singing glasses,” or glasspiel, which she learned from her grandfather.

“The movie will keep them alive,” she told The New York Times in 1984. “I am just an emissary, God’s worker to bring glasses to the world.”

Parker, who died at 100 on April 13 on Long Island, didn’t just cajole music out of glasses. A multi-instrumentalist, she also played the marimba, vibraphone, violin, maracas and tabor, a type of drum.

She led an all-female troupe when she was 14 and fronted the all-female Rumba Maids in the 1940s and the Afrikan Knights Orchestra in the 1960s.

In the 1940s, she starred in several Soundies, music shorts that were shown on coin-operated jukeboxes. In those films, she sang, played the glasses and marimba, and shared the stage with co-stars like Mel Blanc, the virtuoso voice actor, and Lincoln Perry, better known as Stepin Fetchit.

She also hosted a show on the ABC radio network in the 1950s that featured another band consisting entirely of women, the Swingphony. And she was a prolific writer of songs, many of them with a Latin beat, like “Up and Down Mambo” and “The Push and Pull Mambo.” Another song, “Clap Your Hands and Shake Your Blues Away,” was recorded by Lionel Hampton.

In 1981 she recorded an album, “A Toast to Christmas in the 80’s With Singing Glasses.”

Gloria Rosenthal was born on Aug. 20, 1921, in Brooklyn. Her father, Jack, owned a garage; her mother, Rose (Glickman) Rosenthal, played violin with Mark Warnow & the Hit Parade Orchestra. Gloria later adopted Parker as her stage name.

At a young age, Gloria began studying violin (she said that she played a child-sized instrument at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when she was 4 or 5). At 8, she began learning to play the glasses from her grandfather, who had brought the skill (and eight fragile Bohemian crystal glasses) from his native Czechoslovakia.

“When I was still a little girl,” Parker told United Press International in 1984, “I had a musical vaudeville act playing both the glasses and marimba.”

She mastered how to conjure music from 28 glasses, each filled with water or white wine to produce particular sounds.

“One drop either way makes a difference,” she told The Daily News in 2012. “Height, circumference — it all makes a difference soundwise.”

She would rub her fingers over the rims of the glasses to produce a musical range of two octaves as she played pop, classical, jazz and calypso songs.

In addition to playing her glasses in “Broadway Danny Rose,” Parker was a guest on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Mike Douglas Show” and “Late Night With David Letterman.”

“We booked her based on her interesting talent, but when she showed up with the big setup, it was very impressive,” Robert Morton, the executive producer of “Late Night” at the time, wrote in an email. “We loved the little dance she did while playing and how she was very concerned that nobody touched the setup.”

In 1979, she performed with the Hartford Symphony at a pops concert.

“Ms. Parker, with her long blond hair, created a striking spectacle as she labored over her glasses, somehow coaxing pitched tones into melodic, even up-tempo passages,” critic Owen McNally wrote of her performance in The Hartford Courant.

No immediate family members survived her. Her friend Jean Lundy said Parker died in a hospital in Syosset, New York, near her home in Laurel Hollow.

Parker’s devotion to her music — and her reputation — led her into several court battles. In 1965, she and a co-writer, Barney Young, sued the Walt Disney Corp. for $12 million, accusing it of pirating their 1949 song “Supercalafajalistickespeeaaladojus” for the 1964 hit film “Mary Poppins,” in which Julie Andrews sang “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

A judge ruled against her and Young’s request for a preliminary injunction, saying that they had not made a case for copyright infringement because, aside from their similar tongue-twisting names, the two songs “had no discernible similarity.”

In 1990, she sued author Oscar Hijuelos for libel over several passages that she said reflected poorly on her in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1989 novel, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love.” In the novel, a character is referred to as the leader of “Glorious Gloria Parker and Her All-Girl Rumba Orchestra” — the real name of a band she had once led — and is involved in a late-night romantic scene.

“My background has nothing to do with what this man has said,” Parker told Newsday after she filed the lawsuit. “I travel in good company. He has hurt and crushed me.”

A federal judge dismissed the suit.

Working on “Broadway Danny Rose” was a more pleasant experience for her — even though she was not aware of the film’s plot when she signed on.

“We only got one day’s script at a time, and I had no idea what was happening,” she told The Times. When asked if the completed film made her feel that Allen had mocked her art, she dismissed the notion.

“Why, nobody can poke fun at the glasses,” she added. “Benjamin Franklin played them — introduced them to America in 1751, in fact. They are part of our heritage. And now, through the movie, the whole world can see them in the 20th century, and I will be the person affixed to them.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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