It’s Nice to Say Hello…to Carole Demas!

Posted: February 12, 2012 in Broadway, Cabaret, Culture, Entertainment, Music, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized

To an entire legion of forty-somethings from the New York metropolitan area, the name Carole Demas evokes some of the most cherished memories of childhood; as co-host of the children’s show “The Magic Garden” on WPIX Channel 11, she and true-life best friend Paula Janis took their young audience on an educational romp that included music, stories, learning other languages, and a supporting cast brought to life by the puppetry of Cary Antebi. What most of those children couldn’t have known was that Demas was also starring on Broadway at the time, as Sandy in the original cast of Grease, alongside Barry Bostwick. Since that time, she’s gone on to success in all manner of media, and most recently opted to return to cabaret with her show Summer Nights, which proved a smash when it debuted at the Laurie Beechman Theater in 2011 (one critic likened her to a cross between Judy Collins and Betty Buckley), and will return to the space for a 7 PM performance on Wednesday, February 15th. And though it’s always a very busy time for the lady (she spends a sizeable portion of the year touring with Paula Janis in concerts), The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more honored that she’s granted us an interview in preparation of the show.

ANDREW MARTIN: What made you decide to return to cabaret after such a long absence?

CAROLE DEMAS: I realized I was growing older, and I felt strongly that singing songs that speak to me and sharing that experience with an audience is an integral part of who I am. At this point, opportunities to sing don’t necessarily come your way. You have to make them happen; it’s a use-it-or-lose-it situation. Cabaret is about putting your own performance together–the songs, the dialogue, the flow–it’s a very creative process, and I want to tackle it while I still can. I have so much to sing about–more and more, as time goes on–and I have the perspective now that comes from being in my seventies and, thankfully, still able to sing. Cabaret, as we see it in various cities in the USA today, is becoming a flexible genre. There are those who prefer to preserve it in what might be seen as its purest form–singers presenting their personal view of The Great American Songbook. These classic, timeless songs never get old. They are forever witty, enjoyable, beautiful, and certainly deserve their highly-respected place in our musical history, but even many of the purists are open to the idea that the songbook is growing as time goes by. Songs from Broadway (which has always been married to the classic songbook material), jazz, some ethnic music, folk, certain pop songs and other material are being successfully embraced by the intimacy and personal interpretation of cabaret. So there’s a range of choice, and there are lots of ways to succeed or fail. A singer’s choices are a reflection of the singer–what moves you, what suits your vocal abilities–all kinds of things come into play. It’s also a collaborative process, with a musical director, often a director, too, and sometimes other musicians. Challenging. Defining, in a way. It takes a lot of discipline and creative energy, and mostly it takes a lot of passion. Without that, it’s just too difficult. It isn’t generally lucrative, either. You’re lucky to break even, but the passion keeps you going. I told my husband today that although I look younger than my years, I’m physically and emotionally feeling the changes that time brings about at this point in my life. It comes to me that to deal with the forces of nature, you kind of have to be one–or at least try!

AM: You speak in the show about your childhood in Brooklyn, but don’t tell us much about what drew you to a life in the theater. Can you illuminate us about how and why that happened?

CD: I was born with the gift of a singing voice. My parents both had beautiful natural singing voices, and all four of us got the gene. My parents encouraged me and made sure I got good training when the time came–but I was a shy child, slow to physically mature, and extremely insecure about singing in front of people. We were not a showbiz family. Singing at assembly in school, or in church, terrified me to the point of feeling ill, but still, the drive was there. In my secret heart, I imagined a career as an actress, but I didn’t believe I was good enough to actually do it. I planned to be a writer, or a teacher. I loved children and it turned out I was a good teacher. In college, at the University of Vermont, I auditioned for a few shows and got leading roles. I found it was easier to sing in musicals where I was playing the part of a person other than myself (even though I brought a lot of myself to the process). This was so liberating! Out there on the stage, singing roles in operas and musicals, I felt a resounding “yes” filling me up inside and got the message–this was really who I was.

AM: Was The Fantasticks your first major show?

