For bandleader Doc Scantlin and wife Chou Chou, a life inspired by the 1930s

Correction: A photo caption in print versions of this article misidentified singer Kelley Lund as Maggie Paxson.

January 13, 2012

She wears a red tulle dress with a tight bustier with sequins that frame her impressive decolletage, a plume of tulle flowing down the back of her legs. A red-feathered headdress shivers upon her blond updo, above a pale face with striking red lipstick. She’s Chou Chou Scantlin, a songstress built like a Barbie doll, crooning “As Time Goes By.” Behind her, Doc Scantlin, her husband, leads his Imperial Palms Orchestra , a 15-piece, 1930s-themed band that has been a fixture in the Washington area for more than 20 years.

Tonight their audience is members of the Scottish Rite Freemasons, a mostly over-50 group slowly filling the massive Washington Hilton ballroom. As the tempo picks up, couples self-consciously take to the edges of the dance floor, while Doc — dapper with a pencil mustache and white tails and spats — tells corny jokes and sings standards such as “Night and Day” and “Minnie the Moocher.” Chou Chou (pronounced “shoo-shoo”), 58, flirts with the men in the audience, rubbing one man’s bald head and exclaiming, to his tablemates’ delight, “More skin to kiss!” When Doc starts playing “Paper Moon,” she pulls two men in suits onstage and says, “This is Lou and Bill! They’re going to blow bubbles for me!”

“It’s great,” says Bill, who is giddy afterward. “She’s doing the Marilyn Monroe thing.” But with her wide eyes and girly voice, she doesn’t seem saucy enough to be Monroe. It’s more like Monroe channeling Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

In truth, there’s little separation between the two personas onstage or off. Stop in at their bayside Calvert County home unannounced, and you’ll find Doc, who’s 65, in a bow tie, pressed pants and shirt. It’s how he has dressed his whole adult life. He also wears garters to hold up his old-fashioned nylon socks, drives a 1937 black Buick Limited, and sometimes pulls out a monocle to read menus when he goes out for “luncheon.” Transfixed by pre-World War II-era America, Doc recalls how his grandparents in Arkansas would talk about life in the ’30s, “and they kind of got this faraway look in their eyes, and they’d say: ‘You know, we didn’t have much. We didn’t have anything. But, you know, people really seemed to be happier.’ ”

With a perfect figure, Chou Chou looks years younger than her age, a youthfulness exaggerated by a breathy, sweet-as-pie voice that always sounds as if it’s on the verge of a giggle. But her disposition is particularly striking, considering the tragedy she has dealt with and her lifelong struggle with autism.

“I’ve had lots of depression and lots of challenges, lots of misery,” she says. “I was not always this happy, but I’m grateful that I am, and most of it because of Doc. We make each other feel normal, incredibly normal and well adjusted, and we do not feel that way with the rest of the world.”

***

On a fall Saturday, the band has a gig on Long Island — a swanky wedding in Southampton — and gathers in a Columbia, Md., commuter parking lot in darkness at 6 a.m. Doc and Chou Chou show up groggy-looking, but Chou Chou warmly greets band members as they arrive. Today she wears a soft-jersey cream-colored dress, covered with small brown butterflies that match her red-brown nails. This is one of her own creations; she designs and sews all her own clothes and the four singers’ (“the girlfriends”) sequin-heavy costumes. Doc wears his customary bow tie, white shirt and gray suit.

He requires his band to be well dressed in public — and “public” includes a highway rest stop — so the men have gamely donned nice pants, shirts and ties, and the women are wearing skirts or dresses.

Doc was once Steven Scantlin, a music-loving kid in Benton Harbor, Mich., raised by stern Baptist parents from Arkansas who hoped their two sons would go to college. But Doc had other plans. He took up the piano and trumpet in elementary school, then later the guitar, mandolin and fiddle, but, he says, “music was always a means to an end — to perform, to touch people — not an end in itself.” He and his younger brother, Stanley, were hams and played in a jug band: “We always got the party going.” Doc gave college a try but dropped out a few months later.

