Ringing Up a Dreamgirl

updated 01/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Repair Operator No. 748 in the North Hollywood office of the Pacific Telephone Co. always had a fascination for life's little dramas. "When a lady called to say her phone was broken because her granddaughter had hit her over the head with it, I wanted to know why the girl did that, and did the lady call the police? Then I got her phone fixed," says No. 748. "I even liked the obscene phone calls. After a dull day sitting in that chair, any excitement was good."

Across the wires in Manhattan, meanwhile, a big-time director and choreographer was unknowingly planning a little excitement for No. 748. Michael Bennett was preparing to cast a Los Angeles production of his hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls. He was also looking for a replacement for the show's spectacularly soulful star, Jennifer Holliday, who is scheduled to take over the role in L.A. As he had done with Holliday, Bennett hoped to pluck a relative unknown from the hordes of hopefuls. He would, as Ma Bell always urges, "reach out and touch someone."

That someone turned out to be Operator No. 748, a stagestruck 23-year-old named Vanessa Lynn Townsell. "She just blew my breath away," says Bennett, who discovered Townsell at an open casting call. "The range and power of her voice are incredible. And the way she moves! She's so comfortable with her body." Undaunted to learn that Vanessa had never taken a professional singing or acting lesson, and that her stage experience consisted largely of talent competitions at a California amusement park, Bennett signed her up for a year. The salary, about $1,500 per week, was a considerable improvement over the $240 she earned at the phone company.

Furthermore, Vanessa had been disgruntled working the day shift at Pacific Telephone. "I hated the place," she says. "I had decided there was more for me than the phone company." Her employer was aware of her attitude. "She really didn't belong here," is how Steven Hayes, Townsell's supervisor, puts it. "She didn't fit into the restrictive mold. But she sure had a good voice. When people put her on hold, she'd sing gospel songs."

Now and then Vanessa would call in sick to attend auditions. Eventually her boss put her on final warning for tardiness and absenteeism. But when a friend told her about the Dreamgirls audition, Townsell said to herself: "Ooh, I'm gonna be in Dreamgirls! I was going to that audition." Briefly chagrined to learn that the call was for actresses 5'4" to 5'8" who "move well," the 5'10" Townsell soon rallied: "I figured I moved well. So I wore flats. I mean flats, I'm talking about no heels!"

At the audition hall, the Shubert Theatre in Century City, Vanessa saw the line of hopefuls snaking around the block. But because she had obtained an Equity card months before (for an inner-city gospel show that flopped), she was one of the first called. Sixteen bars into her song, the Stevie Wonder hit For Once in My Life, Bennett said: "Stop. Good! Can you come back at 5 to dance?" Says Vanessa: "I spent the rest of the day wandering through every shop in Century City. I went around trying on glamorous dresses looking for something I could wear if they told me to come to New York."

At 5 o'clock Vanessa returned to sing and dance for Bennett. "That day I didn't even know who Michael Bennett was. Remember I was with the phone company. But I heard people saying: 'Michael, should I do this? Should I do that?' So I figured this guy Michael was important. Whenever he came near, I'd sing a little louder."

Her booming soprano voice was just what Bennett wanted. He called her back for yet another audition two days later. Then he left for the rest of his casting tour. Three weeks (Vanessa marked the time off on a calendar) and 4,000 girls later, the director called Townsell at home. "I was at work, and when I called him back, I kept missing him. So I gave his secretary the work number at the branch office, even though we're only supposed to do that for emergencies. But what could I do? He'd never get me on the number you call to get your phone fixed, 611!" (The odds, according to Pacific Telephone, were about one in 50.)

At first Bennett told Vanessa she would merely be the understudy for the Holliday role. Fine, but would the show last? she asked. Should she perhaps take a leave of absence from the phone company, and not quit? Assured that Dreamgirls had long been a smash, Vanessa nevertheless applied, unsuccessfully, for a leave. She then gave two weeks notice and set off for New York for the first time. On the plane, she listened to the Dreamgirls album on her Sony Walkman.

Her first glance at Manhattan was not what she had dreamed of. "It's so old and dirty, and it smells," she says. "And I had expected Broadway to be this big, humongous street with lights everywhere and theaters. I saw some of that, but I saw bums and hookers and dirt, too. I saw the gorgeous side and the not-so-gorgeous side."

Mostly, she saw a furnished room in Brooklyn (she later moved to a studio apartment in a Manhattan high-rise) and the inside of rehearsal halls. Vanessa worked night and day to get inside her character, Effie Melody White, a fiercely strong-willed singer who gets fired from the Dreams, a black R&B group. Engrossed in perfecting Effie's range of silk and sandpaper tones, Vanessa still thought she was the understudy. Then, a few weeks after her arrival, a hairdresser told her he had seen a news leak that she was the new Holliday. "You read it, you got it," confirmed Bennett, who was nevertheless concerned about his decision. "Wouldn't you be worried?" he asks. "When Danielle Darrieux replaced Katharine Hepburn in Coco back in 1970, she was a big star in Paris but nobody knew her here. The show closed." So far audiences are giving Townsell (she refused Bennett's suggestion that she change her name to something more melodic) standing ovations.

Townsell's first stage was the children's choir of the Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Des Moines. Her mother was the choir director. Her father, a butcher for Swift & Co., sang with Sam Cooke, a well-known soul performer in the '60s. After her father's death in 1967, Vanessa, her two brothers and sister moved with their mother to California's San Fernando Valley. Beginning in her high school years, Vanessa worked part-time as a ride operator and later usher at Six Flags Magic Mountain Amusement Park in Valencia. She starred in amateur shows and won several singing and dancing competitions. After three years at California State University at Northridge, she quit to make the audition rounds. Her mother, now an administrator for the NAACP, remembers wondering: "Will anything ever break for my baby?"

Nothing did, so Vanessa decided to chuck it and get a job. "I always liked answering the phone and saying 'Good morning,' " she explains. "I thought the phone company would be fun. Little did I know."

Now that she's a star, Vanessa is adamant about remaining unspoiled: "I see how bigheaded showbiz people are, and I want to stay me, Vanessa." Still, there just might be leeway for a fox coat and slinky dresses. She's struggling with loneliness too. Townsell's boyfriend is a factory worker for Anheuser-Busch in California. But marriage is not imminent. "I don't want to close any doors," she says.

That also goes for her career. Vanessa longs to do a film about the life of Diana Ross and a TV series like Dynasty. "Oh, baby, I'd love to play one of Blake Carrington's women," she reports. Michael Bennett, however, is already considering Vanessa for the leading role in a projected Broadway musical about the late singer Josephine Baker.

Back at the phone company, the office still can't get over the news of Vanessa's success. "You always think something like that could happen," says co-worker Michelle Lowe. "But seeing it happen to Vanessa makes us all think our own dreams will come true."

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