Since 2002, entertainer Jim Caruso has hosted talented performers of all stripes every Monday night at Birdland Jazz Club in a celebration called “Cast Party.” Each week, the club spotlights both emerging and established performers, all taking a turn on the stage for an impromptu song with renowned pianist Billy Stritch.
“Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” is a wildly popular weekly Open Mic Night/Variety Show that has brought Broadway pizazz and urbane sensibility to the legendary Birdland in New York City every Monday night, making it a Big Apple tradition. It’s where show business luminaries take to the stage alongside hopeful neophytes to serve up show-stopping music and entertain each other and supportive audiences. It’s the premiere spot to mingle with show biz folks and the people who are drawn to them.
Now, audiences in central Indiana can experience “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” with Billy Stritch on the piano, when the pair make their debut at Feinstein’s at Hotel Carmichael Friday, May 19, and Saturday, May 20, with shows beginning at 7:30 p.m.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat about “Cast Party” with the pair by Zoom from Stritch’s Manhattan home. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Jim, I interviewed you in April of 2020 when you announced your virtual “Cast Party” show online.
JC: That was a wonderful project, and I loved every second of it. Billy and I both did virtual shows during the pandemic, and it really helped us get through a terrible time.
It did more than that. It gave you and your show a worldwide audience.
JC: (laughs) You could look at it that way. I was getting emails and texts and tweets and Instagram messages from all over the planet. You are right; it was an exciting and bizarre time. When you put something out on the internet, obviously, it has a farther reach than doing it every week at Birdland. That’s for damn sure.
How long did the streaming show last?
JC: Mine went for 82 weeks.
BS: And I did 65 weeks with my web streaming series, “Billy’s Place.”
I interviewed Linda Lavin, who did your show.
BS: Yes, Linda and I did 13 together.
Looking back what is your impression of your time spent in lockdown?
BS: Every time I think back to a year that something happened, it’s really screwed me up because there are two years. “Was that 2019 or 2020?” Who remembers? It’s made identifying time very confusing and weird. That said, I remember specific parts of the pandemic like snapshots. I remember the first time I did a live steam. Linda was upstairs on a phone with no microphone. Really primitive and then in a few weeks, Jim did the same thing. We got web cams, microphones…
Jim, you had a sharp young producer. What was her name?
JC: Ruby Locknar. She is currently working constantly as a producer and a performer. She’s just great. I never could have done all of that. I certainly had a fun time setting up the lights and getting new microphones, but beyond that, I would not have known how to get it out into the world without Ruby’s help.
The streaming show did increase exposure for and heighten your “Cast Party” brand did it not?
JC: Billy and I had friends who hid under the covers during the pandemic. I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t hide under the covers. I had to do something. I had to get back to work. It kept me sane. I ended up doing what I do every day in real time. I was booking. I was producing. I was writing press releases. It gave me a project that I absolutely loved, and I didn’t have to hide under the covers.
Having a tip jar helped you financially as well, did it not?
BS: What was great for me, since I was doing a musical show, I was able to take requests for material ahead of time. It was totally new content every week, and people sent gratuities just as they might in real life, through PayPal and Venmo. Some weeks would be very good. It was the only way to generate some income, and thank God, we figured it out. If a pandemic was going to happen, thank God we had the internet and a way to communicate, so everybody did not feel isolated. On a personal level, it was a big help for Jim and me and thousands of other people. I was able to pay the mortgage and eat. We are both very grateful for that.
JC: I am so impressed with performing artists who really showed a lot of strength. Some taught online and some did things completely differently. My friend Robbie Fairchild is a ballet star and leading man and decided to become a florist during that time. Now, he is one of the most successful florists in town. He did some dancing on his roof and then decided that his love of flowers would help him through the pandemic, so he started selling. Now, he is wildly successful at both of those things. So I have to say that the show business community impressed me, and it was very invigorating. It kept me going, and it was a thrill to watch.
Shifting to the post-pandemic, what was it like returning to Birdland?
BS: Terrific and exciting. It was the July 4th weekend of 2021. It was fabulous. We weren’t sure what it was going to be like and whether people were going to be scared to go or all masked up. There was certainly not a lot of social distancing that night. It was like a love fest, and everybody was so happy to be in the room and welcome the live experience back. So that was exciting. Those first two weeks were great.
Were there any big names there that first night?
JC: Chita Rivera was there that first night. I got a marching band. I got Benny Benack, III. He’s a great trumpeter. We had a parade and gave red, blue, and white balloons to everybody in the audience. I knew it had to be special. I knew it had to be memorable and unique. It was packed. People were crying. To be in a room with people again was very touching.
