When Petula Clark takes the stage Saturday at Herbst Theatre, her fans can expect a survey of her more than six decades in show business, perhaps a tune or two from stage shows that she has starred in, such as "Sunset Boulevard"; maybe a song from "Finian's Rainbow," the musical she did with Fred Astaire; and a selection of her own compositions. And no show is complete without the big hits, including "Downtown" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway."
Hard to believe it, but Clark, that icon of the swinging '60s, is 74 now and a grandmother. On the phone from Miami, she has a cold -- "It's a Welsh cold," she says, laughing. "I think it will be over by the time I get to San Francisco." But even struck low by illness, she displays a youthful timbre in her voice and an exploding energy that belie her age. As someone who has been performing very nearly as long as she has been alive, she is the consummate trouper.
Clark was already a pro at age 6, and she grew up entertaining the troops all around England during World War II. She recently unearthed an inscribed badge from the American Red Cross celebrating her contributions to the war effort.
"I was sort of a mascot of the GIs based in London, but also I was singing for the Free French, the Poles, the Canadians and, of course, the Brits," Clark says. "That's what I used to do, and actually there was another little girl doing the same kind of thing. That was Julie Andrews. We used to travel in troop trains, and we used to sleep in the luggage racks."
That opportunity led to others, and by the time she was 11, Clark was making movies as a contract player with the Rank Organization. If most of the films were forgettable, the experience afforded at least one brush with authentic genius when Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- the auteurs behind "Black Narcissus" and "The Red Shoes" -- cast her in a supporting role in their 1945 romantic drama "I Know Where I'm Going."
"It was a very dark studio movie," she says. "I was actually terrified of Michael Powell; a lot of people were. He was a rather sadistic man. He used to really squeeze performances out of his actors by frightening them."
Perhaps more insidious to Clark's future prospects than Powell's cruelty was the Rank Organization's campaign to keep her in little girl roles as she started to mature, mandating childish hairstyles and clothing, and even going so far as to bind her breasts.
"I think I had to unlearn some of the things I picked up as a child performer," she says. "For a while, I was acting younger than I was, and it was very difficult for me. I really didn't want to do it. But I picked up a few cute little tricks that I had to get rid of."
Her recording career began in earnest during the 1950s, and she charted her first British hit, "The Little Shoemaker," in 1954, topping out at No. 7. She hit No. 1 for the first time with "Sailor" in 1961. That year she married French record executive Claude Wolff and moved to France, where, she believes, she finally came into her own as a performer.
"I have to say that I did a great deal of growing up in France," she says. "I think that's when I started learning a little bit more, really what performing is about, just by being in the presence of people like Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel and people like that. It was about finding what you have inside you. It's not that I was actually studying this. It's just, when you're surrounded by this other way of doing things, it sort of rubs off on you."
Clark was on tour in Quebec when "Downtown" reached No. 1 in the United States in 1965. The song had charted in England the year before, and she was already an international star. But she still insists that when Tony Hatch's ditty rhapsodizing about how "the lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares" hit stateside, she was unprepared.
"It was great and, at the same time, it really complicated my life," she says. "I already had a full diary professionally, and I had two small children. Suddenly, America was calling, and it was wonderful, but it wasn't easy."
Throughout the 1960s, Clark continued to make the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Her schedule filled with television and nightclub dates. She even revived her film career, starring opposite Peter O'Toole in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and working with Astaire on "Finian's Rainbow" for a young director from San Francisco named Francis Ford Coppola. She recalls Coppola insisting that the cast perform the show live in a shed on the Warner Bros. back lot for the crew's friends and family.
"Fred was really totally bemused by the whole thing," Clark says, laughing. "He'd never had to do anything like that before. Of course, this was Francis' idea of 'getting down to the bones of the show' kind of thing."
Her stage career took off in 1981 when she played Maria von Trapp in a West End revival of "The Sound of Music" and her performance was lauded by no less an authority than the real von Trapp, who said Clark's performance was "the closest I've ever seen to what it was really like." In the mid-1990s, Clark spent a year on Broadway opposite David and Shaun Cassidy in the musical "Blood Brothers." More recently, she played silent film diva Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard," in London's West End and on a tour that took her to San Francisco in 1999.
For all of her achievements in the post-"Downtown" era, Clark says she understands the importance of that one song and just how much it has come to define her career.
"It was extraordinary," she says. "You can't prepare for that. I don't think you can just say, 'Oh, I think I'm going to be a star in America.' It just doesn't work like that. They either love you or they don't, and they just happened to fall in love with this song, and I guess with me along with it.
It was the song really that did it."
PETULA CLARK appears at 8 p.m. Saturday at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $45-$100. (415) 392-4400, www.cityboxoffice.com .