With her chiffon dress and white hair, Dorothy Flanagan, sitting primly in her little pink house with the wishing well out front, hardly cuts the sort of figure you’d expect to see on a music video. But that just shows the danger of stereotyping. A musical saw virtuoso, the 5’4″ 71-year-old from Anaheim, Calif. can play “anything from Herb Alpert’s Spanish Flea to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite,” and she sings, too. In fact, her sharp sawing and singing on Search Me, Oh God and Amazing Grace recently won first prize for “Best Gospel Saw” at the International Musical Saw Festival in Portland, Ore., a three-day competition that drew about 40 entrants ranging in age from 13 to 85. Now Dorothy wants to spread the good word. “I’d like to do a video to show people how to play the saw,” the vivacious widow says. “It’s such an exciting thing—and it’s affordable.”
Flanagan has been on the cutting edge of her profession since she was 14, but her musical life began somewhat more conventionally. “My mother played the piano and my sister was a bird whistler,” she says. “I was doing vaudeville when I was 10 and singing novelty and pop songs on the radio. But my sister had a friend in vaudeville who played the saw, and when she visited us in Hollywood, I was fascinated.” The friend sent Dorothy a saw in the mail and she was hooked. “No one showed me how to play it,” she says, but during World War II she performed with USO troupes—including one California outfit called “The Girls You Left Behind”—both on the home front and overseas.
Flanagan owns four saws, including two made specially for playing, and performs with taped piano or orchestra. The saw handle is clamped between her knees; one hand goes on the instrument’s flat end while the other runs a rosined cello bow across the dull edge to produce an ethereal, wind-like sound.
Flanagan, who is both musically and religiously devout, plays mainly churches and clubs and supports herself by giving piano and organ lessons. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t find musical saw humor funny. “I like to doll up when I play the saw,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a class act.” That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, though. “Playing the saw is like eating potato chips,” Dorothy says. “Once you get started, you can’t quit.”