By Becky Hanks
Valley Women Writer
1:29 PM PDT, June 13, 2011
Seated on the shady porch in view of her lush and flowering El Centro backyard, professional singer and actress Gloria Uribe “Michaels” Brister sips a cup of hot English-style tea and sighs contentedly as she pets the purring orange tabby at her side.
It has been a long and tortuous road that has brought her to this peaceful spot in her life, but she credits her difficult journey including several bona fide miracles along the way with making her into the confident and content woman she is today, Brister reveals.
Performing in civic light opera around the United States, Brister has appeared in many productions including “Man of La Mancha”, “South Pacific”, “Kismet”, “Hello Dolly” and “The Music Man”. Her voice can be heard in numerous voice-overs, commercials and documentaries.
A well-known and beloved local celebrity, Brister has also donated her time and talents to the community in fundraisers, variety shows, the Mid-Winter Fair and various charitable organizations.
But her life has not always been so fulfilling.
The eldest of four girls, Brister was born in Brownsville, Texas and moved to Brawley with her family when she was 3. Speaking Spanish only, she learned English by immersion in two or three months after enrolling in kindergarten on the west side of Brawley.
Her dad s relatives were Basque immigrants who were deeded millions of acres in the Laredo, Texas area where even today historical accounts remain filled with stories of the Uribe family. Many descendants now thrive on revenues from gas wells on that property, she says.
Her mother’s maternal ancestors, the Harts, Kennedys and Robinsons, were descendants of an Irish colony of “red-headed pirates” who immigrated to Cabo San Lucas to ply their “trade” off the coastal waters there.
“My mother’s mother spoke Spanish with an Irish accent — if that’s possible!” she laughs. Her mother’s father, a descendant of the French neurosurgeon to Maximilian and Carlota, gave Brister a legacy of music passed down through her violinist grandfather and his sister, an opera singer.
Her mother, one of seven Lucero girls of Old Calexico, carried on that love of music. Through them, Brister grew to love operatic singing, and she recalls her mother playing albums of classical music while she cleaned house. At 4 years old, she would often swing in the backyard and croon songs.
“To me, singing was a spiritual thing, even then,” she says.
At a young age, she adds, she felt drawn to God. Her reliance on faith was especially significant when at age 12, she was sexually molested by a family member. Suddenly, her life became an unsafe, unstable place, and she began to withdraw.
Her insecurities grew when well-meaning teachers took away her opera book, never believing a Mexican girl could have access to such things. Quiet and shy, she depended on her singing and artwork to communicate, to express herself. That all changed when she started high school and began acting.
“The Gloria on stage is acting and can be anyone she wants,” Brister confesses. It was a defense mechanism she utilized to escape from the reality of a young girl who was a victim.
“I was a nerd in high school (Brawley Union High),” she admits. Ranked seventh in the class, she excelled in art, music and drama. “I could never figure out which of those I liked most.”
Following high school graduation, she attended Imperial Valley College for two years where she was recognized as College Woman of the Year and earned her associate’s degree in social science. While attending IVC, she briefly dated a “long-haired, card-playing, class-skipping bad boy” named Gene Brister, but their dates never blossomed into romance due to their diverse backgrounds.
“I was a straight-laced honor student and classical singer. He was a wild and crazy paisley-clad rock musician,” she remembers, smiling.
In 1970, Brister transferred to University of California, San Diego on a scholarship for drama and musical theater. Fully trusting that she would be able to land a Hollywood acting job, she had character portraits taken by a professional photographer and changed her name from the cumbersome “Gloria Uribe” to “Gloria Michaels.”
But this just compounded her insecurities. In her adult years, Brister questioned the men who asked her out, which Gloria they wanted to date — the glamorous and talented Gloria Michaels or the shy, studious Gloria Uribe?
Although she received some bit parts in those days, Brister realized Hispanics were cast in any role that called for someone with darker skin: Mexicans, American and Eastern Indians, Italians, Middle Easterners — one Hispanic actor could play them all. That limited the amount of parts available, she discovered.
