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BWW Interview: Artie Olaisen - Cabaret Connoisseur Keeping The Craft In The Light

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What he does for love.

BWW Interview: Artie Olaisen - Cabaret Connoisseur Keeping The Craft In The LightArtie Olaisen should be in New York City right now. In another time he would have been, and on some future date, he will be again. That is because Artie Olaisen never misses the week of The Cabaret Convention - if he can help it. A devotee of the art form, Artie hasn't just spent the last few decades attending the New York Cabaret Convention - he has spent them bringing cabaret to Dallas.

The cabaret and club scene of Dallas has been a mercurial one, at best, over the years. In the 1980s there were piano bars where one could, regularly, catch artists like Jim Caruso, Paul J. Williams, Rich Affannato, and Bernie Siben showcasing their talents and those of their fellow artists. There was a time when high-price supper clubs brought in artists the like of Carol Channing and Bernadette Peters, and there was a chic nightspot called The West End Cabaret, which is where this writer saw Julie Wilson -- at the insistence of Artie Olaisen. That's where it started for this guy, and it's all because of Artie.

Artie's love of the industry, the artistry, and the artists is so great that one day in the decade when he and I met, he went to his bosses at The Dallas Children's Theater and said, "I have an idea for a fundraiser..." and out of that was born a tradition that the Dallas theater scene has come to treasure. The Dallas Children's Theater Cabaret Gala is one of the most highly anticipated events of the theatrical season in Big D, and Artie Olaisen takes great pains and great care to see to it that every year he produces the best show with the great cabaret acts of New York City. And how does he stay up on who's new to see, who's exciting to hear, who's currently the big name in the business? The New York Cabaret Convention.

Last year, on the Judy Garland night of The Cabaret Convention, Artie and I saw each other from our seats in Rose Hall, and ran to each other in an embrace of genuine affection. We, like many, are bound together by our love of the community and the industry, it is a bond that enhances our friendship, especially because he gave me the gift of cabaret. I've been thinking about Artie a lot this week, thinking of the fun he would have had seeing the new acts and old favorites; so I reached out to ask if he would consider chatting with me about his passion and what bringing that passion to Dallas has been like, all these years later.

So, dear Broadway World readers, meet the premier producer of cabaret in the city of Dallas.

This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced in its entirety.

Artie Olaisen, welcome to Broadway World Cabaret! Thanks for chatting with us today. How are things down in Dallas? Is everyone faring ok down south?

We're hanging on with a lot of help and generosity from our community and are as eager as anyone to get back to the art of making plays for a LIVE & present audience!

Artie, you are devoted to the art form of cabaret - it is one of your great passions in life. I'd like to start with the simplest question: why?

BWW Interview: Artie Olaisen - Cabaret Connoisseur Keeping The Craft In The LightLike so many, I imagine, listening to Broadway cast albums as a child introduced me to the great American songbook and a love for lyrics and storytelling in music. I'm a creature of the Theater and have always responded to the magic of music & lyrics as an expression of emotion and feeling. I'm especially attracted to the intimacy of the art form. I've never been a crowded concert goer. I've always had this innate yearning for that more idealized romantic time of small club rooms and candelit tables. There's a quote describing the essence of Cabaret that I came across years ago that has stuck with me, "a piano, a voice, and the truth". That really sums it up for me!

When did your relationship with the art form of cabaret begin?

While a grad student, I had the opportunity to attend some performances in The Fairmont Dallas' legendary Venetian Room which was still on the circuit with Ella Fitzgerald, Carol Channing, Bernadette Peters, and later seeing Julie Wilson with Billy Roy, and Karen Akers, and Karen Mason perform in a classic club setting of tiered banquettes and candlelight at The West End Cabaret and Club 4500 McKinney. I was hooked!

What is the cabaret and club scene like in the Dallas/Fort Worth entertainment industry? (Before coronavirus, that is).

There are no longer any formal club evenings but there are scattered open-mic nights at bars and a few series hosted by local singer & community activist Denise Lee, and Sammons Center for the Arts, and Amy Stevenson's long-running Mama's Party.

Does your own work at The Dallas Children's Theater leave you with enough free time to go out and see a lot of the work being presented in the clubs there?

Not enough I'm afraid.

Every year, for some time, you are the producer of the annual fundraising gala at The Dallas Children's Theater, a gala that always features a performance by a renowned cabaret artist. How did that tradition begin?

BWW Interview: Artie Olaisen - Cabaret Connoisseur Keeping The Craft In The LightThe Children's Theater was approaching its 10th anniversary in 1993 and I pitched the idea for a fundraiser featuring Andrea Marcovicci. I had been a fan since first hearing her on the cast album of Nefertiti. A friend in LA (our mutual friend, Robert McGarity) acquired her address for me and I wrote a letter inviting her to make her Dallas debut. She courageously and charmingly accepted. The evening was a huge hit and suddenly I found myself immersed and initiated into the cult of Cabaret! Thanks to Andrea's generosity and interest in this unknown fan, the Cabaret Gala tradition began! The Dallas Morning News eventually dubbed us "...Arguably Dallas' coolest arts-related fundraiser."

