SOCIAL CLIMES : Parlor Parlance

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I dreamed I was Barbara Bush last night," croons Karen Benjamin in the deep, melodious voice that carried her through four years in "Phantom of the Opera." "Suddenly, George got that look in his eye. . . ."

Later, Benjamin and her husband--pianist-composer Alan Chapman--pause during their cabaret act to hold up a huge color photocopy of their newborn son. "We have more," Benjamin says, waving a fat envelope, "if anyone wants to see after the show."

On a recent Friday evening, Chapman and Benjamin are redefining the notion of an "intimate" performance for an audience of 50 or so total strangers who have paid $18 each to sit in folding chairs in a Santa Monica living room for an evening of cabaret songs and coffee.

The event is sponsored by Parlor Performances, a semiweekly series that has been bringing performers and the public together in private homes throughout L.A. since 1990.

The series is the creation of Jeannine Frank, a lyricist, photographer and former schoolteacher who has found her true calling as Los Angeles' premiere itinerant hostess.

"I make a pitch at each show for living rooms," she says. "I use homes of all types. It's usually people who've come and liked the show who then want to donate their own places."

This evening's soiree takes place in the home of stockbroker Glen Strauss, who built his cathedral-like living room specifically with concerts in mind and frequently acts as host for Frank.

"I play bassoon with a chamber orchestra and piano myself, and I really enjoy being able to provide a forum for performers like Karen and Alan," he says. "This stuff is so much fun; you get to hear a lot of groups you might not otherwise hear."

As casual as the ambience may be, it's hard work for Frank. "People assume there's an office somewhere, and sometimes they call at 2 and 3 in the morning. When I pick up, they're very embarrassed," she says with a laugh.

"I still have to do paralegal work from time to time, but I've put on about 300 shows by now. What I strive for is quirky, humorous, edgy material. The more mainstream ballads and stuff people can see anywhere."

Like the entertainment, the audience is mildly eclectic, made up of film industry types, academics, professional and amateur musicians, as well as a smattering of adventurous retirees. In short, not your regular night owls, but people who are more likely to be home watching Martha Graham on PBS than haunting LunaPark or the Improv.

"I like the idea of the small, intimate venue," says Sheila Wyse, who read about the series in a singles column three years ago and finally decided to take a break from her quake-damaged home in Sherman Oaks. "There's action and reaction between the audience and performers."

While Parlor Performances gets audience members out of the house, it also helps move many of the entertainers onto larger stages. Many of Frank's acts have gone on to play major venues and win awards. Notable alumni include jazz musician and comedian Dave Frishberg and the political-satire folk group the Foremen. Chapman and Benjamin have released a CD, "Songs of Life, Love and Antelopes," and their show is up for three Manhattan Cabaret Assn. awards.

"Some of the more well-known performers use the parlor shows as a way to develop new material with an audience," Frank says. That goes doubly for Chapman and Benjamin, who are surrounded after the show by audience members who pass around snapshots of their latest composition, Baby Boy Chapman.

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Where: Location varies.

When: Three to four Fridays and/or Saturdays every month. Call (310) 471-3979 for information. To receive the next calendar, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Parlor Performances, P.O. Box 49283, Los Angeles, Calif. 90049.

Cost: $15-$25, includes dessert and coffee after the performance.

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