BWW Interview: Jamie deRoy of JAMIE deROY & FRIENDS at Birdland
Jamie deRoy can't sit still. With her career as a Broadway producer in full swing and a slew of Tony awards on her mantle, she isn't content to just sit around the house. Jamie deRoy can be found out around town any night of the week, seeing a show and socializing with friends. She is one of the most active and appreciative members of the New York entertainment community, and that includes her longtime love of creating the now legendary variety show Jamie deRoy & friends, in which she hosts a coterie of her chums, all of whom are some of the most talented in the business. This Sunday, February 16th, at Birdland Ms. deRoy returns with her latest installment of the show, one that will benefit The Actors Fund of America, as all of her past 11 shows have. With guests like Sierra Boggess, Well Strung and Paula Dione Ingram appearing at the show, deRoy is expecting her usual standing room only status, so this writer reserved his seat early. With only days to go, I called Jamie to check in and had one of the most entertaining chats one can have on a Thursday afternoon.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Jamie, you've got a show coming up on Sunday. How are you feeling?
Nervous. I'm always nervous.
Why? You've been doing this show for 25 years.
I think for longer, I think 30 but that doesn't mean it makes it any easier.
How did the whole Jamie deRoy & friends legacy begin?
On my 31st birthday, I decided to throw a party cause I didn't really like my 30th birthday, t was so anticlimactic. I went to Pittsburgh -- I was dating this guy in Pittsburgh, it was after I was divorced, and we walked around the mall and he takes me out to dinner and he says, "Oh, I didn't have time to get you a birthday present." And I'm thinking to myself, "We just walked through a f*cking mall, (Laughing) there couldn't have been more stores!" (Laughing) And I had brought him a Siamese kitten 'cause his birthday was near my birthday. I flew a Siamese kitten in with me for him. And I thought, "Wow, this is not working." And, and then I went to dinner with my parents and my grandmother, and my grandmother was like, "Is it somebody's birthday?" And I'm thinking, "Oh my god, my own grandmother can't remember?!" So I said, "For next year I'm throwing myself a party." So I had my first annual 30th birthday. I did not have entertainment at that party. But then I started doing them in bigger spaces, in nightclubs and stuff. I don't know if you ever knew Dallas Boesendahl he was a big party thrower. He organized Night of a Hundred Trees years ago. I don't know if you ever went to that, but that was one of the best benefits I ever went to. And it was for different charities. It started off, it may have started off one way, but then it ended up being all the money went for AIDS charities. Anyway, he would say "I'll organize a birthday for you at such-and-such club." And the club would even pay for the dinner and I would have like a hundred people for dinner. Then I invited more people to come after, too; they got in free, but then they had to pay for drinks. One year I added a couple of people singing at the dinner, and that's sort of how it started: I had my friends singing at these various parties. Then I found out I had a thyroid lump and they kept wanting to take it out and they kept saying, "If we operate you might lose your voice." So, of course, I kept avoiding it, but I thought, "Well one day I may not be able to avoid it." And ultimately I did have to have it out and my voice was somewhat affected, but by that time I was thinking, What could I do if I couldn't sing anymore?" I went through a lot of different scenarios in my head... if I was in a wheelchair, if I couldn't sing, if I was on crutches... you know, who the f*ck knows, till I went, "Well, you know, I have been having these parties and my friends are all so talented." And I go out all the time and I see talented entertainers constantly -- sometimes I go to people's shows and they don't have much of an audience. Now, sometimes they have huge audiences, but there were a lot of really talented people at the time that they just weren't drawing big crowds. At the beginning Nancy LaMott, when she played the clubs, she was not drawing big crowds, it was just really more toward the end of her life that she started really pulling the big crowds in. I did it more because I just loved watching these people and when I, rather than go to someone and say, "Hey, I really liked your comedy material, could I do it?" That's not very nice. It's their comedy material, their comedy song, you know? So I would say, "Why not just have them come and do it for me?" So I started, in the beginning of 1990, at Steve McGraw's, right across the street from where I lived on West 72nd Street, I started doing that. Then I went to the new Caroline's on Broadway after doing the McGraws a bunch of times. And it just kept growing and growing and growing. The third show I did, Steve Allen came and I went up to him and said, "I don't want to put you on the spot," -- he had sent me all these song parodies and I was going to maybe do one that night -- I'd have to read it because he just sent it to me and I said, "You know, I was going to do one of your songs, but it would be much more fun if you did it." And he said, "You really want me to?" and I looked at him, I said, "Do I really want you to? Yes!" So he came up on stage and he did it. It was fantastic. It was just so cool.
And now you're getting ready to do a new show at Birdland on Sunday, and it's an Actors Fund Benefit?
I think it's the 11th time I've done an Actors Fund Benefit. I don't remember exactly how many Birdland gigs I've had 'cause I think I did Birdland before I was doing them as benefits.
The Actors Fund is a very important organization. What made you decide to start working with them?
I was vice president, and then president of MAC, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs, and so many people in that did not have health insurance. We'd make calls and get help for some certain people when the need arose, but I wanted to make sure that cabaret people were covered and that they were not forgotten. It's not to say that some cabaret person might have called on their own and they still would've gotten help. But this not only brings extra money, but it brings extra visibility to the fact that the cabaret industry can get help from the Actors Fund because the Actors Fund is so much more than just helping the actors. It's front of house, back of house, the ushers, they help everybody. But so many cabaret performers and comedians never knew that. That's why it became important to me.
And you've been working with them ever since.
How do you curate the guests that you're going to have for each of your shows?