CD: No, my first major show was Morning Sun in 1963, Fred Ebb’s first book musical, with an earlier writing partner, Paul Klein. It starred Patricia Neway and Bert Convy. I had worked with the Champlain Shakespeare Festival in Vermont, playing small roles and singing with Roy Kelly, and guitarist Chuck Eldred, in a concert of Shakespearean music before each show. After college, I went to NYU Graduate School of Education to earn teaching credentials so I could survive, and I began teaching grades 1-6 in the New York City school system. It’s a long story, Paula Janis  and I ended up teaching kindergarten together, in a double-enrollment classroom in a what was a very rundown area in Brooklyn in the early 1960s. We did a lot of singing with the children, and then, based on the work I had done in Vermont, we formed a quartet with our brothers, Jonathan Rosen and Alex Demas, and found we had a blend made in heaven. We sang as minstrels, The Festival Line Singers, for the NY Shakespeare Festival at The Delacorte in Central Park, for several seasons. How that happened is a crazy story in itself; it was a gig we created and brought to them, they liked it, it was a huge hit, many agents saw us there and a number of them called me about representation. Agent Eva Slane sent me up for the ingénue lead in Morning Sun, and after an audition that scared me silly (my first one ever for a real role in New York), I got the part. Every girl waiting to audition in the alley looked like Brigitte Bardot in false eyelashes and a low-cut sundress. I had worn no makeup and my younger sister’s clothes–my wardrobe at the time consisted mostly of my teaching outfits, selected to make me look at least old enough to be in charge of a classroom! The show was an enormous experience, full of talent but too dark for the critic’s taste, and closed quickly. I did some substitute teaching and some regional theatre, including playing Luisa in The Fantasticks at what became the Milwaukee Rep. To play that role in New York was a dream of mine, and it came true in 1966. It was an opportunity to do eight shows a week in a long run of a successful show (for forty dollars a week, at first, and later a big fat eighty dollars!). I learned so much. My fellow actors were brilliant, good people. It was a golden time.

AM: You’ve spoken of how you and Paula first met when you were fourteen. How did that happen? And did you both always know from the start that you wanted to work together on something like “The Magic Garden?”

CD: Paula and I met as sophomores, singing in the Mixed Chorus in Midwood High School in Brooklyn, in 1955. We’ve been friends now for fifty-seven years! We had no idea that we’d be creating and performing together as Carole and Paula of “The Magic Garden” in 1972! Some of the seeds of that partnership were sewn in our teaching together ten years earlier. The show happened because WPIX auditioned me to be the host of a cartoon show as part of their effort to satisfy The Children’s Television Act of the time. I suggested something different, with Paula and me as a team, and it came to be!

AM: The stories of No No Nanette prior to Broadway have become legendary, up to and including the fact that you were cast in the title role and then replaced unexpectedly. What was that experience like? Do you have any regrets about not having gone on to do the show?

CD: Getting Nanette was totally thrilling! I remember waiters at Joe Allen, who had heard the news, dancing around my table there to congratulate me! A Broadway show!! WOW!! The title role!! WOW!! The musical director wanted a different spin on the role, not a typical soubrette, and while I was certainly a soprano, he lowered the keys of the songs, looking for a slightly different sound. I gave him, he said, exactly what he wanted. I was in heaven! The director, Burt Shevelove, had been ill and hospitalized during the auditioning and casting. On his return, working with a cast he had not personally chosen, he found me–a strong singer but not a real dancer, which is apparently what HE wanted (I was studying tap like a madwoman and I did learn to walk on a ball–a skill I never used again!). They had seemed happy with what I was doing with the role. I adored Ruby Keeler and Patsy Kelly. The cast was wonderful, but there were various problems not having to do with me, and the second act wasn’t coming together very well at that point. We were opening in Boston, and they fired me as I was packing to leave. It was a shock, a heartbreak, and my first horrifying look at how tough the business of show can be. The whole story is described in gory detail in The Making Of No No Nanette, by Don Dunn. Ruby and Patsy both called me to say how sorry they were and that they had no idea this was about to happen. Susan Watson was lovely in the role, and I spent a long, long time in emotional recovery. The presence of the old-time movie stars had inspired a lot of press and excitement about this show, so my firing was a widely-known horror story; I had no hiding place. My agent negotiated a settlement for me, since the show was shaky at that point, and the future of it was in doubt. It turns out I’d have been better off continuing to take my run-of-the-play salary for the duration of the run, which was long and profitable. It was a very painful time. Of course I wish I could have gone on with it, and I deeply regret having lost that chance. This can be a devastating business, and I learned that the hard way.

AM: What were your initial thoughts about Grease, and about Sandy as a character? Did it ever surprise you that it became the longest-running show on Broadway at the time? How did you feel about the film version?

