The waitress at Canter's Deli looks vaguely annoyed as Aida Vedischeva makes herself at home in a back booth, spreading her memorabilia across the table. The Russian singer is coiffed in the platinum blonde Marilyn-style hairdo of decades ago, and her green eyes are brought out by the zebra-print scarf dramatically tossed over one shoulder. The disgruntled waitress brings coffee and blintzes, but doesn't ask for an autograph.
Like most Americans, the waitress has never heard of Amazing Aida. When Vedischeva left Russia in 1980, she had sold more than 30 million albums. Her songs were featured on the soundtracks of the most popular Russian movies of the decade. She performed on the famed stages of Moscow and St. Petersburg. She was dubbed the "Marilyn Monroe of Russia" by her fans and called herself "Amazing Aida."
Now, after 24 years in the United States, obscurity has not suited her. Today the singer is armed with props -- old playbills, faded posters, glossy photographs, newspaper reviews in Russian, magazine articles in English, video tapes of past performances, letters of praise, letters of rejection, even a Russian encyclopedia with an entry under 'V' for Vedischeva -- that she spreads across the table.
Amazing Aida sits amid a sea of her own memorabilia reconstructing the story of her life.
"I came to America because our government was bureaucratic," she began. "Our leaders were so jealous they didn't give us freedom to create. You sing whatever they want. You do whatever they want. We were like soldiers. It is not like here."
At the time, the Soviet Union had sealed itself off from open contact with the West and other noncommunist countries. Citizens were denied many liberties including political and religious freedom, and in 1972 restrictions on Jewish migration were instituted. Despite these hardships, however, Amazing Aida's career thrived -- that is, until the government decided to take away her musicians.
After eight months of rehearsals for her new musical, with no warning and no explanation, the government sent the entire band to Europe. This was a wake-up call for Vedischeva.
"We did not have freedoms," she states in her still-thick Russian accent. "We did not have liberties."
So the Russian superstar decided to shed her floor-length sequined gowns, abandon her adoring fans, give up the spotlight and make her way to New York City.
What she found there amazed her.
"I went to study Judaism that I never could study in Russia," Aida said. "I was so grateful there is no anti-Semitism and you do whatever you want and nobody punishes you for that."
Thus began Aida's love affair with America. Like many good love stories, however, this one also has its fair share of angst. While Amazing Aida embraced her new country with the fervor of an immigrant, America responded with apathy. Despite fleeting moments in the spotlight -- she performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York -- in America, Amazing Aida was anonymous.
"She is as well-known in Russia as Barbra Streisand is here." said Irene Parker, editor of Almanakh Panorama, a Russian-language newspaper in Los Angeles. That Amazing Aida's career failed to translate in her new country is a story, Parker said she has heard often.
"That is common for all immigrants," she explained. "She is not as young as she was at the time and it is a human tragedy that occurs when you change countries, change languages."
But Amazing Aida did not let this setback beat her. She used her immigrant experience as fodder for a new musical based on her own story and the story of her favorite symbol of America -- the Statue of Liberty. The musical, which at different times has been called "Masterpiece" and "Singing Liberty" and later "Miss Liberty for the New Millennium," parallels the statue's journey from France to America with Aida's own exodus from Russia.
After Sept. 11, the patriotic mood of the country sparked interest in pro-American themes and the show garnered praise from prominent figures, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Once again a star was born and Amazing Aida found herself in the spotlight.
Now Amazing Aida is putting on a new show, "Young at Heart: Your Favorite Songs of the 20th Century," a bevy of blockbuster Broadway hits in English, Russian and Hebrew. The theme is freedom.
"I think it is always the right time to honor liberty," she said.
At Canter's, as Aida surveys the retrospective of souvenirs fanned out before her on the diner table, she rejects a theme of heartbreak and chooses a happy ending.
"I accomplished two lifetimes; instead of one I have two," Vedischeva said. "This is my exodus."
"Young at Heart," starring Aida Vedischeva, will play at Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd. on Saturday, May 8, 7 p.m. For more Information, call (323) 876-8330.
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