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Section: Life & Leisure

Mary Stahl: Starring in Life, Part II
By Maria Scrivani

The many sides of Mary Stahl, pictured below with Jimmy Calabrese.
Photos by Terry Vine.
Fear and regret are the twin obstacles to living a full life. Mary Stahl is a poster child for that philosophy, maintaining a healthy respect for the former, while disdaining the latter. An early childhood educator by day, she is a nightclub chanteuse (with several CDs to her credit) by night — and it’s an inspiration to hear this 50-plus woman tell about her brimful life.

The Buffalo native was on her way to a career in music in her earlier days, having studied theater arts at Onondaga Community College after graduation from Mount St. Joseph Academy. “I checked out the New York City scene, but I had an idea about coming back to Buffalo and starting a family.”

The theater scene here was not as vibrant as it is today. Stahl did a lot of dinner theater, and sang with a local jazz group. “I’d never really thought of myself as a singer until then — I was focused on acting. But I’m a much better singer than actor, I think.” Working with the band helped her realize her own potential. “I never took any formal singing lessons, but I found I was cut out for performing, and singing jazz. Growing up, I loved listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, big band singers, Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand.”

It was fun to perform, but supporting oneself was another matter. By the time she was in her 30s, Stahl had completed requirements for another degree, this time in early childhood education from State University of New York at Buffalo. She was married, and working as a teacher while also trying to have children. It was a painful decade, as her marriage failed, and hopes of becoming a mother dwindled. “My friends were all having children,” she recalls. “I was kind of a ‘Lonesome Joe’ back then, and I wasn’t doing much singing.”

Stahl’s life-changing moment was just ahead. “I remember thinking, what do I love to do? And I thought of art, how I’d always loved drawing and painting.” She embarked on her third degree program, entering the studio art program at UB. The fresh start was “just what the doctor ordered” to shake her out of the doldrums. Graduating in her late 30s, she saw an ad for an open audition, and recognized the director’s name as an old theater friend.

“The theater scene was really blossoming in Buffalo then. I was scared to even try out, but I thought, what’s the worst that can happen? Maybe I’ll freeze up. But I figured I could handle that.” She took the plunge, prepared a couple of songs, and went off to the audition. “I was terrified, but I took a deep breath, and started singing. From the back of the theater, I heard the director say, ‘You’ve still got it!’”

She still had it, alright, enough to attract the attention of area promoters, and began recording in local studios. “I had nothing to lose; it was just fun.” She sang backup for Michael Civisca, and performed a duet on his debut CD. Soon she was performing solo, accompanied by her current partner, Buffalo pianist and composer Jimmy Calabrese.

In the midst of all this musical excitement, Stahl managed to fit in Montessori teacher training, having decided she wanted to keep working with the youngest students. She was hired at Nardin, where she is known by her married name of Mrs. Seguin, a decade ago. It is, she says, a constant delight to be able to combine her love of art and music in the classroom. And when she started making CDs, she found a ready cheering section among her students, who are proud to have a performing and recording artist as a teacher.

Featured on at least a half dozen CDs, mostly jazz standards, Stahl is particularly proud of a CD of children’s lullabies she recorded with Calabrese. Dream a Dream was honored nationally with a Parent’s Choice seal of approval. It was followed by Starry, Starry Night, another lullaby collection. Last December, the duo recorded another jazz CD, Love Noir.

Stahl, the oldest of eight children of Henry N. (former University District councilmember) and Frances Stahl, recalls singing lullabies to her younger siblings. All the family still lives in Western New York, and one brother, Tom, is also well-known as a musician and singer.

At a point in life where some might be thinking of winding down, Stahl appears to be winding up. It’s good to be a teacher with experience, and great to sing jazz her way: “You’ve got to live a little to sing a song!”

One thing she will not harbor is regret. “I am not sorry I spent all those years trying to have children. It’s made me a richer person, and I realize that you never know what someone is going through in their private life.”

Though she moonlights in a world of divas, Mary Stahl is anchored in the daylight of classroom and kids. Her story is really about second chances, but not luck. She’s worked hard, and was never too afraid to follow her dreams. She makes it sound a bit like a fairy-tale, though a humble one of real possibility: “When a door opened for me, I just walked through it.”

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