[From Platinum Club]
Moscow , Russian Federation
Monday 9 February 2004
Well here we go again! Russia this time, Moscow to be precise. Our flight was at 7.40am from London Heathrow and we had to pick Phyllis up on our way. We were up at 2.30am to make sure we had enough time, after all Phyllis had broken her ankle a few days earlier and was now mobile only by way of a wheelchair. When we arrived at Phyllis' house, she was ready and waiting.
At Heathrow we find the long stay car park, and unload both the luggage and Phyllis. By now it is 4.40am and Gary will have been at the airport for well over an hour – he likes to be early! We arrive at the terminal and meet Gary . Check in does not open for another fifteen minutes but we join the queue anyway. We were flying with Czech Airlines and we were a little apprehensive. We check in and confirmed that there would be assistance available to help us transfer flights in Prague . We would have preferred to take direct flights but at almost three times the cost we had no option but to take the long route. The check in agent was very helpful and at long last things seemed to be going our way. Let's face it; they couldn't get any worse after the fiasco we had trying to get our visas.
Boarding passes at the ready we need some caffeine! We head upstairs to departures and order coffee. Before we knew it we were heading to the gate to board. When we get there we are immediately escorted down on to the plane and given priority boarding – we could get used to this! Once on board we were all very impressed – the plane was spacious and the food was even quite good – despite Dorothy's reluctance to even look at it (as usual).
We land in Prague on time and in lots of snow. The plane did not land at a gate so Phyllis had to negotiate a set of icy steps to get down to her wheelchair, which was ready and waiting at the bottom. When we got down, there was a separate mini bus waiting to take us to the terminal building. Inside the terminal, a porter pushed Phyllis to the next departure gate. This was great as we didn't have to worry about any language problems etc and we always went straight to the front of the queue. After a short wait, we boarded the next flight (priority boarding of course) and departed on time. On arrival in Moscow , we were again met by an airline representative who escorted us to the front of the immigration queue and into the baggage hall. Now all we needed was to pick up our luggage and we would be on the final leg of the journey to the hotel. Phyllis' wheelchair was recovered quickly and the airline rep left us to it. We waited over an hour for the rest of the luggage to arrive. By now we were tired and just wanted to get to the hotel – thankfully the taxi we had booked through the hotel was still waiting, as it was almost two hours since the plane landed.
On braving the first of the Moscow weather we were pleasantly surprised. It was cold and snowy but not as cold as we had expected. We pull up at the hotel and were very impressed – doormen and bellboys in uniform – a typical five star set-up. While checking in, we notice that the entire luggage in the lobby is labelled ‘Nippy Inc'. There were various people sorting it out and we recognised a few familiar faces from the crew and band. It took forever to check in but we did and got one room upgraded to a Kremlin View at no extra cost. While we were dealing with the formalities, Laurie appeared in the lobby and stood talking to Dorothy and Phyllis. She told them that we were expected and she would let Whitney know we had arrived.
We were showed to the first room, only to discover someone else already occupied it – it was good to see that these mistakes happen even in the best of establishments! We are given the room next door instead – this is a much bigger room with a massive king size bed, seating area with two sofas, two armchairs and a fantastic view of St Basils Cathedral and the Kremlin. The room is quite simply decorated (no chintz here), but it is obvious that the furnishings are of top quality. Our other room is also beautiful, similarly decorated although without the view and not quite as large. We unpack a few things and head down to one of the three restaurants, Café Kranzler. Gary tries his best with the Russian but thankfully all the staff speaks English!
Back in the room, we get a call from Ulysses, Whitney's PR person. He welcomes us to the hotel and says he will meet us in the morning to give us our tickets.
Tuesday 10 February 2004
We get up and wait for Ulysses to call. He arrives at about 10.30am and introduces himself. He is a lovely man – very friendly. He gives us our VIP tickets for tonight and says he will give us our tickets and backstage passes for tomorrow nights meet and greet in the morning. Although there will be lots of other people at the meet and greet, Ulysses says he hopes to get a separate meeting for just the four of us – we don't mind either way it will just be good to hear her again.
