Wende Harston, longtime vocalist for the Queen City Jazz Band, fell on hard times through a series of unexpected life events and bad luck and became homeless, living in an immobile RV for the past four years. She had a parrot she couldn’t afford to keep and had to put the bird in a parrot rescue facility. (Yes, they have welfare homes for parrots!) Fellow band members and friends have come to Wende’s aid, and she and the parrot are now happily living in a mobile home in the Denver area as she gets back on her feet.
Wende grew up on the North Shore of Chicago. Her first name was originally supposed to be Gwendolyn, but her father insisted that his children have the same initials in their names as his – WHH. Hence, Gwendolyn became Wendolyn – or Wende for short.
“My grandmother was a gospel singer, and my mother sang with swing bands, so I have sung as long as I can remember,” she says. “I tell people I was a back-stage baby. I auditioned for a theater production at the age of 5, sang in church and school, and got my first paying gig when I was 10 in a trio with two friends.” Among the instruments that Wende has learned to play over the years are piano, tenor guitar, ukulele, cello and flute.
A National Scholar
Always a good student, she graduated in 1972 from New Trier High School, known for its demanding curriculum, strong arts programs, and academic excellence, where she was a National Achievement Scholar. She applied to the prestigious Julliard School of Theater, which received 4,000 applications for admission that year, of whom 400 had interviews and 24 were accepted. “I was number 26 on the list,” she laments.
So it was off to the University of North Colorado for a year and then three years at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, where she majored in theater and voice and spent a year at the college’s London campus in Jolly Olde England. While she completed four years of college, she has no degree, having lost a year of credits in transferring from UNC to Lawrence.
Moving back to the Windy City, she spent a couple of years as a dispatcher in the Glencoe, IL Police Department and worked in sales and as a waitress and bartender while looking for singing and theater opportunities. She finally connected with a ragtime piano player who was looking to start a band, and Wende and the Percolating Fools came into being.
The Move to Denver
In 1983, tiring of Chicago’s wintertime 80-below wind chill factor, she made the move to Denver where her brother ran a documentary film company and where she soon had a busy schedule of singing and theatrical commitments. Meeting Cynthia Stahl led to the formation of an a cappella trio, Tout Suite. She was the vocalist for the Boon Town Stompers, regulars at the popular Bull & Bush, and worked with the Mystic Island steel drum band.
In 1989, she met Bill Clark and Hank Troy which was the beginning of a 27-year association with the Queen City Jazz Band. Her first festival was at Central City. She also took advantage of her theatrical training, appearing in commercials, feature films, and local shows. She was a lifelong fan of actor Raymond Burr and had parts in five episodes of his Perry Mason series as well as three episodes of the Father Dowling series starring Tom Bosley.
But along the way, Wende ran into what seemed like a never-ending string of bad luck. Soon after her move to Denver, she suffered a broken back which put her out of action for six months. Then she had colon surgery and diverticulitis and was in a car accident. She bought a condo as an investment for $54,000 just before the real estate market tanked. Within two months, the condo was valued at $19,000, and the bank foreclosed.
Struggling to keep her head above water, she acquired an RV and for the next three years parked it in a friend’s driveway. She then lived in a motel and a friend’s basement. By early 2015, she was living in an immobile RV in a warehouse district where the RV was illegally hooked up to a business power outlet to keep her electronics powered inside. It wasn’t long before her Vespa scooter which she used to get around town was stolen. “Things just got bad quicker than I anticipated.”
There was hardly room to turn around in the RV, so Wende had to take her pet parrot Samela, a double-yellow-headed Amazon parrot, to the Gabriel Foundation, an aviary and adoption center which currently cares for more than 800 psittacine birds in Denver. “It killed me; absolutely killed me.”
A Brighter Outlook
This past May, things began to turn around. Several of Wende’s friends arranged for a down payment on a mobile home in a Lakewood trailer park and are seeking to raise funds to pay off the balance. “I’ve been a packrat for 40 years and was finally able to get my stuff out of storage,” she exclaimed. “Now I’m living in a 1,000-square-foot home with two yards, and I’m okay for the first time in so long. And there’s plenty of room for Sami.”
The Gabriel Foundation spearheaded a GoFundMe on-line fundraising campaign to raise $3,000 to help get her settled in her new home, and in just one month, 68 people chipped in $3,625. An official of the Foundation commented, “While Wende has been unable to pay for Sami’s care, she does repay us in other ways. When she came to visit Sami, she brought her guitar and sang for the hundreds of rescued birds at the Foundation. They LOVE her! Her music, quiet and gentle manner, and positive energy brings joy to our birds as well as our staff every time she visits.”
Wende is now receiving a monthly disability check from the state because of mobility issues, and at the age of 60, still maintains a positive outlook and sense of humor. “My life is an open book,” she says, “and I always tell the truth. I may not have always made the smartest decisions, and I really don’t care what people may think about me, especially people who are mean and inconsiderate.” She has a vintage doll collection and is writing a mystery novel. Now Wende and Sami are back together and can continue their impromptu concerts on a regular basis.
(Contributions may be made to Queen City Jazz Foundation, 4628 South Newton Street, Denver, CO 80236.)