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Who Says Singing with Hams Isn't Kosher for a Cantor? Hollywood's Are Blessed with Nathan Lam

updated 05/03/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1982 01:00AM

Rita Moreno came away from her powerhouse performance as Googie Gomez in the 1975 Broadway comedy hit The Ritz with two souvenirs: a Tony award and a persistent problem with hoarseness. "I spent eight shows a week screaming and ended up with a vocal cord hemorrhage that left a corn or node," she laments. "After a year in the show, I had chronic laryngitis."

The aftereffects of that ailment were still troubling her three months ago when she began filming ABC's new series 9 to 5. Then her doctor referred her to Nathan Lam, a Los Angeles voice coach. "Nate has been miraculous for me," testifies Moreno, a pro who, at 50, knows from trendy voice teachers. Lam's Rx: a variety of exercises designed to relieve pressure on the vocal cords, including tongue extensions, chewing (to loosen up the jaws) and crooning while yawning (to strengthen the larynx).

Lam, 35, usually confines his own vocalizing to Friday night services, weddings and bar mitzvahs at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, where he is cantor. Members of the Reform Jewish congregation don't mind at all that their leader in song and sacred liturgy also duets as coach with some of Tinseltown's prettiest birds. Jodie Foster spent some of her time off from studies at Yale picking up pointers from Lam for her singing role in the upcoming film Svengali. Pam Dawber and Cathy Lee Crosby are also on his student roster. Because Burt Reynolds was flat-toned in the 1975 movie musical flop At Long Last Love, he decided to prepare for his role as Dolly Parton's singing partner in the film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas by working about two hours daily with Lam for eight weeks. "People are going to be very surprised when they hear Burt in the film," Lam predicts.

He usually works his wonders in his office at the temple, for fees that range up to $140 an hour. Though he also tutors UCLA opera and musical theater students, his bread-and-butter clients are the celebs referred to him by drama coaches like Milton Katselas and Nina Foch.

For Reynolds and other stars, "the little cantor," as Moreno calls him fondly, will make house calls, go to recording sessions, and even instruct over the telephone. When Richard Harris replaced Richard Burton in the L.A. production of Camelot, Lam appeared at his dressing room before each performance for three months, giving warm-up exercises and lessons. "I saw the first half hour of the musical 86 times," he remembers. Rod Stewart, who has worked with Lam since September 1980, misplaced one of his prep tapes last December at a gig in San Francisco. Lam hurriedly recorded a new one, which was messengered to the star. "Rod," reports Lam, "is a serious guy with a full voice." And a strong one, thanks partly to Lam. Until he had a bout with bronchitis in February, Stewart hadn't had to skip a concert for voice problems in more than a year.

For Lam, music was not a family tradition. Born in East Los Angeles, where his father, Max, ran a small grocery store, he remembers deciding to be a cantor at the age of 8. At the Valley Jewish Community Center and Temple in North Hollywood, the congregation's cantor asked for volunteers to assist him. "My mother, Marcia, poked me in the ribs," Lam says, "and my arm went up. I fell in love with it. I never missed a Sabbath in 19 years."

He flirted with becoming a lawyer but graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Jewish studies in 1969. He also attended the University of Judaism in Los Angeles to study operatic voice, art songs and musical theater for three and a half years. In 1970 he married Donna Weiss, a college classmate. Three years later they moved to New York so that Lam could study and work with Keith Davis, a prominent voice teacher. In 1976 the couple returned to L.A. and joined the Stephen S. Wise Temple.

Lam has recorded two albums of Jewish songs, one narrated by Ed Asner, who is a member of his congregation. He began his teaching sideline five years ago and started building his showbiz clientele not long after, when actress Barbara (Ironside) Anderson came to him, then recommended Lam to acting coach Katselas. Today Lam has more than 100 private students.

He has no plans to push either of his two children to sing. "I don't want them to have to go to psychiatrists 20 years later," he says. As for going pro himself, he demurs: "I love performing. But it's rare that a voice teacher takes the chance of singing in public. The only fear I have is that I tend to take on too much. I have to learn to say no." Yet, while not actively searching for a recording contract, he cracks, "Make me an offer."

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