He moved to Canada, where he began a short-lived marriage, and bought a farm in the wilds of Ontario. After two years living off the grid (no electricity or plumbing), he and his bride left for Nashville with their baby daughter, Emilie, so he could pursue a music career. They divorced soon after, and Doc dug into the Nashville music scene. He learned woodworking and built and repaired instruments, always wearing a suit and bow tie, “with all these young people with long hair and tie-dyed shirts. People on the street would call me John-Boy.” He picked up the moniker Doc while playing the fiddle in Nashville bands throughout the ’70s. It was “hillbilly music,” he says, “but the stuff I really liked [music from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s], nobody was really interested in it.”

In 1980, hoping for an audience more receptive to his musical style, Doc moved to Washington. He worked at a guitar store in Wheaton repairing mandolins. Charlie Barnett, a composer who has played piano with Doc’s band on and off through the years, says he remembers working on a record in the building: “It’d be 100 degrees out, and I’d be showing up in shorts and a T-shirt. This guy would come wearing a full wool suit with a vest and his hair slicked back. He’d go sit in his work space and turn on the oldest radio I ever saw. ... It was like, ‘Who the hell is that guy?’ ”

In the mid-’80s, Doc cobbled together a group of willing musicians to play his old-time music: “It was horrible, the most horrible sound, but we were in heaven,” he says. The band eventually found a following and landed weekly gigs at Joe & Mo’s steakhouse and Thursday nights at the River Club in Georgetown (both are now closed). In 1993, Chou Chou was singing old ballads while crawling over a pink piano at a little French restaurant in Richmond — a cabaret act where she came up with her bubble-blowing routine. A guitar player she befriended at that time happened to play with Doc. “She’d be perfect for your band,” he told Doc. She was, and as it turned out, perfect for him. The first time they talked, Doc says, “it was like talking to a best friend who you haven’t spoken to in years and years. We just talked for the longest time.”

Their first meeting was a train ride to New York, where she planned to watch the band perform at a Fourth of July event. “I thought he was an odd, happy little fella, like everybody thinks when they first meet Doc!” says Chou Chou, whose name Doc lifted from a character in the 1932 Cary Grant film “This Is the Night.” “I just noticed he had the most childlike eyes that I ever saw in an adult. I found them very amusing, and I just felt so comfortable with him right from the start.” They married five months later in a quiet civil ceremony in Washington.

They were two romantics, Doc says, “both looking for a niche that’s a little somewhere else, this idyllic kind of place in your mind.”

The band began its peak years at this point, and in 1998, Forbes magazine declared Doc’s orchestra the “best band in America.”Stanley Ho, the international casino magnate, hired it to perform at his daughter’s wedding in Hong Kong; he paid the band $40,000 to fly out and perform one set. The group also played the lavish wedding celebration in England of Prince Pavlos of Greece, where it performed in a faux Greek temple. It entertained at President Ronald Reagan’s 83th birthday party in 1994 and at Cartier’s 125th anniversary party at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — where Liza Minnelli rushed the stage, tears streaming down her face, and blew kisses at Doc when the band played “Over the Rainbow.”

After 9/11, and then again after this latest recession hit, the pace of bookings slowed. Now they have three or four performances a month, some at big fetes such as the WAMU (88.5 FM) 50th anniversary ball at the National Building Museumin October, and are regulars at the Carlyle Club in Alexandria.

It’s enough to pay the bills, Doc says, and 2011 was busier than many in recent years. Still, he adds, “I always have these nightmares: ‘What are you going to do when no one hires you anymore?’ Well, I always wake up, and then the phone rings and someone wants to hire us for a job.”

***

Even when she was a child, it was clear that something was different about Chou Chou, who was then Elizabeth Downs, growing up in Passaic, N.J. “I was extremely passive, I just lay there, I wouldn’t connect with anyone,” she says. “I’d just slip into my own world.” Their family doctor told her mother that he suspected a form of autism, but she told nobody, not even Chou Chou. “This was back in the days when autism was considered caused by ‘refrigerator mothers,’ so she was horrified.” (A popular 1950s theory held that autistic behavior stemmed from a lack of maternal warmth.) Chou Chou says she coped with her social awkwardness by spending time alone reading, and being quiet and nice in public.

“I didn’t know how to relax and be a person,” she says. “It was like making a puppet, and you get through life by holding up this puppet and making this puppet do things.” She stops for a moment and laughs. “I don’t know when I stopped making the puppet, or if I still am making the puppet and I’ve just gotten really super good at it!”

