Island Profile: Broadway didn’t beckon as much as the church

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Norma Camp at the piano in her South Ferry Road living room.

Norma Camp, the retiring cantor and soloist at Our Lady of the Isle Roman Catholic Church, started life in a Lutheran household, the daughter of a German man who came to the U.S. in the 1930s for a job in electrical engineering. Her mother was a former Sears Roebuck catalogue model with a beautiful singing voice he’d met at the RKO theatre in White Plains where he ended up working.

“I love nuns! I think they’re just wonderful,” Norma said this week at her South Ferry Road home overlooking Smith Cove during a chat about her life. In fact, nuns and the church — in which the nuns involved her through music — became so important she was baptized a Catholic at age 13 along with one of her sisters.

Telling the story so succinctly it must be a well-worn family legend, she explained that “two things happened that really changed my life” after her father, Henry Korn, lost his job because he’d been seriously injured in a car accident in 1940.

For one thing, the family had to move “about 18 times.” When they finally settled in Elmsford, New York, her mother enrolled her in a parochial school, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Elementary, only because she couldn’t find the local public school. Two nuns walking nearby overheard her plight and suggested their school as an alternative

Sister Mary Sebastian, Norma’s fourth grade teacher, became her mentor, guiding her into the choir. Beginning in fifth and sixth grades, she started singing masses “so it’s been a long time that I’ve been singing in churches,” she said.

The Korn family could not afford tuition at Academy of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in White Plains but the nuns made sure she had a full scholarship there. “They were just wonderful to me,” Norma said. “They saw to it that I got hand-me-down uniforms and they really took good care of me. They fostered my singing — a lot. I joined the glee club and the drama club. We sang concerts all over. I sang at the Plaza Hotel in New York, I sang at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

The second thing that happened was someone gave the family an old upright piano for which there was no room so it went in the basement, next to the washing machine. Her father would accompany her as she sang and “showed me which note went with which note in the music and that’s how I learned to read music,” Norma said. “My mother would do the laundry in a big tub next to the piano and I would just sing away and all the neighbors would listen.”

“We were Lutheran. My father was Lutheran. My mother was a Catholic, though. We were treated so well at the Catholic school and I was so in with the nuns that my sister and I were baptized Catholic.”

Growing up, she entered a lot of local singing contests “and I usually did pretty well.” In high school, a student at Archbishop Stepinac High School for boys in White Plains named Alan Alda needed a female lead for a show he’d written called “Love’s the Ticket.” Norma landed the part. Alda’s father, Broadway actor Robert Alda, found the time to coach the cast even though he was starring in “Guys and Dolls” every night.

After asking the nuns if it would be okay, she did a stint on an early TV talent show called “Video Venus,” on which she sang “The Desert Song” but didn’t win. “It was very exciting. I got to meet Sara Vaughan. When we got fitted for gowns, she was in the next dressing room.”

She met her husband, Hilbert Camp in the RKO theatre where her father worked. As a teenager, she worked there too, as an usher, and would sit in the balcony to watch the shows. Hilbert made a point of sitting next to her and asked her out.

She and Hilbert got serious a couple of year later, when he was a grade school teacher working in Armonk and she was a student at Good Counsel College. She left in her sophomore year when they decided to get married.

They moved to Levittown, where his parents had bought them a house, and began raising a family — two sons, Jeffrey and William. Both live on Long Island today; the Camps have four grandsons, one granddaughter and two great-grandsons.

The Camps had no honeymoon but eventually gave themselves a weekend trip to the Pridwin, knowing next to nothing about Shelter Island. They visited a few more times on their sailboat but didn’t think much about the Island for years.

Meanwhile, they moved to larger houses in suburban Suffolk and Norma sang in the local Catholic churches. Then in 1968, “When the boys were getting a little older, I decided to try out for a part” in Sayville Musical Workshop’s production of “The Sound of Music.”

She didn’t get the lead —  she played a nun and sang in the chorus — but she did land the leads in “Of Thee I Sing,” “New Moon” and “Little Mary Sunshine,” and she went on to join Theatre Three in Port Jefferson where she landed the lead in “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

For all her talent and drive, she never pined for a professional career. “I think I was too young,” she said. “I had decided I wanted to be married more than anything … I really never felt the call to Hollywood, which my mother so desired.”

After Hilbert’s retirement from the West Islip school system in 1976, they researched a number of places to move. Sailing had to be a part of it — although Norma has been sticking to dry land for some years now after a particularly challenging sail to Block Island.

Remembering their Pridwin visit, they came here to look around, found the plot with a view of Smith Cove and bought it. A builder put up the shell of their custom-designed house and the Camps and their sons bit by bit did all the interior work.

“He’s terrific. He can do anything,” Norma said of her husband.

She joined the OLOI choir as soon as they moved here. It was disbanded briefly under one priest but it was restored in 1979. She ran the religious education program for six years and served on the Parish Council for six years.  Father Peter DeSanctis named her head cantor, a job that has included planning the music for more than 300 funerals.

Besides singing, Norma is a collector of antique buttons, European and American, a hobby that grew out of her fascination with dollhouses and dolls. She’s served as president of local, state and regional button societies.

At 79, she’s retiring from her cantor duties at Our Lady of the Isle for several reasons. “It’s time to enjoy other people doing the work,” she said. She also feels her voice isn’t quite what it used to be.

But maybe more important, she said she’d like to be out with the parishioners when it’s time to sing and hear more of their voices.