Catching Up with the Ukulele Lady

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    There are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of uke players sneaking around the streets of New York. Probably one of the best known among them is Phyllis Capello, aka "Brooklyn's Own Ukulele Lady."

    Thing about Ms. Capello, though, is that she's more than just an extraordinarily talented uke player. She's also an award-winning poet and writer, a storyteller, a teacher and part of the Big Apple Circus' Clown Care Unit, making regular visits (as "Dr. Ukulele Lady") to the children's wards of area hospitals.

    I only recently became aware of the Ukulele Lady when my girlfriend?a uke player herself?told me about her. The two of us not long ago sat around Capello's kitchen table with her and her husband Michael, drinking wine and talking about how all this came to be.

    "I've been a musician since I was 14, playing guitar," Ms. Capello said, in a reasoned, intelligent voice I wasn't expecting from a clown. "And I've always been attracted to tiny little instruments. They're so appealing."

    In 1986, she lost her job at a health food store. That night, upset over the lost income and the prospect of looking for another job, she and Michael drove over to a local music store where she'd heard a uke was for sale. "I sat on a stool?it was a repair shop?and I just started to play. When you're a guitar player, you can pretty much go home and do it immediately. So we bought it." Little did she know how much that little uke would change her life.

    "I began to use it in other jobs that I had?as a gym instructor at the Prospect Park Y. I worked with very young children, from three months to 10 years, in different programs...and I would use music. Parents started asking me to perform at the kids' birthday parties. So I got into that. Nicest part about that is you get to perform for different generations. I liked that a lot."

    As the business grew, she began giving concerts and playing at festivals. Before long, she came to be known as "The Ukulele Lady," with a repertoire of nearly a thousand songs at her fingertips.

    The name, she said, just clicked, giving a respectful nod to May Singhi Breen, who was known as "New York's Ukulele Lady" back in the 20s and 30s.

    Capello became Dr. Ukulele Lady in 1991, after playing a family festival at a local school. "There was one little girl there who was blind, and her father would bring her by, over and over again, and she would ask for the same song. I thought, 'What the heck?' I just unplugged everything and sat on the floor and played her the same song over and over again. He must've brought her back four or five times, and I thought, 'Okay, this is what I'm supposed to be doing. This is meeting the needs of my audience.'"

    As if on cue, Capello was approached by two members of the Clown Care Unit?which hires magicians, musicians, jugglers and other performers?who suggested that she might be a good candidate for the program.

    "Me, being a poet, working as a clown, it's not that big a step, because of that tradition of the commedia. I kind of got into clowning through the back door of being a musician. But being a musician who can think on her feet."

    When she took the job with the Clown Care Unit, she had been teaching poetry at local schools five days a week. Nowadays, she works the hospitals three days a week, and the schools the other two. On top of all that, she's just created her own program, Intuitive Learning, in which she combines teaching poetry with her music.

    "I use the ukulele to teach poetry, because the kids pay attention to lyrics. Lyrics are images?and it's a great focus. Once you've won them, you can teach whatever you want."

    Once, while returning to work after a lunch-break visit to a clown colleague's father in the adult wing of a hospital, she found herself on a crowded elevator. "There was a Mexican janitor, who looked at my little ukulele. He was so excited to see it. And I began to play 'La Bamba'?just playing it. I wasn't going to sing. I figure, 'Here's two women, we're dressed up as clowns, this is the adult hospital, don't push it.' The doors open up, and a mentally handicapped woman gets on. She hears me playing, and she starts to sing it! So when we get to the chorus, I said, 'Everybody!' And the whole elevator sang. It was better than a Woody Allen movie."

    Her talent, she says, is especially useful in the most devastating of circumstances. As she puts it, "You can't save any lives, you're not a medical person, but you can capture someone's attention for a moment, and give them a song, or tell them a joke, or sit down and tell a story. You never know when the situations are right for those things, but it's so interesting to try and figure that out."

    Two years ago, she pulled all her different talents together into a one-woman show, Careless Love, which she performed at the Kitchen.

    "When I got the job with the Clown Care Unit," she explained, "I realized that I could use the poems that I knew, I could use all the stories I knew. So I could go back and cross-pollinate. I wanted to get a little attention for my poetry and to tell a story, and find the songs that would complement the poetry... It was an experiment for me. There are several things that I said I would never do, like act. So there I was, acting in a theater. And I'm not an actress, but I realized that it was a component for what I was trying to do, which was putting all those pieces together in a dramatic, interesting, funny way."

    Her next major project?something she dreams of doing, at least?involves an exchange of songs and stories between the children of Brooklyn and the children of Hawaii.

    She admits that it all adds up, in the end, to a lot of responsibility. "If I say I'm going to be your teacher, then I'm going to be your teacher. And I need to do that. I would love to stay home and write, and do the occasional storytelling and concert?that's my first love and will always be my first love. People say, 'How do you do this job with all these sick kids?' The music makes it possible for me to do it. It makes me breathe."

    Then she pulled out her ukulele and played "On the Sunny Side of the Street."

    You may contact Ms. Capello at, or through her website at