Carol O?Shaughnessy
Carol O?Shaughnessy
"If I had my own club, it would be called The Living Room, because I want people to feel relaxed and entertained," notes cabaret performer Carol O'Shaughnessy. Known as "Boston's First Lady of Cabaret", O'Shaughnessy recently celebrated her 30th anniversary in the entertainment industry with a concert at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston, recorded live with musical director Tommy La Mark and a 16-piece orchestra.

Known for her brassy style, and big Broadway belt, O'Shaughnessy's three-decade career began informally as a child. She and her family would gather around the piano after Sunday dinners while her grandfather played and sang all the standards of the day. "I had a childhood so good that I was embarrassed by it," she muses. "I had a very functional and supportive family." Up until a point.

While O'Shaughnessy used to delight her neighborhood with backyard shows that were something right out of a Hardy Boys film, her mother had a more practical career in mind for her daughter. In spite of O'Shaughnessy's success as a performer in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at Arlington High School, her mother persuaded the Arlington High School thespian to drop acting for a career as a medical secretary. Soon after, O'Shaughnessy got married and started a family. It would be eight years before she would perform again professionally.

Marital conflicts and the urge to perform sent O'Shaughnessy searching for her high school drama teacher, Ludvio Einsick, who had founded the Winchester Staff and Key Society, devoted to performing Gilbert and Sullivan. "I was five-months pregnant with my third child, and still I went to audition for him -- and I got the job. At seven months pregnant I was performing in the chorus of H.M.S. Pinafore." But it was in The Yeoman of the Guard in 1968 that she got her first real break: Egged on by a colleague to audition for a principal role, O'Shaughnessy nailed the part of Dame Caruthers. She recalls, "This encouraged me to take voice lessons, which then opened up a huge field of music for me."

Armed with a growing repertoire, O'Shaughnessy played wherever she could, from weddings and bar mitzvahs to coffeehouses and senior living centers. "My mantra was 'work everywhere, work everywhere, work everywhere,'" she quips. On a date in the early '70s, O'Shaughnessy disclosed her career ambition to be a singing waitress. And it was in 1978 that she landed her dream job at Romie's in Danvers. After failing to land a job there a few years earlier, a determined O'Shaughnessy put everything she had into the second audition, producing a belt that she never knew she had. Romie's turned out to be everything she was looking for in a job. "We worked our tails off, three shows a night, five days a week, but it was the best place to learn your patter, and how to improvise on the spot."

During her time at Romie's her gay male colleagues couldn't help noticing O'Shaughnessy's vocal resemblance to another famous belter with heart: Judy Garland. They turned her on to Garland's Live at Carnegie Hall recording, and that clinched it for her. "My mother told me that Garland was the best singer because she [understands] the lyrics," O'Shaughnessy remembers. Her biggest supporter at Romie's was her colleague and friend Richard Collins, who finally persuaded O'Shaughnessy to get up and sing a song during his own cabaret act at a gay club in Worcester called The Male Box. Knocking out a Garlandesque "Rock-a-bye My Baby," O'Shaughnessy was offered a string of gigs right then and there.


"My repertoire was nowhere where it needed to be for that kind of work, but I took it anyway. My first night, I had to do three shows. At the third show, I asked if anyone had been to the first two shows, and there was a show of hands. I said, 'Well I hope you liked what you heard, because your gonna hear it again. But please come back next week, because I will have all new material for you.'"

It was during her time at The Male Box that O'Shaughnessy met her first long-time musical director, Don Hill. In addition to exploring Garland's material in greater depth, Hill and O'Shaughnessy added material of that other great cabaret icon, Bette Midler (who also got her start performing in gay clubs in the early '70s). Soon after, other cabaret gigs were offered. True to O'Shaughnessy's mantra, she performed everywhere, and finally landed several summer seasons in Provincetown during the early to mid '80s. O'Shaughnessy recalls, "Those were great times, with Sharon McKnight, Lea DeLaria, and Sandra Bernhard all doing summer seasons."

It was during these shows in P-town that O'Shaughnessy got to perfect one of her signature characters, Mama Scugliaci. Donning a babushka and apron, she borrows a pair of black dress shoes from any middle-aged man in the front row, puts them on, slouches a little, and voila: Mama. O'Shaughnessy points out, "Mama was born at Romie's on St. Patrick's Day in 1978. I had been thinking about combining my father's Italian chutzpah with my mother's Irish musical influence, and out came this Irish tura lura version of "That's Amore". The crowd just ate it up."

O'Shaughnessy polished her act at Romies, The Male Box, and The Crown and Anchor, and has performed in nearly every venue in Boston, including Theater Lobby, the Regattabar, Scullers Jazz Club, and the Plaza Room at the Copley Plaza Hotel. She's also performed at New York's cabaret clubs Don't Tell Mama and Eighty-Eights, and the prestigious Annual Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention at Town Hall. With all those glamorous venues, she confesses that her favorite gigs have been at senior centers, and at out-of-town places, such as Buffalo and Phoenix. "They really appreciate you in those places," she remarks.

On the flip side, her nightmare shows are often for the most elite audiences. "There was some la-te-da event at the Grand Puba Room at the Ritz Carlton for some rich crowd from the Colostomy Association. They didn't give two [hoots] who I was. They just kept on talking." Another time, she recollects, "You know you're in trouble when you sing a parody of 'Memory' from Cats and the audience applauds because they think it's the real thing. You just want to leave." She adds, "But you know who are the best audiences? Gay men and straight women. They just get it."

With the lure of gay audiences, and the benefit of a season on the beach, O'Shaughnessy is once again drawn to Provincetown. This summer she plans to reunite with her former musical director, Don Hill, for a nostalgic look at their sordid Provincetown past in a show called Stuff in a Box. O'Shaughnessy reveals, "I have this box in the basement filled with memorabilia collected during ten seasons in P-town. A pair of mirrored glasses, some shreds of fabric torn from my dress by some self-appointed fashion police, and several items of questionable taste all add up to drag queens, murder, and mayhem... that will somehow be retold in a classy way."

Carol O'Shaughnessy will be hosting the grand opening event of CabaretFest!, at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown on May 5. For information, check out the CabaretFest website at www.geocities.com/cabaretfest.

John Amodeo has written cabaret articles for Cabaret Scenes, Bay Windows, and BACA, the bi-monthly newsletter of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists. He produced Brian DeLorenzo's debut cabaret recording, as well as a cabaret AIDS benefit featuring Steve Schalchlin, and is currently vice president of BACA. He is also professional landscape architect for a large firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.