Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

About seven years ago, a dear friend of mine and I sat at a little bar on Ninth Avenue in the West 40s one night, knocking back a few and having some laughs, when he suddenly said to me, “You know you’re my favorite journalist of all time, right? Well, when the time comes, I want you to write my obituary.” I said, “Oh, honey, STOP!! Don’t be morbid!! And anyway, you’re gonna bury us all!!” He said, “No, no, I won’t. People might remember who I am, maybe for a little while, but I want you to promise me that you’ll write my obituary when the time comes.” So I said, “Fine. Should I ask if you have a title for this little opus I’m supposed to write?” He said, “Yes. I want you to call it Requiem for a Paperweight.” And we laughed and ordered another round and smoked a few more cigarettes as usual, and I figured that was the end of it. But it wasn’t. He died this morning. And writing this article may well be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, but I’m keeping the title as per his wishes.

The world has lost a wonderful gentleman named Ron Palillo. Most people probably know him best as the iconic character Arnold Horshack from the megahit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter on ABC for four seasons. Yes, he of the signature gravelly laugh, dorky clothes, comical Brooklyn accent and explanation of his moniker (“I’ll have you know that Horshack is a very old and RESPECTED name. It means, ‘The cattle are dying.'”) Whether he was joining a religious cult, becoming a figure not unlike Peter Finch in the movie Network or merely hanging out with his fellow Sweathogs, Horshack was to the 1970s what Urkel was to the 80s or Screech was to the 90s, in pop-culture parlance. And millions will never forget him or the joy he brought to the cultural landscape.

But I don’t want to talk about Horshack right now. I want to talk about Ron, the man I was blessed to know so well for over twenty years, and the joy he gave me personally as a friend.

In 1990 I got my first job in journalism, writing reviews and features for a now-defunct magazine called Night & Day. One feature of which I was particularly proud was an interview with my dear friend Shirley Stoler, which gave me great pleasure to write. So a few days after it was published, I was hanging out at Don’t Tell Mama on Restaurant Row having a drink at the bar when all of a sudden this guy came over and started staring at me. A little bit short, not a bad body and really luminescent skin. He looked an awful lot like Ron Palillo, but something was different; maybe he’d had his nose bobbed or something. So I smiled at him. He said, “Do you happen to be Andrew Martin?” I said yes, I was. “Oh, I love your writing so much! I was just reading your interview with Shirley Stoler the other day and I absolutely adore her. My name’s Ron Palillo.” I nearly spit my drink out of my nose. “I THOUGHT that was you!! HI!! Oh, I’m so pleased to meet you!! HUGE fan!! So you’re visiting New York, then?” By this point his lover Joey came over and joined us, Ron made introductions and explained that no, he and Joe were living in New York now, they’d just moved back and gotten a place in Chelsea. By three or four drinks later, the three of us were already great friends. They literally poured me into a cab to take me home to Queens after I gave them my phone number and they gave me theirs, and we all promised to see each other soon. Now, everybody knows how it works in entertainment circles in New York; you always promise you’ll see each other again and nine times out of ten you don’t. But this, I learned, is why nobody should have ever underestimated Ron Palillo.

About three weeks later, on a Friday night, I took my buddy Jim Loftus to see someone’s cabaret act at Rose’s Turn on Grove Street (I have absolutely no recollection whose cabaret act it was, so I apologize to whomever they are and I hope I gave you a nice review). We went downstairs after the show to sit by the piano and hear my friend Peter Gloo play and my other friend Elaine Brier sing, when all of a sudden Ron and Joe walked in. As soon as they saw me, they made a beeline for us. “Andrew! Why haven’t you called? You promised!! Never mind, it’s nice to see you now. May we join?” Of course I said yes and introduced them to Jim. Who, once they were seated, said, “Am I dreaming this? Did you honestly just introduce me to Arnold Horshack and now he’s sitting here with us?” I assured him it wasn’t a dream. We all got lit as lords and had a wonderful evening.

So, for at least the next year and longer, I kept in touch with them (I was never quite as friendly with Joe as I was with Ron, but Joe was always very happy to see me wherever it was). In due time, Night & Day Magazine folded, I was then moved over to the New York Native newspaper and then I parted company with them also, and after a few months away from it all except for occasional freelancing at magazines like Details and Lear’s, I started my own magazine, CaB. So I asked Ron if he might possibly be so gracious as to grant me an interview. Believe me, he needed no bidding; he was delighted to know that I’d be writing about him, and invited me to swing by the apartment he and Joe were subletting in Chelsea. It was really a little nothing of a building, a very innocuous brownstone,  and then I got to their apartment and nearly died. It was the most luxurious duplex I have ever seen, and I’ve been to some pretty luxurious duplexes in my day. I said, “You and Joe actually LIVE here? This isn’t a movie set or something?” He said, “Andrew, it’s called being on a hit show for several seasons.”

Then we did the interview. He spoke of growing up in Connecticut and how lonely he was most of the time as a kid, how much he wanted to be a star, how his gravelly laugh as Horshack was actually his father’s death rattle as he lay dying of cancer, how frustrated he’d always been after Kotter because nobody would take him seriously as an actor, and all kinds of other things nobody else could have possibly known about him. Then he showed me his drawings; he’d begun working as an illustrator for children’s books (one in particular, The Red Wings of Christmas, had been written by his dear friend Wesley Eure, who was best known as the star of the Sid/Marty Krofft series “Land of the Lost” and also as the longtime lover of Richard Chamberlain). He also spoke with desperate passion about his best friend, actress Debralee Scott, whom he loved more than life itself. It was an amazing interview and frankly left me more than a bit dazed.

For the next decade, Ron and I continued to have an absolute blast. He and Joe and I had mutual friends in the form of a couple, two wonderful guys named Woody Leatherwood and Larry Scheraldi, who threw the most wonderful parties imaginable at their apartment on West 39th. (By this point, Ron and Joe had taken a new apartment on 49th Street). I recall one night in particular when Ron and I and our other friend Tommy Femia decided to play “The Movie Game” This is where the first person names a movie, the second person names someone who was in that movie, the third person names another movie that person was in, and it just goes around and around until someone can neither name a person or a movie that goes with the subject. The whole point is to be as obscure as possible so you stump the next person. Ron really thought he was gonna get Tommy (the world’s best Judy Garland impersonator) out of the game when, after I named Vigil of the Night as the movie and Ron volunteered the name of Rita Page, Tommy looked at both of us and in his best Garland voice said, “She played my mother in Little Nellie Kelly.” Ron’s jaw dropped to the floor and he said, “That’s it. I’m out of the game. I give up.” It was adorable.

