One night you might see her dressed to the nines with formal gloves and a gardenia in her hair, belting out Billie Holiday classics. Another night you might see her on the stage at Penumbra or Mixed Blood theaters. Still another night, you might see her in the kitchen at Calvary Church, wearing an apron and stirring a few pans of fluffy, buttery deliciousness.
Thomasina Petrus is a woman of many talents. Singer, actress, creator of Thomasina’s Cashew Brittle candy, wife of Charles and mother of Charles Jr., 10, and Kobe, 8, to say she stays busy is an understatement. But of her business enterprises, her true love is singing. “If I could just sing, that’s all I’d do,” said the statuesque woman with the halo of curly, black hair. “As Billie Holiday said, ‘Singing is living.'”
An Army brat originally from Minneapolis, who has lived in locales as varied as Schweinfurt, Germany, and Vine Grove, Ky., Petrus made her first public appearance as a singer locally. “My sister Jean and I were contestants for Little Miss Black Minnesota.” Dressed in Hee-Haw overalls, Petrus, 3, sang her heart out, but as for 4-year-old Jean, “not a peep came out of her,” Petrus said, smiling widely at the memory. Petrus moved back to Minneapolis with her mother when her parents divorced in 1982.
Petrus’ first real association with the music of Billie Holiday came at age 15, when she was under the tutelage of “Cornbread” Harris (Jimmy Jam Harris’ dad) in a program at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis. “I had picked out Holiday’s ‘God Bless the Child.’ He said, ‘You can’t really sing that song unless you know something about Billie Holiday.'”
“That’s one of the few songs Billie wrote,” Petrus said, “and when I sang it the feeling was missing; her special timing was missing. She would pull words out and set ’em on top of the music. She was one of the first divas of jazz.”
As much as Petrus loved singing, surprisingly during high school she concentrated on dance. Reaching the nationals of the NAACP’s ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) program, Petrus, 16, watched in awe as another contestant took the stage. “At that moment, I knew I wasn’t going to be a professional dancer. I watched her and thought, ‘Oh, that’s what dance is supposed to do, evoke emotions.’
“That’s what I get from singing,” Petrus said. “There’s something about connecting with people through the notes. I feel like I’m dancing inside my body when I’m singing, so I really don’t miss the dancing.”
After high school, Petrus received an academic scholarship to St. Olaf College, but didn’t stay. “I wasn’t prepared for the work involved. I don’t think I was meant to be there.” After stints at the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College, where she met her husband, Petrus gave up on academics. “It’s hard to fit [a creative spirit] into that 9 to 5 to get a college degree.”
But that’s not to say she stopped studying. She grabbed whatever she could from the well-known folks in the business locally, people like singers Debbie Duncan and Jevetta Steele.
Unbelievably, Petrus doesn’t read music. “I just have an incredibly good ear,” she said. “I sing in whatever key. And sometimes, I’ll say, ‘Wow, that’s difficult.’ If I don’t know where to go vocally, I’ll start scatting. People don’t know you’re doing it out of necessity, not artistry,” she said with a grin.
Petrus’ transformation into candymaker really happened accidentally. “The wife of a co-worker [at Robert’s Shoe Store] taught me to make her version of cashew brittle,” Petrus said. “I made it that Christmas for gifts and ruined so many batches. I experimented and made up my own version of it, and people loved it.”
The candymaking took off as a business the following holiday season when she took a tin of samples to her son’s craft fair. “I put out a notebook, asking that people leave me their information if they wanted brittle, then I left and walked around the fair. When I came back the tin was empty and the notebook was full,” Petrus said. “I knew I was going to be making brittle 20 hours a day. I was stirring and crying at the same time. I made my last delivery at 10:45 p.m. Christmas Eve. My husband said, ‘This is it. You’re either going to start a business or quit.'”
Of course, she started the business. That was three years ago. Today, Thomasina’s Cashew Brittle has accounts in Atlanta, Chicago and New York. Locally, you can find it at co-ops, grocery stores, theaters and the Minnesota State Fair.
Petrus continues to juggle a lot of things, repeating her mantra: determination, discipline, destiny. Her bottom line: “I’m still gigging and making brittle.”