BWW Feature: At Home With Jim Caruso
It seemed like nothing could or would ever stop Jim Caruso's Cast Party from happening. For nearly 18 years the weekly variety show has been one of New York City's entertainment musts. When Manhattan started the shelter in place order, the people of NYC felt their world turn on end - and that includes the regulars who couldn't have known just how much they would miss their Monday nights with Jim Caruso.
Caruso, an industrious and ingenious man, allowed himself some time to be stunned by the lockdown but it was just a matter of time before the cool cat in limbo landed on his feet. With the creation of the weekly online version Jim Caruso's PAJAMA Cast Party, Jim restored some normalcy and some comfort back into the lives of club-goers valiantly trying to stay sane in a world gone mad.
I reached out to Jim and asked him to do a digital interview with me for Broadway World Cabaret and was so happy he said yes. One of the most organically funny people I know, Jim sent back a set of answers to my questions that not only made me laugh, taught me some things about him, too (I had no idea he was a Yankee). It gives me the greatest of pleasure to share that interview with our readers below.
Name: Jim Caruso
First Cabaret Show (Title, Year, Club): Picture it. Dallas, 1983. My first act involved me as the singing sensation and my mother at the piano. The act was called "Son of a Bitch," and we played happy hours at a fish restaurant called Stefano's. It was a slow act because my mother only liked playing ballads. We were like The Judds on lithium. At some point, I had to fire my mother, which was awkward. I joined forces with a pianist/singer named Steve Webber, and we got a gig at the Non-Smoker's Inn on Stemmons Freeway. Our material included songs from "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and a Donny and Marie medley. We also worked at a club called Patrick's, which shared a wall with a leather bar, so our tempos would end up matching their house music. It was terrible and wonderful at the same time!
Most Recent Cabaret Show: Billy Stritch, Steve Doyle and I had a gig at The Carlyle Hotel on March 15 of this year, the night before the world changed. The city was already starting to close up shop, and I wore black leather gloves and Clorox-wiped the microphone after every song. I'm sure I looked slightly psychotic and murdery.
Website or Social Media Handles: www.Jim-Caruso.com and www.CastPartyNYC.com. IG @JimCaruso1. Twitter @JimCaruso1. Facebook: Jim Caruso's Cast Party/Broadway at Birdland
Jim, you are now a cyberlebrity! Did you ever think you would be taking your talents to the airwaves?
Frankly, yes. I've wanted to post some form of Cast Party on YouTube for a decade. I just didn't take the time or have the knowledge. About three weeks into this crazy lockdown, I started an Instagram Live chat...and a bunch of performers logged on and sang for me. We ended up with thirteen performances, and over 600 viewers! We put on a damn show with absolutely no planning, and it was extremely healing! Singer/producer Ruby Locknar called me the next day and suggested we take the Party to YouTube, and we've been doing it every Monday since. In five weeks we've gotten over 25,000 views! How many Mondays at Birdland would it take to reach that many people?
What you do, as a performer but particularly as an emcee, relies so much upon audience presence. When you turned Cast Party into Pajama Cast Party, what was the learning curve like?
I've been hosting Cast Party for almost eighteen years. It's obvious that the performers mean the world to me and we've given each other a platform...but it's the audience that's kept it going. I know what our crowds sound like. In a funny way, I have the sound of their responses in my head. It just takes a little imagination to "hear" the laughter! That might sound delusional, but it works for me. The technical aspects have been interesting, and they fall on Ruby's shoulders. She's an incredible producer, but we're at the mercy of the guest performer's wifi, microphone, camera, etc. And it's all live, people! None of those canned clips. So things go awry. I just keep talking and tap dancing until the problem is solved!
You are a very social person - has the isolation created in you any kind of withdrawal anxiety during the shelter in place order?
I almost feel weird saying it, but no. The first three weeks were extremely sad for me...and for the rest of the world. We were all mourning our lives, anxious for our health, and that of our friends and family. But the minute I had a project and felt Pajama Cast Party was even slightly viable, I started to come back to life. I got moving. But I keep in touch with my friends. I call, I text, I FaceTime. And get this: After every Cast Party at Birdland, we've walked to a local diner for late-night breakfast, gossip and laughter. This last week, after Pajama Cast Party, a slew of us had a Zoom diner party! Just as fun. Just as hilarious. So my Monday nights are back to being joyous and inspiring!
To what would you attribute the staying power at Birdland?
Eighteen years ago, Gianni Valenti, the owner of Birdland, hired me and told me that if he gave me Monday nights, I'd better be there every single Monday night. No "we're taking August off" or anything. That consistency had been key. The audience understands that if it's Monday, it's Cast Party. I've always wanted a home base, and have never understood why anyone would choose to work every room in town. Find a place. Stick with it. The concept has certainly served me, and Cast Party!
Jim, you've had a most fascinating personal story - have you considered starting a memoir during your time in lockdown?
Ugh. We all know people who have written name-droppy books dishing their famous friends, and it never ends well. They usually seem self-aggrandizing and slightly pathetic. Can you tell I have opinions on the topic? The answer is no. Also, no.
What have been the quarantine essentials at your place? Everything from your must-have foods, projects, television viewings, daily structures.
During the first three weeks, I lived on Double Stuff Oreos and coffee, which are not exactly healthy choices. As one who is challenged in the kitchen, I was thrilled to discover a company called Freshly, which delivers ready-cooked meals that you nuke. In three minutes you're eating dinner. I also get up every morning, make my bed, clean my apartment, have a coffee, and go to work. That regularity suits me. I end the day with TV - I've binged "The West Wing" (all 156 episodes), "Schitt's Creek," "Hollywood," and now "Mrs. America." It's also inspiring to watch my friends doing such great shows online. Billy, Linda Lavin, Matt Baker, Gabrielle Stravelli, John McDaniel are all out there creating. Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley are producing two shows a day and should win the Purple Heart. Erich Bergen produced the Rosie O'Donnell Show reboot telethon for The Actors Fund, and launched a whole new career for himself! If you look around, inspiration is everywhere!
In 17 years of all the cast parties, including this new virtual edition, who has been your most exciting "get" as a guest performer? The one that, when they said yes, you sighed in relief.
Every single performer who has graced our stage has helped in the success of Cast Party. But certainly stars like Liza, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Marty Short, Donny Osmond...on and on...have helped put Cast Party on the show biz map. And meeting Ariana Grande at age 13...or Charlie Puth at age 16...was exciting. It was obvious they were very, very special. Regarding Pajama Cast Party, Kristin Chenoweth, Melissa Manchester, Christine Ebersole, Curtis Stigers, and Betty Buckley have all said yes. Their support means the world, garners an audience, and ups our game!
You are one of the most naturally funny people in the business - have you ever considered doing a stand-up comedy show?
That would terrify me! I've never been successful doing "material." I feel like my strength, if you want to call it that, is an ability to be in the moment and riff off of other people and situations. Good stand up comedy is like a miracle to me!
What aspects of your Southern upbringing do you still carry with you today, after decades of being a New Yorker?
Well...I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. But as you know, I lived in Texas for many years. I guess we can thank Dallas for my love of cilantro, a well-starched shirt, and a strong penchant for big hair.
Jim, what is the secret to your hair?
Good genes and hella product.
All photos provided by Jim Caruso, Cover photo by Christopher Boudewyns