John O'Neil - Interviews

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Fenway News, September 30, 2011

Loves Singing, Dancing, Teaching? He's in the Perfect Neighborhood For It!

by Anne Tobin

In a 2007 interview, John O'Neil was asked, "Have you always liked performing?" "I have!" he enthusiastically replied. "My first performance on stage was when I was five years old. My neighbor and babysitter, Judy Kelly, decided to mount a musical extravaganza. She set up folding chairs; cast me as Peter Pan. There was no turning back."

O'Neil has lived in the Fenway for nearly a decade, and loves it for many reasons. One of the most important is his proximity to work that he loves. He teaches theater courses at Wheelock Family Theatre and offers private voice and piano lessons as well as coaching things like how to audition. "I've been asked how it feels to have my dreams come true," he told The Fenway News in a recent interview in his East Fens co-op apartment. "In fact, what I'm doing now was never part of my dreams. But as I've moved from performing to teaching, I feel that I'm helping other people achieve their dreams—I'm around a lot of people with dreams every day."

He particularly enjoys working with middle-aged people who come to him saying "I've always wanted to sing, but been told that I can't." He tells them "this is the place that you can." Remembering his own upbringing—"when in high school chorus I had a phenomenal and inspiring teacher and found my home in music"—he tries now to make up for "overzealous teachers who lock people up by telling them they aren't good enough." He finds that in some of these cases that "teaching becomes life coaching, sometimes even mentoring. What I love most about teaching is watching someone more than 50 years old, who's had a lot of growth in other parts of life, be able to let go of their 'inability to sing'"

When he moved to the Fenway in 2002, he remembers "at first I didn't find that sense of neighborhood. Then I thought that having a dog I'd have to walk would help me get to know the community and meet people. My family members were great fans of the dog track. I noticed an article in The Boston Globe describing the "rescued greyhound" project. So I adopted one named McNally. He helped me learn the neighborhood. Within five months, I knew my choice was perfect." McNally died recently after nine years of providing his own special brand of companionship.

While concentrating on teaching, O'Neil has not given up performing. "The hat I've worn the longest is that of a cabaret singer. I started in 1990. One night the piano player at the Napoleon Club didn't show up, and being a regular patron, I was there and went up to the manager and told him I could do the gig. Over the years, I've sung at dozens of piano bars. Now I sing at Club Café and Susan Bailis House regularly. For 22 years, I sang five nights a week. Now, I perform about 50 shows a year. Now it has to be a very tempting offer for me to be interested.

"The simplicity of a singer—a mike and a song—is no longer 'in vogue' listening to the silence in between. It's a different time; the audience is 'aging out.' Now, a lot more of my time is in entertainment with seniors. For example I perform and sing at the Susan Bailis House regularly."

If you don't catch him in any of these other venues, make sure to attend his annual Christmas show at the Peterborough Senior Center. You will get a taste of why his students depend so much on him, and why his neighbors are so glad that he decided to live in this neighborhood.

Anne Tobin lives in the East Fens. A slightly different version of this article appears in the October 2011 edition of the Fenway News

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