There are many kinds of treasures that have been sought in Key West, buried and sunken being the most well-known of them. The story of Terri White is certainly a story of treasure, albeit a treasure of a different kind.
It was nearly sunken and buried, but because of a twist of fate, hard work, and no small amount of love and perseverance, that treasure was brought back from the brink of obscurity and now resides in Key West for all to see and admire.
Within one year, she went from being down on her luck, out of money, recently broken-up with her longtime partner, unable to find enough singing jobs to pay her rent, losing her apartment and sleeping on a bench in Washington Square Park, to performing in the hit Broadway revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” at the St. James Theater in New York. Since then, it’s been a bumpy ride of success. She has performed in “Nunsense,” “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” “Barnum,” “Welcome to the Club” and “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” In April 2010, she assumed the role of Mama Morton in the long-running Broadway revival of “Chicago.” She performed to much acclaim in “Follies” in 2011 and also had the honor of performing at the Kennedy Center in 2015.
From People magazine: “After three months (of homelessness) in 2008, White, 61, a performer since her childhood in Palo Alto, Calif., was “so down I was doing chin-ups from the gutter,” she says.” This after costarring with Glenn Close and Jim Dale in Barnum in 1980, and singing in Liza Minelli’s Radio City Music Hall Show. She was too proud and embarrassed to seek help from social services and told very few friends of her predicament. Depressed, she couch-surfed for a period, and often found herself on a bench at New York City’s Washington Square Park at night.
She had a bi-weekly gig at a piano bar where she was able to store her belongings and wash up, only making $32 every other week, money she used for Ramen noodles and to pay her cell phone bill. Still, she continued seeking out auditions. “I was in bad shape,” she said.
It was on a chilly October night in 2008 that New York Police Officer David Taylor, who had heard her sing as he walked his beat near the piano bars where she had performed, recognized her, but only barely. She was sullen and downtrodden, not the usual upbeat and gregarious woman he had always remembered.
From The New York Times: “She is usually someone who lifts your energy if you’re feeling down,” he said. “That night she looked soulless. I was concerned for her — scared.”
So, he decided to do something about it. He called a mutual acquaintance in Jersey City, who agreed to let Terri White stay with him, and then a few days later, Pat West, owner of The Keys, then a bar on Duval Street across the street from La Te Da, called asked Terri to come for Fantasy Fest and sing at the grand opening of her new nightclub. It just so happened that someone had cancelled and so there was an opening. White said, “Let me think about it — YES.” It was a real-life saver; she is quoted to have said. “I got back on my feet.”
It was also on that night, Nov. 2, 2008, that Terri White met Key West jewelry designer Donna Barnett. They had much in common: the love of cigarettes and Makers Mark, road trips and musicals. They moved in together, and now they are married and have been together since.
Now, that’s serendipity.
When Terri heard about auditions for “Finian”s Rainbow,” a 1947 show about leprechauns, a pot o’gold and Southern bigotry that Terri first performed in when she was 8 years old — Donna bought her a plane ticket back to New York. She got the part and from there, she was off and running from one project to the next.
Despite having faced blacklisting for being gay in the past, during a rehearsal for “Follies” at the St. James Theater, one of the producers asked her, “What can I do for you?” Terri White answered, “I want to get married onstage.”
They opened the show on a Friday, and after the next Sunday matinee, 500 of their closest friends attended their commitment ceremony at the beautiful St. James Theater on West 44th Street in New York City. They were interviewed by news sources from all around the world about the event, and were featured in a segment in Katie Couric’s television show … near the bench Terri used to sleep on in Washington Square Park.
At 4:45 the next morning, the ladies had a conversation that went something like this: Donna: “Do you feel married?” Terri: “I don’t feel different.” Donna: “But do you feel married?” Terri: “No, but that was one hell of a party.”
So, on Feb. 4, 2010, they ran off to Connecticut and officially eloped.
That isn’t to say it’s all been roses for the ladies. Donna’s children were tough about the relationship at first, due to a previous tumultuous relationship that they hadn’t yet gotten over. But love will find a way. It was like a checklist for the ladies, traveling to be with them, winning them over to the idea, one by one. Derek and Sandhya in Detroit, Brett and Tal at the City Center, Scott and Kathy in Boston, and Stacie and Rob in Key West. “Some of the past choices weren’t good, so they were skeptical,” Terri said. “But one by one we checked them all off.”
The couple continued bouncing from New York to Los Angeles doing club acts. Recently, they found themselves debating whether to stay in L.A. or move back to where they began, to Key West. “The commute in L.A. was costing $25 one way to my gigs, five times a week. Sometimes, after paying the musicians, I came home with $3.25.”
So, they decided. It was time to come home to Key West, the place where they first met that one fateful night when all the stars in heaven must’ve aligned just the right way.
“All I want to do now is sit on a stool and sing my heart out,” she said. “It never fails, though, when I find a great place and the movers are coming, I get a call,” she said lightheartedly. This one came from the Warren Carlyle Casting Agency, specializing in new Broadway projects. “I turned it down.”
It sounds as though this treasure is now ours.
“We have six wonderful grandkids. We arrived just in time in Key West to see the oldest graduate from high school,” she says.
“My heart is rich. This is what I’ve worked for all my life,” she had said after her opening night on Broadway. It was never truer than now. “It has been a wild ride.”
Terri has recently tackled some health problems. She had a heart attack and is now undergoing treatment for cancer. If anything, the challenges have made her voice stronger and her performances even better.
You can catch Terri White at the Little Room Jazz Club and at Blue Heaven. Check her Facebook page for her current schedule. ¦