Cabaret

Interview with
Jim Caruso

by Jonathan Frank

Jim Caruso is something of a renaissance man, as he has his fingers in just about every aspect of show business (except for songwriting, and I wouldn't be surprised to see that pop up in the future). Jim was the founding member of the award-winning jazz/comedy trio, Wiseguys, and has recently been performing highly acclaimed shows at Arci's. Last year he served as host for the MAC Awards at Town Hall and Broadway On Broadway 2000 in Times Square for 60,000 people. Jim was consulting editor and writer for the largest selling InTheater Magazine in history (the one largely devoted to Liza Minnelli) and is a regular contributor to InStyle Magazine. On the web, Jim writes a celebrity feature for TheatreMania.com called Jim Caruso is ... PRYING! He worked on TV for the Jim J and Tammy Faye Show and Fox After Breakfast with Vicki Lawrence and produces celebrity interviews for E! Recently, he worked as the Executive Associate to Liza Minnelli for the Broadway and National tour of Minnelli on Minnelli. With all this going on in his life (plus a recently released CD, Caruso Live and in Person ... ) I figured there would be no shortage of topics to tackle ... and I was right!

Jonathan:  Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Jim. Tell me the truth ... do you grace our hallowed halls or are we considered the competition, since you write for Theatermania.com?

Jim:  Hardly (laughs). Yes, I visit Talkin' Broadway.

JF:  This is going to be intriguing ... I've never interviewed an interviewer before. It's enough to give one a complex!

JC:  Yeah right ... I'm hardly David Frost.

JF:  It's kind of embarrassing ... I hadn't made the connection between Jim Caruso the performer and Jim Caruso of Jim Caruso is Prying ... fame until I visited your website.

JC:  It's all me!

JF:  Made me paranoid! I figured I would have to come up with some clever, prying questions of my own.

JC:  Oh please! My questions are hardly in depth; "What's your favorite song ... "

JF:  ... or "What's your most embarrassing moment;" which I can't ask because I already know your dancing tampon story.

JC:  Oh God! I'm sorry you read all that ...

JF:  So spill ... what on earth does a dancing tampon do and why on earth were you one???

JC:  I was in an industrial show for the Kimberly Clark Convention which was just hideous! I was dressed in a tube that went from my head, with my face cut out, down to my knees, which is such an attractive look to dance in. I wore tights and tap shoes ... and out of my head was a piece of white yarn ...

JF:  I'm surprised Better Midler hasn't used that in one of her shows!

JC:  Doesn't it sound like a number one of the Harlettes would do? I mean really ... a tapping tampon???

JF:  It calls to mind the dancing doobies at her last show who boogied while she sang "Marijuana."

Do you still do any dancing or acting in shows?

JC:  I haven't been recently. It would be nice to do something in a theater with other people; I miss that whole 'cast' thing. The cast parties for my cabaret shows aren't that exciting; it's just me and Billy Stritch eating a bag of Fritos!

JF:  I was expecting a much more glamorous spread coming from the two of you ...

So you still have aspirations of doing the acting 'thing' versus the producing and writing side which occupies more of your time nowadays?

JC:  I have to say that I love doing it all. It would be nice to finally have a job that pays well enough to be able to relax; to be on a sitcom, for instance ... not that it's relaxing work, but you don't have to worry about "Oh my God! I have a column due today, a gig on Monday, I'm producing a piece for the E! Network on Friday ... " I wake up in the middle of the night and don't know what I'm worried about, but know that I'm supposed to be worried about something! So to be able to have one career for a while would be such a luxury.

JF:  What would be your dream career, then?

JC:  My real dream would be to be involved in a variety show, but that kind of entertainment just doesn't exist anymore, and I don't know if they will ever come back. To be on a show like The Carol Burnett Show would be my ultimate dream, but that doesn't look like it's going to happen anytime soon. I love television and I love singing and I love being funny, so somehow working those three things together would be the ultimate dream for me.

JF:  Do you ever have the feeling that you were born thirty years or so too late?

JC:  Well, yeah. But just about everybody who does cabaret feels that way, because the style of music that we love to do is not always that commercial nowadays. It's great that so many of us are able to make CDs and that they sell a certain amount. But it's hardly making anybody rich, or even making that many people household words. There are so many sublime talents on the scene that should be known by everyone! Who knows? If this was 1960, would Ann Hampton Callaway be an international superstar, making hit records and starring in movies? Would I be a regular on The Gary Moore Show, or be schlepping old ditties at The Lion;s Den in the village? Not that working in clubs is a bad thing; I love club work. I'm very lucky to be working at Arci's place, which is such a fabulous and well-run room ... Have you been there?

JF:  I saw Karen Mason there in '99 and I love the room. It's as if it were designed by Maurice Sendak.

JC:  It's fantastic, and John Miller, the owner, does everything in his power to make it right. We just did a New Year's Eve show; I hosted it and it featured Linda Lavin and Alexandra Haas, Amanda Green and Steven Brinberg as "Simply Barbra." Arci's was jam-packed, and John couldn't have made it a more wonderful night for everyone.