Her high school years were better: Chou Chou developed interests in painting and drama, and it was “during those Woodstock times,” she says, “so the weirder you were, the more accepted you were.”

Her mother had been an entertainer; she danced with the American Russian Ballet, had a regular bit on the radio with Eddie Cantor, and had small roles in a handful of movies. Bold and funny, she encouraged her daughter’s penchant for wearing costumes and play-acting. Chou Chou’s father was a former dancer turned government adviser on housing for the elderly.

She had a high school sweetie, a boy she met in art class named Tom Hand. After he spent a brief period in the Coast Guard, they married against the wishes of both families and moved to North Carolina. He went to community college, she taught high school art, and, though they were hardly scraping by financially, they had a child, Nathan. When Nathan was 6 months old, the threesome settled in Newport News, Va.; Tom was to begin a work training program with the Navy, dreaming of one day becoming a naval architect, and Chou Chou thought they had found stability. Just two weeks into their new life, she says, “I wrote my mother and said, ‘I think this is finally happily ever after.’ ” That night a police officer knocked on the door: Tom and a friend were in a car accident. The friend was killed, and Tom, then 21, had suffered severe brain damage.

After Tom was released from the VA hospital in Hampton, Va., his mother brought him home to New Jersey; he could hardly talk and couldn’t walk or feed himself, and she could offer full-time care. He never improved and died five years later. The strain of the incident kicked up what Chou Chou now recognizes as autistic behavior. “I was beating my head against the wall,” she says, and means this literally. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me.”

Chou Chou grew estranged from Tom’s family, and she and Nathan eventually moved to Richmond, where she became known around town as the Balloon Lady. She’d dress in a Little Bo Peep-style outfit with a big hoop skirt and sell balloons in the park and at festivals, singing songs and telling entranced children fantastical stories. “It was just a fun performance piece,” she says, laughing at the memory. “I was all troubled, and this was all goodness and light and happiness.”

She married again — to a wealthy man who promised to care for her and her child. The couple threw beautiful dinner parties, she says, but they were more friends than soul mates. The marriage lasted for 10 years. Then, at 38, she remade herself once again.

***

Chou Chou and Doc live in a tiny cottage on Plum Point, a quiet neighborhood overlooking Chesapeake Bay. The furniture is all 1930s- or ’40s-era, and modern conveniences are few and hidden away. With a living space of 720 feet, it’s their cozy cocoon from the chaos of the outside world, or as Chou Chou puts it, “it’s my pumpkin shell, where he keeps me very well.” Chou Chou pined for a place near the water, and “we wanted a humble cottage to balance the opulence of our performing life — a place to quiet our egos.”

Yet inside, it’s a riot of color and curios: a vast collection of old hatboxes perched on shelves, dried hydrangeas tacked to the ceiling, polka-dot curtains. The living room is dominated by a piano, and Chou Chou has painted the walls with wide pink and yellow stripes. “Because I’m autistic,” she explains, “everywhere you look you see a lot of colors because it’s restful to me.”

Housed here, too, is Doc’s collection of 4,000-plus old movies whose songs and costumes offer inspiration for their shows. “A lot of what we do is not a re-creation of the ’20s, ’30s or ’40s per se, as much as it’s the movies version,” Chou Chou says, “because of course we weren’t there.”

On this day she is wearing a red-checkered frock, which happens to be the same pattern that’s on the napkins and pillows. “We’re both kind of do-it-yourselfers,” Doc explains. Doc has donned a polka-dot bow tie, a seersucker suit (his “knock-around suit,” Chou Chou says), and brown and white loafers.

At the grocery store, people will ask the couple, “Are you filming a movie?” or, most amusing to Chou Chou, “Who are you supposed to be?”

This response invites the question of whether they ever want a break from their period duds — to throw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt for a quick errand. Chou Chou laughs uproariously at the idea. “That wouldn’t be a break,” she says. “That would be a Halloween costume!”

***

For years Chou Chou had physical ailments stemming from Addison’s disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands that made her feet swell so much she’d often need to be carried out after shows. And she used to have frequent small seizures that she now thinks were related to her autism. She says, “I’d black out a couple of seconds, like a record skipping.”

