As if darkening our venues and derailing our careers with COVID wasn’t enough, 2020 has also stolen from Orlando’s performing arts community a heartbreaking number of beloved members, decimating a generation of local theatrical talents. The latest shock came over an emotionally draining holiday weekend, as Central Florida lost not one but two shining stars, who just happened to share the same body.
Sam Singhaus passed away on Oct. 12 following a brief battle with brain cancer, mere months after the death of his sister-in-law, costume designer Marcy Singhaus. A talented singer and dancer, Sam performed in the original Broadway productions of the classic musicals La Cage aux Follies and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, before returning home to Orlando in the late 1980s to found the fondly remembered Big Bang nightclub.
Singhaus was a frequent fixture on Orlando stages, often in shows created by his friend Michael Wanzie (most recently last month). But he was perhaps even better known as Miss Sammy, his drag persona, who became an icon of Central Florida’s LGBTQ+ community. A consummate emcee and undisputed queen of trivia nights, Miss Sammy had a fabulous 1950s housedress and a cunning quip for every occasion, and no Parliament House production or Pride event felt complete without one of her signature lip-synced songs. (“Sisters” from White Christmas was always my favorite.)
Even before I knew Miss Sammy, I became a fan of Sam’s after attending David Lee’s productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which Singhaus performed “Wicked Little Town” as movingly as composer Stephen Trask. And for this Jew, the highlight of my Christmas season was always sharing a stiff cocktail with Miss Sammy at 1618 Something Different during Ivanhoe Village’s annual Jingle Eve stroll.
Most importantly, while Miss Sammy could sometimes have a sharp tongue, Sam was one of the kindest, most caring people you could ever hope to know. Although deeply passionate in his progressive politics (yes, he got to vote this year, according to friend Beth Marshall), Singhaus was warm and welcoming to people of every persuasion. I’m certain Miss Sammy’s infectious good humor helped convert more than one social conservative into a drag fan over the decades.
Although I crossed paths countless times with both Sam and Miss Sammy at Fringe Festival events and various fundraisers, I deeply regret never getting to work closely with Singhaus on a show. I tried to cast him in my 2009 Orlando Fringe parody The Karate Guy as Daniel LaRusso’s mom (we went there a decade before Cobra Kai!) but despite his fluency with improvisation, Sam declined because he was insecure about his ability to memorize scripted dialogue. I’m sure he would have been wonderful in the role, assuming he managed to show up on time; Singhaus’ endearing eternal tardiness even extended to his extended final exit, which provoked an overwhelming outpouring of memories on social media over several days.
I’m frankly at a loss for words, so I’m turning this space over to some of Singhaus’ close friends and posting (with their permission) a small portion of the heartfelt tributes they’ve been sharing.
Kenny Howard (producer/director)
We have lost a true original. One who we will remember constantly because of his active life in making Orlando a happier place. His laugh was contagious, his smile enchanting, and we are better people for having known him.
Janine Klein (performer)
When I was 16 I had the privilege of being the youngest cast member in La Cage [at the former Civic Theatre] … I was mildly obsessed with NYC, Broadway and Sammy. So I concocted an idea that would allow me to shadow him for a day. I told him I had a project assigned where I had to interview a person who I admired and I had to spend the day with them. Sam was fine with it, he had no idea I fibbed just to spend the day with him. (I told him years later.) I remember his green car with the funky leopard seat covers. I remember him reading my tarot cards, I remember him letting me go to Big Bang and watching him stock the bars and afterwards he taught me how to spin records, I remember we had a show that night and we were sitting in the shop at Civic and he told me what Broadway was like. He told me his journey, about deciding to head out to NYC instead of college, then we got to do an incredible show that night. He was so kind to an awkward, insecure theater kid that day.
It was the beginning of a 30-year friendship. Sam, Marcy and Steve became the family I always longed for. Eccentric, classy, full of stories that could make you howl with laughter. The Caretakers that listened to and dealt with the ups and downs of everyone’s life. A family that loved and embraced my son.
I cannot express in words the heartache this year has brought to our tribe. I try to compartmentalize. I try to live life with the same fervor, zest and kindness they shared with our close-knit community. Honestly, though, this year feels like a surreal nightmare that will not end.
Rebecca Fisher (performer)
I met Sam Singhaus in the spring of 1990. Joe and I were making plans to start our family and a new life in Orlando. Sam had recently left Broadway to open a nightclub in downtown Orlando called Big Bang. Our college friend, David Lee, introduced us. David was starting a theater company, and we moved up to be part of that. Sam gave our fledgling theater company, The Per4mAnts, a venue to perform our plays in. Sam also allowed Bobby Frederick Tilley and I to hang up and sell our one-of-a-kind club fashions in the back room. We set up our makeshift boutique once a week for about a year. It allowed me to get my groove on in a safe space, and have a young mom’s night out while earning a little grocery money.