Then, in ’02, my ex-husband and I had four friends from out of town staying with us for Gay Pride Week, and one night after we took everybody to see the Empire State Building, we went to the same bar I mentioned in the first paragraph, on Ninth Avenue between 45th and 46th. We were all having a ball, then I got up to go to the bar and get another drink, and who should be standing at the jukebox but Ron. I said, “Oh, no you’re NOT, Ron Palillo!!” He turned around, saw me, came over and gave me a huge hug hello and then joined our table. The guys were absolutely beside themselves that “Andrew knows Arnold Horshack!!”

Ron was an absolute and understandable mess the day Debralee Scott died in 2005. It wasn’t hard to comprehend why; they were as close as brother and sister, and she and he and Joe were always constantly in each others lives. But I’d never seen him so upset and distraught. Hence, the night he insisted on meeting me for drinks at that bar. And also hence why he decided that I should write his obituary.

One of the very last times I spoke to him by phone was after he appeared in the opening number of the TVLand Awards. He said, “I hate that they trotted me out as HIM one more time, but I made a little cash and got to see some old friends. If Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson from “Little House on the Prairie”)  hadn’t been there I never would have gotten through it. Hey, do you know her?” I said that I most certainly did. He said, “Isn’t she the best? One of the funniest women on earth, and a brilliant actress, outrageously intelligent and the warmest creature you could imagine,” and he just sang her praises for well over a half hour.

Ron and Joe moved to the Palm Beach area a couple of years ago, and while Ron wasn’t particularly happy about it, he was certainly proud of their home. Our very last conversation was a couple of months ago, in Facebook Chat. He was extremely worried that he might have had cancer from all the smoking, he said he’d developed a cough that sounded a lot like his father’s, but that he’d begun seeing a respiratory therapist and that so far was so good. Then this morning, Joe came downstairs, saw Ron clutching his chest, called an ambulance and they set off for the ER, where he died shortly after arriving.

And so here we are tonight. Ron is gone and my heart is aching. But it’s not aching for myself. It’s aching for Joe. It’s aching for his siblings. It’s aching for all the social misfits out there like I was, who knew that in Arnold Horshack we had a friend for life. It’s aching for those people who were ever lucky enough to know him. And by now I’ve lost enough friends to also know that it’s not about all the things we didn’t get to do or having the chance to say a final goodbye, but all the things we DID get to do and all the chances we had to say a hello.

Thus, all there is left to say is one last hello. Rest in peace, my wonderful Paperweight. I love you.

Adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, both legitimate versions for children’s theater/school plays and humorous adult parodies, have been a staple of American theater for decades. A notable example of same was A Yellow Brick Road Runs Through It at the Grove Street Playhouse in the mid-90s, starring Paul Lucas and the late Julie Kurnitz, directed by Joseph Weiss with musical direction by Joel Maisano. Enter the Haberdasher Theatre Company, an ambitious and merry band of Off-Off-Broadway entertainers, who have now brought their own adaptation of the play to the Drilling Company Theater, 236 West 78th Street, and the result is a nonstop chucklefest which simply must return to the New York stage after it closes on June 30th.

This version was initially adapted by Jeanette Jaquish for children’s theater before playwright/director Hollie Elizabeth Klem adapted it further for an adult audience, and the result couldn’t be more sensational. This time around, Auntie Em is a tough cookie from Queens who had to sell the house and move to a farm with orphaned niece Dorothy and her dog Toto. After the dog has been threatened to be destroyed by evil neighbor Almira Gully, the child decides to run away to New York City, pup in tow. It’s only after a chance meeting with slimy vacuum salesman Professor Osland that he convinces her to return home, at which point, of course, she and the house are subsequently swept up in the tornado that brings her to Oz. As expected, the house smashes the Wicked Witch of the East; what’s not expected is that instead of Munchkinland, Dorothy is informed by Glinda that she’s landed in NoHo Village. The story continues much in the same way as the beloved story, but with a few delectable twists; we learn of the deep sibling rivalry between the two wicked witches, Glinda carries a long pink shotgun rather than a magic wand, the band of Flying Monkeys are a ghetto crew, and the greeters at the gate of Oz Castle could be a hairdresser’s convention in the Castro. It all combines to an uproarious two hours that speaks volumes of the Haberdasher Theatre Company’s potential, especially under Klem’s directorial helm.

Performance-wise, there’s not a weak one to be had. An obvious measure of any parody of The Wizard of Oz are strong performances, and they are here in abundance. Tami Soligan is perfection as Dorothy, vulnerable and lost in wonder but possessing an inherent bravery. Jeff Foley as the Scarecrow is so adorable you just want to put him in your pocket and take him home, and Brian Ogston makes the wise choice of playing the Tinman with a bit of an edge even sharper than his axe. One wouldn’t think that casting a woman as the Lion would be prudent, but Nicole J. Lippey gives it her all and comes up swinging at every turn.  Matt Giroveanu absolutely sparkles in the dual roles of Professor Osland and the Wizard, and likewise Christen Madrazo as both Auntie Em and Glinda. And the four members of the ensemble each have a chance for more than one standout moment; they are Melody Cheng, Joseph Dale Harris, Jennifer Michaels (who is particularly delicious as both the mean Apple Tree and the Gatekeeper besides the Wicked Witch of the East) and Nick Panagakos. But the standout performance of the evening is the talented (and blindingly beautiful) Taylor Zito as both Almira Gully and the Wicked Witch of the West; this gal is electric in the role right up until her final exit after melting (with a hilarious action that has to be seen to be believed). Overall, this cast is simply breathtaking.

The technical side of this production is equally top-shelf. Although it would be nice if the show had a higher budget for sets, designer Link Salas has created a beautiful forest. Michael A. Megliola’s lighting is absolutely divine as is the prop design by Keri Taylor, and Adam Weir on sound design and stage management proves impeccable in both capacities. As for the costume and makeup design of Katie Grammes, the only appropriate adjective would be ‘outstanding.’ And Quincy Ellis provides admirable fight choreography.

In an ideal world, Haberdasher’s production of The Wizard of Oz would at the very least make a permanent move to a higher-profile house that would enable them to achieve the following they so deeply deserve. Alas, this is not to be. If perhaps there’s a wizard out there who can grant them that wish, the Off-Off-Broadway community would emerge as undoubtedly richer.