We decide to brave the elements and venture out into the snow. We have never laughed so much! The snow was thick and Gary is trying to push Phyllis through it. Phyllis has borrowed a black fur hat and looks the part – lapping up the attention. To get to the main tourist areas of Moscow , we had to get across the river. A man appears out of nowhere and tries to help us – he doesn't speak any English and our Russian is limited to two words “Thank You” so communicating was impossible. He takes us to the bottom of the stairs leading up to the bridge and indicates he will help us carry the wheelchair (complete with Phyllis) up them. We get to about the fourth stair and can't go any further for laughing, although Phyllis was actually quite frightened and wanted to go back down. This man did not seem to understand the word “no” and we desperately tried to shake him off. He kept following us and we decided that perhaps he was waiting for a tip so we gave him a few Roubles to see if this would help. It didn't have much effect, although the fact that we only gave him 10 Roubles might have had something to do with it (10 Roubles = 20p). He either took the hint or just gave up and left us at the other side of the bridge. The architecture is beautiful and it is so picturesque with all the snow. We head back to the hotel to get ready for the show.
The taxi arrived and we pile into this black Mercedes. The traffic is absolutely horrendous and we seem to be going nowhere. The traffic is at a standstill and we wonder whether this is because of the concert or the heavy snowfall, but either way we were starting to think we might not make it. The show was due to start at 7pm (very early for Whitney) and by now it was 6.45pm and we were still not at the venue. What happened next was very surreal – the driver's mobile phone rang, he answered it and passed it over to Gary . It was the concierge at the hotel calling to tell us not to worry, as Whitney had not left the hotel yet. To this day we don't know why he rang or whether he called for another reason and the driver happened to ask him??? When we eventually arrived at the State Kremlin Palace , things went from bad to worse. The police would not let the driver near the entrance as they had blocked the road. He was getting very irate and had to get out of the car and show them the wheelchair in the boot before he would let us any closer – even then it was not much help. The queues to get through the security gates into the Kremlin walls were very long and somebody indicated that we should go straight to the front – which we did. We showed our tickets and tried to explain that we needed to get through the gates but nobody seemed to care. At one point a Russian man made some space through the crowds for us and pushed Phyllis to the front of the queue so that the security guard could see her. He just stood there so one of us went through the turnstiles and managed to get him to open the gate. Once through the security barrier, we had to walk a short way up the hill, in the snow to get into the actual venue. No help was forthcoming and once inside there was no lift to get Phyllis down the flight of stairs, which led into the theatre itself. There was no option other than for Phyllis to get out of the chair and walk down the stairs. She made it at last! We headed to our seats – which were excellent! Only six rows from the front and in the VIP section. Whilst getting ourselves settled, Donna Houston and Pat Houston walked past. We said hi to Donna whom we had met before, and she introduced us to Pat. We had only been sat down for a few minutes when the house lights dimmed and the band started up. It was 7.50pm – not too bad considering the traffic problems.
Whitney came on stage wearing a full-length red dress. She looked absolutely stunning. She appeared relaxed and happy and in very good spirits. She kicked off the show with a rendition of “Get it back”, and this was quickly followed by “If I told you that”. At some point during these songs she spotted us in the audience and waved and smiled at us. These first two songs were good, however by the third song, “Heartbreak hotel” the voice had really kicked in and it was if she had never been away. She talked briefly to the crowd explaining that she had caught a cold and couldn't even speak that morning. A doctor who had attended to her was in the audience. She went on to sing “Saving all my love for you”, “Until you come back”, “I learned from the best” and “The greatest love of all”. These ballads were followed by “Exhale” and “Step by step”. The Russian crowd were very reserved and Whitney really had to work the stage to try and get any response. Whitney left the stage for a short break to get changed while Gary Houston sang a solo and then joined the other backing singers in a beautiful gospel song.
The second half kicked off with a fantastic version of “My love is your love”. Bobbi Kristina came on stage to sing her lines and she stayed very close to Whitney. The ending of the song was a change from the tried and tested reggae version – however in our opinion was far better and probably the best we had ever heard her sing it live.
The next two songs were the old faithfuls “I wanna dance with somebody” and “How will I know”. Again – probably some of the best performances of these two songs ever! Whitney danced away (as she had no dancers on stage to support her) and encouraged the crowd to join in – although we do believe that there were only the four of us stood up in the whole of the theatre! Whitney made references to her age and the fact that those songs were recorded nineteen years ago. For the first time we can recall, there were no band introductions or gospel segment in the show and whilst we appreciate that this may have been difficult in Russia , it was sadly missed.
