Interview with
Shelly Cullin

by Jonathan Frank

One of the wonderful things about Cabaret is that its performers, like fine wine, improve with age. Since Cabaret is primarily about conveying emotion and providing the audience with a glimpse of the performer as a person, life experience and maturity count for a lot, and it is no wonder that many of Cabaret's top performers have been around for years, if not decades. West coast performer Shelly Cullin has had an incredible life journey, a fact that is reflected in her CD I Only Have Eyes for You.

Jonathan:  Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Shelly. Now thanks to you I had a very enjoyable morning today; I sat in the sun room, enjoying the first sun we've seen in Seattle in weeks, sipping my latte while reading the Sunday paper and listening to your CD.

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"I See Your Face Before Me"
in RealAudio
Shelly:  Is that all? You mean you call that fun? (Laughing).

J:  I have to ask ... your bio mentions that you won a Black Bottom Contest and you have the picture to prove it on your website. What on earth is that???

S:   (laughing) I knew you would ask that! "Black Bottom" was a song from the twenties or early thirties that my mother taught me; many years later, thank you! The lyrics are VERY politically incorrect now-a-days, since they refer to exactly what you think they do! I was just under three years old and had no idea of what I was singing. I just knew that I was supposed to tap my bottom at a certain part of the song. Mother had me all dressed up in a little black costume, and yes, the picture is on my website: My career lay dormant for a number of years, thankfully, until I was 14. I did a little theater, graduated from high school, and by 16 was singing professionally.

J:  Is that when you sang with Xavier Cugat?

S:  Actually, I started singing with the Latin-American Relief Band earlier at The Palladium in Hollywood, where I grew up. Eventually, that experience led to my being a soloist with "Cugie" at Ciro's. But, in between, I was under contract to Paramount Studios and did a special voice over in Robert Mitchum's first major film, The Story of G. I. Joe, appeared at the legendary Ciro's (this was before "Cugie"), and in Las Vegas and other West Coast venues. Incidentally, my forthcoming stints in New York and Philadelphia are my very first East Coast cabaret appearances ... believe it or not!

J:  When did meet and become good friends with one of my favorite performers, Julie Wilson?

S:  I was hired specifically as Julie's cover for the original national production of Kiss Me, Kate. Julie was playing Bianca and we were totally different physically; she's tall, I'm not, she's a brunette, I'm blonde, her eyes are a gorgeous gray, mine are dark hazel. I met her at rehearsal and she was just this gorgeous girl. We were both girls then (laughing) and from that moment on, I never wanted to go on for her. When Julie left, someone else took over the part. There was a big campaign to get me in the role, but it didn't work out and they imported someone. On the first day, this girl said "My stand-by will never go on for me!" Well, of course, you know what happened! Three weeks later, I came into the theater one night at 'half hour,' and the manager said, "Where the heck have you been? You're on!" They had to sew me up into the lady's costume, because she was ... well ... kind of big. So I did get to do the role, but I never did go on for Julie. I never wanted to! Julie never missed a performance, and I never wanted her to. I just adored her, and still do! I think she's wonderful.

J:  Are you going to try to see the revival of Kiss Me, Kate while you are in New York?

S:  I don't know if I'll have time! If I have time I will, but I'm performing almost every night that I am there. I'll be at Don't Tell Mama's the 5th and the 7th, on the 8th I perform at Tavern on Camac in Philadelphia, the 9th and 10th I'm back at Don't Tell Mama and on the 11th I return home. And my memories of Julie are so strong, that I don't know if I could give anybody a fair shake!

J:  And you will have Jeff Klitz playing for you in New York. He's wonderful! He played for me in November.

S:  Oh good! That's great to hear, since I haven't met him. He was recommended to me by someone, and Julie said she'd known him for nine years, and that if I could get him to grab him!

J:  Is he going to go with you to Philadelphia?

S:  No. Jim Wade will be my pianist there. And Ken Gould will be playing for me at Cabaret at the Garrick Bistro.

J:  I'm not familiar with that space.

S:  It's a new one. It's in the Mayfair Hotel in New York, right by the Eugene O'Neil Theater. The bi-weekly show is produced by Sandi Durell, and will present several performers at each show.

J:  Are you doing the same show at there that you'll be doing at Don't Tell Mama's?

S:  No, I'm only going to be doing a couple of numbers from my Don't Tell Mama performance due to time constraints. Although they did tell me to have three ready ... just in case. Elizabeth Ahlfors, who manages my website, told Sandi Durell about me, and Sandi emailed me and invited me to perform there while I was in New York. So I'll be performing on April 2nd, which is their opening night.

J:  So it's going to be a group of singers?

S:  Yes. The performers on opening night are going to include Mark Nadler, Helen Baldassare, Stephanie Pope, among others. The email says "you'll have to be there to find out" the rest! (laughing)

J:  Your bio mentions that you were in the original production of the musical Lend an Ear. I'm not familiar with it. Who wrote it?