When one thinks of the great celebrity impersonators of the last sixty years, many names spring to mind. As far as the males, there’s of course Rich Little, David Frye, Fred Travalena, Charlie Callas, George Kirby, Jim Meskiman, and more. Among the women, there’s Marilyn Michaels, Louise DuArt, Christine Pedi, Klea Blackhurst, Suzanne Blakeslee, Tracey Berg, Chloe Webb, Jane Horrocks, Hynden Walch and so many others. And as far as those who cross over from male-to-female impressions, there’s Craig Russell, Charles Pierce, Tommy Femia, Brian Murphy, Steven Brinberg, Jim Bailey, Kenny Sacha, Jamie Beaman, Rick Skye and a plethora too numerous to list. Not to mention the triumph Rainie Cole scored with Always Patsy ClineRita McKenzie’s Call Me Ethel, Totie starring Nancy Timpanaro, Julie Sheppard as Judy Garland and the entire catalogs of Michele LaFong, Alison Briner or Angela LaGreca. But a new and extremely-stellar talent has joined their legendary ranks, and if her first full-length cabaret act I Hear Voices, which will play its final show (for now) at the Duplex (61 Christopher Street) on Tuesday the 12th at 7 PM is any indication, the genre has a brand-new and rightfully-deserving star on its hands. Her name is Carly Sakolove, and to call her a genius simply doesn’t sum up what this lady has got to give. If this were 1962, she’d be a superstar beyond words. But she must become one regardless; she’s THAT good.

Directed by the ever-excellent Bill Russell (a Tony nominee for his work on Side Show, and previously-renowned for his collaboration with Frank Kelly on the Off-Broadway mega-hit Pageant), the evening is basically a therapy session spent between Sakolove and her therapist explaining that she doesn’t merely HEAR voices, but that then they speak through her. The voices in question, however, happen to be those of the greatest divas of our time from Broadway and beyond, including Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Elaine Stritch, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, Bette Midler and Julie Andrews. Now, to those who either do impressions or are a fan of impressionists, some of them may seem indeed slightly run-of-the-mill. Sakolove, however, has more than a few tricks up her sleeve; she also provides faultless sound-a-likes, either spoken or sung, by Idina Menzel, Dame Judi Dench, Jennifer Coolidge, Susan Sarandon, Heather Hedley, Alice Ripley and Jane Lynch. As if none of THAT was enough, as evidenced when she released her Some People and Send in the Clowns clips within the last season to viral effect on YouTube, it became clear that she can record her brilliant pastiches in one take without a breath from voice to voice, a feat never accomplished by a similar artist. Hence, this is a young lady very possibly headed for extreme greatness within the genre. One is left to wonder what she might next add to her act: Betty Buckley? Barbara Cook? Madeline Kahn? Angela Lansbury? Audra McDonald? Whatever they may be, Sakolove has established herself once and for all as a true wonder of the nightlife universe with her otherwordly talents.

In addition, one must make mention of the splendiferous accompaniment of musical director Dan Micciche. His prowess on the keys is only matched by his phenomenal abilities to display the lady perfectly, and keep up with her numerous personas as they unfold throughout the evening.

Needless to say, I Hear Voices, and of course Carly Sakolove, stand to emerge as one of the greatest finds in the last several decades of cabaret and beyond. For those wishing to catch her final show at the Duplex this Tuesday before she is most certainly whisked away to greater stardom, do not hesitate to call 212-255-5438. In all truth, this is neither a cabaret act nor a concert. It is as much a happening event as seeing Midler herself at the Baths in ’71. Seats are goin’ fast, folks!

(UPDATE: Due to popular demand, Sakolove has extended her show for two additional nights at the Duplex, Thursday, June 21st at 9:30 PM, and Friday, June 29th at 7 PM)

The dual phenomena of “spoken-word” and “slam poetry” have infiltrated modern culture like a requisite epidemic. Harkening back splendidly to the days of beatnik nightlife, when throngs would gather in darkened coffeehouses to hear poetry delivered by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and applaud with finger-snapping, the art form has received a miraculous re-awakening ever since Thaddeus Rutkowski began reviving it at such venues as Jackie 60 in the early 1990s, whenceupon it was taken up by all manner of poets both amateur and professional who began plying their cornucopia of wares throughout New York and the globe. One of the most stellar of the slam poets to emerge in the last ten years is most certainly a gentleman by the unusual name of Taylor Mali. A New York City WASP by birth and a schoolteacher by profession, the last calendar year has seen him emerge as viral on YouTube and other Internet broadcast media because of his poem What Teachers Make,” which has garnered nearly four million hits on one website alone. The one-man show Teacher! Teacher! would soon follow thereafter, and win a major comedy prize. A follow-up, entitled “The The Impotence of Proofreading,” has been equally successful. Since that time, he has published several books, created the New Teacher Project (later renamed Quest for 1,000 Teachers), recorded a number of CDs and also loaned his voice to narrating various projects, and for a time became the president of Poetry Slam, Inc. Though fame and tireless work have taken him throughout the world as both educator and performer, he mercifully found the time to grant an interview to The Andrew Martin Report. And we couldn’t feel more honored or privileged to have been so thusly indulged.

ANDREW MARTIN: Can you describe your upbringing as a New York City WASP? You seem to have a long lineage that goes back several centuries. Conversely, what was your own school experience like as a student? Where did you attend from K-12, and where did you go to college? Even more conversely, was there any one teacher in particular who inspired you to become a teacher and later an advocate for education?

TAYLOR MALI: My WASP upbringing was pretty standard stuff, really. We named our houses, named our cars, and ONLY named our dogs after local bodies of water. Everyone had a trust fund and was told never to talk about it with anyone. I attended The Collegiate School, established by the Dutch in 1628, just about 30 years before my earliest ancestor was born on the island. Another branch of the family that would one day combine to produce me had already been living in the country for almost one hundred years, having landed in Salem sometime in the 1500s. I went to Bowdoin College in Maine. Then Oxford University for a summer of drama school. Then eventually Kansas State University for an MA in English Lit/Creative Writing. It was there that I discovered my passion for teaching. So there was no single teacher that did it. Rather, the love was born of exigency.

AM: How long had you been teaching before you decided to immerse yourself in the spoken-word art form? Did the two automatically go hand in hand?

TM: The spoken word came first by about three years. I performed a poem at Oxford as part of a talent show among the actors, and it went over REALLY well. That was summer 1987, and I credit that with being my first spoken word piece. Three years later, at a poetry reading in San Francisco, I performed another piece (that would go on to become the poem “I Could Be a Poet”), and it solidified my understanding that performing a poem well was just as important as writing it well. That fall I left for Kansas, unaware that the first National Poetry Slam was coming to the SF Bay Area. Had I stayed in the Bay Area, I probably would have discovered the poetry slam a few years earlier than I did, but the craft I learned at KSU might have taken we much longer to develop. But to answer your question more directly, teaching and poetry go hand in hand because they are both about instruction and delight.

