Jim Caruso was born an only child in Pittsburgh. “I would watch the Osmonds’ Christmas Show and break into tears,” he says with a laugh. “To be able to stand on stage and sing with people that I knew and loved, what joy.”
Although he didn’t have siblings, Caruso’s parents were musicians and there was always music in his life. He grew up a fan of musical variety programs like The Carol Burnett Show and Sonny and Cher. “I wanted to jump through the television and just sing and dance and be funny and hang out with fantastic talent like that,” he says. “That’s kind of how it all started.”
What Caruso started, Cast Party, an open mike phenomenon that takes place every Monday night at Birdland, will move on February 17 to a larger venue, Town Hall, with a special performance for a good cause, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. And some big names in musical entertainment—Liza Minelli, Chita Rivera, Larry Gatlin, Lucie Arnaz—will take turns behind the mike. The Grammy-winning composer, famed musical director, and performer Billy Stritch will be at the piano, joined by Steve Doyle on bass, and Daniel Glass on drums. Caruso promises some surprise guests will also make appearances. (Photo shows, from left, Caruso, Rivera, and Stritch).
Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has a dedicated following in the theatrical community and entertainers quickly respond when asked to perform for the charity. Add the fact that Jim Caruso is the organizer, and entertainers have lined up to take part. Caruso, an accomplished cabaret singer and recording artist in his own right, has become a modern day Ed Sullivan, identifying and attracting talented people. Witness the fact that Cast Party is now in its eighth year, with more than 30 people (professionals and amateurs) showing up to perform every Monday night along with 150 people who come to watch.
“You never know [who will show up],” says Caruso. One evening, Jon Bon Jovi performed, on another occasion, Betty Comden. “It was really one of her last public appearances,” he says. (Comden died in 2006). “She came in, all in black and diamonds looking very, very glamorous. And she motioned me over and said, `Do you think it would be okay if I did a number?’ And she sang “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” from A Wonderful Town, which she had written with Leonard Bernstein and Adolph Green and which was playing up the street at the time. People were weeping. They were holding phones up, recording it; it was an historic moment for theater fans.”
Liza Minelli is a regular at Cast Party. “It’s extraordinary the people who have passed through the door,” he says. What makes the evening work, however, is the mix of performers. “A housewife came in and sang a song she had written about pollution. And she was following Liza! It’s the reason why cast party has been a success. It’s the shock and surprise. It’s The Ed Sullivan Show, you have the Beatles and then Topo Gigio or plate spinners all in the same show.”
If Caruso identifies with the nonprofessionals who perform, it’s because he came up through the ranks, too. “I did a lot of theater growing up, but I noticed that I was constantly being relegated to the ensemble, the chorus, if you will, and I decided that I wanted to be the star of the show for a minute and see what that was like,” he says. He put together a nightclub act with his mother accompanying him on the piano. The act was irreverently called “Son of a Bitch,” Caruso says, adding, “It was before we knew we should be politically correct or even tasteful.”
Because his mother could only play slow ballads, he found another pianist and his act really took off. “That was the start of my nightclub career and it’s really where I’ve had the most success,” he says. “It’s a world of show business that I love because I have so much more control.”
The Liza connection came about because of his friendship with Stritch. “She came to his show at a club in the Village and he stationed me right next to her in the audience so I could hear what she was saying about the show,” he says. “We started talking that night and she invited both of us to her birthday party the next week at a swanky place called Tattoo here in New York. The rest is history. We’ve been talking ever since. She hired him to do her vocal arrangements at Radio City and she hired me to be her opening act for a time. We’ve truly been best friends ever since.” Caruso made his Broadway debut alongside Liza in Liza’s at the Palace! The show was honored with a 2009 Tony Award for Best Special Event and the recording was nominated for a Grammy.
Like the meeting with Liza, Caruso’s relationship with Cast Party unfolded in surprising ways. “It was certainly not in my plan to host an open mike night the rest of my life,” he says. Leaving show business for a short time, Caruso was churning out mindless press releases for a nightclub, promoting drink specials. “I was really quite bored, so I decided to throw a Christmas party and everyone came.” Not only did they come, but also they gathered around the piano and sang until four in the morning. The next day the club’s owner asked if he could repeat the event every Monday night. Cast Party was born. “We moved it to Birdland, thank goodness, which is one of the best venues in the world. I’ve worked in clubs all over the planet and it’s the most well run, the best sound. The owner, John Valenti, is unbelievable. It just doesn’t get better. I kissed a lot of frogs to get to Birdland, but it was worth the trip.”
The event at Town Hall will try to recreate the spontaneity of Cast Party. “Billy and I have decided not to script this, to certainly have a running work—you don’t want to have people wonder what’s going on backstage—but we want to keep that impromptu feeling to the event,” Caruso says. “We do have some special surprises, special guests that we are not going to advertise that will blow people away.”
Besides the stars, the organizers are counting on the appeal of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to sell tickets. “They do extraordinary work, endless work for people who are sick in the theatrical community and beyond,” he says. “When any of us get that call [to volunteer], no matter what is going on, we say yes.” Because Town Hall is a large venue with 1,500 seats, Caruso says he needed to call on the “big guns,” and they responded. Another performer will be Marilyn May, who holds the record for the most musical appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. “She’s in her 80s and in better shape now, vocally, then when she was on the Tonight Show,” Caruso says. Others scheduled to perform include Hilary Kole, Hinton Battle, New York Real Housewife Countess LuAnn DeLessups, and Natalie Douglas and William Blake. “Between the cast list and the fact it’s Broadway Cares, I know it’s going to be a smash,” he says.
Besides organizing the Town Hall event, Caruso has been busy promoting his new CD, Swing Set. In many ways, Caruso’s childhood dreams have come true. “I’ve collected these really, really, talented people over the years and it’s kind of ironic that what we’re talking about today is a collection of some of these talents thrown together in one room at Town Hall. I’m obsessed with talented people I love being around them.”
Photos of Jim Caruso by Bill Westmoreland
The Best of Jim Caruso’s Cast Party
Thursday, February 17, 8 p.m.
Town Hall Box Office is located at 123 West 43rd Street
Tickets are $25 -$50 – $75
And can be purchased NOW by visiting www.TicketMaster.com or calling 800-982-2787.
or at The Town Hall Box Office, open noon to 6 PM every day but Sunday.
To purchase Jim Caruso’s CD, Swing Set on Amazon.com, click on the title.