CD: Grease was a leap of faith for all of us. As actors, we were happy to be cast in a show. We were working! Grease was very different, the audience appeal of the 50s had not been fully explored on Broadway, many of the characters were tough–the Chicago production, where it all started, had different music for the most part, and less of it, and was darker and too foul-mouthed (although authentic) for Broadway. Its transformation to a Broadway show was a process we were all working in the middle of. The cast was amazing–they made those characters live, and audiences really cared about them. They were inventive and often hilarious, full of energy, teenaged angst and charisma-strong singers and actors. We pulled together, and have loved each other ever since. The camaraderie was palpable. Every single cast member made a huge professional and emotional contribution, and none of us had any idea if it would survive. Everyone worked so hard–director Tom Moore, choreographer Pat Birch, musical director Louis St. Louis, the designers, the tech people–all under the watchful eye of producers Ken Waissman and Maxine Fox, who took a huge risk with this unprecedented piece. Changes came and went until we were dizzy. Jim Jacobs grew up with the Grease characters. He idolized them. He was their friend and their mascot–the “Doody” with his guitar. They were a rowdy, irreverent bunch, bent on survival despite their lack of privileges. He told me that by the time he and Warren Casey began working on the Chicago version, many of Jim’s “greaser” friends were headed for dead or in jail, but still he adored them, and Grease was his tribute to them. You can imagine how complicated it was, keeping the genuine grit of the characters, preserving some of the rough language, while constructing and deconstructing something appropriate for a Broadway audience. There was a fair amount of healthy upheaval. Tom Moore wrestled with the language and got the balance just right. Naturally, Jim and Warren were reluctant to jettison some of the harsher reality that had made the earlier version a kind of cult hit in Chicago. In the film, and in many future productions (and there have been endless numbers of them!), Grease became softer, but our first Broadway edition was purposefully edgy, yet extremely appealing. Previews were a blur of new numbers, new scenes…we just hung on and gave it our all. As for the film, it reached out to a huge audience all over the world. It was an absolute smash, well cast, well done, and full of changes. Like many films based on Broadway shows, it was not a simple film version of the stage show. The iconic status of Grease owes a lot to the popularity of the film. The cast was largely made up of really talented stage actors and singers, who enhanced the film and continued to have terrific careers in film, television and on stage. As far as the character of Sandy, I was THERE in high school in the late 50s. I WAS that girl. Even back then, there was something exciting and mysterious about those good-looking bad boys in the leather jackets. I loved them from afar. I knew Sandy inside out. My personal goal was to make her shine, so you could understand why Danny would jeopardize his “king of the hill” position for her, when he could have any girl he wanted. The other kids were a colorful bunch. I was fearful Sandy would be mild and pretty and not very interesting compared to the rest of them, so I gave her everything I had. I wanted her to have a kind of innocent passion that threw off Danny’s cool and drew him like a magnet. I think I managed to do that; I was thirty-two years old and finally got the boy in the black leather jacket! The audience wanted those kids to be OK, and they wanted Sandy to triumph. In the end, everyone wins–a good story. Unfortunately, the critics, for the most part, didn’t like it or didn’t get it. A few had some good things to say, but most of them didn’t think much of it. Our opening night party, as the reviews came in and were read, was pretty dismal. However, the audiences loved it. They were screaming, shouting, excited and having a fabulous time. Word of mouth, and some clever promotion, brought them our way and audiences began to build. Grease is clever and funny and heartbreaking all at once. Those kids were so lost, struggling to find themselves–but you had to love them.

AM: Can you describe the process of doing both Grease and “The Magic Garden” at the same time? Was it particularly grueling? Particularly fun? A little of both?