Things slowed down now and Whitney became very emotional. She sang the movie medley including “I believe in you and me” which she said reminded her of her and Bobby followed by “Why does it hurt so bad”, “Hurts like hell” and of course the obligatory “I will always love you”. She recalled how sad she was at the death of her father just over a year ago and how she thinks about him every day. “Why does it hurt so bad” was the song she used to describe her feelings and she apologised in advance if she couldn't make it through the songs. She was very upset and in tears throughout although she did manage to finish. At the end of “I will always love you” Whitney her took her trademark bow and left the stage to a standing ovation. This was good to see as it confirmed that the Russian fans had actually enjoyed the show despite being very reserved throughout.
While Whitney was off stage, lots of the fans had made their way down the aisles towards the front – many of them had flowers, which they wanted to give her. When she re-appeared a few minutes later, she was more casual, wearing a brilliant white hooded tracksuit complete with sequins and matching high-heeled boots! The opening bars of “It's not right but it's OK” started up and the crowd seemed to love it. For the first time tonight everyone was on their feet and the atmosphere was great! Unfortunately the Russian security was very tight and they would not let the fans close enough to give Whitney the flowers, which they had brought for her. Towards the end of the song, Whitney said numerous times into her microphone “Can I have my flowers please?” but it took some time before the security guards understood what she was saying and let the fans through a few at a time. Whitney came down the steps at either side of the stage and accepted some of the flowers and gave the fans a hug. At one point a young male fan grabbed her and it looked like he tried to pull her down but we think he was probably just a little over excited. This was one of the few times we have ever seen Whitney get this close to fans at a show and it was lovely to witness! Whitney left the stage to thunderous applause and it was all over until tomorrow night.
OK, concert over; all we had to do now was get back to the hotel. Back in the hotel we met Sharlotte (backing singer) coming out of the lift. She said she was going for a bite to eat but would see us in the lounge later for a drink. We duly obliged and headed down to the first floor bar. It was only small, with a grand piano in the corner and a female vocalist singing. We ordered some drinks and waited for Sharlotte. While we were waiting, Phyllis had decided that she couldn't go through the same ordeal again tomorrow night to get to the concert. So a decision was made and Dorothy decided she was going to stay behind at the hotel with Phyllis. We were upset, but could see no alternative. A short time later, we saw Whitney emerge from the restaurant with Bobbi Kristina and her niece ( Meta ) in tow. Bobbi Kristina went up to her room but Whitney and Meta sat at the lounge. Dorothy wheeled Phyllis towards the bar, where Whitney immediately spotted them and jumped off her stool to give them both a big hug. I went over to join them all, but Gary remained at our table, as he was too shy! Whitney introduced us to her niece and talked about Bobbi Kristina – it was all very relaxed and casual. By now the stage clothes had gone and she was dressed down in jeans and a t-shirt, however she still looked beautiful and we could not get over how pretty she is close up. During the conversation, Dorothy told Whitney that they probably would not be going to the second show. Of course, she wanted to know why, so Dorothy explained the situation. Whitney asked if we wanted to go, to which we replied yes. She called over Big Bob (her bodyguard) and just said “I need a car to pick these ladies up and take them to the venue tomorrow night”. We were shocked! Dorothy explained that transport wasn't the problem, but Whitney said not to worry and that we could go in via backstage and everything would be taken care of. Whitney then asked Dorothy for her cell phone number so that somebody could call her tomorrow to confirm the arrangements. We couldn't believe it – Whitney Houston asking for our phone number!!! When Dorothy told her we didn't have a mobile with us, she said, “Well give me your room number”. Meta wrote it down and Whitney promised that somebody would be in touch. Big Bob asked how many of us were in our party and got out two access all areas passes from his wallet. He said he would get the other two passes for us tomorrow. Still in shock from this very generous (and quite frankly, unbelievable) gesture, we returned to our seats to tell Gary the news. Whitney left the lounge a short time later. We spent the next hour or so catching up with Sharlotte and trying to persuade her to get up and sing – which she wouldn't – although she did promise to get up the following evening. At about 3am we called it a night and headed to bed – what a day!
