By Don Heckman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
February 8, 2011
Mary Cleere Haran, a singer, actress and writer whose performances and recordings brought new perspectives to classic American popular songs, died Saturday in Deerfield Beach, Fla. She was 58.
The Broward County coroner's office confirmed that she died of injuries suffered two days earlier when she was struck by a car while riding a bicycle.
From the time she made her debut in New York's cabaret scene at the Ballroom in 1988, Haran quickly established herself as one of the sophisticated musical genre's most uniquely appealing stars.
"Haran," wrote Charles Isherwood in Variety, "epitomizes an idea of glamour that's the quintessence of New York, or at least the imaginary one of yore: elegant, urbane, a little naughty."
Add to that the fact that she sang with a gently swinging rhythmic quality that reminded many observers and critics of Ella Fitzgerald. Not a jazz singer as such, Haran had an affection for the period in American music history in which jazz and pop music were in close synchronization and brought a sense of interpretation and phrasing to her work that allowed her to cross easily and convincingly between the two genres.
Haran's deep dedication to the writers and composers of the Great American Songbook resulted in one theme-oriented performance after another, some in easygoing cabaret settings, some on theatrical stages. A brief sampling of some of the shows she assembled over the years included a musical/literary show celebrating the 100th birthday of writer Dorothy Parker; "A Fine Romance" exploring the music of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields; "The Memory of All That" — one of her numerous overviews of the Gershwin catalog of songs; shows dedicated to Doris Day and Johnny Mercer; another 100th anniversary show dedicated to the lyrics of Lorenz Hart.
In a Valentine's Day performance of songs featuring Hart's lyrics at Hollywood's Cinegrill in 1996, she told the audience, in her typically whimsical fashion, "A lot of people have heard songs like 'Blue Moon,' 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered' and 'My Funny Valentine.' But many of them don't know that the words were all written by Larry Hart. Which is why, boys and girls, we have cabaret."
Mary Cleere Haran was born May 13, 1952, in San Francisco, the second of eight children. Her father taught theater and film at San Francisco City College. Encouraged by her Irish mother, she learned how to step dance.
"But I wanted to be able to work with the upper half of my body as well," she told the Sacramento Bee in 2008, "so I left dancing and took up the violin. I couldn't master it, so I started to sing the notes and discovered I had a good voice."
Although she was a teenager during the Haight-Ashbury-influenced 1960s, Haran's transitory attraction to the hippie world had far more to do with lifestyle than with rock music. The sounds she heard from her parents' collection of classic pop recordings, she once said, were the real roots of her eventual creative interests.
Her own performance style evolved primarily from her affection for the screen goddesses of the '30s and '40s.
"In general, my heroines, my idols, were all the screwball comedy actresses like Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert and Jean Arthur," she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2006. "They were smart. They were funny. They were warm. They liked men. They wore great clothes."
Musically, she was drawn to the singing of such vocal stars as Day, Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney. When, at 19, she saw a Peggy Lee rehearsal, a career as a performer became her goal.
After moving to New York in the late '70s, Haran made her Broadway debut in 1979 in "The 1940s Radio Hour." Off-Broadway roles in "Manhattan Music," "Swingtime Canteen" and "Heebie Jeebies" followed, as well as a recurring part in the A&E television series "100 Centre Street."
Her first recording, "There's a Small Hotel," recorded live at New York's Algonquin Hotel, was released in 1992. It was followed by "This Heart of Mine: Classic Movie Songs of the Forties" in 1994, "This Funny World: Mary Cleere Haran Sings Lyrics by Hart" in 1995, "Pennies From Heaven: Movie Songs From the Depression Era" in 1998, "The Memory of All That: Gershwin on Broadway and in Hollywood" in 1999 and "Crazy Rhythm" in 2002.
Haran also worked on several PBS documentaries, interviewing Day for "Doris Day: Sentimental Journey"; and writing and co-producing "Remembering Bing," Michael Feinstein's "The Great American Songbook," "Irving Berlin's America," "When We Were Young: The Lives of Child Movie Stars" and the Louis Armstrong documentary "Satchmo."
Haran is survived by her son, Jacob, from her marriage to writer-director Joe Gilford, as well as six siblings — Terence, Brigid, Ned and Tim Haran, Bronwyn Harris and Eithne Bullick — and her stepmother, Loyce Haran.
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