When did you start taking “Cast Party” on the road again? Have you been doing this for a while?
JC: We have played L.A. several times, Orlando, Vegas a few times, Palm Springs. We have been out on the road.
Is this your first time at Feinstein’s in Carmel, Jim?
JC: Yes, it will be my first time in that room. I played the Palladium once. I was also a Songbook Academy mentor for a few years, too.
Tell me about the “Cast Party” on the road format.
JC: It’s kind of similar, but I do some due diligence beforehand and talk to everybody in a town possible and ask who the great musical theatre singers and jazz singers are. Is there a funny, old lady tap dancer or ventriloquist, and I either email them or the club puts me in contact with them. A variety of different ways. And so we go, Billy and I on the plane. I basically have a handful of ringers, of people we know are showing up, and hopefully when we get there, the word has spread and people show up, and people sign up just like they do in New York.
How does the road show impact performers?
BS: In L.A., there is really no show out there, regularly, that is like anything we do, so I know for a fact, and I am told by a lot of people who come to see us, that they look forward to it every time because they have time to prepare for it, and we give them an outlet that they wouldn’t normally have. I think that is true in other cities as well. In Vegas, we get a lot of performers where there are a lot of professionals, but they don’t get to see each other and socialize, so they are there together that night. It gives people a great sense of community – all these people who love to sing seeing each other. They wouldn’t otherwise have that outlet. We do it every week in New York, and people know it is going to happen every Monday, but they know it is only going to happen twice a year in L.A.
JC: It has helped performers land jobs because we have always had some fancy producer or director in the audience. I think a lot of people can trace their beginnings to “Cast Party,” which is an incredible thing. Ariana Grande used to come when she was 13-years-old. Now, she is one of the biggest stars in the world. I am not saying that we helped make those people by any stretch, but we gave so many talented people an outlet to do what they do. She was singing Aretha Franklin songs at age 13.
Do you discover talent?
JC: If you want to put that in print, that sounds fine, but I don’t look at it that way. We are one event in a million for these people that has helped them on their way, I hope. To have a supportive audience is huge. There has never been any booing. There has never been any snarky commenting from the host, which is something I am very proud of. It has always been a supportive, positive night for a performer. What goes on at people’s tables, now, is another thing.
BS: We had a person at “Cast Party” recently, a very young girl who wanted to sing a song I did not know. So we finally settled on a song we could do, and she told me the key, and we finally found it. She got her footing and at the end of it when she finally got strong, the audience spontaneously cheered because they were smart enough to see that she was trying her best. It almost made it more exciting to hear the audience be so supportive of someone young who may not be Broadway quality. You can really get nervous up there if you have never done that before, so people are really sensitive to that, and there is never any booing or a negative response from the audience.
If bad behavior were to happen, I have a feeling that the two of you would put a stop to it.
JC: That would never happen at Birdland, I can assure you. I love the kind of performer that Billy was referring to. I loved watching her gain confidence. Will she be Patti LuPone? Probably not, but to have raw talent, she was prepared enough, she knew her song, she was working with great musicians – that is key. To have Billy at the piano and to have the brilliant bass and drums we have at Birdland? To have an eager audience and to have the power of a great song? It’s thrilling to watch that, and I think when she walked out of there, she felt good about herself.
Do you think the experience has even been life changing for some performers?
BS: Yes. I think so.
JC: I like to think so. It certainly has been for me and Billy.
I would think it would have to be huge for some who come to New York to sing on that particular stage and maybe fulfill their dream.
JC: There is also a social aspect to what we do – the getting ready, the eating and drinking, the performing itself, the schmooze after. We see relationships forged by these performers. There is a group formed now that sits by the bar every Monday. They are all in their mid-20s. They text each other all week. It is a real emotional outlet for this group. It’s weird to me because we are just doing our job. It goes on all week. This is all going on without our knowledge, and that is so sweet to me and really thrilling,
Where does the generosity you exhibit derive, when it comes to supporting performers the way you do?
BS: When I was young and starting out, I had some good luck, I had some fortune and talent. There were a lot of positive things that I had going for me that I had no control over, so I feel that part of my job on Monday is or any night when I am at the piano when we do “Cast Party” is to be as supportive as I can to that person that gets up, and to give them the best possible background support because I know what it means to them.
For tickets and information about “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party with Billy Stritch on Piano” visit feinsteinshc@com.