One of the many pitfalls of frequent cabaret-going is having to listen to the life stories--disguised as "patter"--of people whose experiences are even less interesting than yours and mine. Not so Jim Caruso's.
In his wonderfully entertaining show Jim Caruso: Live and In Person at Arci's Place, TheaterMania columnist Caruso wittily recounts his journey from adolescence in Texas to man-about-town in New York (and, briefly, Los Angeles). He went from playing fish restaurants with his mother ("We were like the Judds on lithium") to founding the award-winning vocal group Wiseguys to a mini-career as a television producer. At Arci's--accompanied by his pal, the amazing Billy Stritch--he offers superb renditions of "How Deep Is The Ocean" (arranged by the legendary Kay Thompson), "If I Only Had A Brain," a medley of Johnny Mercer classics, and some very funny parody songs, including "Summer in New York" and "The Boy From Fire Island."
A solo career wasn't on Caruso's agenda when he founded Wiseguys in Texas with a few friends. Although the group got recognition, money was always tight ("The Amish made more than we did," he jokes) and, eventually the strain of replacing group members who left for other gigs got to be too much. After the decision to disband in 1994, Caruso was in a quandary. "I was depressed," he recalls over lunch at City Grill. "It was my friend Liza Minnelli who convinced me that this was an opportunity to do something new."
That something new turned out to be television. "I was meeting all these people in TV and they were young, smart and seemingly making money," Caruso relates. "Well, 'seemingly' is the key word. Then, one day, a friend told me he was putting together a talk show with Jim J. Bullock and Tammy Faye Bakker. He hired me as the 'talent liaison' for The Jim J and Tammy Faye Show, which basically meant keeping Tammy Faye out of trouble." Soon, Caruso was promoted to segment producer, a job he relished: "I read everything, saw everyone, trying to get ideas. Our motto was, 'the weirder the better.' I think one of my favorites was a show on real-life relationships between male and female witches. I called it 'Nothin' Says Lovin' Like Someone in a Coven.' "
After the show folded, Caruso moved on to Fox After Breakfast and then Cafe Du Art, a variety series hosted by impressionist Louise DuArt that lasted two seasons on the Nostalgia Network. In his producer capacity, he was able to give national exposure to New York's cabaret community, which made him extremely happy. "I always say that if I can't do something with people I love, it's not worth doing," he states.
When the DuArt show bit the dust, Caruso decided to return to performing. A solo act at Eighty Eight's was well received, but he had bigger plans. "Billy and I used to have all these songs we'd do at parties," he says, "and finally we thought: If they're good enough for Liza and Madonna, we should do them in public." The act that resulted has become a favorite of celebrities including Linda Lavin, Marcia Lewis, Michael Feinstein, Julie Halston, and John McDaniel. Says Caruso, "It's great. You never know who will be there! I especially love it when theater people come, because they really are the best audiences."
What's next for Jim Caruso? Well, a live CD of the show is due out this month. And perhaps, some day, he'll get to host a variety show; his brilliant stints at host of this year's MAC Awards and the Broadway on Broadway concert in Times Square proved that he's more than up to the task.