Estelle Karp Becomes a Centenarian
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Estelle Karp Becomes a Centenarian

Parties and surprises delight family matriarch.

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

Estelle at the Haven birthday party with her cake.
Estelle at the Haven birthday party with her cake.

Eighty years ago, while traveling with her mother, young Estelle Mallon was vocalizing in a train rest room when she was overheard by the wife of movie star, guitarist and Mariachi band leader, Tito Guizar. Guizar had been searching for a female vocalist to sing with his band, at the effusive recommendation by his wife, and with the consent of her mother, Estelle was hired to travel with the band throughout the United States as Guizar’s featured singer.

Daughters, Sharon and Lauri, with Estelle at a surprise house visit.

Among many memorable events during the tour, a standout is Estelle’s performance with Guizar’s band, in Mariachi garb, at Carnegie Hall in New York. After graduating from college, Estelle had been accepted to Juilliard; however, her life changed with an exciting life as a performer, then marrying Herbert Karp, who fell in love with her when, as a new recruit in World War II, he heard her performing at a USO show.

Herbert and Estelle were kindred spirits who shared a love of music, gourmet cooking, and a cultured curiosity about the world. They loved to travel. During their travels, they became serious collectors of Asian art, with an emphasis on Japanese Sumida ware. Connoisseur Herbert co-wrote an important book about the genre, which includes lavish illustrative photography (Herb was the talented photographer.) Their home artistically displayed their vast collection, much of which is now in a Japanese museum. Estelle’s apartment at the Piedmont in Buckhead is a mini museum of treasures from their travels.

In Atlanta, Estelle’s singing was widely admired. It was often claimed, “If you were married in Atlanta, Estelle Karp probably sang at your wedding.” Estelle’s beautiful voice enlivened celebrations—Jewish and non-Jewish—in Atlanta and surrounding communities. People today still recall her evocative solos as part of the Ahavath Achim Synagogue High Holiday choir.

Today, Estelle is a binding, loving presence for family and “adopted” family. Four generations of people who adore her joined in Atlanta to celebrate the 100th birthday of their beloved matriarch and treasured friend.

Estelle Karp joined her family and friends for her 100th birthday party at Haven.

Estelle remarks, “Love kept pouring in!” For a week, parties and continuous surprises enlivened the days leading up to a sit-down dinner for 40 relatives and special friends “whom I love just like relatives,” Estelle says. Daughter, Lauri, who lives in Atlanta, and daughter, Sharon, who lives in California, each did her part to ensure that every day together was memorable.

The carefully orchestrated events began with a family dinner at the restaurant Haven, where a special birthday menu was served. The always-elegant, gracious, and refined celebrant, her daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren joined together on Estelle’s actual birthdate of March 26. It seems just right that Lauri’s husband, Steve, and Estelle share a special bond: the same birth date. For years at shared birthday parties, letters on Steve’s cake have read “It’s my birthday, too.”

During the week, relatives from Boston, Los Angeles, and Detroit enjoyed visiting Estelle in her apartment. The joyful re-connections and reminiscences were amplified by a surprise on March 28, when daughters, Lauri and Sharon, took their mother on a mystery car ride. After driving for what seemed to Estelle like hours they pulled into a familiar driveway. Arrangements had been made to visit the house where the Karps lived for decades before the girls moved away and Estelle’s husband, Herb died, after which Estelle moved. The house’s present owners invited the threesome to tour the house, capping the visit with a surprise birthday party (cake and crown included) and lots of meaningful catching up, including visits from Estelle’s former beloved neighbors. One set of neighbors brought a bottle of Tanqueray, remembering that it was the Karps’s favorite drink!

The pinnacle event on March 30, was held at Estelle’s favorite restaurant, Ray’s on the River, where 60 family and “like-family” guests dined, toasted, and delivered more surprises.

Displayed on the wall were two of Estelle’s performance dresses from her Tito Guizar touring days, one which she wore at the Carnegie Hall band performance. Clever, poignant centerpieces that were handcrafted by daughter, Lauri, decorated each table: 100 candles were wrapped in a wide band of photographs reflecting Estelle’s long, eventful life. Myriad bouquets, tributes and toasts expressing love and admiration for Estelle’s exciting life and joie de vivre poured forth from the guests. Significant surprise highlights included congratulatory messages, arranged by daughter, Sharon, from Governor Brian Kemp and Mayor Andre Dickens, and a moving expression of affection from 13-year-old great-grandson, Garrett, delighted everyone.

Genee and Len Jacobs present their “Fabulous Estelle” book to the birthday girl.

One of the special guests was 99-year-old sister-in law, Betty Karp. Estelle’s connection to her extended family is powerful. Third cousin, Isabella Karp, who had expressed great sadness at not being able to attend the party, made an unexpected visit.

An exceptional gift from close friends (“they’re like my own children”) Genee and Len Jacobs, was clearly a labor of love; it is a bespoke hardbound book, entitled, “Fabulous Estelle.” Len had always been fascinated by Estelle’s unique life, and his extensive research resulted in the biographical compilation, on which he worked for a year in order to present it to her on her 100th birthday.

Tito Guizar wasn’t the only music-driven fortuitous happening. Estelle and husband, Herb, had season orchestra seats at the Atlanta Opera in Cobb County, and they soon became dear friends with Annie and Ron Prescott, a couple whose seats were next to theirs. Estelle calls them her “opera family.” The Karps and Prescotts became such close companions over the years that the two couples had a standing date to dine together at Ray’s on the River (Estelle’s favorite restaurant) before each opera, then attend the opera together.

Daughter, Lauri, speaks for her family, “To me, this party was an opportunity most people don’t get. To make it to 100 years is an accomplishment, but to be alive and have all present around you professing and showing their love is a gift. As my mother presented me with the opportunity, I wanted to give her that gift. It was just what I wanted it to be.”

Estelle spots handmade centerpiece at her birthday party at Ray’s on the River.

Estelle Karp is now preparing to move into a large, renovated space in her daughter and son’s Atlanta home. She looks forward to living with her children, and at the same time she will have her own space, too.

Estelle, reminiscing about her life, had this to say, “I’ve had a wonderful, eventful life, yet I consider most important to be the love I shared with my sweetheart, Herbert.”

Estelle’s love of life and optimism have affected so many over the years. It seems appropriate to wish her the classic Hebrew blessing, Ahd mae’ah v’esrim … “to a hundred and twenty!”

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