Life’s a cabaret at birdland

| 22 Sep 2015 | 01:00

“I saw a t-shirt the other day that said, “I hate Mondays,” and thought, “Mondays are my favorite day of the week and it’s because of ‘Cast Party,’” Jim Caruso said.

As the host of the cabaret show he created 13 years ago, he’s introduced everyone from Martin Short and Ariana Grande, to hula dancers and jugglers on stilts. The one-of-a-kind event at the iconic Birdland celebrates every talent imaginable, and Caruso never knows who will be there. Before it begins every Monday night — at 9:30 because that’s when Broadway is dark — hopefuls give their names and what they’ll perform, and he jots everyone down in a notebook which serves as the evening’s lineup.

To accompany the performers is a trio of musicians, including Caruso’s best friend Billy Stritch on piano, who all seem as though they’ve already rehearsed, but what we see are actually first run-throughs.

Once on stage, everyone is made to feel like a star — at least for one night — because of Caruso’s quick wit coupled with his warm personality. The atmosphere he’s created is truly welcoming and the audience follows his gracious lead. “One time, right after Liza Minnelli, I introduced a lady from Commack who sang an original song about her feet,” he explained. “She got just as much applause. People were just as kind to her.”

How did “Cast Party” come about? I read you were doing PR for a nightclub and that’s how it started.Yeah, it just kind of happened. I certainly never thought I would host an open mic as a job. I didn’t know that was a job, actually. What do you major in for that? The community around me has always been Broadway, jazz and cabaret performers, so at that party, everybody showed up and sang ‘til the wee hours of the morning. And the next day, the club owner called and said, “Would you do that every Monday?” And I said, “No. Why would I do that? That’s insanity.” So we did, and 13 years later, we’re still doing it. A different club, obviously, but I’m so lucky to be at Birdland. I can’t say enough about our venue here and across the country- we do “Cast Party” all over the country now. We’re lucky to be in all these fantastic spaces.

You moved to New York in 1990. What was it like for you when you first got here?Well I moved here with a vocal trio called Wiseguys. We were working the club scene. We were at The Algonquin at the time and were an opening act for Joan Rivers, Chita Rivera, people like that. So I came here with a job, which is very odd for a performer. [Laughs] I knew who I was. I was also older, I wasn’t 19, which is when I really wanted to move here, but didn’t. I felt very established. I had a coterie of friends around me. So it was kind of like my second home. So by the time I moved here, I knew the town, there were not a lot of surprises. I knew when I was a little kid I wanted to move here. There was a TV show called “Family

Affair” about these two orphans who lived with their fancy uncle in Manhattan. I pointed to his high-rise apartment and said to my mother, “I want to live there.”

You said in an interview that you asked for an agent at 6 years old.Oh, that’s totally true! Wow, you really did read some stuff. Yes, I just knew I wanted this life. Maybe I’m an old soul and lived here some other time, but I just knew I wanted to live in New York and be around show business. And have fancy, beautiful, talented friends and laugh and be in nightclubs. It’s so ironic, really, that, in a roundabout way, that’s exactly how my life has ended up. It took forever, by the way. [Laughs]

You met Liza Minnelli in 1991 and said that it changed your life.It certainly did. She came to see this vocal group that I was in and took me to dinner a couple of nights later. We were at Joe Allen, I’ll never forget it. And she said, “Would you guys be interested in opening for me?” Literally, she said it like, “You probably wouldn’t.” I fell under the table and couldn’t believe it. And I said, “Yeah, I think we can find our way free to perhaps open for Liza Minnelli.” She was at Radio City at the time. So that started, we opened for her and she would always show up for our gigs. And it really gave us, because she was really at the height of her powers at that point, a shove into a world we had never been in. Hanging with celebs in major rooms. We were doing what we’d always done; nothing changed about us. But when somebody like that puts their stamp of approval on you, all the sudden people looked at us differently and we were a little bit more interesting. She threw us into a whole other stratosphere.

Give us some examples of “Cast Party” nights.I walked in one night and Martin Short was there and I went over and said, “What are you doing here?” And he said, “Oh, there’s an open mic here on Mondays.” And I said, “Yeah, I know, I’m the host.” And he said, “Paul Shaffer and I want to try out some material we’re gonna do on Letterman tomorrow night.” Of course they killed. One of the thrills of my life was when Donny Osmond came and sang and told me I was the new Osmond brother that they had been looking for. And that made my whole life because that’s my era. He’s the ultimate showman for me. People like Natalie Cole, Tony Bennett. [Michael] Feinstein has been very supportive. Hugh Jackman, Bon Jovi. Ariana Grande, when she was 13 and 14 years old. We definitely watched her become a star. I’m not saying we had anything to do with that, but we have certainly watched many people grow their communities.

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