Farmington resident recounts life in the limelight
FARMINGTON — To hear Sallyanne Bachman tell it, her decades-long career as a musical theater and opera star was more a product of raw chance than design.
"I never really had aspirations of doing this at all," the Albuquerque native, a Farmington resident for the past eight years, said last week while looking through scrapbooks in her north-side condo. "I was in the right place at the right time, and I had what they were looking for."
Bachman has been featured in countless productions over the years, launching her career in Southern California before going on to perform in cities across America, Europe, Russia and even Australia while sharing the stage with such luminaries as Goldie Hawn, Steve Allen, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Red Skelton and others. But when she thinks back on the episode that triggered her ascent to stardom — an appearance on an Albuquerque TV show during her Albuquerque High School years — she acknowledges the role chance played in getting all those dominoes to fall the right way.
Bachman auditioned to appear on a summer TV program on KOAT that essentially was a talent show. She was one of three finalists who were chosen to appear on the program.
But the judges chose another contestant — a boy from Las Cruces who played the violin — as the winner. Bachman figured that was that and set about preparing for her senior year in high school.
That's when fate took an odd turn. The contest rules stipulated that each contestant had to be 18 or younger and a New Mexico resident. As it turned out, the "boy" who won actually was a 21-year-old violinist for the Los Angeles Symphony, and he was disqualified.
Bachman was declared the winner, and at the end of the summer, she joined the 12 weekly winners from the program in a championship competition at the newly opened El Rey Theater in Albuquerque. She delivered a triumphant performance of an aria from the opera "Romeo and Juliet" and was crowned the program's champion.
That qualified her to fly to New York with her mother for an appearance on Ted Mack's "Original Amateur Hour." Bachman was no less impressive in that setting, again claiming the title and earning a scholarship to Julliard.
Ultimately, Bachman would forsake that opportunity, choosing instead to pursue her education at Brigham Young University. But that experience as a 17-year-old gave her her first taste of big-time show business, and Bachman eventually would find her way back to it, even after getting married and starting a family.
She said she sometimes ponders the events of that fateful summer so many years ago and wonders if a career in the limelight might have been lost to her if the winner of that KOAT contest hadn't been declared ineligible.
"Oh, sure," she said, describing how she likely would have moved on with her life without giving the contest another thought. "But I also think the right is going to prevail."
That's exactly how things turned out. Bachman and her BYU boyfriend, L.B., got married and began having children, relocating to the Los Angeles area after graduation. While reading the newspaper one day, Bachman — by then a school teacher — discovered that a new theater company in Anaheim with a 3,500-seat theater called Melodyland was having open auditions. Still confident in her talent because of her earlier success, Bachman tried out and earned a spot in the company, going on to serve as a mainstay for seven years and starring in such productions as "Camelot" and "My Fair Lady."
"My career was destined to happen, I guess," she said.
The work was enjoyable but demanding, as she recalled. New productions opened every two weeks, and company members would rehearse a future production during the day while performing the current production at night. Bachman frequently found herself cast opposite well-known leading men, as the company brought in a different guest star for each production.
One of the dancers in the company was a then-unknown 18-year-old quirky blonde named Goldie Hawn. Bachman said the two became fast friends. She laughingly recalled a wardrobe malfuction from one of the Melodyland productions that she believes Hawn probably would prefer to forget.
In the midst of a dance number, Bachman said, a strap on the top of Hawn's two-piece outfit broke. As if that weren't bad enough, Hawn — at that age, a very young woman who was still developing physically — had taken to augmenting her bust by adding stuffing to the bra of her costume. To Hawn's mortification, Bachman said, it all came spilling out in full view of the audience.
"Nowhere to hide," Bachman said, summarizing the situation and explaining that Hawn's male dance partner did his best to limit her exposure by grabbing and holding up the straps of her costume. But it was too late — Hawn was inconsolable, Bachman said.
"She went back to the dressing room, and she cried and she cried," Bachman said. "She was mortified."
The incident hardly derailed Hawn's career. Within a few years, she would become a star through her appearances on the NBC-TV show "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" before transitioning to film roles and becoming one of Hollywood's leading ladies.
Stardom awaited Bachman, as well. She was spotted by the president of Columbia Artists Inc., a heavyweight New York-based management company for performing artists, and her association with that company would lead to opera roles, concerts and more theater work all over the world.
Bachman laughed when she explained how she had to assume a different identity when she went abroad to sing opera.
"My operatic name was Anna Werner Bachman," she said. "When I went to Europe, they didn't like Sallyanne. They said it sounded like a hoochie-coochie name."
Bachman loved that aspect of her career and said the timing for making such a change was perfect.
"The kids were getting grown, and I had a bigger voice by then," she said. "I could do that without jeopardizing my family. They always came first."
Bachman would continue to perform worldwide for the next several years but finally was forced to abandon singing three years ago after suffering a mild stroke. The affliction did not impact her ability to speak, but her performing days were over.
"It took my singing voice just like that," she said, noting that development was only mildly disappointing. "I was ready to give up singing, but I can still teach."
That she does, having mentored dozens of accomplished artists over the years, including a young Jesse Tyler Ferguson, perhaps best known for his role on the ABC-TV sitcom "Modern Family." She worked with Ferguson for seven years and takes delight in his career success.
Bachman and L.B. settled in Farmington several years ago at the insistence of her daughter, Honey Farley, who is married to local dentist Dan Farley. She maintains singing is the secret to building a long and happy life.
"I have people ask me, 'How can you look so good at 84?' I said, 'It's because I'm a singer.' I never had a time when there wasn't an awful lot to sing about."
Bachman shared that belief with a friend who recently learned she had cancer.
"I told her, 'You need to start taking singing lessons,'" Bachman said. "'It'll bring so much you into your life to be able to sing along with Doris Day and Patti Page.'"
Bachman said performing for people always came naturally to her, but she insists she never let her success lead to misplaced priorities.
"You have to count your blessings before you count your gross receipts," she said.
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.