Wednesday 11 February
The late night had taken its toll and we didn't get up until 10.45am . Ulysses hadn't called yet so we decided to go downstairs and have brunch. We find Ulysses downstairs and he gives us our tickets and backstage passes for the meet and greet for tonight's show. He had heard about the events of the previous night but was not sure of the final arrangements yet. We decide not to venture out today, but move into the lounge area near the lobby. While we are sat here, Donna and Pat come over and talk to us for a little while. While they were sitting with us, Bobbi Kristina came out of the lift with Meta and came over to talk to her Aunties. While she was there, a young girl about the same age came over and asked Bobbi Kristina to give something to her mum. Donna politely asked the girl to go and Bobbi Kristina looked uncomfortable with the situation. Security appeared from somewhere and the girl left. Donna also introduced us to Nicole David who is Whitney's agent. Everyone we have met has been very friendly. Donna said that they were trying to arrange the necessary security clearance to allow us entrance into the Kremlin with the rest of the crew. Ulysses then came over and asked if Gary and Rachel would make their own way to the venue to make things easier. This was fine, so we booked at taxi for 5.30pm to try and avoid the traffic. Security clearance granted, Dorothy and Phyllis were told to be in the lobby at 6.00pm ready to leave in the convoy at 6.30pm . We left all the backstage passes with Dorothy and arranged to meet up again in our seats at the venue.
The traffic tonight was much better and Gary and Rachel arrived at the venue at 5.45pm – typical! There were no queues to get in and it was so much easier than the previous night. With over an hour before the show was due to start they followed the crowds and headed to the top floor where a big hall had been laid out with tables and refreshments for sale. At 7pm the doors opened and they went in to take their seats. Tonight the seats were not quite as good, about 20 rows back, but they were still central and had a great view. J ust before the show started, Donna and Pat came in and took their seats right next to them.
Meanwhile, back at the hotel Dorothy and Phyllis were shown to their waiting car. As they approached, two burly security guards lifted Phyllis out of the wheelchair and into the car. There were lots of fans and photographers outside the hotel waiting for a glimpse of Whitney. Various members of Whitney's entourage got into the waiting cars and then Whitney appeared. She signed a couple of autographs and got into her car. The traffic around the hotel was so bad that they didn't move for 45 mins. Suddenly Whitney's car turned around and Dorothy and Phyllis wondered if she was going to cancel the show – fortunately this wasn't the case but Whitney's car did take a different route. As a result, Dorothy and Phyllis ended up arriving at the venue after the star herself. Security continued to help Dorothy and Phyllis into the theatre and took them out into the auditorium to help them find their seats. The show had already started by this time making it very difficult. There were no seats available in the front row and security was under strict instruction that they must be down at the front. As a result, they took Dorothy and Phyllis back behind the scenes and sat them with Bobbi Kristina on the side of the stage. Rachel and Gary were watching this turn of events from the audience unable to believe their eyes.
Whitney came on stage and looked fabulous again. Tonight she was wearing a black full-length dress with a long fur coat over the top. It was very much like her ‘My love is your love' tour look. The voice sounded even better than the previous night! The show was very similar to the first night, and again Whitney tried in vain to get some reaction from the crowd. The crowd did appear livelier than the previous night but they were still reserved and did not get up to dance. Donna and Pat seemed to be really enjoying the show and it was nice to see their reactions – after all they must have seen Whitney in concert hundreds of times.
The second half of the show began with another rousing rendition of “My love is your love” but tonight we did get the reggae style ending. Whitney had on the most beautiful white trouser suit with a black polo necked top underneath. She missed her cue for the start of “I wanna dance with somebody” and ended up coming in at the chorus – however she was forgiven as she more than made up for it during the rest of the song. Gary stood up and danced for the whole of the song – completely on his own and much to the amusement of Donna and Pat. Whitney sang a few bars of “Try it on my own” acapella and we only wish she would have continued!! Again she made references to Bobby who she told us was back in the US and remembered her dad. She got upset and emotional again, although she held herself together better tonight. Tonight's rendition of “I will always love you” was very good. Off stage for a quick change into leopard print trousers and top, covered up with another long fur coat. The crowd were really into the last song and she even left the stage and came down into the crowd to collect her flowers – something we have never seen before and I think took her bodyguards by surprise as well!