Chou Chou’s seizures have stopped with the help of medication, and her Addison’s symptoms have lessened dramatically, she strongly believes, in the six years since she started eating what’s known as a ketogenic diet, super-high on fat and low on carbohydrates. (There is scant research on whether the diet is effective in patients with autism, though it has been shown to help control seizures in children with epilepsy.) Most mornings, she eats bacon and eggs, with a quarter cup of cream in her coffee, and in general consumes an enormous amount of fatty meat. Yet she somehow maintains a 23.5-inch waist.

She says her autism also used to be more debilitating before she started eating this way. Shannon Hamilton, a longtime singer with the band whom everyone calls “Sugar,” says that in the early ’90s, “if you were at a gig, you had to be quiet, very gentle in the dressing room. It was sensory overload. She didn’t know if it was going to be a good or bad day.”

“We were on pins and needles,” Doc says. “She was like a zombie.” He turns to Chou Chou. “You were just overwhelmed; you had this expression on your face like, ‘I’m somewhere else, I can’t deal with this, this is too much.’ Now with this silly diet thing, you’re just like the other girls.”

Early in the marriage Doc had moments of frustration with his wife’s illnesses, he admits, but credits a kind of revival of his religious faith with helping him refocus his priorities. “I thought to myself, ‘This is your wife, and you need to do what you need to do to make your wife happy,’ ” he says. “ ‘And she’s an odd duck. You’re an odd duck, too, but she’s a delicate odd duck.’ I tried to be very sympathetic.”

It was only 10 years ago when Chou Chou finally connected her sensory issues with high-functioning autism. After scouring the Internet for information, she called her mother, she says, “and I told her it’s all making sense, and a lot of the things that used to scare me didn’t scare me because I understood, like, flashing lights causing me problems. My mother broke down crying, and that’s when she told me” that the doctor had given Chou Chou a diagnosis of autism some 50 years ago.

Sometimes, Chou Chou says, “It is All. Too. Much. My life is like sitting in the front seat of a movie theater with someone talking to me, and there’s an action movie going on, and a baby crying behind me, and I’m trying to talk on the telephone.”

Nathan Hand, a former Navy SEAL, thinks his mother’s vulnerabilities, and, as he puts it, “her squeaky voice,” belie her strength. He calls her “the single toughest person I’ve ever met in my life.”

He was forced to leave the SEALs years ago after having surgery on his leg. When he spoke to his mother post-op, he remembers her asking if he had a limp. “And I said, ‘No, it’s more of a swagger.’ I didn’t think much of it at the time, but found out that she’d sometimes say to her audiences, ‘May all your limps be swaggers.’ It’s sort of like the way I was looking at it is the way I was taught to look at things by her.”

***

By 6 o’clock in Southampton, Doc has done the sound checks, set up the lights and gone over the set list. Now he is changed into what he calls his “work clothes”: white tie and tails, white spats, a stiffly starched shirt and white pique vest with mother-of-pearl buttons, a top hat and cane.

The four female singers, along with Chou Chou, pull out their makeup and start getting ready.

Maggie Paxson, an anthropologist with a PhD by day and called “Magpie” by the band, who had hardly worn makeup or, certainly, high heels before she joined the band a year ago. When she met Chou Chou, Paxson says, “she sat me down and said, ‘Now we’re going to talk about being a cupcake.’ ” She articulated the point behind all the froufrou: re-creating the magic and romance of another time. “She said that the costumes, the feathers, the sequins, the cupcake, they aid in making this otherworldly space for people. ... If you can do that, if you can help draw people into this world of warmth and affection, why not?”

Suddenly, it’s “parade time!” Doc steers the band members into a line, and Chou Chou instructs: “Just love them, love them, love them! They’re sweet people!” Doc leads the musicians out through the reception’s makeshift kitchen tent. The women aren’t due onstage for a few songs, so Chou Chou looks over the playlist for tonight. Doc is scheduled to sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” for the father-daughter dance.

But when she sees the number for the couple’s first dance, she frowns. “They want me to sing ‘Summer Wind,’ ” she says. “That’s so sad!” She sings, “ ‘One day it called to you, and I lost you, to the summer wind.’ ” Then her eyes light up: “I know what I can do. I can say, ‘I almost lost you to the summer wind’!”

Later, with Doc beaming at her from the stage, that is what she does.

Christina Ianzito is a freelance writer in Washington She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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