This isn’t the first blog post I’ve written based on something I found out about listening to an old radio broadcast. This time I was listening to the WJR Radio broadcast of the Tigers-Angels game of August 17, 1976. As the Tigers came to bat in the bottom of the eighth inning, Ernie Harwell passed along this news:
We’ve got a bulletin here on our Western Union ticker, we want to give it to you just as it came in to us. It says, “Tonight is Bloomington Night at the Met.” That’s in Bloomington, Minnesota. [The Minnesota Twins played their home games at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, commonly referred to as Met Stadium or the Met.] “In honor of the occasion, Miss Bloomington led the multitudes in the National Anthem. Three-quarters of the way through she lost her place, said, ‘Oh, rats,’ and walked off the field.”
Harwell’s broadcast partner Paul Carey responded with a hearty laugh. Seconds later, Tiger catcher Bruce Kimm hit the only home run he would ever hit in the major leagues to break a 2-2 tie, and Detroit’s rookie pitching sensation Mark Fidrych would go on to defeat the Angels 3-2.
As soon as I heard Ernie share this story I knew I had to find out more about what happened that night, and what happened to that singer. Especially since this happened in Minnesota; two weeks after this game was played I arrived in Minnesota to start college and I would stay there (Minnesota, not college) for most of the next 30 years; I skipped a few classes to take in a Twins game at the Met.
Little did I know when I started chasing details of this story that there would be a second part to it. Nor did I know I would have a delightful conversation with a woman who can still laugh about this almost 40 years later.
* * * * *
Her name was misspelled in the first news stories as Stephany Nielsen; she was actually Stephanie Nilson, a 19-year-old graduate of Bloomington Jefferson High School who was about to enter her sophomore year at the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University), an all-women’s college in St. Paul (a fine school from which my wife graduated). Being Miss Bloomington may not have been enough to earn her the honor of singing the anthem on Bloomington Night, but she was an accomplished singer, majoring in voice at St. Kate’s with plans to become a professional opera singer.
Stephanie sang the anthem without accompaniment and was disconcerted by the delayed echo of her voice coming over the loudspeakers. After she sang “Gave proof through the night,” she got confused about where she was in the song and stopped, then after a few seconds threw up her hands and said, “Aw, rats” (or as the Minneapolis Tribune perhaps more accurately recorded it, “Aaaaw rats!”).
“She smiled graciously, bowed, and a sympathetic audience applauded,” according to an Associated Press report. (The official attendance that night was 7,850. By the way, other AP stories said she got through the line “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave” before giving up, but that is incorrect.)
But Stephanie didn’t run and hide in shame…she went back to her seat near the Twins dugout, where she watched the Twins lose to the Orioles, 10-3. (Patrick Reusse, now a Minneapolis StarTribune sports columnist but then the Twins beat writer for the St. Paul Dispatch, led his game story with Stephanie’s anthem breakdown, then added, “After that, things deteriorated as far as the Twins were concerned.”)
From an Associated Press story:
Miss Nielsen told a reporter the two-second delay caused by the echo “threw me off. But I wasn’t nervous. I was enjoying it, but that echo made it difficult.
“I could feel everybody in the audience laughing. But I didn’t feel they were laughing at me. They were laughing with me.”
Stephanie’s boyfriend, Jim Moen, told the reporter, “She blew it at her opening night at the Met” (playing on the fact that the stadium shared a nickname with New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera, for whom Stephanie no doubt would have loved to sing).
“At first I suppose I was embarrassed,” she told another reporter the next day. “But it’s only human and it happens to everybody. I guess I’m just a clown at heart. I’m glad the audience reacted the way they did. That really helped.”
The wire-service account of Stephanie’s misadventure made it into many of the nation’s newspapers in the days to come and gave headline writers something to play with:
One of the people who read Stephanie’s story was Ted Turner, then in his first season as owner of the Atlanta Braves. Among the reasons Turner was able to buy the team in the first place was that attendance had been pathetically low, and Turner vowed to increase the number of paying customers by staging as many crazy promotions as possible: motorized-bathtub races, mattress-stacking contests, a tightrope walk across the top of the stadium by daredevil Karl Wallenda, ostrich racing, “Headlock and Wedlock Day” (weddings at home plate before the game, professional wrestling on the field afterwards).