It's always different. We just try to make sure it's a variety. Unless we come up with, "Oh, we're going to do a theme." I remember doing something at Don't Tell Mama once, and they said, "We have a room for you to do a show in, but the room doesn't have a piano. So I was like, "Okay, well I can make this work, but I can't make it work with great singers -- I can make it work with terrific comedians." So the way we handled it was, I did maybe one or two songs and I brought a couple of tracks that I did some funny songs to. And I invited comics who did not need to have a piano player. It went really well. I haven't done many of those, but I certainly could if I put my mind to it.
Who's the biggest name you've managed to put into one of your Jamie deRoy and Friends nights?
Well, that is really hard to say because I've had people like Dee Snider, who's from the rock and roll, and Larry Gatlin, who's from country, and Paulo Szot, who's from opera and Broadway and, and, and, and, and people like Jay Johnson and Judy Gold, who are comedians, Jay is more of a ventriloquist, and some other really great comics over the years... and Julie Gold, who is a Grammy award winning songwriter, and Melissa Manchester... so it's really hard, there's just so many of them
You've been very busy these last few years producing plays on Broadway. Has your performing had to take a back seat to the producing for awhile?
Unfortunately, it has. It's suffered in the sense of I don't get to practice as much. I don't... vocally I feel like I'm not what I used to be, I don't know if it's just getting older or just the fact of not working on songs as much that, you know, remembering lyrics is... everything's getting harder as I get older.
Winning Tony Awards hasn't gotten harder.
No, that makes it fun.
Tell me a little bit about what we can expect on Sunday at Birdland.
Well, I have Paula Dione Ingram, who played Carmen Jones in London and she's just brilliant! And my friend Rick Crom, years ago I did his song "Is There a Straight Man in the House?" He wrote Newsical -- he's been on Broadway, he's been in various TV shows. I've known him for so long. Harrison Greenbaum is somebody that I met through various channels and Well Strung, who I saw their show and I just fell in love with them, and my friend Dan Shaheen said, "Why don't you try to get them?" So I went after them and we got them! They're just amazing. It's four guys who play cello and violin, it's exciting! And Sierra Boggess who has been on Broadway in Phantom and The Little Mermaid and she's amazing, and School of Rock! I just try to vary it so that I don't put two people on the show that are too similar, so that they don't have to worry about, "Oh my god, I gotta be better than her." You know? It's not a contest. Everybody can shine in their own light.
You really do have a very deep abiding passion for talent, don't you?
I always thought if there was a job for a professional audience, I feel like I could have gotten it. When I first came to New York, I went to this place that I ended up working at for a year and a half, The Monkey Bar, it was at the hotel, it was a club -- it wasn't a restaurant. And you couldn't come in off the street, you had to come through the hotel lobby and basically it was just this room off to the right of the lobby of the hotel. Mel Martin, when I worked with him, had been there 29 years.. and there was a group called Crandall and Charles, and Marion Page, and they all played the piano. Mel Martin was good at the piano and he would write funny songs from the audience and do really funny stuff. So I'm in the audience and I just was laughing my head off and after the show, Crandall and Charles came over to me and said, "You have the best laugh. We're recording an album next week and we'd love you to come to our recording session. We'd actually like you to sit near the microphone." And I said, "I'd be very happy to come." It was just fun because I love that kind of stuff, and when something's really funny I'm a good audience.
You're still out there seeing absolutely everything, aren't you?
I do the best I can. I can't see everything, but I'm seeing off-Broadway and Broadway and cabaret performers. I don't see probably as many comedians as I used to unless they're part of an evening. On occasion, I go to Caroline's or I'll go to some comedy nights somewhere 'cause I love comedians and I love singers. I went to see Julie Halston 'cause she's a friend. She's been in a couple of Charles Busch shows that I've been involved with. You work with these people and they start to feel like your family. You know, it's an extended family for sure.
I think that a lot of people who work in the arts become a family in that way, especially in show business. Because when you produce Broadway shows, you see the camaraderie that takes the people on a familial journey from the start of the show to the finish.
I love being involved in these shows, I like to keep up as much as I can. It's very hard, but I try to see as many of them as I can.
Do you ever miss performing yourself?
No, not really. I mean not to the extent that I used to, I really don't. I don't miss the traveling. I don't think I'd want to do that kind of travel anymore. I'm just not into that. I'm happy to stay close to home. I used to go to LA and do shows. I had Bruce Vilanch on my show in LA once. Oh my god. He was one of the funniest people ever and we just sat and talked and he told stories and it was great.
I think that one of the things that you recognize is, whether somebody is a singer or a comic or just sitting in a chair talking, it's the story that matters to the audience.
Oh yeah. I met people that could be funny just sitting and talking to them. There were people that were either out of the business like Baby Jane Dexter when I was doing this room, it was called Columbus on Broadway and I did it twice a week. We had no cover, no minimum. And Baby Jane Dexter had not been performing and she was just wanting to get back into it, but she was nervous and she didn't have a pianist. And my pianist was Rod Hausen and she would come every time I performed and she would get up and sing a song. Then she started working with Rod Hausen until she ultimately met Ross Patterson and started working with him. But she always said to me that I was the one that gave her the little cushion that enabled her to get back on her feet to go back into a club.
Jamie, you've had such an interesting life. You've met so many fascinating people. Have you ever thought about writing a memoir?
Well, a lot of people say that to me. I'd write it, but who would buy it?
This guy, that's who. Jamie, for now, we've talked about everything on my list, and I know you have work to do, so thank you for chatting with me. I can't wait to see you at Birdland. I'll be there, front and center.
Thank you so, so much. I'll see you on Sunday!