AM: Was it ever difficult, or even surreal, to have to balance being a teacher on one hand with being a spoken-word artist on the other?

TM: No, never. I treated one as a kind of performance, and the other as a kind of lesson.

AM Was “What Teachers Make” actually inspired by a real event? If not, what inspired it? Likewise “Proofreading.”

TM: There really was an incident with a lawyer at a New Year’s Eve Party (in 1997) that was the triggering subject of “What Teachers Make.” I’m sure he didn’t phrase his question that way (“Be honest, what do you make?”); that was me using poetic license. But more importantly, even if the lawyer HAD asked the question that way, I am not witty or brave enough to have been able to answer his question in any form similar to what became the poem “What Teachers Make.” The poem is totally what I WISH I had said. “Proofreading” came from repeated attempts by my computer to correct the spelling of my name; I tell people that my spell checker suggested Taylor Mali might have been a botched attempt on my part to spell “Toilet Malice,” but I think I made that up.

AM: Was it ever surprising when “Teachers” began to go so viral so quickly?

TM: Yes. Every bit of attention that my work has received has been surprising to me.

AM: What is the New Teacher Project exactly, and what has it accomplished?

TM: I’ve had to change the name of the project because there already is a great non-profit called “The New Teacher Project,” founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997. Their executive director called me to say their lawyers recommended sending me a cease & desist letter, but she said no way because they are all fans of mine! Anyway, my Quest for 1,000 Teachers was a goal I gave myself in 2000, which started quite informally: I would help convince a thousand people to become teachers through the way I talk about the profession. Gradually, I got more serious about how I kept track of the teachers on my list, and then I promised to cut off twelve inches of my hair when I reached my goal. Everything came together for the publication of  my book “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World,” and early in April I approved that thousandth teacher and cut my hair live onstage.

AM: Did you particularly enjoy the process of writing your books? Was there anything you disliked about the process? I ask the same question about the CDs you’ve recorded.

TM: Only the writing of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” felt like writing a book because it’s the only one where I really had to hit the chair every day and turn out pages whether I wanted to or not. My two other books and all of my CDs are collections of poetry, and so were produced/compiled more episodically.

AM: Tell us about Poetry Slam Inc. and your experience of being their president.

TM: I was the first president after Marc Smith, the founder of the poetry slam and PSI’s “president for life.” You could argue that I was the perfect person to succeed Marc, but my tenure was marked by what is considered the WORST National Poetry Slam ever! That was a bad year for me, 2004; my wife died, and I’d just rather forget it all.

AM: We all know that Teacher! Teacher! won a solo prize at the Comedy Arts Festival in ’01. Are there any plans to bring it back?

TM: There should be, shouldn’t there? No. But it’s high time I wrote another solo show.

AM: You’ve also won at least one award for narrating The Great Fire. How does providing voice work for those projects you’ve not personally created differ from work on those you have?

TM: It’s so much easier to just swoop in and be The Voice. But it’s harder in that you have to internalize the syntactical rhythms of the author and make them your own. I like reading aloud (especially to a beautiful woman, curled up on my chest, smiling).

AM: Where do you see yourself five years from now, and what frontiers would you still like to conquer?

TM: I’ll still be doing what I’m doing, traversing the globe teaching poetry. But I’ll be better at it, and I might be based somewhere else. I’d like to teach online poetry classes using some sort of video Skype PAID conference call type service that probably already exists.

Wherever life may take him next, Taylor Mali is sure to go down in performance history as a force of nature made of lightning. Anyone unfamiliar must acquaint themselves with his work. After all, those who can, do. Those who can’t, well…

If the MAC Awards have become known as the Tonys of cabaret, the Bistro Awards have certainly become its equally-glittering counterpart. Launched in 1985 by the late and legendary cabaret journalist Bob Harrington in his “Bistro Bits” column in Back Stage, then under the editorship of Sherry Eaker, it was initially just a list of winners before evolving into a live awards ceremony in 1990 at the now-defunct Eighty Eight’s. Recipients have included Dionne Warwick, Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Dixie Carter, Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, Mario Cantone, Joy Behar, the team of Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney, and far too many more to list in appropriate completion. This year’s ceremony, which takes place on the evening on Monday, April 23rd at 6:30 PM at Gotham Comedy Club (208 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues), features an equally-impressive roster of cabaretfolk and theaterniks; these include Rita Gardner, Billy Stritch, Terese Genecco, Shaynee Rainbolt, Lauren Fox, Billie Roe and Parker Scott among others. The four most prominent awards of the evening, however, are being bestowed by an impressive lineup; for one, jazz legend Annie Ross will present Warren Vache with Ongoing Excellence as a Jazz Instrumentalist. George Faison gives Dee Dee Bridgewater an award for Ongoing Artistry in Jazz. Marvin Hamlisch bestows Outstanding Contribution to American Popular Song to Melissa Manchester. And the Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented by legendary columnist Liz Smith to Kaye Ballard.

As is well known, Ballard has managed, in a spectacular career than spans nearly seven decades, to conquer Broadway musicals (The Golden Apple, Carnival! and The Pirates of Penzance among others), film (A House is Not a Home, The Ritz, the original Freaky Friday), television (as a co-star with Eve Arden on The Mothers-in-Law), and every manner of concert and nightclub stage ever since her career began as a touring player with Spike Jones in the late 1940s. More recently, she toured cabarets and clubs throughout the nation in the show Doin’ It For Love, along with Liliane Montevecchi and Lee Roy Reams, and she’ll be coming back to New York in June for a one-woman blockbuster evening at Feinstein’s. One may call the lady who began as Caterina Balotta in Cleveland anything they like, but what they must call her first and foremost is a survivor who has seen it all. And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more honored that she found the time to grant us a brief interview from her home in Palm Springs in preparation of the awards next week.

ANDREW MARTIN: What’s the most exciting/gratifying thing about being the recipient of this award?

KAYE BALLARD: Well, just looking at the people who’ve received it before me. Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, people that I know/knew and respected. I’m so flattered. I sometimes look back on my life and all of the unexpected things that have happened, and this just happens to be the latest one. Not bad for eighty-six. But I look pretty good, no? (Laughs).

AM: Had you been familiar with the Bistro Awards before now?

KB: Well, I knew Bob Harrington, and I’d heard about it, but I didn’t really know what it was. I knew of the MAC Awards, but not the Bistros. Although they sounded more prestigious. I also want to thank Gretchen Reinhagen for doing her show, because she really kept my name alive in cabaret. But what do awards really mean? I’m just happy to be alive. It would have been nice to win an Emmy or a Tony, but Gracie Allen never won one either. You know, I come from a time when actors couldn’t even get a hotel room, or had to use the back door.

