The little known Society of Singers (SOS) is a high note when a singer hits a low note, metaphorically speaking.
Founded in 1984 by Ginny Mancini (Henry Mancini's widow), SOS, a nonprofit public benefit corporation, is the only charitable organization of its kind—dedicated exclusively to the needs of singers who have fallen on hard times.
To date, the Los Angeles-based organization—with offices in New York—has serviced, in various capacities, over 2,000 singers.
"The biggest problem is a lack of housing for destitute singers," says Fran Warren, a legendary Big Band singer, who serves on the SOS board. "In California, although not yet in New York, some subsidized housing is available through SOS. Other problems that singers face are illness, accidents, drug and alcohol abuse. The problems run the gamut and so do the singers who represent a cross-section, age-wise and in terms of professional experience and background."
Still, to qualify for SOS help, singers have to have made their livings singing for at least five years, although not necessarily five years in a row. In many ways, SOS functions similarly to the Actors' Fund, albeit on a smaller scale. Indeed, many singers have gone to the Actors' Fund in times of need, but these singers (those who utilize the Actors' Fund) are, for the most part, Broadway singers and/or cabaret singers (most of whom are Broadway performers) and members of Actors' Equity.
"What makes SOS unique is that we service all singers—jazz, rock, pop, and of course those who perform in musical theatre and cabaret—regardless of their union affiliation," explains Warren, adding that singers who contact SOS often have no health insurance or benefits of any kind. "Even the most successful singers may work sporadically and/or find themselves abruptly unemployed. Like actors [and other artists], they may not have saved any money and are unable to make a living at anything else."
Not unexpectedly, SOS now has a Singers' Work Program on the boards that will offer career retraining, counseling, computer classes, and tuition assistance, if necessary.
SOS operates on an annual budget of approximately $550,000, monies coming mostly from members' dues ($50 a year), private donations, and fund-raising galas that honor singing stars. Upcoming galas will pay tribute to Julie Andrews (in Los Angeles on April 25) and Bobby Short (in New York on Oct. 22), respectively.
SOS is staffed predominantly by volunteers, although the organization boasts four full-time paid employees—including an on staff social worker—out of its Los Angeles flagship office, reachable through a toll-free singers' help line (888-570-1318).
Singers who call will talk with social worker Wendy Garfinkle, who'll ask for some general background—like how did you hear about us and why did you call? If, after a brief conversation, Garfinkle feels the singer has a valid claim, an application will then be sent to the singer.
"Once we receive the application, processing time will take a day to a week, although we prioritize," says Garfinkle. "Obviously, if someone is about to be evicted, have his lights turned out, or is in a medical crises—that takes precedence over non-emergencies. We spend on monthly emergency grants approximately $35,000."
Applications are screened in Los Angeles and then may be referred to volunteers in other states. On occasion, SOS will contact the charitable arms of the various entertainment unions if a singer needs more money than SOS can provide. SOS's cap is currently $3,000, recently raised from $2,500. For singers who require life-time assistance, the cap is now $10,000, raised from $7,500.
SOS is actively helping 48 singers, 17 of whom need long-term assistance of one kind or another. It should be stressed that SOS honors its clients' privacy and is determined to protect it.
Down the road, SOS looks forward to the time when the organization has branches worldwide, in addition to myriad retreats, workshops, and outreach programs for singers—before they become singers in need of SOS.