The show over and Gary and Rachel wondered how they were going to get backstage for the meet and greet as Dorothy had all the passes. Fortunately Donna and Pat grabbed them by the hand and told them to follow. Once backstage, Gary and Rachel were reunited with Dorothy and Phyllis. We were ushered into a room along a corridor past Whitney's dressing room. Here we met back up with Ulysses who explained what would happen at the meet and greet. He told us there were going to be lots of other people for her to meet including Russian Dignitaries, record company executives, competition winners and the designers of some of the outfits she had worn. Ulysses was very keen to make sure we were comfortable while we waited for Whitney to arrive. We were told that each of the other groups of visitors would be brought into the room, introduced, have their photo taken and then leave, but we would be able to stay in the room with Whitney for the duration.
Whitney appeared much quicker than expected. She had changed and was now in jeans, boots, and a brown polo necked jumper. Over the top she wore the white jacket, which she had worn on stage. One by one the various groups were introduced to Whitney while we watched on. Many of them brought her gifts including an embroidered shawl, gold necklace and fur coat to mention a few Whitney was very gracious and showed interest in the gifts she was been given, but Phyllis said to her “I have nothing to give you but love” to which she replied “That's all I need”. Whitney came over to where we were standing and gave us all a kiss and a big hug – she has such strength for someone so tiny! We had our photo taken with her and she said she would see us back at the hotel in the bar. She had a few more photos taken with the designers, wearing some of the items they had given her and then she disappeared.
We headed towards the exit and seemed to get caught up in a something, which was like a scene form “Men in Black”. All of a sudden we were surrounded by about twenty Russian security guards, all dressed immaculately in black suits and swept along the corridor. They picked Phyllis up and carried her up the steps and we just had to go with the flow otherwise we would have been knocked over!! The cars taking the crew and band back to the hotel were making a number of journeys so we had to wait a little while for a car to come. All four of us got a lift and we got back to the hotel just before midnight .
Back at the hotel we headed to the lounge. It was very busy, Whitney and the band were already there and the only empty seats were directly behind Whitney. We did not feel comfortable just sitting there so Dorothy went and asked the bodyguard if it was OK, to which he said yes. A little while after we had arrived, Whitney got up to go into the restaurant, which was right next to, where we were sitting. She came over and chatted to us for a few minutes. She was very warm and funny and asked what “mummy” (Phyllis) was eating etc. We thanked her for everything she had done and she was quick to reply, saying that it was nothing and that being able to do it made everything worthwhile for her. It was very genuine and meant a lot to us. We got talking about songs and Dorothy told Whitney that Phyllis had never heard her sing “The greatest love of all” all the way through. The only time she has sang it in full recently was at HBO Classic Whitney and Phyllis did not make that trip. Whitney promised to include it in a future show especially for her. Then Dorothy asked her if she knew “The impossible dream”. She seemed a little confused at first but then the penny dropped and she started to sing a few lines from it. She said she would also learn that one for the next time. With that, Whitney said she was going for something to eat but would see us later and she went into the restaurant with some of her family.
Still sat in the lounge, we had conversations and photos with Donna, Laurie and Ulysses. Every one of them was so friendly and we were made to feel very welcome and not at all like outsiders.