AM: Are you a particular follower of any of your fellow recipients?

KB: Of course! I LOVE Melissa Manchester. And Dee Dee Bridgewater. She’s really wonderful. But I’ve also seen two acts in the last year that I don’t think anyone can touch; one was the Callaway sisters, Liz and Ann Hampton, and the other was Christine Ebersole. So being part of cabaret now, along with such wonderful people, is gratifying beyond words.

AM: What’s your impression of how cabaret has changed/grown/not grown since your first emergence as a star?

KB: It hasn’t grown. It was so much better when I started. There was the Pierre, the Plaza, the Bon Soir, etc. They had an elegance about them, in a strange way. It was an honor to play those places because they had a built-in elegance. I worked with people ranging from Mae Barnes and Pearl Bailey to the Smothers Brothers. Nowadays, there’s too much vulgarity. I’ve worked with people like Bert Lahr and Jimmy Durante and Shecky Greene, who always had total class. I’m so sick of performers who feel compelled to be vulgar. My mentor was Henny Youngman, who never worked blue. I’m very much opposed to working blue. Jack Benny once said, “Funny is funny.” And I agree. As Fred Ebb, who was my writer, once wrote, “Whatever happened to class?”

AM: Tell us about Doin’ It For Love.

KB: It was such a thrill. Lee Roy Reams is the quintessential song and dance man, and Lilliane Montevecchi is so much of something from the past, just an elegant and sophisticated Frenchwoman from another era. So between them and the combination of what I do, it just worked beautifully.

AM: Is there any chance you’ll come back to New York with a solo show any time soon?

KB: Well, as I say, I’m doing Feinstein’s on the 17th of June. I can’t wait!! It’s really what I did in Doin’ It For Love. I’ve always believed that the best of the past is meant to last. It’s all the stuff I used to do, and I also talk some truisms. I think it’s gonna be a good show. David Geist is playing for me, and he’s just sensational. I found him in Santa Fe. He’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to Arthur Siegel, who was my dear heart, as we all know.

AM: We know you had a strong attachment to Arthur Siegel, both as a singer/instrumentalist and a composer. Those of us who attended Arthur’s memorial will never forget your speech or the wonderful duet you performed with Sandy Stewart. Do you have any particular favorite songwriters now for theater and cabaret? How does the new crop differ from yesterday’s greats?

KB: I LOVE Billy Charlap. He is fantastic. And I just love Marc Shaiman. The problem is, I love melody, and there’s not a lot of melody to be had nowadays. Not what I call melody. This is why I loved Arthur so dearly. He worshiped Jerome Kern, so he always came up with a great melody.

AM: How do you feel about the award being presented by Liz Smith?

KB: Oh, she’s one of my closest friends. She was my road manager at one point when I was doing Top Banana. She’s one of the brightest women I’ve ever known, besides being the kindest columnist ever. I’ve never known her to be remotely vicious. It’s an honor to know that she’s presenting the award to me.

AM: What advice can you give to some young women out there who think, “I want to be the next Kaye Ballard?”

KB (laughs): Does anyone really want to be me? I can’t imagine! But seriously, what I would say is to look at what came before you and then look where you’re going. I’ve always looked where I was going. And you should never think anything is old-fashioned. The great ladies of British comedy, like Bea Lillie, Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley, these are my heroines and the women I wanted to be. I feel the same about Patricia Routledge. My feeling is, I’d rather be Gone With The Wind than Saturday Night Fever, and I would recommend that anyone who wants to follow in my footsteps do the same. Because the truth is, I got a lot more out of it.

It is a grateful worldwide audience that will continue to get as much out of Kaye Ballard as she has to give. This humble reporter will most certainly be there on the 23rd and looking forward to it!

(Note: All who are reading this can purchase tickets for a five-dollar discount!! That’s $55 for each General Admission ticket, or $90 for Premium (includes pre-show champagne reception and priority seating)!! Just click here, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click “Donate.” Type in how many tickets you want at either $55 or $90, and you can pay with a credit card (PayPal not required; a credit card should do just fine). You can also send them a check if you’d rather; message me privately for the details. And don’t forget, ALL ticketholders are invited to an After Bistros supper buffet and party!! Hope to see you there!!!)

Entertainer Selene Luna (pronounced “seh-LEH-nay,” not “Celine” like Ms. Dion) can probably best be described as an astronomical bundle of talent packed into a surprisingly small parcel. Aside from her prowess as an actress, comedian and an impeccable burlesque artist, and her abundant charisma and star quality besides brilliant bawdiness, the lady stands barely four feet tall in heels. This, however, has never served as a deterrent; she’s delighted audiences throughout the nation and worldwide on stage as well as screens large and small, making notable appearances on Margaret Cho’s reality series The Cho Show. New Yorkers were treated to her delicious personage two seasons ago at the Laurie Beechman Theater as part of the cast of Whatever Happened to Busty Jane?, devised by and starring drag legend Jackie Beat along with Nadya Ginsberg, Mario Diaz and Sam Pancake, and audiences will once again be delighted by her talents in the one-woman extravaganza Special Needs: An Evening of Comedy with Selene Luna on Saturday, March 31st at 9:30 PM, also at the Beechman (407 West 42nd Street at the West Bank Cafe). And though she’s one of the hardest-working women in showbiz, she found the time to grant The Andrew Martin Report a brief interview before leaving Los Angeles for the Big Apple.

ANDREW MARTIN: Can you give us an idea of what your childhood was like? Not just as a so-called ‘little person,’ but also as a Mexican-American?

SELENE LUNA: I come from a working-class Mexican immigrant family, and my being little on top of that only created extra challenges for the family, so it was pretty tough. My parents were the hardest-working, most sacrificial people I’ve ever known. We went without a lot but never needed anything.

AM: Did you always want to be an entertainer? What was your first experience on stage? How have you evolved since that time?

SL: At age five I had already decided that I belonged on stage. I knew I’d always be stared at because of my stature, so I figured on stage people would have to stare at me on my terms. My first experience on stage was when I was about seven years old, at the Christmas pageant for the Catholic Catechism school my siblings and I were forced to attend. I played the North Star, and found the experience thrilling, but I didn’t really pursue it until much later in life. Every performance is an on-going evolution.

AM: Were you always this naturally funny? Do you come from a family of funny people?

