Famed showman and impresario Jim Caruso hasn’t let the coronavirus pandemic slow him down. He continues to keep audiences connected to the New York nightclub scene, musical theater, and performing artists by moving his signature weekly series Jim Caruso’s Cast Party (which earned him three BroadwayWorld Awards, four New York Nightlife Awards, a MAC Award, and the Sidney Meyer Award) online to the Cast Party Network on YouTube, as the aptly renamed Jim Caruso’s Pajama Cast Party. He also took the initiative this month to help propose a much-needed fundraising campaign and star-studded concert that saved the iconic Birdland jazz club – where he has entertained and hosted a variety of shows and events since 2002 – from debt and permanent closure through donations totaling more than $399,000 and counting.
A native of Wexford, PA, the multiple award-winning performer made his Broadway debut with Liza Minnelli in the smash hit Liza’s at The Palace!, which received a 2009 Tony Award for Best Special Event and a Grammy nomination for the original cast recording. His nightclub work, which included an eight-year residency at Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle Hotel with music director, pianist, and long-time collaborator Billy Stritch, garnered six MAC Awards, two BackStage Magazine Bistro Awards, and five BroadwayWorld Awards for sold-out shows at such legendary venues as Birdland, Arci’s Place, The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, and The Russian Tea Room.
As a recording artist, his first CD, Caruso Live and In Person, went to #1 on both the album and singles charts at Outvoice.com; Christmas at Birdland (with Billy Stritch and Klea Blackhurst) rose to #2 on iTunes and #6 on the Billboard jazz charts; and his solo studio recording The Swing Set features such acclaimed guest vocalists as Michael Feinstein and Stephanie J. Block.
Among the many other highlights of Caruso’s ever-active career were his concerts at Carnegie Hall; his five-year weekly stint celebrating NYC nightlife in New York Minute on Legends 100.3 FM radio; and his appearances at former POTUS Bill Clinton’s all-star inauguration and first state dinner at the White House with the jazz vocal and comedy trio Wiseguys, which he co-founded.
I had the chance to talk to Jim following the phenomenal success of the Birdland fundraising efforts, for a rapid-fire fun-filled interview about who he is, what he does, and what he loves.
- What is it about jazz?
Jim: It’s ironic; I like all kinds of music, but I just happen to work at a jazz club. If you look at my play list, it’s a mix of Wynnona and Fred Astaire and Cher and Dave Koz and Bobby Short and Wynton Marsalis and pop and disco. Birdland has been an incredible learning experience that has increased my knowledge and appreciation of so many musicians and vocalists beyond the ones I already knew.
- What’s your favorite menu item or drink at Birdland?
Their burger is one of the better burgers. I don’t know if it’s the cheese, or the bun, but it all comes together in one fantastic burger, and the sweet potato fries are beyond!!! I don’t drink, but when I’m working, I’m completely hepped up on Coca-Cola!
- If you had a pet bird, what would you name it?
Gianni Valenti [the owner of Birdland].
- Which song is your all-time favorite to perform?
I have sung a song that I can’t get enough of for 7,000 years. Long ago, I was telling Billy Stritch the story of my audition as a twelve-year-old kid for the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. I didn’t get it, and I still feel bitter about it to this day. So Billy suggested we do my audition song – “If I Only Had a Brain” – and he did the most ravishing arrangement. I love the lyrics, they’re so poignant, and the surprise of what Billy does with the jazzy cool chords beneath is amazing.
- Who was your biggest inspiration in pursuing a career in show biz?
Hmmm, I grew up watching Carol Burnett, Dick Van Dyke, ‘70s variety shows, people who sang a little, danced a little, and were funny. They were entertainers, and inspired the heck out of me. I know I’m not the best singer, or the best dancer, or the best comic, but I LOVE to entertain people, and I have a blast!
- What’s the most fun about hosting a variety show?
I love introducing audiences to a wide variety of great performers. It’s like being a show-biz matchmaker. My friend Lisa Lambert [Tony-winning composer and lyricist of The Drowsy Chaperone] calls me a “yenta-tainer.”
- If you could resurrect any legendary artist from the past to join you on your Pajama Cast Party, who would it be?
Eight million faces are flying across my brain right now, but . . . Sammy! Sammy Davis, Jr. He could do anything – singing, dancing, impressions, comedy. And I feel certain that he would love what we do on Monday nights, the come-what-mayhem.
- Do you prefer PJs or a suit and bow tie?
A suit and bow tie, for sure. I think I look like a dork in pajamas. I feel like myself in a suit and tie. Everyone tells me I should wear pajamas to host Pajama Cast Party. But shouldn’t my comfort count for something?!
- What do you love most about New York?
It’s New York! That’s what I love most about New York – it’s nowhere else. There are certainly easier places, with better weather, and more mannerly people, and I don’t care! I’ve wanted to live in NYC since I was six years old, and there hasn’t been a moment when I haven’t loved it!
- What three words would you use to describe the New York theater community?
Resilient; compassionate; public-spirited.
- What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Fan-boy; optimistic; energetic.
- Is there one moment in your career that stands out as the single most unforgettable?
What springs to mind is a moment in Liza’s at The Palace. At the end of a number, when the four boys [Johnny Rodgers, Tiger Martina, Cortés Alexander, and Jim] were choreographed to fall on the floor, exhausted from all of our dancing, she ends up in the middle, triumphantly holding her arm up. On opening night, as we fell, there was a tsunami of audience appreciation, like a roar. I knew it was for Liza, but I was on the floor with tears streaming down my face, so thrilled to be there with her for all of it. Thrilling!
- If you could perform any musical or role on Broadway, past or present, which would it be?
Hi. Scarecrow. The Wizard of Oz. Have I not made myself clear? Do I have to spell it out for you? Deb?
- What’s the best advice you could give to an emerging artist?
Honestly, just keep saying “Yes.” When people graduate from theater school, they often think they’ll immediately star on Broadway. It’s rare that it happens. I had all kinds of jobs – selling clothes, being a publicist, being a clown, selling rubber stamps. They all taught me how to create this weird career that I have. It’s all come to mean so much to me – it’s a combination of everything I ever did (except selling rubber stamps!). Just because it’s not what you think you should be doing, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
- What does fame mean to you?
Fame doesn’t equal success. I don’t feel like I’m famous – Rob Lowe is famous. But I know what success means to me: Doing what I love to do with the people I love to do it with. Although, cash would be nice!
Thanks, Jim, for taking the time out of your full calendar to share a fabulous 15 minutes with us! Best wishes for the coming year, and sincere thanks for all of the time and effort you put in to save Birdland!