At UCSD, Brister studied under a professor from the Vienna Conservatory of Music and began training for her dream, to sing opera as a dramatic soprano. Young and naïve, she signed up for auditions at the San Diego Opera Company only to find the theater packed with hopefuls. “There were a thousand people lined up to audition, and the leads were already filled,” Brister recalls.
Yet, she sensed something different while she sang — the director did not cut her off like the others. After two lines, he stopped and corrected her, and then told her to continue. Heartbroken, she left the stage, convinced that she did not meet his standards. But the others assured her he would not have taken the time to speak to her if he did not believe she had talent. That proved true when she was awarded an ensemble part in the company’s 1970 production of “La Traviata.”
“I was thrilled,” Brister smiles. “I was 20 years old with the opportunity to sing at the San Diego Civic Theatre to balcony upon balcony filled with people.” She adds later, “Imagine the excitement, a daily makeup call at 5 p.m., with professional wardrobe people fitting you into your 17th century corseted dresses. It was an awesome experience.”
Then the state budget crunch hit and financial aid ran out. Gloria tried to supplement her income by working as a maid at the university, but it was not enough. She switched to San Diego State University where she enrolled in the drama department. She happily fulfilled the requirements to perform in the operettas staged by SDSU and became adept in all aspects of theater: lighting, sets, costumes, as well as performing.
Then she met a handsome Navy man, and they married and moved to Baton Rouge, La., when his tour was over. She quickly enrolled at Louisiana State University where she was able to maintain her 3.5 and above grade point average.
“I put myself through school selling my artwork, singing on the side and working for LSU in graphic arts,” Brister says. “I was multi-arts lingual,” she laughs. Describing herself as a renaissance-type woman, she laments not being able to make a decision on a single course of study, so she majored in as many as she could, including architecture, cultural anthropology, music, special studies in voice, drama, and fine arts.
While studying at LSU, Brister freelanced for a Baton Rouge advertising agency producing ads for television by day and singing with bands at night. When she was offered a position with a traveling show band to tour the Midwest, she decided to put school on hold. At that point, her five-year marriage to her first husband became a stereotypical showbiz casualty, she admits.
Following her divorce, she moved back to San Diego, joining forces with musicians from the San Diego recording group formerly known as The Cascades. As the youngest member of Sweet Seasons, Brister learned about the capricious whims of booking agents the hard way.
One gig that nearly killed her was booked in the dead of winter to cover for the Ink Spots in Minot, ND., where she survived an 80-below blizzard while stranded in her car on the freeway during a complete white out. Huddling with her cat, Brister used her costumes from the trunk to line the windows and fashioned a clothing igloo that saved her and her pet’s life. Nineteen people died from the sub-zero conditions that night, she says. After that, she vowed to take control and manage all her own bookings and return to warmer climates.
In the early eighties, after playing in some of San Diego’s most prestigious night clubs with her own group called Spring Fever, Brister landed what appeared to be a dream engagement in North County San Diego at the infamous La Costa Spa and Resort.
Following a short, whirlwind courtship, Brister married her second husband, the group’s bass guitarist. It wasn’t long before she understood why he was in such a hurry to marry as she learned of his drug and alcohol addictions and physically abusive personality.
By day, she was an abused, victimized wife who took on the responsibility of running the band’s business, bookings and finances while covering her bruises and contusions with makeup. By night, she played the glamorous role of Gloria Michaels, beautiful chanteuse and witty entertainer who put hecklers in their place with a single quip.
“I was now singing to heads of state and many influential people,” Brister remembers. Stars like Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett, Jack Lemmon and Harvey Korman frequented the resort, as well as political figures, sheiks, princes, dukes and duchesses from all over the world. She recalls a friend once introduced her to “another Gloria” and was shocked to come face to face with Gloria Vanderbilt.
In one anecdote, Brister recalls sitting with Gene Roddenberry in 1979 as he confided he had mortgaged everything he owned to produce the first full-length Star Trek motion picture, gambling that the public still had a profitable fascination with the old television series. She reassured him, she remembers, that she personally had numerous family members and friends who still loved the series and that she believed it would be successful. Her instinct proved correct.