SL: I learned very early in life that in order to avoid being bullied, I would have to entertain people. I was always a bit goofy; I was just trying to survive, but I had fun doing it. My parents loved comedy, they were huge fans of cats like Richard Pryor and Robin Williams; they frequented the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip. My parents also encouraged my siblings and I to put on little shows in our living room. However, I did get in trouble for one of my living room performances. I must’ve been eight, I put on my mom’s red marabou robe, called myself a “Hooker” and tried telling jokes about PCP, which mortified my parents. I’d seen “hookers” on Hollywood Boulevard, but didn’t understand what they did, and certainly had no clue what PCP was. My act was too racy for the living room. For the most part, my family is very low-key, but they all have a great sense of humor; I can be twisted with them.

AM: How did you come to hook up with the Busty Jane crowd (Jackie, Nadya, Pancake, Mario, Drew Droege, etc)?

SL: We were all hooked up with each other long before Busty Jane. We’re long-time friends who frequently work together in various capacities.

AM: What are your hopes for the new show?

SL: Throughout my childhood, I was told that I was “special needs”, but I never understood what that meant. All I knew was that I was really short and people were touchy about it. As an adult, I came to realize that people’s awkwardness around my stature is in itself their “special need”. In my show, I hope to convey that at some point or another we all have special needs.

AM: You received some attention recently for your letter to Rosie O’Donnell for her outspoken opinion about ‘little people.’ Did that accomplish anything significant? Conversely, what are your thoughts now that her show has been canceled?

SL: I responded publicly to Rosie’s dim comments about little people because I wanted the opposing point of view to get the same amount of air time, and I got it. After a series of Tweets back and forth between Rosie and me, she apologized and was a class-act about it, so we’re fine. Showbiz is a very difficult and cryptic business, so I do not find pleasure in any show being canceled. It’s tough out there.

AM: Where does Selene Luna see herself five years from now?

SL: Living in a mushroom, and taking hot baths in a walnut shell.

Audiences can’t be urged more strongly to come out of their own shell and experience La Luna. See you there!

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!

It’s interesting to think that as recently as ten years ago, the word “viral” had the same connotation as a death sentence. Today, of course, in the age of the YouTube phenomenon and Webseries springing up like carpets of mushrooms, the adjective has become cherished by those who choose to spend their time producing video displays; in modern parlance, it denotes attention by tens of thousands on the Internet. One such clip, which was filmed in March of 2011 and enigmatically titled “An Example of the Prolonged Effects of Exposure to Musical Theater,” somehow has managed in the last two weeks to reach officially viral status, going from a few hundred hits to nearly one hundred thousand in the space of a few days. It features a downright adorable young gentleman in a hoodie, lip-synching his way through snippets of no less than ninety songs from sixty-seven Broadway musicals in the space of five-and-a-half minutes. More than this, though, is the brilliance with which this clip was edited and pieced together, and his obvious gift for comedy and facial expression. Thousands were suddenly talking about it on social networking sites and theater-chat message boards, and while the clip has its detractors, fans of musical theater far and wide have embraced it. The big question that emerged, however, was “Who IS this guy??”

Well, it transpires that his name is Kevin Harris. He’s a twenty-four-year-old graphic-design student currently living in Seattle after growing up in Richland, WA. And he graciously granted The Andrew Martin Report a most intelligent and insightful interview.

ANDREW MARTIN: What draws you to theater music/musical theater?

KEVIN HARRIS: I grew up watching classic movie musicals like The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie, but I never really understood that they were originally stage shows. I guess I was always a little bit of a performer. I enjoyed being goofy and making people laugh, but most of my interest was in drawing. When I was in elementary school I participated in some small plays, but didn’t do anything else until my sophomore year of high school. My sister kept trying to get me to audition for shows, but I never thought I would be very good at it. I finally gave in and auditioned for Bye Bye Birdie, and ended up being cast. Ever since that first show, I was hooked and practically lived in the school auditorium until I graduated. I also participated in my school’s musical theatre class. My teacher, Lynn Morin, introduced me to the music of Sondheim, Schwartz, Kander and Ebb and all the other greats. It was because of that class that I really started to delve into the wonderful world that is musical theatre. Sadly, I have not been on stage in about three years. As for right now, I’m just studying away in school.

AM: Was making faces and being comical something you’ve always done? Were you the class clown? Did you ever have any aspirations to go into comedy (standup, sketch, improv, etc) as opposed to theater? Do you have any particular inspirations or heroes in comedy?

KH: I think I’ve always had a knack for contorting my face. I remember when I was very young, my mom would ask me to do my silly faces and she would crack up at her crazy little boy. People may say differently, but I don’t really think I was the class clown in school when I was growing up. I did joke around a lot when I was with my friends, though. Now that I am older and in college, I am definitely more vocal and will crack jokes in class, and banter with my professors. I guess you could say being in theatre made me a bit more comfortable with “performing” around people I don’t know. When it comes to performing, I have always been drawn to live theatre. I have been told that I should try standup, but I’m not really interested in it. I’m not so much about telling jokes as much as I am about creating characters. Sketch comedy and improv do interest me, but I haven’t had much opportunity to do either. I have been wanting to write a one-man show for a while, so I could have the chance to play multiple characters. I have about four plays I have been brainstorming over the years that would involve the actors playing multiple parts, and could include some improv as well, but who knows if I will ever finish them? I love a lot of the old comic greats like Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello, and Danny Kaye. But I would have to say that my absolute favorites are Paul Lynde and Jack Lemmon. Paul’s snarky, campy style, and Jack’s reactions and mannerisms, have really stuck with me. I also admire Tracey Ullman and Carol Burnett. They are so amazing at transforming themselves into different characters. I love that!

AM: Where did you get the idea to start doing these videos? What was your first? How many have you done so far? Which one(s) is/are your favorite?

KH: When I first got my laptop, I decided to play around with Photo Booth one night. My friend had shown me some videos she had made, and I decided I wanted to try doing something too, just for fun. I was going through my iTunes, and decided to try lip-synching to some of my favorite songs. I posted it on Facebook and my friends seemed to enjoy it, so I decided to make some more. The first one I did is called “iTunes Craziness and Such” (and that is pretty much what it is!) and I have done ten lip-synching videos since then. I would have to say my favorite is the first Broadway one. Musicals give me a chance to act and tell a story a lot more than normal everyday songs do.

AM: Have you taken particular inspiration from others who do these kinds of videos? I’m thinking specifically of Gary Brolsma, aka NumaNumaGuy, or what Seth Rudetsky does in his “Deconstructions.”

KH: I really enjoy Mirandasings, Kid History, Liam Kyle Sullivan, SororityDORKS and yes, of course, Seth Rudetsky.

