Everyone thinks they’re a superstar while singing in the shower, but not everyone possesses the sort of talent that grabs the collective culture’s attention.
A 59-year-old, 1960s-era housewife, Elva Miller was one such person—an unlikely one at that. Miller spent her youth singing in the church choir in her hometown of Dodge City, Kansas, and later settled down with her husband, John, in Claremont, California, in 1935. It was that cross-country relocation, not far from Hollywood, that inspired Miller to pursue her musical aspirations.
Miller took vocal lessons at Pomona College, rejoined the choir ranks at a local Presbyterian church and rented out studios to record classical hymns with session musicians. She then would donate the records to charities and orphanages.
One day, Miller’s music fell into the hands of Fred Bock, a religious music conductor, and he asked Miller to try something new—pop music. As a joke, Bock’s friend, LA radio DJ Gary Owens, aired Miller’s off-key, operatic pop covers.
As it were, Miller had the last laugh. Capitol Records offered her a record deal, and her renditions of “Downtown” and “A Lover’s Concerto” landed in the Billboard Hot 100. Miller recorded three albums before Capitol dropped her in the late ’60s.
Eventually, Miller caught on that listeners were buying her albums for a laugh, and she insisted that Capitol made her sound worse than she really was. She continued to make records until retiring in 1973.
Now, Northern Virginians will be among the first to see the world premiere of the James Lapine (the Pulitzer Prize-winning director and playwright behind Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods) play at Signature Theatre.
Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing stars Emmy and Tony Award winner Debra Monk (Curtains, Grey’s Anatomy and NYPD Blue) as Miller. The play is currently showing at Signature’s MAX Theatre until March 26.