When you first approached the board of DCT, did they immediately get on board, or did it take some talk time to bring them around to the concept?

Surprisingly, they immediately embraced the idea as several of our board members were regulars at The Algonquin. Little did I know that I would still be producing the event 28 years later!

I won't ask you to play favorites, but would you tell me some of the highlights of these galas from over the years?

BWW Interview: Artie Olaisen - Cabaret Connoisseur Keeping The Craft In The LightOh, dear, I LOVE all my Divas!! Of course, I owe it all to Andrea Marcovicci and will always be devoted to her but some other unexpected highlights would be, Julie Wilson's appearance in 2000 with Mark Hummel which many consider her last great performance of her Sondheim tribute show. It was masterly!! Klea Blackhurst's Ethel Merman tribute was a huge hit and I consider it to be one of the best constructed cabaret shows ever! One of the most unforgettable experiences did not involve a performance but the day Emily Bergl was scheduled to fly to Dallas, the car service in NYC called me to say they were waiting but she had not appeared. The flight time was near and after many frantic calls, we learned that she was stuck in her building elevator. The driver had to seek help to get her out and she barely made her flight to Dallas. Talk about one nervous producer!!

Do you think that your work on these annual concerts has increased the visibility of the art form in the Dallas live entertainment industry?

BWW Interview: Artie Olaisen - Cabaret Connoisseur Keeping The Craft In The LightI do think that the longevity and reputation of the event has made Dallas a sought after destination for cabaret artists on the national scene. Also, our official Gala invitation has become a sought-after art piece by cabaret fans around the country. During the Cabaret Convention, I frequently have people ask to join my mailing list just to see what we will turn out next!

When work commitments don't inhibit your schedule, you are a longtime attendee of the New York City Cabaret Convention. That's a time and money consuming venture. Why is that an important investment for you to make every year?

BWW Interview: Artie Olaisen - Cabaret Connoisseur Keeping The Craft In The LightCabaret is a community unto itself and the convention has allowed me to expand my repertoire of artists and styles. I have one evening to fundraise for the Theater and I spend all year building that evening around one artist. I have got to be confident in my choice of artist. I know my audience and I try to provide as diverse an experience from year to year as I can. The Mabel Mercer Convention provides a showcase of talent for me. It's much like casting a play!

How did you first come to make The Cabaret Convention a part of your yearly calendar?

BWW Interview: Artie Olaisen - Cabaret Connoisseur Keeping The Craft In The LightAfter her first appearance with us, Andrea invited me to be her guest for her annual Algonquin show over the Christmas holidays. That became an annual tradition for me and I started to meet other artists. Jeff Harnar connected me with Donald Smith who invited me to my first Mabel Mercer Cabaret Convention. I was in heaven, well, really Town Hall. It was sublime!

As an aficionado of the art form, in what ways have you seen the cabaret and club industry and artistry change, over the years - and would you say there have been good and bad changes?

Sadly, fewer venues and rising admission fees.

When there comes a time that we are able to go back into the clubs - in what ways could the industry affect change for the future?

No big surprise here, if we're going to build an audience & artists for tomorrow, somehow, we've got to keep access to the art form affordable. I rarely get to see all the artists I'd like to during the Convention week simply due to the economics.

Have you taken advantage of any of the virtual artistry coming out during the global health crisis, and what has been your personal reaction to this current evolution in the industry?

Yes, out of desperation like most but it can never replace an intimate LIVE and shared experience.

Again, I don't want to ask you to play favorites - but what have been some of the highlights in your long career as a cabaret devotee?

That is really hard for me as there have been so many. I do always come back to one special evening at Town Hall that took place just after 9/11. We were all still in the shock and awe of the horrible event. Judy Campbell appeared along with several stars of the British stage and sang A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square which she introduced in 1940. What a rare and special opportunity. I am haunted by it still and will never forget it! Lucky me!

Artie, you yourself have been a performer over the years. Would you ever do a club act of your own? Maybe a Noel Coward evening?

You are very dear to suggest but I have such respect for the many trained artists and fear that my musical skills are not up to par. I'm happy to cheer the real artists on!

If I were a complete novice about the cabaret and club industry and you wanted to give me a Cabaret Starter Kit, what CDS, films or YouTube videos would you put on a list for me?

I don't know really how to answer this question without singling out artists that are dear to me and, consequently, excluding others. Please forgive!

All is forgiven, Artie. Thank you so much for chatting with me today - I'm so glad you said yes.

These lyrics, this music, it's our heritage, our poetry! You get it!

All photos provided by Artie Olaisen



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