Gayiel von Geldern commanded the room at Mango’s nightclub in Lavender Heights every Friday night, perched on a high stool with a microphone in hand and a smile peeking out beneath her trademark wide-brimmed hat. When she sang, her brassy alto soared and dipped through jazz and blues classics, finishing with a punchy bravado that spurred thunderous applause from the crowd.
The Sacramento native, known more widely by her stage name Gayiel Von, was an entertainer in every sense of the word, said Jim Jordan, 60, who accompanied her on piano from 2001 until her last Mango’s cabaret show on Nov. 18. The 66-year-old cabaret singer died Saturday of complications from cancer while in hospice care.
Her absence will leave a heartfelt silence where her signature renditions of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Send in the Clowns” once reigned, Jordan said. He remembered meeting Von just after she returned to Sacramento following a successful decade in Los Angeles singing with Sally Kellerman, Ellen Greene and other performers.
“I walk in and there’s this larger-than-life woman with a big hat on and she’s giving this poor man at the piano a hard time,” said Jordan, describing the day he auditioned for her at Faces nightclub. “I sit down at the piano. She throws music at me, and she’s smoking. And she says, ‘Can you play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”?’ ”
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Within days they were performing the Judy Garland classic and about 40 other numbers at regular gigs, eventually moving on to Club 21 (now Barfly) and the Delta King before instituting a weekly show at Mango’s.
“I’ve never worked with someone who had better mike technique, or a better rapport in rehearsal,” Jordan said. “She could pull you into a story and then hit you right between the eyes with lyrics. If there was something going on in the world and people were sad, she would encourage them. She became a friend to them.”
Dennis Mangers, a former state assemblyman and founding member of the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus, said Von was also a beacon for Sacramento’s LGBT community. She helped with fundraising and performed at pride festivals. During times of pain and sadness, such as after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, the community looked to her for hope.
“She was a fierce supporter of human and civil rights, and had seen throughout her musical career how LGBT people were marginalized,” Mangers said. “With that voice, and that sense of passion, she didn’t need to do anything but show up and do that thing she did. … It’s hard to describe. It’s like a hole in your heart, to have her gone.”
Von was also a vocal feminist and an advocate for victims of sexual abuse, said longtime friend Richard Randall. One of her earliest projects in the 1970s was a one-woman show at Earhart’s on 16th Street – a woman-owned restaurant considered a safe haven at the time, he said.
Randall was one of dozens of friends and loved ones who wrote to The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday after a call for stories went up on social media. Some shared funny memories about Von, such as the time she cooked cordon bleu in a hotel fireplace over a Pres-To-Log. Others described the rush they felt when they first heard her voice or the heartbreak that struck with the news came that she’d died.
Von was diagnosed with hepatitis C and then liver cancer about a decade ago, said her sister Joanne Stienkemeyer. She was doing better in recent years with medication and surgery, but two months ago she began to feel ill, and scans this month showed that the cancer had spread to other organs. Last Wednesday, Von entered hospice care.
In addition to her sister, von Geldern is survived by her mother, Gayiel B. von Geldern, brothers Rick and Kurt von Geldern, as well as her nieces and nephews. The family will hold a service at East Lawn Memorial Park at 2 p.m. Saturday.
“The people who knew Gayiel have all attested to the fact that she was a profound impact on their lives, opening them up to creativity, to music, to life,” her mother said. “As far as I’m concerned, a real bright light has gone out.”