JF:  How long was the show?

JC:  I'm still there! I'm finishing up my ballad as we speak (Laughing). We did three forty minute sets, which for most people would be a nightmare, but Billy [Stritch] and I come from Texas where we're used to doing three hour sets a night in the smokiest, loudest clubs in the world. That's why all of us from Texas; Sally Mayes, Montgomery, Plant and Stritch, Alexandra Haas, my old group Wiseguys ... when we came to New York and had to do a fifty minute show, we kicked ass, because we had so much material to choose from.

JF:  Does that whole club scene still exist in Texas?

JC:  No. I got involved in it in the 80's when it was at its height. Then, with the crash of the oil money, it all dried up. You used to be able to make a living going from Houston to Dallas to Little Rock. As you hear me say on my CD, my first club act was with my mother, so I've been doing this forever!

JF:  That would be the oh-so-tastefully titled Son of a Bitch show, would it not?

JC:  Oh it was haunting!

JF:  I'm sure she's still haunting you for that one.

JC:  Oh, my mother will never let that go. It was a hideous act! But I was doing theater and not getting any decent roles; I was always in the ensemble. So I decided that I wanted to be in charge and be the star for once, damn it! She plays great piano and was free ... literally and figuratively ... so we put this thing together. It was very affected. I was going by all the cabaret acts that I had seen, which were mainly done by women from San Francisco like Ruth Hastings or Samantha Samuels ... very dramatic divas. They would do a medley of Piaf songs followed by a medley from Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. So I started wearing all black and doing lots of Edith Piaf songs with my mother. It must have been very disconcerting to go into a seafood restaurant at noon for happy hour and seeing a 22 year old boy singing "Hymn to Love" with his mother! Je regrette beaucoup!

JF:  So who would you consider to be your biggest influence now?

JC:  Well, it depends on what we're talking about ... I guess I have to go back to Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett and even Red Skelton ... God ... it makes me sound like I'm 90! But when I was a kid, watching those shows made me want to be in show business. As far as club work is concerned, when I started the group Wiseguys I had been watching this group Gotham, which was an incredible trio of guys in New York in the 70's/early 80's; they were very funny and very campy. And then I saw Montgomery, Plant and Stritch, Billy Stritch's trio, which was brilliant musically. I thought that if Wiseguys could be half as funny as Gotham and half as musical as Montgomery, Plant and Stritch I would be happy. So those were big influences on me for club work. The influences on me as a soloist ... I don't know who it would be. I don't see a lot of guys doing what I want to do; I mean incorporating personal stories and songs the way that I want to perform.

Caruso Live and in Person
Song Clip Click for
"I Wouldn't trade You"
In RealAudio

JF:  I can't wait to hear your CD, which is a live recording of your show at Arci's. In reading the track list on your website, a number of the songs look like a hoot and a half to listen to; and then there's the twelve minute Johnny Mercer medley ... Lord, that even beats the mega Mercer medley on Lee Lessack's new CD!

JC:  (laughs) I told Billy that we had to do some Johnny Mercer material because we both love his work. I reminded him about how on The Carol Burnett Show they would do those train wreck medleys from hell ... one song crashing into the next without reason. And Billy came up with a brilliant arrangement!

JF:  Now you've really got my interest piqued.

I'm dying of curiosity ... how does one get invited to perform at the White House?

JC:  Phyllis Newman asked Wiseguys to be part of the inaugural show for Clinton that she was producing. You know the show with Streisand? We didn't do that one. Ours was the same day in a huge tent on the Mall and it was a "Broadway goes to Washington" extravaganza with Joel Grey singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and Tyne Daly and Linda Lavin singing "Everything's Coming up Roses," Carol Channing singing "Little Girl from Little Rock ... " star after star. Betty Bacall hosted the whole thing. Wiseguys were hired as the ensemble to back up the stars and we had our own numbers as well.

JF:  Did you get to meet the First Couple?

JC:  They weren't at that event. But because it went so well, we were invited to do a smaller version of it at the White House for the first State Dinner. It starred Rita Moreno, Carol Channing, Barbara Cook, Jimmy Naughton and Wiseguys, and was hosted by Lauren Bacall. We got to meet the Clintons and the Gores and talk with them; it was absolutely incredible ... one of the most thrilling nights of my life.

JF:  Maybe "W" will want to do an evening devoted to Texan performers and have you, Billy Stritch and Sally Mayes perform ...

JC:  Oh that will happen ... Bush bringing cabaret into the White House!

JF:  Did you know Sally Mayes when you were performing in Texas?

JC:  God yes; she was and is one of my best friends. She had left Montgomery, Mayes and Stritch in Houston and moved to Dallas to become a rock and roll singer. I went to see her, and since I knew Billy really well, I went up to her and said, "Hi, I'm Billy Stritch's best friend!" We went out for margaritas that night and haven't stopped talking since.

