Estelle Reiner looks like a typical 91-year-old grandmother--just over 5 ft. tall, dressed in a simple pantsuit and comfortable shoes. But once a month she gets up on the bandstand of the Gardenia restaurant in Hollywood and sings a very ungrandmotherly set of songs. The effect is equal parts surprise, delight and blushes. At a recent gig, she segued from Just a Little Lovin' to Ain't Misbehavin'. Then, before launching into I Want a Two-Fisted, Double-Jointed, Rough and Ready Man, she confided to the audience, "The man being sought here is only needed in one room in the house--the bedroom."
Estelle is the matriarch of the show-biz Reiner clan. She has been married for 62 years to writer-actor Carl Reiner, 83. He turns up to support her at all her performances, standing at the back of the room where she can see him. One of their three children is actor-director Rob Reiner. He gave the world a taste of his mom's sassiness when he cast her as the restaurant customer who famously requests, "I'll have what she's having," following Meg Ryan's fake orgasm in 1989's When Harry Met Sally.
Reiner's cabaret sideline didn't start until she was 65. As a teenager, she haunted the jazz clubs of New York City. Billie Holiday once encouraged her to try singing and gave her the name of an agent. Reiner didn't think she was "special enough" to be a singer. Instead, she became a painter so she could work at home while raising children. In 1980 Anne Bancroft, a friend, gave her a small role in the film Fatso. "I took some classes in acting. I studied with Lee Strasberg and other people," Reiner says. "But I realized what I really knew how to do is sing."
Over the years she has played some sparse rooms, but these days her shows draw a crowd--a mix of family, friends and curious strangers. "I reveal myself when I'm up there," Reiner says. "I'm very earthy, and I sing earthy songs." She has recorded seven CDs, which she sells on her website, estellereiner.com Her fans often seem more enthralled by her feisty performances than by her now quavery voice. As Rob puts it, "Obviously, she's not up there belting it out. But, hey, she's up there doing it." And Estelle sees a very practical benefit to her gigs: "One of the things that thrill me is I have something in my advanced years that keeps me interested."