CD: I’m certainly not the only actor you know who was working two jobs at once–and many work day jobs along with their performance schedules. I have known actors who played roles in shows at night and in soaps during the day. That takes incredible stamina and devotion. I was also auditioning for commercials while Grease was running, and sometimes even shot one as long as they were prepared to get me out of there in time to get to the theatre! I did about two hundred commercials over maybe twenty years. Most of them were good ones, national spots–they kept me going through the harder times. There were long stretches without a single day off, but I committed myself to being entirely present in everything I did–giving it my all. Fortunately, although it was difficult at times, I think I was not guilty of doing a sloppy or careless performance. Energy was key, and I had a lot of it in the 70s (no drugs–honest!). There’s a lot to be grateful for if you can manage to make a living doing what you truly love. That said, my dual roles in Grease and “Magic Garden” were difficult, because when Grease began, we were working on a Broadway contract at the Eden Theatre, which was off the Broadway grid. We played a five-show weekend from Friday night through Sunday night–a typical off-Broadway schedule at the time. Monday was my only day off. I got up at 5 AM, arrived at the WPIX studios at 7, and Paula and I (and our amazing puppeteer and friend, Cary Antebi) spent the day in The Magic Garden. We completed one show a day at first. There was an outline, but no written dialogue. The shows were shot in real time, with almost no cuts. We rolled along for ten minutes and more at a stretch–a freewheeling, improvisational visit that extended our real friendship out to all of those children who joined us. You had to be on your toes. I was pretty tired sometimes, but the joy of it kept me going, and Paula and I had such a great relationship–we were able to bring ourselves, our lives, our talents together in a way that really worked. It was a labor of love. We joined the two writers for meetings and brainstorming, provided the station with some program ideas and lists of songs, stories we could perform and childhood memories we wanted to share, rehearsed and put together musical arrangements in the basement of the Eden Theatre. Paula brought me something to eat and had her first baby, Victoria, in a carrier on her back. We made a hundred dollars a week each, and never had the brains to protect any of the material we actually created. After awhile, we shot up to two-and-a-half shows each Monday, and when we had completed enough of them, the show went from once a week to every day. We made fifty-two of them. They ran and ran, children grew up and others came along, and “The Magic Garden” was on the air for twelve-and-a-half years. The Children’s Television Act was rescinded by the Reagan administration, and a new station manager decided that the construction of the show, which had almost no commercial blocks built in, wasn’t earning enough income, and yanked it from the schedule. We still had a big audience–as big as Sesame Street and Mister Rogers. People mourned and called and wrote, to no avail. Paula and I had been performing live for years by that time. These live shows and our recordings kept the garden growing and here we are, forty years later, with old fans and new. Amazing!

AM: What can you tell us about The Baker’s Wife, and what that experience was like, as well as how you feel about the show never quite making it as the success it was predicted to become?

CD: Well, I introduced “Meadowlark” to the world. In a way, I’ve laid my claim to it (inasmuch as any performer can do that), and have had the joy and challenge of it ever since. It is gorgeous, multi-layered–I find new things in it all the time. I suffered terribly at the hands of The Baker’s Wife, but I have my way with “Meadowlark,” critically-acclaimed recently, as “fully realized…an astonishing interpretation,” “thrillingly sung,” “spectacular,” “…transported the entire room,” “I’m obsessed with her version,”etc. It’s almost hard to live up to, but this is one of Stephen’s most brilliant gorgeous songs, and I hope to keep singing it for a long time.

AM: Does it ever surprise you to have become a star of children’s programming in the eyes of so many people who are now in their forties?

CD: Yes! It surprises both Paula and me–and delights us and fills us with endless wonder and satisfaction. I used to tell stories to my sister and brothers and the younger kids on the block when I lived on East 39th Street in Brooklyn. I made up tales that continued from day to day, as we gathered on my front stoop. I never imagined that this was fortuitous! Paula and I have the best fans in the world; people from every corner of life, many who share their love and memories of our show with their own children now. The constant emails are astonishing testament to how “The Magic Garden” changed people’s lives, gave them comfort, made them feel safe, developed their love of music, remains a part of them in the most vivid and deeply-affectionate way. We don’t do as many live performances as we used to, but we keep on trucking as well as we can. We’ll be doing two shows on April 1st at Boulton Center in Bay Shore–part of our year-long celebration of the fortieth birthday of “The Magic Garden.” Meeting our fans and their children after these shows (hundreds of them stay to talk to us) is a revelation. They are full of things they have saved up to tell us–they are all smiles and tears–they are a gift. They are thrilled to find that our friendship was real and continues to be. We could not ask for more than the inspiration we receive from these amazing fans. We aren’t Madonna or anything, but our fans have built Carole and Paula and Magic Garden Facebook sites of their own, and we are surprised and thrilled to find that there are something like thirty-eight thousand friends out there. We can’t possibly keep up, and we’re grateful to the hosts of those sites. Their enthusiasm is astonishing!

AM: How did you come to choose your song selections for the new cabaret show? Was it strictly your own ideas, or did (musical director) Ian Herman have any input as well? And how did you and Ian first come to work together?