JF:  You also produced the Jim J and Tammy Faye talk show.

JC:  No, I was an associate producer ... don't make me sound more important than I was! After Wiseguys split up, I was so depressed; I moved to New York solely to do Wiseguys so I was ill-prepared for its ending. We had been working a lot with Liza Minnelli and she had become one of my close friends. The day the split happened she asked me what happened and I told her that one more person had fled the group and I couldn't take it any more. He was like the ninth person that I had taught the material to, and we had gotten new headshots and videos and I broke my ass booking performances ... and it's hard booking a male trio, let me tell you. So Liza said "Well, great; what's next?" I was so furious that someone would take my career so lightly. 'What's next?!' It was everything at the time! Later I realized it was the best thing that anyone could have ever said to me because it really got me thinking where my life should be going.

Then a friend of mine who had produced Donahue and Geraldo called me and said "You're out of work aren't you" and I replied "I sure am!" He was in LA putting a new project together with Tammy Faye Bakker and he asked if I was interested in TV, to which I replied "Of course!" so he invited me to come out and that started my TV stint. The show wasn't that good, but we had the best time. I'm still in touch with most of the staff and people involved.

After it was cancelled I came back and worked on Fox After Breakfast, which lasted a season ... and it was agony! I worked fifteen hours a day; I couldn't even leave to have lunch. It's not fun and I don't care to ever do another daytime show again. It's like the news; there's never a day off unless you're on Rosie and get three months of summer vacation and four weeks at Christmas.

After that ended I was on a TV show called Café DuArt starring Louise DuArt, a wonderful impersonator ... the show was on the much-watched Nostalgia network. We had a blast, though. Then Liza asked me to work with her on Minnelli on Minnelli. That was an amazing experience; to be on the ground floor of a Broadway show. We were at the Palace and then went on the road for four months. It was exactly the kind of show I love ... an old-style variety show.

JF:  In all your interviews, travels, etc ... have you ever met a celebrity that just totally overwhelmed you?

JC:  I'll tell you ... after knowing Liza for so long, you get good at meeting your heroes. When I lived with her in LA we produced a party every Saturday night. The guest list was out of your every dream if you like to 'star-gaze.' There would be Madonna talking to Esther Williams, George Hamilton talking to Sean Penn ... I was in heaven!

There were two people who really flustered me. One was Carol Burnett ... but she was so warm that I felt like we were best friends. I'm sure she gets that a lot, because you feel that you know her from watching her all those years on TV, but she also gives that feeling right back. She sang "Happy Birthday" to me and I totally wept. The other time was when I went to dinner with Streisand; it was one of those moments where I kept taking myself out of the scene and looking at it from above going "What are you doing here???" It was Liza and Donna Karan and Streisand ... and me!

JF:  What's next on your performance horizon?

JC:  I'm going back to Arci's doing 'Endless Mondays,' because they have been very popular ... everybody from the Broadway community has the night off. I think that's going to start in May. Billy and I are going to be performing in Chicago at Metropolis in February and in Atlanta in March at Lola's. It's a brand new club that is supposed to be fabulous.

JF:  And people can go to your website for more information and for dates

JC:  Right ... http://www.jim-caruso.com

JF:  What song from your CD should I include with the interview?

JC:  Well, I'm very proud of a Kay Thompson arrangement I do, but I want the song itself to be a surprise ... for when people buy the CD (laughs). Do you know Kay Thompson? She was the vocal arranger for MGM in the 40's. She was Lena Horne's and Judy Garland's vocal coach, and was Liza's Godmother. She was born Kitty Fink and started out as a concert pianist in St. Louis. Then she changed her name to 'Kay Thompson' and became glamorous. She was also the supreme nightclub Chanteuse and added show-biz choreography and style to the whole nightclub scene. Then she wrote a children's book called Eloise ...

JF:  That's where I know the name from!

JC:  Right. She was also in the film Funny Face ... she sang "Think Pink." She lived with Liza the last few years of her life and we became really good friends. We were sitting around the kitchen table one day listening to one of her records. I told her that I would kill to have one of her arrangements because they were so hip ... and she said "take it!" She never gave away anything, even to Liza! So her arrangement of "How Deep is the Ocean" is on the CD.

JF:  Well, that gives me a reason to race to my mail box today and see if it came. Thanks for a wonderful interview, and best of fates on your new CD!

JC:  Thanks!

Jim Caruso's CD, Caruso Live and in Person ... contains the following songs:

1) Errand Boy For Rhythm/Rhythm In My Nursery Rhymes
2) I'm Hip
3) Crazy Rhythm/Fascinating Rhythm
4) Boy From Fire Island
5) This Cabaret Scene (Chat)
6) My New Celebrity Is You
7) If I Only Had A Brain
8) How Deep Is The Ocean
9) A Song From My Friends
10) When I Get My Name In Life
11) Miss You Mr. Mercer
12) Massive Mercer Medley
13) I Wouldn't Trade You
14) Tone Deaf


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