“As a performer, I was always ‘on,’ ” she explains about her comfort in meeting the rich and famous. Staying in “character,” she hobnobbed with them but was careful to honor their privacy.
But the chief presences were several notorious members of the New York mob, including Meyer Lansky, a Jewish Russian immigrant also known at the time as the mob’s accountant and as the money man behind Las Vegas Casinos and the Flamingo.
“I can remember being asked by the body guards to join Lasky for Dom Perignon at his table. I didn’t realize he was a mobster,” Brister says. “Naive me asked him, ‘So what do you do for a living?’ He replied, ‘I’m in the garment business in New York. Manufacturing!’ ”
Before long, Brister personally witnessed the control the Mafia had on the posh resort and their requirement for anonymity. “You don’t see anything, you don’t know anything!” That was the La Costa rule, she recalls.
One night, Brister, tired of wearing heavy, long-haired wigs for her performances, opted to go natural with her short, dark pixie cut. It was a huge mistake, she learned. She was warned by one of the owner’s henchmen that she had to return to the long, flowing tresses for the rest of her performances.
“They controlled everything, including people,” she says. “I was under stress because the mob wanted me to go big time. They thought nothing of investing seven mil, but like a race horse, they would then own you.”
On the surface, their offers had the appearance of making her dreams of showbiz fame and fortune come true, but Brister knew her life would no longer be her own. One look at the rich, but miserable and lonely, mob wives sitting alone at their tables while the husbands had dinner with their young girlfriends in the room next door showed Brister the extent of mob ownership.
“You don’t divorce the mob and live to tell about it,” she notes.
Deciding the “Big Time” was not all it promised, Brister passed on the mob’s offer. She immersed herself in the management of her band and expanded tour dates to include casino stages in Reno, Vegas and Tahoe and kicked her philandering and abusive husband out of the band and her life. Even so, he continued to threaten and stalk her for a year afterward.
Finally, the pressures of her abusive marriage, the domineering mob and managing the band took their toll. Brister began forgetting lyrics, slurring her words and could not muster the strength to move about the stages with legs and arms that felt like heavy blocks of wood. Her body was physically mirroring her emotional state, and she felt like she was literally falling apart.
Then Brister discovered she had multiple sclerosis (MS). A chronic autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, MS can cause muscular weakness, loss of coordination and speech, and visual disturbances. She realized the disease was probably brought on by her stressful lifestyle.
In a deep depression, she began sleeping under her bed because she believed her estranged husband’s threats of breaking into her home to kill her. She had frequent dreams of suicide just to end it all.
At her wit’s end, she called out to God one lonely night in a desperate prayer, asking, “Why me, God?”
“I didn’t expect an answer, but God told me he had something special in mind for me,” Brister says. “From that point, my life changed. I could not wait to find out what that plan was for me.”
Telling her ex-husband that her door would be unlocked, she invited him to walk in and do his worst, she recalls. But after calling his bluff and meeting his threats head-to-head, he left her alone and she never heard from him again.
“God was looking out for me,” she smiles.
While singing at the Peppermill in Reno one night in October, she received a phone call from Gene Brister, inviting her to sing at the annual Imperial Valley Produce Ball. He asked if she remembered him and their two dates during their IVC days. She did.
During the intervening months, they courted through phone calls.
“He had the most gorgeous voice,” Brister remembers. “I fell in love with his voice as we talked on the phone.”
They arranged a brief meeting on Christmas Eve when she came home to visit family, and then resumed the phone calls after she left. Ironically, their first official date was at the Produce Ball in February where he emceed and she was performing. By April, they knew they were in love.
In 1985, Brister made the momentous decision to quit show business altogether. Neither easy nor frivolous, her choice meant she gave up her lifelong goal of becoming a famous and wealthy singer and had to start a new life and career with Gene.
For the first time, she was entering into a relationship without the victim mentality that had governed her decisions with her other boyfriends and husbands.
“He was honestly, genuinely, a nice guy,” Brister admits. “Things were different this time. Gene had calmed down, stopped wearing paisley and become a successful businessman. And I had loosened up a bit, stopped singing opera and got a sense of humor” making them just right for each other.
