The smoke detector wasn’t crying wolf. Smoke was filling the little 1920s bungalow that Chou Chou the chanteuse and her husband — orchestra leader Doc Scantlin — had lived in for 30 years. Doc, 74, was fast asleep. Chou Chou (pronounced Shoo Shoo) roused him and they stumbled to the street.
“I was looking at our whole world as it burned down,” said Chou Chou, 67.
The couple’s Imperial Palms Orchestra — a glitzy outfit that conjures a night on the town, circa 1930 — has performed for decades at places like the Kennedy-Warren and Glen Echo’s Spanish Ballroom. They entertained at society weddings. Inside the house was the band’s archive: sheet music, performance videos, vintage instruments and microphones, Chou Chou’s handmade costumes, Doc’s tailored suits. Also torched was one of Doc’s classic cars, a 1937 Buick Limited.
As she watched the flames — more than 75 firefighters were called to the blaze — Chou Chou started to sing.
“It was too massive a thing to even cry, so I sang,” she said. “Singing was the best way for me to process it.”
Covering up her sheer chemise with Doc’s pajama top — “Silk, of course, being Doc Scantlin” — she sang a song popularized by Shirley Horn, “Where Do You Start?”
Where do you start?
How do you separate the present from the past?
How do you deal with all the things you thought
Would last that didn’t last?
Said Chou Chou: “It’s really about the end of a relationship. I was kind of singing it to our little nest on the Bay, our little house.”
The Scantlins look as if they stepped from an MGM musical: Doc with a pencil-thin mustache and spats, Chou Chou encased in a profusion of ruffles and lace.
“We looked like if Cab Calloway married Betty Boop and they lived in a beach house,” said Chou Chou.
It wasn’t an act. That’s how they dressed offstage, too, a little less flashy, perhaps, but garbed in Jazz Age raiment.
“We were each other’s normal,” Chou Chou said. “It was the rest of the world that was odd. So then when we went out to perform, we would take this little world we lived in and we would just invite everybody into our little bubble.”
Two years ago, Doc retired from leading the Imperial Palms, returning to an earlier love: guitar-making. Chou Chou had just taken over managing the band when the coronavirus pandemic hit. With pandemic restrictions lifting, she’d begun booking dates for the fall when that smoke alarm sang its tragic song.
Said Doc: “The covid thing, then the fire thing, is really a double whammy for us.”
He’s taking it in stride: “I just lay it at the Lord’s feet.”
Doc was 5 years old when he spied a Victrola on the back porch of his aunt’s house in Michigan. This windup machine was a busted relic from an earlier age.
“The spring was broken,” he said. “We’d have to turn the record with our finger: rwooor, rwooor . . .”
The record was “Bye-Bye Blackbird.”
Pack up all my cares and woes
Feeling low, here I go
“I thought, ‘I love this song,’ ” Doc said.
The fire started in the basement, and the cause is under investigation. The damage to the Scantlins’ home is estimated at $225,000. While they await insurance money, the couple have rented another house in their bayside community near Breezy Point Beach.
“We’ll probably rebuild, which is fine,” Chou Chou said. “We’ll have less stuff, and we’ll make it our age-in-place bungalow.”
Friends of the Scantlins have organized a fundraiser on GoFundMe, hoping to raise $50,000 to help them rebuild and replace all the luthier’s tools Doc lost. (He’s probably going to switch from guitars to violins, a better market, he believes.)
And, said Chou Chou, “The Imperial Palms will rise again. It will be the next chapter of the Imperial Palms.”
The fire has made Doc think about possessions — most of his are gone and he’s fine with that — and about the music he loves, how it was created and what it can do.
“All those movie musicals and all those romantic songs and tender songs and happy songs — all those non-bitter songs, non-sarcastic songs, non-in-your-face songs, non-abusive songs — a lot were written in the middle of the stinking Depression,” he said.
People had nothing back then and they produced such beauty.
“It seemed like as society got more rich and comfortable, it got more negative, angry, cynical.”
Forget the new songs, he seems to be saying. Listen to the old ones. Pack up all your cares and woes.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.