On this date in 1955, the Long Beach Independent reported an unusual offer to the Seal Beach city council to solve a budget crisis.
The city was facing the prospect of borrowing $80,000 to cover expenses until the end of the year. A proposal was read to the council from a message written in the margins of a newspaper story about a Desert Hot Springs hospital benefit carnival that had raised $20,000 and had starred “Zerina, thrilling singer and dancer from Turkey.” The message in the margins read, “Zerina, 1619 Seal Way, wishes it known that her talents are also available anytime to her home city, Seal Beach.” Mayor George Clark ordered that the proposal be turned over to the city engineer for future study before the council moved on to examine more traditional solutions to the funding problem.
The thrilling Turkish singer and dancer’s full name was Zerina Bessinger, a well-known Seal Beach resident for decades. A short Long Beach Independent profile to publicize the 1957 Cherry Festival in Beaumont mentioned that Zerina had been born in Turkey and brought to the U.S. when a baby. Zerina had performed at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia as a child solo dancer. She lived in Seal Beach with her artist husband and was a devotee of classical song and dance.
Twelve years later, Zerina staged a night of song and dance at the Soroptimist House at Cal State Long Beach. Accompanied by pianist Lisa Endig, Zerina would explain a bit about each number before belting it out. She started with a melody from Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation,” moved on to two Schubert songs, a Puccini aria, and Alabeiff’s “The Russian Nightingale, shifted to more modern works like, “Black Is The Color,” “Ciribiribin,” What Now My Love,” and finished off with “Those Were The Days.” Somewhere in all of that she also managed to present a “classic Oriental dance to the strains of ‘Miserlou.'” (This was a few years before the Dick Dale version hit the charts.)
This colorful and artistic lady finally did get a chance to be of service to her home town in 1976 when she sang for city’s bicentennial parade, which she view as something of a comeback after not performing for years.
In another profile on Zerina for the Long Beach Independent before the parade, reporter Denise Kusel noted the pink shutters that Zerina opened to let the sunshine into her living room, Zerina’s rhinestone shoes sparkling in the light, Zerina’s brightly colored silk robe, and Zerina’s thick white greasepaint make-up, worn, Zerina explained, to enhance her coal-black hair. The story even mentioned that some in Seal Beach believe her to be a Gypsy fortune-teller, before allowing Zerina to dismiss those rumors.
Having established her bona fides as a genuine Seal Beach eccentric, Zerina told of her life, this time with some slight changes. This time she admitted to being born in Santa Monica (the 1920 census confirms this), and this time Zerina made no reference to the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, but she did claim that opera star Mary Gordon had set up an audition for Zerina with the Met (although she declines to give the year of her audition or her age). Zerina’s narrative in 1976 seemed to have shifted away from “thrilling singer and dancer from Turkey” to up and coming opera star who gave up her big chance in New York to stay home to take care of her father and brother after her mother died. Zerina had no regrets, even though she is alone now that her father, brother, and artist husband have passed away.
No, in 1976, Zerina had no time for regrets and looked forward to singing in a parade and staging a comeback. For reporter Denise Kusel, she pulled out a piece of Irving Berlin sheet music, noting that “Irving Berlin was earnest. He loved America, and so do I,” and then belted out a rousing soprano rendition of “God Bless America.”
Zerina Bessinger passed away in 1982. Since she refused to tell how old she was in that last Long Beach Independent article, we’re going to respect her wishes and not reveal her birthdate. She certainly would have preferred to be remembered as being ageless.
– Michael Dobkins