CD: My song selections are things I have grown to love over fifty-two years of a career, and life before that! Changes in the business–in the kinds of shows that appeared on Broadway over the years–presented vocal challenges. How to keep the “line” of a well-trained legit voice, and still sing the shows that were coming along without destroying your voice; I learned to do it. I no longer sing legit material, but I still have a big range, which gives me a chance to sing a variety of things. I sing what I love, what is meaningful to me. I bring that to my audience. It’s eclectic, to say the least. Ian and I became friends and collaborators when he accompanied a class that met weekly in my apartment. We were actor/singers who had all studied with Warren Robertson, so we had a mutual approach to our work. We were mostly people who were teachers as well as actors, or had starred on Broadway. We took no prisoners. It was the most difficult work. I learned more in those two years, from my fellow actors, than at any other intense time of study in my life. Most of the songs are things I want to sing because of what they say. Ian tends to make choices that are more musically based. It’s a good combination. Over the past thirty-five years or so, Ian has become a dear friend. This kind of intense creative work encourages, in fact, almost demands, an emotional as well as professional intimacy. It’s very open–can even be very raw. There are laughs and tears, mistakes and pleasures. You get to know each other pretty well, and the mutual respect, the love of music, the explorations, the arguments, the “good finds” lead to a special bond. Ian is a brilliant pianist, composer and arranger, and he also has a good heart and a wicked sense of humor. He accompanied my lifelong extraordinary voice teacher, Felix Knight, and understands the vocal technique that is the basis of my singing. We learn from each other. He brought the wonderful Sean Harkness on guitar to our collaboration and that has begun a whole new chapter of friendship and creativity. Paula is always there, her fine-tuned eye and ear looking out for me. I am so lucky to have her–to have them all–in my life. MAC has helped me, as have other willing members and singers. There’s a lot of support in New York City if you know where to look for it (I’m learning). You can’t do this alone–or at least, I can’t.

AM: What is an average day like for the Carole Demas of today, if there is such a thing?

CD: That’s a question with a lot of answers! My husband, Stuart Allyn, is a sound engineer/acoustician/audio-visual designer. He does a lot of work on location, and his designing is done in his office here. Paula and I each have offices at home, but our main office is here. We live on a property with many trees and a pond, on the edge of a woodland nature preserve, have two dogs, two cats, and my turtle, who has been with me since 1964. I clean the cat pans and scoop the poop, and do what everyone who lives with animals does–and our lives are richer because our animals are a part of every day. I am a passionate gardener; I work long hours all summer on our three acres of property. It’s very physical. and I love it and groan and moan when tackling the rocks and the roots and the clay is difficult. I do cooking and cleaning and laundry. Sometimes I have part-time help, but not always. I feed birds, and contribute to the Great Backyard Bird Count every year. We are active in our community, especially in environmental preservation efforts. I sing for benefits here and in New York and elsewhere, and do other kinds of volunteer work. I research songs, and rehearse in a terrific setup Stuart has made for me, with a mic so I can tell where I am vocally, and what it might sound like in a venue with tech. We sometimes have little performances here, so he has lit an area by the piano with a few stage lights! He mixes much of what I sing. I am so lucky to be with this wonderful man for over thirty years now! All this activity is good for me and keeps my motor running, although sometimes I think what I really need to do is shut it off now and then! We have no children (not how I dreamed it would be, but we’re OK). We are very involved with our large families. This house, which Stuart designed, is a place where big family gatherings are very much at home. We have friends for dinner outside all summer long. Our friends and family are blessings we cherish. Our home is big, beautiful and rustic, celebrates the beauty of what is outside, and hopefully nourishes the people we are lucky enough to share it with. It’s an ongoing project for twenty-five years now. There are daily chores, obviously, but no two days are ever the same. I do get tired, and wish I were maybe fifty again sometimes, but I can honestly say that I have never been bored in my life.

AM: Are there any additional frontiers you’d still like to conquer, in terms of show business or otherwise?

CD: I’d like to write books–a novel or two, a memoir–I have so many thoughts. This is no small fantasy, but it takes much more focus and discipline than I have to give it right now, and of course there’s no way to know if I’d be any good at it. My cousin, Corinne Demas, is a college professor, and a superb and successful writer. Being close to her and her lifelong dedication to her craft has made it clear to me that one does not become a good writer just by wishing it were so! If I am blessed with a very long life, I hope to try–I can do it sitting down! I wish I had done roles in film. Too old now, alas, unless some unexpected chance comes along. I did a fair amount of television and a film or two of no great import. I’d like to study and become a master gardener. But I’m running out of time!

One can’t more strongly express how important it is to make the time to catch Carole Demas on Wednesday, February 15th at 7 PM at the Laurie Beechman Theater, 407 West 43rd Street. Those who can’t should visit her website. Be there or be square, as they might say in Grease!

Comments
  1. What a great interview–I loved it all, and really appreciate Ms. Demas even more now that I learned more about her! I wonder if that is another common thread among entertainers–I noticed she had a background in teaching, gardening and having pets? Seems that I know several people who have those things in common. Thank you for sharing this excellent post with us!

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