Julie Wilson
at The Hideaway Room at Helen's

By Rob Lester

The head of the queen of cabaret is adorned with a big white flower instead of a crown, but everyone pays court to a gracious Julie Wilson anyway. There is something undeniably regal about her persona, but part of the reason she is so well loved is that she is very approachable and down to earth. Showered with applause during her show at The Hideaway Room at Helen's and surrounded by fans afterwards, she remains both modest and charismatic. Though the now 80-plus-year-old star talk-sings many of her numbers, it's still a riveting performance, full of personality and zing, with moments of reflection. And laughs, too. My Monday evening becomes a longer than expected one at the cozy and attractive nightclub, the first part enjoying her performance, the second part sitting with her as we watched another act (A Little Traveling Music*) she was eager to catch. After her show, she return to the room, this time as a customer, a simple sweater replacing the glittery purple sequin gown and huge matching feather boa, and fuzzy slippers on her feet, but the trademark white flower remains.

After entertaining with a generous set ranging from a triumphantly sassy "The Lady is a Tramp" to a vampy "Find Out What They Like" with updated asides referring to Starbuck's and a fictional (I think) website, HowToPleaseYourMan.com, Julie is ready to relax. Cabaret's great role model takes great interest in other performers and is a terrific audience. Rather than talk about herself, she's more eager to talk about younger singers she admires, naming two Barbaras: Fasano and Brussell, praising their unique vocal qualities and acting abilities while singing. Julie also has warm comments for Amanda McBroom, as a vocalist and as a songwriter. (A McBroom/ Shelly Markham collaboration, "It's Still Spring," is in Julie's current set. She is exquisite interpreting this thoughtful song about still feeling 17 despite the evidence in the mirror. Including her audience in the mindset and experience, she declares after the number, "I think we're all 17!") We talk about her career as she sips some tea. Several times during the act, she clutches my arm between numbers and excitedly whispers comments: "Listen to that harmony!"; "That's a lot of lyrics to remember"; and "Oh, I love this song," she enthuses when Noel Coward's "A Bar on the Piccolo Marina" turns up in the set list (it's a number that's been a specialty of hers for years).

Coward's name comes up in a different context when I ask what songwriter's work she better understood later in her career. "It took me a few years to get comfortable with him." She names "If Love Were All," a piece with mixed emotions and not a little pessimism, as one in particular she didn't connect with until she was older. Julie prefers to focus on the positive and the present, as illustrated in "Don't Ask a Lady," which is one of the great crowd-pleasers in her act now and often. She sparkles with energy and optimism. "People who have been coming to see me for thirty years say it's sort of like my signature song." Onstage she talks about how she still finds it hard to believe that the song's composer, Cy Coleman, is gone. "It's so unfair." On a brighter note, she giggles, "It's a great boa number!" The Carolyn Leigh lyric, "Don't ask a lady what the lady did before, ask what the lady's doing now," fits veteran Julie's mindset as perfectly as the skin-tight slinky gowns she favors, but, fortunately, she is willing to talk about the past, too.

Hearing two Cole Porter numbers in the act we're watching brings back memories of the songwriter. Long ago, Julie was performing at the night club The Mocambo, and "one night, after the show, the owner said, 'Julie, someone very important wants to meet you and is waiting in my office.' He didn't tell me who it was." It was Porter, who had come to see her at the suggestion of Patricia Morison, star of the then-currently running Kiss Me, Kate. He then and there asked her to take over one of the major roles in Kiss Me, Kate, saying, "I think you'll make a wonderful Bianca." Her work in that show is one of her career highlights and she has always loved singing Porter numbers.

Though Julie's act is predominantly vintage material, there's no Porter in the show at the moment. Instead, she has made room for a couple of 21st century songs. She incorporates the Monty Python song whose lyric goes, "I am not dead yet ..." into her carpe diem opening number ("I'm Gonna Live 'Til I Die"), proclaiming her passion for life and performing. Also included is "If He Were Straight and I Were Young" by Francesca Blumenthal and Ronny Whyte, the latter present in the audience. He tells me he's known Julie for many years; they had the same voice teacher and used to run into each other at his studio. "She's the first one I've seen do the song," he informs me, clearly delighted with her performance. "What can you say about Julie?" he says with a big smile.

Also in the crowd is performer Steven Brinberg, celebrated for his take on Barbra Streisand - but he has also done impressions of Julie. "I met her when I first started out." Good sport Julie had seen that and once, as a surprise, "she came on stage, walking in behind me as I [unaware] was doing her in the act." He calls Julie "inspiring" and says many other performers can learn a lot from her. And they do, of course, for she is also a teacher in cabaret workshops and symposiums at O'Neill and Yale workshops. She calls these "crash courses" and loves nurturing new talent.

A good picture of Julie on and offstage is conjured up in the book The Night and the Music, which profiles her along with Rosemary Clooney and Barbara Cook. Its author, Deborah Grace Winer, is also in the crowd. Asked to sum up her feelings, she says, "Julie is a consummate entertainer and storyteller." And she says of people in that category, "you can count them on three fingers." At a concert celebrating Dorothy Fields, the top drummer Joe Cocuzzo told her, "Julie has the best sense of time." Remembering her attendance at parties, Debbie adds, "and you can't get her out of the kitchen. She insists on washing dishes when she comes up to your apartment."

Coming up to his apartment is something her musical director/pianist, Christopher Denny, can recall. During the blackout a few years ago, she surprised him by insisting on walking up 20 flights of stairs in the pitch blackness to have their usual rehearsal. "Oh, for goodness sake," she told him, "I'm an old pioneer woman from Nebraska." By candlelight they rehearsed, and it was worth the climb. They have a mutual admiration society. As he says, "nobody has less ego."

Julie tells her audience, "Chris Denny is so nice he should have gone into politics." He also encouraged her to do a little known Jerome Kern/ Anne Caldwell song, "Once in a Blue Moon." He says of her interpretations and phrasing, "She automatically finds the human connection." In her own words, "I like to use as much meaning as possible."

Looking around Helen's, as the room begins to empty, she remarks, "It's a fun place. And you never know who's going to show up. The two boys who run it make it so inviting. They're good to their performers. And the food is good, too."

"The two boys," Colm Reilly and Shane Matthews, are clearly proud and happy to be hosting this true living legend in a return engagement. It's quite a feather in their cap to have the lady with the feather boa make her home in their still-newish club these days. "I'm a lucky old broad," she says. Her audiences are pretty lucky, too.

Julie Wilson concludes her engagement tonight (Wednesday, December 21, at 9:30pm) at The Hideaway Room at Helen's, at 169 Eighth Avenue between West 18th & 19th Streets. Tickets are $25. Reservations: 212-206-0609. www.helensnyc.com.

* The act Julie and I enjoyed following her own show was a great throwback to vaudeville: A Little Traveling Music (now closed). Eric Leviton and Michael Kostroff created and star in the high-energy, broadly comic non-stop entertainment. Playing off each other as mutual foils, they reel off one specialty number after another, full of tricky lyrics and high spirits. More than up to the task, they are a spunky pair, mugging and milking material like "April In Fairbanks" and "Mention My Name in Sheboygan."

Photo: Heather Sullivan

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