S:  Charles Gaynor. I was in the original California cast with Carol Channing, Gene Nelson and Bob Scheerer. The director and choreographer was Gower Champion. I adored him, as everyone did. You could feel the energy sizzle out of that man's body! Did you ever see the movie version of Showboat with Katherine Grayson?

J:  Is that the original black and white version?

S:  No, it's the big MGM Technicolor production. In it, Gower and his wife, Marge, played Frank and Ellie, and they have two of the cutest production numbers in the whole world, one of them being "Life upon the Wicked Stage." You don't have to watch the whole movie, but you have to fast forward to their numbers!

J:  I don't think I've ever gotten through the entire film! I'll have to see if it's shown on AMC or TCM.

Did you ever do a show on Broadway?

S:  No. I went to New York and did some modeling for Harry Conover. Then I joined the national company of Kiss Me, Kate which brought me back to the West Coast. Then life took all sorts of turns; I got married, had my little boy, Matt, and had no intentions on letting anybody else raise him, so I was out of show business for a good long time. Then I married Bill, who had two children from a previous marriage, so I was raising three children. All five of us, by the way, were in college at the same time; Bill was getting his second Masters, I was getting my undergraduate, and my kids were getting various degrees of their own! Fortunately, we weren't all living under the same roof!

J:  Hopefully you had lots of scholarship money!

S:  Nope! We did it all ourselves.

J:  When did you start performing again?

S:  About ten years ago I started to sing again. About four years ago, Julie told me I really needed to record a CD. I wasn't too sure, since I'm really a visual performer; as many cabaret singers are. Then Wesla Whitfield, who is also a friend of Julie's ... (laughing) isn't everyone? ... asked me why I never told her I was a singer. You know that old line? "Well, you never asked me!" She also told me I needed to make a CD, so, after a few more people got on my case, I finally did. And ever since then all kind of wonderful things began to happen; I've performed at The Plush Room in San Francisco and Quail Lodge down here in Carmel, I've produced a cabaret series and done all sorts of interesting things. I've been very, very blessed.

J:  Have you thought about doing another CD?

S:  Oh yes! But as you know, that takes time. You have to be one place for a good period of time and really focus on it.

J:  Are you still producing the Sophisticated Ladies Cabaret/Jazz Series in Carmel?

S:  I am talking with somebody now about continuing it. The shows were at Quail Lodge, which was perfect venue for us. Unfortunately for my company, Forty Karat Productions, they've had a complete turnover in management there, so I'm back to square one on negotiations!

J:  So, who or what are the Sophisticated Ladies?

S:  Shannon Carlson, Spider Saloff, Martha Lorin and I started out with one night each, once a month, for four months at Quail Lodge. Then Shanna, Spider and I did a short run together at The Plush Room, which was just dynamite and fun.

J:  Your show in New York is going to be called Something Borrowed: a Lady's Prerogative. And it's going to be what?

S:  It's going to be songs borrowed from well-known singers; male and female.

J:  Do you have anything coming up after New York?

S:  I have private parties here on the Monterey Peninsula, and I'll probably do another AIDS benefit. We made money on the last one. I feel that you have to give back, and certain causes are very dear to me, AIDS being the closest to my heart and I will do anything to help that cause. Anywhere!

J:  So people can go to your website and e-mail you to take advantage of that knowledge!

S:  Yes. And in June I'm going to be performing at the West Coast Cabaret Convention in San Francisco.

J:  Great! I'm performing Tuesday, June 6th and I will be staying for the whole Convention, so I finally get to see you perform! What date will you be performing?

S:  Oh good! I'll make sure to come up on the 6th so I can see you, too! We live in Carmel, which is an easy two-and-a-half hour drive. I'm performing on Sunday, June 11th, which is the final day of the Convention. It's a 2pm show.

J:  Well, I wish you the best of fates on your shows in New York and Philadelphia, and I am looking forward to seeing you in June!

S:  Likewise!

The dates and times for Shelly's upcoming performances are:

Cabaret at the Garrick Bistro:
242 W. 49th St. (In The Mayfair Hotel, next to O'Neill Theatre)
New York City, NY
Res: (212) 489-8600
Sun. 4/2 at 6:30 p.m.
Ken Gould, Musical director

Don't Tell Mama:
343 West 46th St. (New York)
Wed. 4/5 at 9:00 p.m.
Fri. 4/7 at 9:00 p.m.
Sun. 4/9 at 3:30 p.m.
Mon. 4/10 at 7:00 p.m.
Jeffrey Klitz, Musical Director

Tavern on Camac:
243 South Camac St. (Philadelphia)
Philadelphia, PA 19107
Res: (215) 545-0900
Sat. 4/8 at 8:00 p.m.
Jim Wade, Piano

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