Over the years, Sam and I worked together performing for many benefits and Pride events. We did five incarnations of Hedwig and the Angry Inch together with David Lee and some amazing musicians. Sam was Captain Morgan on the Organ (he came up with that). Sam and his sister-in-law, Marcy, are a big part of why I became infatuated with mid-century design. I loved their taste, and it influenced mine. Sam, his brother Steve, and Marcy became family to my family.
I am grateful to Sam for his friendship, his sense of humor, his zest for life, the joy he brought to our tribe, and countless others. When I got to be his visitor at the hospital, he never stopped cracking up the nurses and staff. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in early September. It is surreal that he is gone less than three months after the loss of Marcy. To everyone who loved him, my heart goes out to you.
Steve Schneider (journalist)
Whenever someone passes away, people have a tendency to overstate their good qualities for the sake of respect. So please believe me that I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that Sam Singhaus was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known.
Anytime I ran into him, it made a bad night better and a good night fabulous. His eyes showed about twice the life of a normal human’s. He had a quick wit that he used for good instead of evil. He just GLOWED.
And most important, he lived his life like an Eveready battery of enthusiasm and encouragement. All you had to do was hint to Sam that there was some challenge you were thinking of taking on, or some personal happiness you hoped might be within your grasp, and he didn’t just tell you it was possible – he acted like it was already a foregone conclusion. Of COURSE you were going to take that hill. Of COURSE you were entitled to that little corner of Heaven you had your eye on. Why on Earth would you ever think anything different?
By the time I met Sam, in the late ’90s, he was already a star of the Orlando theatrical and drag worlds. I can’t even begin to imagine the courage and fortitude it must have taken to be who he was at the time he did it. And to be so secure in it that he could devote himself so reliably to bolstering the rest of us – well, it just leads you to the unavoidable conclusion that some people are simply born better.
The last time I spoke to him, we were both waiting for a mutual friend’s play to begin. As we stood at the bar and chatted, I noticed how much he had begun to remind me of the latter-day David Lee Roth. I told him I’d really like to see him play Dave in a show someday. He was enthusiastic about the idea, telling me about the parts he had played and the skills he possessed that he could draw on to make it work. Typical Sam: an offhand observation turned into a road map, in 10 seconds flat.
Maybe he’s doing that show right now, somewhere in the multiverse. I hope I got to write it for him. But I’d be happy enough just to be in the audience.
Rest well, Sam. I don’t know if you’ll ever understand how much you meant to us. You probably thought you were just being you. But boy, did it make us happy.
John Ryan (writer/performer)
The world is a more joyous place because Sam Singhaus lived in it. Sam Singhaus changed my life. When 10-year-old me saw him perform as Patrick Swayze in drag in The Bill and Ted Show, it was as if he opened a portal that granted me a glimpse into what my adult life would look like. The entirety of my future life seemed to be encapsulated in that brief, marvelous performance.
In college, when I fell in love with the original cast album of La Cage Aux Folles, his voice on the recording taught me to "face life, though it's sometimes sweet and sometimes bitter ... face life with a little guts and LOTS OF GLITTER."
I had the privilege to meet him as an adult and become friends ... then family. He was my window into the fantasy world of Broadway that I had always dreamed of. More importantly, he taught me that life isn't worth living without a song, that rescued animals make the best friends, and that there is absolutely no reason a man can't unapologetically stroll into Publix to grocery shop wearing a full face of drag makeup, a baseball cap, jean shorts and an armless plaid shirt.
Miss Sammy was the hostess with the mostess in Orlando ... if not the world. She knew how to make every person from every walk of life feel welcomed and charmed and talented. Not only could she conjure up a fabulous karaoke party at the drop of a hat, she was equally at home leading a Pride march, or campaign rally, or political protest. She was a glittering amalgamation of Endora from Bewitched, Dolly Gallagher Levi, and John Waters. She knew how to make every human she encountered feel fabulous – even if they had been overserved at a gay bar, even if they were a bunch of bikers vacationing on a cruise ship, even if they happened to be 22-year-old me timidly stepping into Cocktail Hour at the Peacock Room.
Together, Sammy and I channeled Lucille Ball, tap danced in caftans at the Parliament House, baked a very strange cake, and danced together at Roseland while Kristin Chenoweth sang above us on a swing with Vanessa Williams.
Sam Singhaus didn't just change my life. He made it better. He made me better. Miss Sammy made the world a kinder, funnier place. Sam gave the world music and joy and thousands upon thousands of hilariously inappropriate Photoshopped pictures of himself in various compromising positions. He gave me confidence. He gave me family.
Thank you, Sam. I will think of you every time I put on a wig, which will be often. You taught me how to say, "Hey world, I am what I am!" For that, I will be forever grateful. Take a bow. You deserve it.
Bravo, Sam. Bravo.
Finally, let’s let Sam himself have the final word with this clip of him performing “We Are What We Are” at the 1984 Tony Awards (look for his closeup starting at 0:37).