Former Dallas diva — and current New York celeb emcee — Jim Caruso returns to his old stompin’ ground for the inaugural Dallas Cabaret Festival
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
For more than 25 years, Jim Caruso has called New York home — performing at the famed Carlyle, serving as backup for Liza Minnelli the world over, showing up on Broadway and even entertaining newly-inaugurated President Bill Clinton in 1993. And since 2003, he has hosted a weekly show at Birdland called Cast Party. If you’ve been recently, you might have heard Eve Plumb yodeling, or seen David Osmond make Caruso an honorary Osmond. No wonder Cast Party has been heralded by the Wall Street Journal as “the gold standard of open mike nights.”
But the truth is, it all started for Caruso right here in Dallas.
“There was really a cabaret scene there in the ’80s,” he says, “and we all made a good living at it, going from Dallas to Houston to Little Rock.” Longtime gayborhood denizens may recall Bentley’s, or Patrick’s, or Bill’s, or John L’s. It wasn’t always glamorous, but it was a whole helluva lot of fun.
“Patrick’s on Fitzhugh was next to a leather bar, so while we were singing our medley of Dionne Warwick hits, there would be this amazing thump-thump-thumping coming through the common wall…. Those days were magical!” he recalls fondly.
Ah, the glory days. It was a fantastic time to be a singer, especially for a gay young man like Caruso. Seeing a cabaret performance was when he first realized the potential of being an entertainer of his own making.
“I was sitting in an audience of maybe 60 people, and these singers were just being celebrated for their talent,” he says. “I realized: I don’t need to be in the ensemble at Dallas Repertory Theatre or Theatre 3 — I can create my own thing.”
His first act — he swears this is true — was performing at fish restaurants along Lovers Lane with his mother at the piano; he called the act Son of a Bitch. “That wasn’t good,” he admits with a laugh, “but it got me into the scene and [let me figure out] how to create my own product and not be at the whim of others.”
Caruso formed a male trio, called Wiseguys, which variously featured such notable musicians as Gary Lynn Floyd (“still one of the best singers I’ve ever known,” Caruso effuses) and the late Buddy Shanahan. They opened John L’s, and soon after took off.
“There was an audience in Dallas for what we were doing. I booked a group of girls in cowboy hats called the Dixie Chicks.” Then, sadly, the Dallas cabaret scene “really dried up for many years — there were piano bars, but not a ‘scene.’ I always thought that was sad. But now Denise Lee has really taken it upon herself to bring it back.”
Caruso is referring to the efforts by Lee — herself one of the most respected singers and actresses in North Texas — to incubate a new culture where cabaret can flourish. For more than a year, she’s brought regular cabaret shows to The Women’s Building in Fair Park. But now it’s time to blow it out: On Thursday, Caruso, his longtime accompanist Billy Stritch and a host of others will join Lee in launching the inaugural Dallas Cabaret Festival — three straight days of musical performances where the gift of musicianship shows audiences what raw talent looks like. And it’s all free to the public.
“This entire series has simply been amazing,” Lee says of her cabaret shows to date. The festival will be the highlight of the series and serve as the foundation for future [cabaret] festivals at Fair Park.”
It’s been a long time coming. “Denise called me about two years ago and said. ‘I have this idea — I’m determined to help make nightclub and cabaret music a thing again.’ I said, ‘Bless your heart!’ It’s a difficult row to hoe … I know because I’ve done it since the 1980s. But man, she has done it. I am so impressed at her work.”
One of the hardest parts is an educational arc: Letting people know what they are getting.
“Cabaret is a word a lot of people don’t understand — I don’t even use the word sometimes; I usually say ‘nightclub concerts and entertainment,’” Caruso says.
For his part, the opening night of the festival will be exposing audiences to his Cast Party.
“We’ve brought this wild, extreme open mike into town for years, and Denise has always been there to sing and spread the word,” Caruso says.
Including in the lineup, of course, are Caruso and Stritch, who perform hits from the Great American Songbook. But the diversity is nearly endless.
“We’ll have some of the stars of Dallas entertainment” — among them, Lee, Floyd, Linda Petty, Julie Johnson and Marisa Diotalevi — “but also anyone who wants to get up. We will welcome theater and jazz … whatever shows up. If we have a juggler, I’m over the moon. There are so many kinds of music — we’re the tip of the iceberg. One night it’s the Night of 1,000 Stars, and then it can be the Den of Non-Equity… sometimes in the same night! But it’s an upbeat, positive experience for everyone. No one is a smartass.”
Caruso has seen a lot of musicians over the years, though, and he does play favorites.
“Liza Minnelli is the top of the list, and not just because she’s one of my best friends: I’ve never seen anyone care more and work harder. And Barbra Streisand is the thoroughbred to Liza’s workhorse — just perfection. I can’t believe I get to hang out with the people I hang out with. It’s a total joy.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 22, 2016.