They married soon afterward. They have one daughter together, Gina, and one daughter from Gene’s previous marriage, Keri.
In addition to helping Gene and partner Carroll Buckley at KXO radio station from time to time, Brister is active with Glory B Productions, a company she started in 1987. Her business is inclusive of many things including entertainment, public relations, marketing and motivational speaking. And it is this broad variety of things that makes it so unique, she says.
One project is the Valleywide Freedom Fest 4th of July celebration which the couple created together in 1991.
“People often ask me, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and I always reply, ‘Anything I want to do!’ My business is an extension of me, it is me, and when I market my business, I am marketing me,” Brister explains.
With so much community involvement, her numerous honors come as no surprise. Her awards include the MANA Las Primeras Imperial County Woman of the Year in 2007 and Citizen of the Month in October 2005 from Rep. Bob Filner.
With the return to a simpler and sane life, her multiple sclerosis symptoms have nearly disappeared and she finds fulfillment giving of her time and talents to local causes. But she also found fulfillment by answering the call from God.
“I came to know the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior and dedicated my life to him in 1997,” Brister says.
“Both Gene and I now direct the choir at the New Creations Men’s and Women’s Home. We delight in encouraging others who have to live with the consequences of bad choices in their lives.”
The couple’s other ministries include singing worship at an RV park in Yuma for the snowbirds during the winter months, working the soundboard backstage for church services at Christ Community Church and a multitude of other volunteer work for various churches and community groups.
Her future continues to grow with possibilities multiplying as she melds her talents with her desire to serve other people and she attests to several miracles in her life that she uses as proof that God still has plans for her.
One account occurred in 2004 after a sleepless night during which Brister sat in her backyard praying. Later that morning, she was driving to pick up Gene’s Grandma Bessie in Calipatria when she was run off the road by a hit and run driver. Over-correcting, she swerved off the road. As her car flipped, she recalls the dream-like slow motion sequence of events.
“While in mid-air, I had thoughts of what my family was going to be like without me around,” she remembers. “I sat back, took my hands off the wheel and had a long conversation with God.”
“When the car landed, it was soft, like landing on a cotton ball. I was thinking, ‘Wow. This was easy.’ It was all white, silent and fluffy. I thought I was in heaven.”
Miraculously, the car landed with each end supported on the high sides of a ditch, effectively keeping the roof, her head and neck safe from being smashed in. Bystanders called out to her asking if she was okay, and in response, she beeped the horn in the proverbial knock pattern recognized by all. Emergency workers were astounded at her total absence of injuries — including no bruising from the seatbelt since it never even tightened from the impact and a normal blood pressure reading.
This is just one of the many miracles that prove she has a purpose, Brister says. “I’m excited to see what’s in my future, through God’s help.”
“Now my work is all about people,” she says. “Meeting them, relating to them, enjoying them and helping them. That is my passion and my pleasure. My joy has been to work with the New Creations Choir for the last few years. To see the transforming power of God in the lives of so many and to help in just a small way by sharing my skills in music and what I’ve learned… It is an awesome privilege for me.”
“I can see myself in the future maybe recording a Christian CD of music,” Brister admits. “I don’t see age as being a detriment. I could be doing this until I’m 80. No, come to think of it, I’m supposed to go back to school at 80, so I might have to put that off until I’m 90,” she laughs.
Just add it to her “bucket list,” an incredible array of goals and wishes she had compiled that has steadily been whittled down over the years. Among those achieved are conducting a symphony, flying an incredible 7.3 Gs with the Blue Angels, skiing the Black Diamond courses in most of the West Coast ski resorts, winning a team penning competition, experiencing a hurricane in Louisiana, witnessing a total eclipse of the sun, and attending an Iditarod musher’s camp in Alaska.
And through all this, she’s discovered Gloria Uribe, Gloria Michaels and Gloria Brister are one and the same woman. “I finally figured out that I am all those people rolled into one,” she confesses. “That’s the way I was created.”
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press