Baltimore's Spiro Malas sings everything from opera to the Everyman of Broadway A MOST HAPPY FELLA

September 13, 1992|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

New York -- Spiro Malas, the Most Happy Fella in the Whole Napa Valley, answers the doorbell himself at the fine old apartment building on the Upper West Side.

Mr. Malas, 6 feet, "250-ish" and Baltimore-born, is immediately imposing. But he makes jokes about his weight in the same bass-baritone that drew the near unanimous approval of theater critics in his starring role in the Broadway revival of "The Most Happy Fella," which just ended a seven-month run at the Booth Theatre.

He dates his fondness for food to his Greek immigrant mother in Baltimore.

"The first three words my mother learned in English were 'Eat, baby, eat.' " If there is food around, I eat it. Now that the show's over, I've got to lose a little weight."

At 58, Spiro Malas has become Everyman, a man for the masses, finding in "Fella's" Tony Esposito someone with whom ordinary people can identify. "Think how many people out there I look like," he says. And he has found that after a distinguished career as a Metropolitan Opera singer, he can be someone special to a much larger audience.

Next Sunday, he will be back in his home town, honoring a commitment of two years ago -- before his Broadway success -- to perform a concert at Second Presbyterian Church in Guilford.

Who would have thought?

Certainly not Glenn Trimmer, his childhood friend and football teammate at Forest Park High School.

"We were in junior college," says Mr. Trimmer, now a Baltimore lawyer. "The next thing I knew Spiro was singing in the Christmas play. He surprised the hell out of me. I didn't know he wanted to sing."

As a freshman at Baltimore Junior College, Mr. Malas approached singing teacher Blanche Ford Bowlsbey and told her he wanted to sing.

"Ms. Bowlsbey said, 'Sing something for me,' " Mr. Malas says. "I just blasted out 'Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam.' She said, 'You need some training.' "

"I thought he had a beautiful voice," says Ms. Bowlsbey, now 86 and living in Finksburg. "He was determined he wanted to sing. Every lunch period, he would come up and say 'Teach me this' or 'Let's go over this.' I missed all my lunch periods.

"He sang his first solo for me at Christmas, 'Birthday of a King.' "

And so it began.

Seeds sown early

Mr. Malas' older sister, Sue Parthemos, who owns Duffy's, the family seafood restaurant in Irvington, with her husband Jimmy, says seeds were sown earlier. "I'm the one who introduced him to music. I got him to listen to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoons on the radio. He was maybe 10."

A window air conditioner hums in the Malas household in the high-rise between Broadway and West End Avenue on a recent, hot summer day. The next day Mr. Malas will be driving his younger son, Nicky, 19, back to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Later in the day, he has an appointment with an agent about a possible movie.

He had signed on to do "The Most Happy Fella" for a year on Broadway, but the run ended Aug. 30. Mr. Malas said he feels that non-profit Lincoln Center, one of the producers, was uncomfortable giving the show the full-scale promotion, such as television advertising, needed for a Broadway hit.

After eight performances a week with the show, counting stops in Connecticut and Los Angeles, there's a little bit of a hole in his life while he looks for work.

L "My agent says, 'Don't worry. Some good things will come.' "

Mr. Malas leaves little doubt that the revival of "The Most Happy Fella," the Frank Loesser 1956 musical, is the best thing that has come into his career in a long time.

"Something about this character and what I have inside of me makes this work for people," he says. Maybe also helping it work is the voice, deep yet gentle with a booming laugh, or the eyes, dark but lively and kind.

In the production, set in 1927, his character, Tony Esposito, a middle-aged Italian grape grower in Napa Valley, Calif., falls in love with a San Francisco waitress, who becomes his mail-order bride.

He patterned Tony Esposito's accent after his father, Sam Malas, who died in 1960 and never heard him sing. "Greek and Italian accents are almost the same," he says.

Sam and Lillian Malas, both from Sparta, Greece, came to Baltimore in 1923. They eventually settled in Forest Park, and along the way came the children: Constantine, or "Gus," the oldest, followed by Sue, Spiro and Mary.

Family ran drugstores

The family ran several drugstores around Baltimore. In 1957, Sam Malas and Sue and her husband bought Duffy's. Mr. Malas worked there at times, and his father hoped he eventually would go into the business. But when his younger son decided he wanted to sing, he said he would pay for the lessons.

The Malases still are a close family. Gus went up to see "The Most Happy Fella" five times, Mary six ("I cried every time"), Sue once and Lillian Malas once. All plan to be at the concert next Sunday. You know it's important when Lillian Malas, now 85, will give up her daily duties of making crab cakes at Duffy's to see her singing son.

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