When Turner heard about Stephanie Nilson, he decided to make her part of the show at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and invited her to take another shot at singing the anthem the next week, on August 23. “I’m glad to do it again, but I hope I don’t blow it,” Stephanie told a reporter after accepting Turner’s offer.
This time Stephanie took the field holding a card with the lyrics written on it. (“Someone suggested it,” she told a reporter. “It’s easy to get lost under pressure like that.”) But she didn’t need to look at it as she got through the anthem without incident. “She received generous applause for her flawless performance and waved to the crowd,” the Associated Press reported. As was the case with her bungled performance, the encore received significant national media attention.
Ted Turner doubled up on promotions that night…in addition to featuring the singing beauty queen, he staged a pregame “Baseball Olympics” in which one of the events saw Turner and Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw compete to see who could push a baseball from third base to home plate the fastest using their nose. Yeah, that got some attention…
And with that Stephanie Nilson’s 15 minutes of fame came to an end (although she was mentioned in a January 1977 Sports Illustrated story about difficulties singing the national anthem before sporting events). So what happened to her after that?
* * * * *
The alumni office at St. Catherine University was kind enough to get me in touch with Stephanie, who is now Stephanie Askew and, along with her husband, owns an art gallery in Redstone, Colorado. (Jim Moen, the boyfriend who made the crack about Stephanie blowing her opening night at the Met? Stephanie married him after she graduated from St. Kate’s in 1979, but they divorced.) Stephanie’s watercolor paintings are on display at the gallery.
She has also had a long career as a professional singer, which continues today. Walking off the Met Stadium field without finishing the national anthem didn’t leave any emotional scars. Here’s part of the phone conversation we had.
Me: Had you ever sung the national anthem at an event before that Twins game?
Stephanie: Yes, but never where I had the echo from across the field. I wasn’t ready for that. Nobody told me about the echo.
Me: When did you realize things were going wrong?
Stephanie: Right away. (laughs) I thought, oh my gosh, this is tricky, I’m going to have to really concentrate. I reached that point where I couldn’t think of where I was as it was coming out of my mouth, and I just totally lost it. What I did, throwing my hands up in the air and saying “oh, rats” was, thankfully, instinctively correct. I could have said other things, but I wasn’t a cusser, so I’m thankful that didn’t come out.
Me: That’s one of the things I love about this story. “Oh, rats” is such a Minnesota response.
Stephanie: (laughs) Yeah. Exactly.
I remember Tony Oliva was the first one to reach me. Two guys came bolting from the dugout, and one of them was Tony, and he grabbed me and swung me around – I’m wearing a dress – and he’s hugging me, thinking I am the funniest thing. Maybe he ran out to give me some moral support, too. They carried me back and it was hilarious.
Me: That’s another thing I love…you didn’t go hide, you stayed and watched the game and talked to a reporter.
Stephanie: I was so embarrassed, but we were laughing about the whole thing. My boyfriend was the one who said I blew my debut at the Met, that was his little tidbit immediately, and I thought, that’s pretty funny. “Opera singer blows her debut at the Met.” How clever is that? I have a funny sense of humor, so we just laughed about the whole thing. I was just amazed by all the press and the stories. Johnny Carson talked about me on his show.
Me: I also love that you didn’t let this experience scar you.
Stephanie: (laughs) Because I have a sick sense of humor. I can laugh at myself, that’s the best part. Things happen. Fortunately everybody else laughed with me. When I stood there and threw my hands up in the air and said “oh, rats,” the sound of the roar of laughter, I’ll never forget that.
Me: How did you find out about Atlanta?
Stephanie: My chaperone [with the Miss Bloomington pageant] called and said, guess what, you’ve just been invited to go to Atlanta, three days, all expenses paid, and meet Ted Turner, he wants to give you another chance. And I’m like, are you kidding me? He said, “And we ARE going.” We are? We’re going? I’m so embarrassed, you’re going to make me go? And he said, “You’re going.”
We had the best time, I enjoyed it. I have pictures of Ted Turner, standing right next to me in a group. There’s a funny one, I always think I’m going to have it blown up, I could blackmail him. He was saying something to me so his head was turned to me, he was taller so he was looking down, and it looks like he’s looking right down my dress.