AM: What’s the process behind doing one of your lip-synch medleys towards a YouTube broadcast? Do you first decide what music to use and then what facial expressions/physical actions go with it, or does it all sort of come together at the same time? Do you have a specific order in mind for which songs will play? Is the editing process ever frustrating?

KH: When it comes to just a regular video, I go through my iTunes and pick a few songs that I think would be fun to “sing”. Sometimes I know what part of the song I want to record, and other times I just do the entire song and then pick one part of it during editing. I don’t really have much of an idea of how I will act during a song beforehand, and I just jump right in! As for a themed video, I usually have an idea of which songs and parts I want to do before I start. Once I pick some of the songs, I look for ways to lead into other ones with the same word or topic so as to tie everything together. When everything is recorded, I start the hardest part, which is synching the video with the original song so the sound is of good quality. This usually takes a long time and can be a little frustrating to get it matched up just right. Then I start fitting all the clips together like a puzzle. I arrange it, watch it, rearrange it, watch it again and so on until it feels just right. I know that if I start laughing, then it’s good.

AM: Are you particularly surprised that the Broadway video has gone so viral in such a short amount of time?

KH: VERY surprised! I woke up one morning and had over sixty e-mails saying people were commenting on the video, and subscribing to my channel. I made it so long ago, and just for fun, that I never thought it would get noticed. It still surprises me how much people seem to enjoy it.

AM: Obviously you’ve become a topic of conversation on some of the theater-oriented chat boards that exist online. What do you think of some of the feedback you’ve gotten, whether positive or negative?

KH: People have been very kind and supportive. They really seem to relate to my love of musical theater, which makes me very happy. Some really amazing things have happened because of this, namely getting e-mails from Marc Shaiman and Jim Caruso. Finding out that people you respect and admire all of a sudden know who you are, is crazy! Some people have been rude with their comments, but I just think it’s funny that they feel the need to say those sorts of things. I’ve also had some marriage proposals, which is pretty darn silly. I would have to say my favorite feedback are ones where people say they were having a horrible day and then watched my videos, and they were able to smile and forget their troubles for a little while. If my videos are able to help people laugh and be happy, then I am doing my job.

AM: Aside from your lip-synch medleys, there’s also the very funny short film where you play the artist. Do you hope to be doing anything else like that as well in the near future?

KH: That was so much fun! My friend Ashley Wasson was making a film for class, and had the idea to do an interview with an artist. We pretty much just improvised the entire thing on the spot. I love creating eccentric, weird characters and just letting them loose! So, yes, I would LOVE to do more videos like that. Very soon, I hope!

AM: Do you plan to do a sequel or second volume to the Broadway video? Or any of the other videos, like your Glee medley? Whether you do or not, do you have anything else in the immediate works?

KH: I made a second Broadway one not too long ago. I have been considering doing a third and people seem to be all for that, so that will most likely happen at some point. I am currently working on another Disney video and am having a lot of fun thinking up things for that. I’m also considering maybe doing some vlogs, and I have an idea for a Broadway-themed video series.

AM: Those who watch the video get a sense that you’re probably endlessly joking, and somewhat hyper and high-energy (in a good way). Is that accurate? What can you tell us about yourself that might surprise us?

KH: According to my friends, that is a very accurate description. Like I’ve mentioned before, I love to make people laugh and try to help them forget their troubles for a little while. I’ve found that being hyper and high-energy seems to do the trick. Even though people don’t believe me when I tell them this, I am actually very shy. I know it seems hard to believe, but it’s true. I get really nervous when it comes to meeting new people, or being in a room with a bunch of folks I don’t know. I also hate watching my videos with other people, because I get so embarrassed. But I’ve found that if I am really crazy and goofy when meeting people, it makes it a lot easier to break the ice and start up a conversation. I think I have become friends with a lot of people I know because I made them laugh right off the bat.

AM: Do you want to find a way to turn this into something lucrative? If so, what’s your vision for that?

KH: I never really considered my videos anything more than fun, little ways to release my desire to perform on stage. If anybody thinks it could become lucrative, let me know! But if I could choose anything to come out of all this, it would be to have more characters that I could eventually perform on stage.

AM: Do you have any advice to offer to others who want to make similar videos for broadcast?

KH: I would say just have fun, and stick with things that bring you joy. I have learned from experience that if you enjoy something, you will be led to other folks who also enjoy it. I would also say don’t try to copy other people just because they may have found success in what they have done. Be inspired by them, but be sure to put yourself into what you create. You will enjoy it so much more if you do.

It’s a sure bet, therefore, that a hungry worldwide audience will continue to enjoy the work of Kevin Harris for ages to come. If you’re still unfamiliar, watch his work and be ready to laugh!!

About twenty years or so ago in cabaret, a young gentleman by the name of Jim Pallone made his debut at Steve McGraw’s on West 72nd Street (formerly Palsson’s, currently the Triad). His opera-theater voice and presentation were so powerful that within a short amount of time, he became very much a front runner in the arena, appearing in many a benefit concert besides receiving one award nomination after another, and rightfully so. Indeed, it left many wondering if Pallone would ever have a worthy successor. That personage has been discovered in the form of the breathtaking Charles West, who this evening at 11:15 will close out what has been nothing less than a spectacular debut, entitled Charles West…Feeling Good and running as always at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. West, the current standby for the role of El Gallo in The Fantasticks at the Jerry Orbach Theater, emerges as a sure bet for much-deserved success in the cabaret community, and absolutely takes his place among the New Faces of 2012. In a show directed and co-written by Mark Hawbecker and with musical direction by the ever-excellent Steven Ray Watkins, not to mention the marvelous work by Jim Griffith on lights and sound, this presentation deserves to run far beyond the end of the year. None of this is to say that West takes the stage with the confidence of a seasoned cabaret pro, but it may well be the best raw beginning enjoyed by an audience in many a moon. His ability to communicate a lyric coupled with his glorious vocals and not merely handsome visage but charismatic and oh-so-sexy demeanor make him a natural for the art form. In point of fact, he comes across rather as a sane counterpart to Marc Kudisch, and should most certainly enjoy the same type of success in due time.

