Thirteen Months Later, Cabaret Still Misses the Feat of Clai

Posted: April 24, 2011 in Broadway, Cabaret, Comedy, Culture, Entertainment, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized

It’s uncanny, and also somewhat surrealistically sad, to think that cabaret legend Claiborne Cary has been gone from the earthly plane for over a year. After shuffling off her mortal coil in March of 2010 at the age of seventy-eight, following complications from Parkinson’s disease, she is still one of the most sorely missed among the greatest luminaries of the art form, and has deservedly been carved into the annals of cabaret history for time immemorial.

Born Claiborne C. Leachman in the Iowa suburb of Lone Tree on February 17th, 1932, and subsequently raised in the city of Des Moines (where her father owned a leading lumber company and her older sister would eventually become the internationally-acclaimed actress Cloris Leachman), she attended both the University of Iowa and Northwestern University before leaving school altogether, to high-tail it to Broadway for her first job, as a dancer in Silk Stockings in 1956.  The show took her on the road for its First National Tour before she landed back in little ol’ New York for New Girl in Town in 1957, starring Thelma Ritter at the Rialto Theatre. 1960 saw her in a strong role in the regrettably short-lived Beg, Borrow or Steal alongside Eddie Bracken and Betty Garrett, and the remainder of her mainstage theatre career for the next two decades was most largely centered Off-Broadway; there, she had the chance to star in such productions as Sheldon Harnick’s Smiling The Boy Fell Dead with Phil Leeds, Gino Conforti and Dodo Denney. It was then she began wetting her feet in the cabaret arena and became an instant favorite of Duplex manager Jan Wallman, but at that point, cabaret was very much overshadowed by the British invasion of rock’n’roll, and she couldn’t quite manage to net the stardom she felt she was so rightly due.

For the remainder of the 1960s, Cary mostly subsisted on income from television commercials, very quickly becoming one of the most visible faces in that particular area for any number of products. And she continued to work not only in cabaret (with her ever-loyal following proceeding to grow and grow, and especially in her first performance at the Ballroom), but also to make her 1971 dramatic debut on television in “The Sporting Club,” with an even juicier role in “Young Dr. Kildare” later that season. By the 1980s, with cabaret at the height of its renaissance and Cary having conquered so many areas of the arts, it made sense that it was the time when she’d fully come into her own as a giantess, regardless of how diminutive her physical stature.

And, of course, it must be noted that she was, if nothing else, a character. A certain renowned jazz pianist with whom she was great friends once told this writer, “When Clai came along, they didn’t just break the mold, they threw out the recipe for how to make the mold, because the planet wasn’t ready for another one of her.” Her volatile love-hate relationship with sister Cloris is the stuff of legend, of course, including many late-night phone calls between each to their middle sister Mary, asking to convey requests to return clothes they had supposedly stolen from one another as children. Many was also the time she’d invite a houseguest to spend the night, only to wake them an hour later by loudly rattling pots in the kitchen (“I’m just scrambling an egg, dammit,” as she’d shout by way of excuse) or running her vacuum cleaner at four in the morning (“When the hell else am I supposed to clean this place?”).  The truth is, every ounce of it was part of her charm; she was a gracious hostess, who really loved to cook even though she had an extremely limited repertoire, and she absolutely adored visiting museums. And when she became a friend, she was arguably more loyal than almost anyone ever knew how to be.

An afternoon memorial service was held for her at Don’t Tell Mama on February 21st, and not only featured breathtaking and oft-hilarious speeches by the likes of her dear friends Janet Fanale, Steven Brinberg, Ricky Ritzel, Jay Rogers, the great theatre star Harvey Evans and others, but the audience included all of her very best friends through the years, including KT Sullivan, the aforementioned Jan Wallman, Bobbie Horowitz and Rob Lester. One of the most special highlights included a video presentation of her television commercials in the 1960s, and it was beyond a treat to see our Clai in glorious black-and-white hawking the virtues of Ivory Snow and Swanson frozen dinners. It was quite clear that if anyone in that room was laughing the loudest, it was the spirit of Clai, looking over our collective shoulders and being thrilled that we were all having such a good time.

In closing, it can’t be stressed more highly how important it is to collect the few memories of her that exist on recordings. The first, which is regrettably no longer available for commercial purchase, is Miss Claiborne Cary Live, released in early 2000 after a ’99 taping at the now-defunct Danny’s Skylight Room. But the recording is so vibrant as to completely evoke the sensation of watching her perform there or anywhere else. The second, Claiborne Cary Now and Then, is still very much available at Amazon and CDUniverse, and may actually be the superlative of the two. In any case, either or both are worth collecting if one doesn’t already possess copies.

And so, thirteen months later, it’s clear that Claiborne Cary remains one of cabaret’s most cherished treasures. And she’d probably be the first to tell you that she deserves every blessed minute of it. Because she does.


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