In her youth, Gladys Mitchell seemed destined for a career as a singer, the one thing she loved more than anything else. She attended the famous arts high school the movie Fame was based on—the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan—and won a full scholarship to New York University.
But then she took a break from school to work as a 911 dispatcher, found she enjoyed having a regular paycheck, and told herself that she could always go back to her music someday.
That someday took more than three decades to arrive. Only after she overcame tragedy and self-doubt did Mitchell fulfill her destiny to sing live on stage in New York. Today, at age 59, the lesson is clear. “It’s never too late to do what you’ve always wanted to do,” she says.
Why someday was almost never
Secure in her dispatcher job, Mitchell married, had three daughters, and was too busy to think about performing in public until she was asked to sing at a ceremony honoring 911 dispatchers, held annually on September 11th. By then, she was 42.
She agreed, but the event never took place.
On the day of the ceremony, her first call that morning came from a man in a high-rise building who said, “I don’t want you to think I’m crazy, but I just saw a jetliner crash into the World Trade Center.”
The date, of course, was September 11, 2001. One crying man offered her a million dollars if she could get his wife out of the burning tower. For some callers, Mitchell and the other dispatchers were the last voices they heard. The ordeal was so horrifying that many of her colleagues quit soon afterwards.
Mitchell was also traumatized, but stayed on until she retired seven years later, after 26 years on the job. She still prefers not to speak too much about the experience. “It’s only recently that I can talk about it without getting so emotional,” she says.
The obstacles mount
As the years went on, other catastrophes got in the way of singing. Her husband left the family abruptly in 2002, leaving her to raise their three daughters on her own.
In one dizzying year, 2008, she suffered a heart attack; her mother had a stroke and died; her youngest daughter Briana was in a near-fatal car accident; and her middle daughter Danielle was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma (she is now cancer-free).
The only singing she managed was in a church choir she joined in 2004.
But her biggest obstacle, Mitchell admits, was herself. In her early 20s, she got a callback for the lead in a Harlem musical called Mama, I Want to Sing but blew it off. The same thing happened with Bring Back Birdie, the Broadway sequel to Bye Bye Birdie.
When producers of Fame wanted to talk to her about appearing in that 1980 film, the movie inspired by her high school, she skipped classes that day.
The voice within
The reasons for Mitchell’s self-sabotage were varied and complex but rooted in insecurity. “No matter how much people said I was talented, I never believed that myself,” she says. “I never thought I was good enough.”
Whenever she sang, it made people cry, and that power frightened her. She was also discouraged by her mother, who considered a music career impractical and convinced her to study nursing in college, in addition to music, in hopes that it would lead to a more reliable job.
The only time Mitchell performed outside of church was in 2006, when her oldest daughter Tracey convinced her to audition for a one-night stage version of Dreamgirls to promote the release of the movie. She got the lead role of Effie and her mother, who had never seen her sing in public, came to the show.
She was amazed. “I never knew you were so talented!” her mother said.
Her biggest fan
Mitchell’s singing career might have ended there were it not for the persistence of Tracey, who still calls herself her mother’s biggest fan. In the spring of 2012, Tracey insisted that she audition for a new musical in Harlem called Alive!: 55+ and Still Kicking.
Nearly 54 at the time, Mitchell assumed that her youthful dreams of commanding the spotlight and singing to rapturous applause were over. She was sure she would never be chosen once the show’s co-creator, Vy Higginsen, figured out that she was the same woman who had failed to appear for the callback for Mama, I Want to Sing!, a show Higginsen had put together some 30 years earlier.
But the theme of Alive! was all about second chances and making your dreams come true. So when Higginsen finally connected the dots, she gave Mitchell the part.
Featuring talented but obscure performers who tell their real-life stories of triumph over adversity, Alive! was the perfect vehicle for Mitchell’s comeback. On stage she told her epic tale–about her childhood aspirations, single motherhood, the horrific ordeal of 9/11, skipping callbacks, and, finally, her glorious return to the stage.
The climax of her performance, the song that never fails to brings down the house, is The Impossible Dream from the musical Man of La Mancha. A woman of faith, Mitchell does not believe it was mere coincidence that the show’s creators choose the same song that she had performed at her eighth-grade graduation.
“That song is about my life,” she says. “It’s saying that whatever you think is impossible can always become possible. Go ahead and grab it. It can happen.”
Never too late
For the last six years, Alive! has been staged in the fall and spring to sold-out audiences. Mitchell says people often approach her after the show to thank her for her service on 9/11, and for inspiring them to follow their deepest desires.
She is not becoming rich as a singer, but that was never the point. “When I can see that I genuinely touch someone to their soul, that my story and my song meant something to them, it’s the best,” she says.
Now she is appearing in a new show by Higginsen and her husband, Ken Wydro, called Let the music play … gospel!
“When my ex-husband totally abandoned us in 2002, I could have broken down,” she says. “But I had three girls to raise, and I needed to be an example that no matter what you go through in life, you got to stay with it. Because life is for the living—you can’t just die and give up.”
She pauses, her voice breaking. “And for once I can really say that I’m proud of myself.” And with that, Mitchell begins to cry.
“I feel like I’m reinventing myself now,” she says, gathering herself. “I was a wife, a mother, a dispatcher. Now it’s my time, my turn.”