About half an hour later, Whitney re-emerged and went back to sit in the lounge with Sharlotte. They seemed to be having a really good time and at one point we could hear the two of them singing together. Suddenly, Whitney got up and started telling Sharlotte a story – she was being very animated, doing all the actions and we were sat laughing at what we were witnessing. Dorothy called Whitney over and she went on to explain the story to us. She was so funny when she was recalling this incident to us that we just couldn't help laughing. Before she got to the end of the story, Sharlotte got up on the microphone and started singing “ J ust the two of us”. This was the song that she had been singing at the lounge with Whitney. Whitney's ears pricked up and she rushed over to join her. Everybody moved towards the piano to witness the two of them singing. It was great – an impromptu performance which we were amazed to be listening to. It didn't stop here though. Somebody else from the lounge called out a song for her to sing, but she replied “No Whitney songs”, however when Phyllis called out for her to sing “The greatest love of all” she seemed to stop in her tracks. She got one of her band members to play the piano and the music began – we couldn't believe our ears. Was she really going to sing Phyllis' favourite song in this setting just for her – well the answer was yes. The lounge fell silent. She dedicated the song to “my very special friend Phyllis” and gave a perfect performance. Phyllis was in tears. Then, Sharlotte sang the Stevie Wonder song “Ribbons in the sky” and Whitney sang backing vocals for her and without a mic. It was beautiful, Whitney and Sharlotte sing so well together. Finally, Whitney sat up and sang a very heartfelt gospel song, which we had never heard before. It was out of this world and was worth the price of the whole trip just to hear this one song. What a fantastic night – it was intimate and personal and words cannot even begin to express how privileged we felt to be a part of it. Whitney left the lounge shortly after and headed up to her room. On her way out we thanked her again and she said she would call us or see us in the morning before we left.
Our evening continued for another couple of hours after Whitney's departure. Sharlotte continued to sing various songs with and without accompaniment including a rendition of “I love the Lord” which would certainly have given Whitney a run for her money! The whole of the band were joining in one way or another – this is such a talented group of people it was an honour to be there. Everybody was singing along, even Laurie and Ulysses. At one point, somebody started playing Beatles songs on the piano and said that it was for the London crowd!! We joined in as best we could, although I don't think that they have anything to worry about! At about 3am things started to wind down. We say our goodbyes and goodnight's and head upstairs for some much needed sleep. We agree to meet in the morning for breakfast.
Thursday 12 February
We all meet in Dorothy's room ready to go for breakfast. It is just after 10am when we get to the restaurant and we are shown to a table. We can see Whitney sat at the other end of the restaurant with Laurie and Bobbi Kristina. Big Bob and another bodyguard are seated at a separate table some distance from them. As Dorothy and Phyllis went up to get some food, Big Bob told them that Whitney had been waiting for them to arrive and that they should go over. Dorothy sits down beside Whitney at the table. They have a conversation as though they are a couple of old girlfriends. Dorothy and Phyllis return to the table and we continue with breakfast. Once we have finished breakfast, Whitney signs a couple of autographs for Phyllis' grandchildren and she gets ready to leave. She tells us she will let us know when they are coming to town!
We left shortly after and head back to our rooms to pack and then checkout of this beautiful hotel. Our taxi was booked for 2pm to take us back to the airport. We waited for our taxi in the lobby talking to Sharlotte, Laurie and Pat at various times. The crew were also gathering as they waited for their own transport to the airport. Unfortunately they were headed for sunnier climates ( Dubai ) for the final leg of this trip, while we had to return to a wet and cold London , if only we could have gone on with them!
We get in our taxis and make way for the airport. On arrival, they have a roadblock preventing cars going up to the departures section. The driver flashes a card to the security man and he immediately opens the roadblock and lets us through – when we see the card he showed it had Whitney Houston on it! We are not sure why or how he had this but it came in very handy. Once inside the airport, whom should we see, but the band and crew who have already arrived and are waiting to check in? We suspect that the road was blocked awaiting the arrival of Whitney herself as she had been due to leave the hotel at 3pm .
That was it; the trip was over and back to reality. When we set off for Moscow four days ago, none of us could ever have imagined that we would have such a wonderful experience – we just wanted to be able to listen to that wonderful voice once again. We would certainly have some stories to tell when we got home, although we were not quite sure that anyone would actually believe us. Well, believe us or not, the memories we shared will be there for a lifetime and we cannot even begin to thank everyone enough for making our ‘Impossible dream' become a reality. Thanks must go to Tim and especially Lynn, who made this trip all possible, and special thanks also must go to Donna, Pat, Ulysses, Big Bob and the security team for looking after us and making us feel so welcome. An extra special thank you must go to Laurie, who made our trip even more special and of course to Whitney for everything she has done for us and most especially, for taking the time to be with us.
You guys have made three people and one old lady very, very happy!
(The old lady is the one and only Phyllis)
Dorothy, Phylis, Gary and Rachel
4 MARCH 2004
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