Leading off with Bricusse and Newley’s “Feeling Good,” West appears not merely sultry but a delicious departure from the customary “Broadway glamour” so many theater entertainers display in their initial cabaret outing. “Something’s Coming,” though perhaps a tad “lounge-y” at times, works to the hilt, and he follows with a parody of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” with a lyric by Hawbecker that easily takes its place among the very best work of Gerard Alessandrini and the Forbidden Broadway canon. From there, a trio of songs that would be considered extremely risky pickings (“On the Street Where You Live,” “Why God Why?” and “Some Enchanted Evening”) are simply transformed into wondrous mastery. What follows is a selection of songs from upcoming Jerry Orbach tribute It’s Nice To Remember, including “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Razzle Dazzle,” “Everybody Likes You,” “Promises Promises,” and a medley of “My Time Of Day,” “Luck Be a Lady” and “I Can See It.” He even makes it a point to mention Orbach’s non-musical theater efforts, including the sizzling play Scuba Duba, and it’s more than obvious that West has done thorough homework. And he goes so bravely far as to introduce material not from the Broadway catalog or the American Songbook, among them a delectable “Stray Cat Strut” by Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats, and by the time he finishes the evening with “Try to Remember” (accompanying himself at the piano, no less), West is a winner on each and every count.

Please, won’t you take this advice I hand you like a brother? If you are finding yourself later this evening with no plans and wish to indulge in a brand-new and extremely exciting cabaret discovery, truck on down to Don’t Tell Mama to catch Charles West. You’ll be very glad you did, and by all means, tell them I sent you.

Courage Campaign Flash Mob Protesting Michele Bachmann, September 16th, 2011, Los Angeles

Just like flagpole-sitting in the 1920s or marathon dancing in the 1930s, cultural fads will usually enter a stage where they appear to be everywhere, but like many phenomena will fade away and only be remembered as a historical blip. The latest cultural fad which seems to have been popping up within the last two seasons is that of the “flash mob,” in which a large group of people appear at a location as if from nowhere, usually breaking out into song and dance, sometimes for purposes of political protest but also for entertainment. Improv Everywhere became one of the first-known creators of the flash-mob phenomena, when they staged a spontaneous musical that burst forth at the food court in Los Angeles’s Baldwin Hills Mall in early 2008 which went viral after placement on YouTube, and since that time they’ve staged both musical and non-musical flash mobs in cities all over the world (a notable one was when Grand Central Station froze in place, and the reconstruction of a scene from Star Wars on a New York City subway).

Since that time, the “flash mob” craze has extended itself to political causes, such as a spontaneous musical event to boycott Target stores for their support of anti-gay political candidates, and earlier this week on September 16th in Los Angeles, when a flash mob from Courage Campaign protested Michele Bachmann’s support of gay reparative therapies (among her other disturbances) by executing a high-energy group routine to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” There was also one to remind everybody of the importance of the holiday spirit, set once again in a food court. The beauty of it seems to be the surprise element; even Oprah was the recipient of a major flash mob scene when she hosted a Black-Eyed Peas concert on her 24th Season Kickoff, in which the outdoor crowd broke out into a choreographed routine with perceived spontaneity during the song “I Gotta Feeling,” to Winfrey’s visible delight and amazement. This was, without a doubt, the modern flash mob’s highest moment of visibility since the craze began.

But is it just a craze? Has it been around longer than we realize and is only just getting recognition as such because communication is so much more heightened? And will this really go the way of flagpole-sitting and marathon dancing and just disappear as a thing of the past? Or is it possible that it will continue on and on as long as there are participants and an audience?

Devoted "Flash-Mobster" Amada Anderson

Amada Anderson has been a devoted “flash mobster” since 2009. A critically-acclaimed and highly-visible actress, singer, poet and performance artist on the current Off-Off-Broadway scene in downtown New York, she fell backwards into the movement. “I’m not normally a ‘dancer’ dancer, I just like to dance,” she explains, “and that January I ordered a DVD that showed me how to dance ‘Thriller’ in the comfort of my own home. I then learned that in addition to learning this dance, it was part of a worldwide event called Thrill the World that started in ’08. Mobs from other countries were organizing to be part of it, with everybody dancing to the song at the exact same time all over the globe. And I wanted to be part of that; I figured I’d get a group of people together and register it as an event in New York and host it in a park somewhere. Then, that June, Michael Jackson died.  It was very sad to find out that this huge awesome tribute, which he actually knew about and watched from his helicopter in LA the first time, was going to be even bigger and better and he wouldn’t get to witness it. I found out online that there were other people who had the same passion about it that I did, and through the online MJ Community, I reached out to the leaders of the Halloween Parade people who teach ‘Thriller’ to the crowd every year. We decided to join forces and promote Thrill The World NYC with a combination of ‘Beat It’ and ‘Thriller’ all over mid-town. So I created this flash mob event; I basically used my networking skills and charismatic charm to get others to join me. After we danced, we all celebrated at Webster Hall, and it was just a lot of fun.”

What does Anderson consider the most important requirements for someone wanting to begin “flash mobbing,” and how to get started? “I personally feel that it’s just like going swimming,” she says. “You have to sometimes just jump in, to get over the cold-water syndrome. Or even doing karaoke for that matter. If you’re shy, it’s OK, but after you realize that everyone is dancing the same movements you are and backing you up, it feels really freeing. If someone wants to try a flash mob-like feeling, I suggest joining the mailing list of Improv Everywhere. I’ve personally volunteered more than once with them, and it’s a lot of fun. And you’re with hundreds, if not thousands, of participants just in New York City alone. Since my first time, I teach ‘Thriller’ every weekend and I’m always looking for people to join me to help promote Thrill The World NYC, which this year will take place on October 29th at 10 AM at IS52  in Inwood and 10pm on the Boardwalk at Coney Island. You can check here for a schedule of classes, and the entire thing is a benefit for my favorite charity, The Pajama Program.”

Which begs the question, are there any downsides to “flash mobbing,” either as organizer or participant and whether it’s for politics or strictly entertainment? “It’s funny you ask that, ” Anderson responds, “but yes. In New York you have to have a sound permit to blare music, or have large numbers of people just show up somewhere and do something. But when I have my flash mobs, which happens every Saturday at 1pm before my ‘Thriller’ Class, I always advise people that our idea is to promote the event and entertain. So what happens is we show up, get into costume, I bring my boombox already cued up to dance the short version of ‘Thriller,’ and then I tell them to look for cops. If we see them, we don’t go dance in front of them; in fact, we will find another spot to dance altogether if I don’t have  the sound permit. But I tell them that if a cop does come over and ask us to stop, we STOP, hand them a flyer, and move on.  But it’s usually is over very quickly, in three minutes or less, and people really get entertained and motivated or inspired. I’ve had people follow me all the way to class because they were so excited to learn the dance. Again, it’s fun!”

Cultural phenomenon? Unquestionably. Momentary craze? Anyone’s guess. But as long as even one person out there is coming up with new and inventive ideas for the flash mob that can easily be executed, it’s a fair guess that fans of the movement will very happily continue tuning in to watch the fun and enjoy what they see. Ditto those who love to participate and organize. (Note to self: the local mall does have a food court with pretty good acoustics…)