When Thomas Lauderdale began getting a "little orchestra" together in 1994 to play for progressive and environmental causes around Portland, he had no clue the group would still be going strong for Oregon's sesquicentennial in 2009.
"The fact that it works at all is astonishing to me," says Pink Martini's founder, pianist and music director. "I liked the concept and the material and thought other people might, but I never really thought about what it could become."
After three successful albums and years of international touring, Portland-based Pink Martini is just your basic 12-piece orchestra of classically trained musicians playing music that sounds like it's from a Hollywood musical of the 1940s re-mixed by a multicultural genius to play in Europe and the Middle East. They have a new album due out in October and a looming Oregon mini-tour during which they will take on the road a theatrical piece written by funnyman Stan Freberg for Oregon's centennial in 1959. Lauderdale says in a phone interview he's up to his knees in rehearsals for "Oregon! Oregon!"
Slated for shows at the State Fair in Salem, in Portland and in Bend, the show will be presented at the Britt Festivals in Jacksonville Sunday evening, Aug. 30. Joining the band will be the 234th Army Band from the Oregon National Guard and a cast of about a dozen, bringing the total number of performers on stage to about 100.
"It's delightful, corny and far-fetched," Lauderdale says. "And irresistible. What other state beside Oklahoma has its own musical?"
The Oregon Centennial Commission in 1958 hired radio personality Stan Freberg to create a musical for the state's 100th birthday. The result was "Oregon! Oregon! A Centennial Fable in Three Acts." The plot, attributed to "M. Goose," resembles the tale of Rumpelstitskin, who this time is a witch who "bottles" states (Blitz, the Oregon beer company, was a sponsor). When Oregon is uncorked, the Witch tells two explorers named Harry and David that it must go back in the bottle after 100 years.
The re-written, 20-some-minute musical — Lauderdale and a team of writers has added a new final act — will occupy the middle of the Britt show Sunday. The Army band will lead off, and the third set will be Pink Martini music.
Lauderdale met China Forbes, Pink Martini's "diva next door" lead vocalist, when both were students at Harvard. He was studying history and literature, she was studying painting, English lit and theater. She would sing Verdi and Puccini while he accompanied her on piano. Three years later, Lauderdale called Forbes in New York City and asked her to join Pink Martini.
Their first song "Sympathique," or "Je ne veux pas travailler" (I don't want to work) was a huge hit in France, and the band persevered, growing from four musicians to 12 and building a multilingual repertoire it has played with symphony orchestras throughout Europe, Asia, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Canada and the United States.
The group's first two albums have each sold more than 1 million copies, almost unheard of for an indie band with its own label.
"We have profit sharing," Lauderdale says. "With a major label we might divide 50 cents per album, with us it's maybe $6. Everybody has bought homes. I like that."
Pink Martini music has an international flavor, but Lauderdale says the band keeps it accessible on purpose.
"It appeals to young people and older people," he says. "We can play with symphonies and do concerts, stay in Oregon or go global.
"A disco album you can only listen to on certain occasions, it becomes too much and you have to turn it off. I hope people want to listen again and again — vacuuming, at dinner parties, for the first dance at a wedding ... "
As Lauderdale points out, there are few places people sing in contemporary America. One is church. Maybe it's no coincidence that his father was a minister in the Church of the Brethren when he was growing up in Indiana.
"I grew up on the old hymns," he says. "I loved the melodies of the classics — 'Just a Closer Walk With Thee' — ... those are irresistible."
He says the Lauderdales had exactly six albums on an old, reel-to-reel tape machine. The artists were Ray Conniff, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, The New Christy Minstrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the sound track from "Jesus Christ Superstar."
In time Lauderdale developed a taste for under-appreciated cult singers. One of the foremost is his idol, Jimmy Scott, the iconic but much neglected jazz singer. Another is a 90-year-old ranchera singer from Costa Rica featured on the new album.
When he isn't rehearsing, writing and arranging, Lauderdale won't exactly rule out a run for mayor in Portland.
"Maybe," he says. "First I've gotta write the tell-all book."