Me: I wouldn’t put it past him.
Stephanie: It was a classic. Now I look back and go, wow, I was with Ted Turner.
[ADDED 4/6/16: Stephanie found the photo. She’s right, it is a classic…]
Fortunately they didn’t have an echo problem [at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium]. The speakers were wonderful. They had a huge scoreboard, and when I was singing, there was my name in lights, “Stephanie Nilson sings again,” and I thought, this is hilarious. What a silly thing! If I’d sung it correctly [in Minnesota] nobody would have cared, but because I made a mistake… Everybody loves the underdog.
The Twins gave me another chance shortly after I returned from Atlanta. That time it was perfect.
Me: The echo didn’t bother you?
Stephanie: I kind of just put it out of my head. I had my cue card; I didn’t have to use it, but I was ready. [Stephanie doesn’t remember the date of this game; I’d love to find out.] [UPDATED 6/12/20: Found it! It was August 30, and according to the Minneapolis Tribune — which was still misspelling her name — she “came through unscathed.”)
In later years, when I would go to visit my family in Minnesota, I would take my children to the Mall of America [built on the site of Met Stadium], where they have home plate from the Met, and we go and stand on home plate and take pictures because they know that’s my claim to fame. We stand there and we all laugh. They laugh at Mommy. The house that my parents first rented when we moved to Bloomington when I was three years old had to be torn down to build the Mall of America.
Me: How did you get started singing?
Stephanie: For some reason in elementary school they always pulled me out to do any of the little singing parts because they said I had a really pretty voice. In middle school my music teacher knew I had more of an operatic voice so he selected the operetta “Naughty Marietta” for us to do. I was the lead role, and I got really hooked, I just loved classical music and the opera.
In college my voice teacher was Marguerite Gignac Hedges; she got me scholarships and took me under her wing. I had a lesson with her every day of the week, and she didn’t do that for all her students. Every day I went in for 30 minutes and we did exercises. She was so wonderful to me. She wanted me to go to Europe to study, so we found a program and I spent a whole year in Europe, 12 months in Vienna and Germany, in ’77 and ’78. That was the highlight of my life, and I really learned so much.
When I graduated I moved to Texas and I taught voice lessons and I joined some operatic groups there. I sang opera in Dallas for years. I also did commercial jingles and I was always doing some type of music in my church. And then I got to sing with big bands. There is a group called New Horizons for people 50 years of age and older. In Dallas they had a big concert band and also had a 20-piece jazz band. When I was 50 I found out about this group; I auditioned and they grabbed me, and I sang with them for eight years. We would tour throughout Dallas-Fort Worth, retirement communities, senior centers, nursing homes, veterans’ hospitals, private parties. I sang all of the great tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s; my God, I was in heaven! [Here’s Stephanie singing with the band. Oh heck, here’s another.]
I didn’t think I would have a place to sing here when I moved here three years ago [Redstone‘s population is only about 100], and now I have so much singing stuff going on I can hardly make time for my job. I get to sing opera here! There is a group in Glenwood Springs that has a big band and a orchestra, so now I’m performing opera with the orchestra and I do my big band music with this amazing band. My husband gets to play drums with the band, too, so that’s kind of fun. We have a girl group, three of us we call the Redstone Rubies, and we do three-part harmonies and dress up in full costumes and wigs and do the Supremes and country-western and the ‘60s, it’s just hysterical. We do two concerts a month in front of our gallery.
I’ve been so fortunate my whole life. I turn 59 in September and I’m still singing opera. What is so exciting is my voice teacher from St. Kate’s, she’s 86 years old and she summers in Aspen which is 50 minutes away, so I still get to see her. Last summer I was doing a classical recital and she coached me for three weeks, we prepared my concert. Here she is at 86 and she’s helping me still. Isn’t that cool?
That funny baseball thing that happened was just such a fluke, it’s such a funny story. I actually am singing the national anthem with my Redstone Rubies here on the Fourth of July and I shared that story with them a few weeks ago, and they just rolled with laughter. If you can make people laugh, that’s a good thing. I’ve had an extremely joyful life with music.
Thanks to my friend Brendan Henehan of Twin Cities Public Television’s “Almanac” for finding and sharing with me several Minneapolis and St. Paul newspaper items about Stephanie.