Mary Lou O'Toole was so shy as a girl that her father feared she might cry the first time she sang onstage.
So even though he was director of the minstrel show in which she was singing, he hid in the theater's basement -- until he heard the crowd cheering and stamping their feet above him, and came up to watch them go wild in a standing ovation, said her brother John O'Toole.
"She had so much energy, I think it just burst out of her when she was singing with all the heart she had," Mr. O'Toole said. "The feeling that would come out of her was magnificent."
Ms. O'Toole, who went on to forge a professional singing career that lasted more than 20 years, died on Monday. She was 85.
Born in Pittsburgh to Lt. Raymond James O'Toole and Elizabeth Margaret Soffell O'Toole, Ms. O'Toole graduated from St. Mary of the Mount School in Mount Washington and spent much of her childhood singing at home, modeling her sound and looks after 1920s blues singer Sophie Tucker.
Her father, who had sung in a quartet in the 1920s and could sing bass, baritone and tenor, encouraged Ms. O'Toole, then in her early 20s, to join the minstrel show and try her skills in public. Her singing, and the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to it, seemed to give the once-shy girl a confidence and vivacity that only grew, her brother said.
"Once she tested the water and saw she could do it, it changed her whole personality," he said.
A professional piano player at the show, held in Mount Washington in the late 1940s, was so impressed that he suggested she get some photographs taken, buy a few outfits and try singing for hire at local nightclubs, her brother said. Audiences loved her, and it began a professional career that lasted from the late 1940s until the 1970s, with Ms. O'Toole singing blues, dixie, ragtime and other popular songs such as "Some of These Days" and "After You're Gone" in her low, rich, beautiful voice, her brother said.
That voice took her to nightclubs across the country, in particular to Cleveland, Erie and Maryland. In Pittsburgh, she often sang in the city's classiest clubs, such as Twin Coaches supper club in Rostraver, the Horizon Room at the old Pittsburgh Airport, the Holiday House in Monroeville and Vogue Terrace near McKeesport, where the likes of Louis Armstrong, Ginger Rogers and Lawrence Welk also played.
At the same time, she held a day job for 31 years as a cashier and bookkeeper at the A&P grocery store in Allentown, while continuing to live at home with her parents in Mount Washington. Some of her pay allowed her to help others, as when she would give money to the poor, or hire musicians and perform at nursing homes.
"Even beyond her good singing, she was a good person," her brother said.
After her father died in the 1980s, Ms. O'Toole and her mother moved to Boyers, Pa., outside Slippery Rock to be nearer to another brother, Raymond. There, she organized a popular kazoo band at a local senior center to which she belonged, and the group of nearly two dozen amateur musicians would visit nursing homes to entertain residents with Ms. O'Toole leading the band.
At church at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in Slippery Rock, Ms. O'Toole was so outgoing that she performed the unofficial job of "greeter" before Mass, welcoming parishioners and visitors and helping new members meet others in the congregation, said her friend Janie McFarland of Slippery Rock.
Ms. O'Toole, so proud of her Irish heritage, made sure to dress in a green outfit and tam o'shanter hat every St. Patrick's Day and always had a supply of lollipops for children in the congregation after Mass, she said.
That kindness and exuberance didn't fade even after arthritis painfully knotted her hands and feet, and made walking and other daily activities difficult.
"She was very happy to be there, just full of life and love of God -- a very good Christian woman," Ms. McFarland said.
Ms. O'Toole is survived by a sister, Elizabeth Smith of Pittsburgh; and three brothers, Harry O'Toole of Pittsburgh, Raymond James O'Toole of Boyers, Pa., and John O'Toole of Pittsburgh.
Friends will be received at the Smith Funeral Home, 421 New Castle St., Slippery Rock today from 8:30 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church, 670 S. Main St., Slippery Rock today at 10 a.m. Interment will follow at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in McMurray.
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or firstname.lastname@example.org.