At ‘Cast Party,’ the mike is open and the party is on

Jim Caruso, the host for seven years, keeps things loose. His ultimate goal is to make "Cast Party" a reality TV show.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

By the time Liza Minnelli took the stage at Birdland, just after midnight, the party was in full swing: Michael Feinstein hugged the Broadway legend and a bubbly, upbeat crowd sang happy birthday to her.

Parker Posey performed a wild, gyrating dance to “Fever,” as TV and movie stars Judith Light ( “Ugly Betty”) and Corbin Bleu (“High School Musical”) cheered from their tables. Miranda, the Internet singing sensation, closed out the three-hour bash with an atonal rendition of “Orange Colored Sky.”

“Good night, folks, it’s just another night at ‘Cast Party,’ ” said host Jim Caruso with a deadpan smile. “We’ll do it all again next Monday.”

For the last seven years, Caruso -- a genial, wisecracking emcee -- has hosted “Cast Party,” one of New York’s most distinctive open-mike nights. His weekly show at the historic club presents a sparkling A-list of Broadway, jazz and cabaret talent, plus rising stars and a parade of wannabes whose cringe-worthy acts rival anything on “American Idol.”


It’s a showbiz mecca, a place where the golden era of musical theater lives on. Once there were dozens of bars and after-hour parties in New York where singers schmoozed with friends, had a drink and swapped songs around a piano. The tradition continues at Birdland, where nobody cares if you miss a note or forget a lyric. This is a party, not an audition, and all are welcome:

So what good is sitting alone in your room? Caruso’s soiree has become a magnet for tourists and others lured by the unpredictability of the lineup and the $20 admission, a true New York bargain.

“Jim had a great idea, and he created something special here, he made it his own,” said Minnelli, who belted out two songs at her party this month with piano player Billy Stritch. “This is another great night at Birdland.”

Now, Caruso is bringing the party to Los Angeles. On April 1, he and Stritch will host the West Coast debut of “Cast Party” at the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Although the lineup is still being put together, sponsors hope to make the Southern California shows a monthly affair.

“There’s obviously a tremendous amount of talent in Los Angeles, and we’re trying to duplicate what we’ve been able to do in New York,” said Caruso, 52, whose ultimate goal is to turn “Cast Party” into a reality TV show. “It makes sense to bring it to the West Coast, because we’re going to be providing a showcase which is hard to find out there.”

For artists like Miranda, whose real name is Colleen Ballinger, Caruso’s quest is a godsend. A serious, aspiring singer, she created an Internet persona -- an obnoxious, tone-deaf teenager who gives voice lessons -- and became an overnight star on YouTube. When Caruso sought her out, the Azusa Pacific University graduate flew to New York and gave her first live performance as Miranda at Birdland.

“Los Angeles has a musical theater community, and I know they crave something like ‘Cast Party,’ ” said the 22-year-old Ballinger, who recently moved to New York. “There are so many artists in L.A. who would love a place to showcase their talent, to sing for each other.”

Partying with Liza

On a typical “Cast Party” night, Caruso is a blur of motion: He greets guests, signs up strangers who want to sing, dishes with celebrities, sings an opening number and entertains the crowd with often racy banter as the emcee. Each show is different, and a starry-eyed kid who just got off the bus from Oklahoma could be sharing the stage with Chita Rivera.

“Tonight you’re going to see some of the most talented people in the world,” Caruso says before each show. “Also other people.”

It all began in 1995 when he was getting out of TV work and moving back into singing. Caruso and Stritch, a close friend, had met Minnelli earlier during gigs at New York jazz clubs. She became a friend and mentor (both performed in her most recent show, “Liza’s at the Palace”), and when Minnelli invited him to spend a weekend at her home in the Hollywood Hills, Caruso jumped at the chance. Not just because of their friendship but because he knew that Liza threw sensational parties.

He wasn’t disappointed; his weekend stay turned into a month and a half.

“People came over on Saturday night and sat around the piano singing songs,” Caruso recalled. “There would be Kentucky Fried Chicken in big sterling silver bowls. You’d look over and you’d see Madonna talking to Esther Williams, and Quentin Tarantino talking to George Hamilton, and Sean Penn talking to everybody. You had Cy Coleman and Billy Stritch at the piano. My jaw was hanging out.”

Minnelli was continuing a showbiz tradition that reached its zenith during the 1940s and ‘50s: " Rosemary Clooney, Ira Gershwin, Burton Lane and many others used to talk about parties where Judy Garland would sing, Harold Arlen would play, Bogie would recite something, Eddie Cantor would do a routine, and Phil Silvers would improvise a comedy sketch,” said Feinstein. " Frank Sinatra would break everybody’s hearts with a torch song. Those gatherings were important in the togetherness and inspiration they gave to everyone who was present.”

The memory of these nights planted a seed, and Caruso gives Minnelli full credit for the idea that took root at Birdland. But the execution was his: He had a Rolodex with thousands of names, so why not put on an old-fashioned cast party?

Caruso launched his shindig at a series of clubs, steadily attracting a growing clientele. His big break came in 2003 when Hilary Kole, a rising young jazz singer, urged him to call the owner of Birdland -- whom she was dating -- to see if the event could be staged there on Monday night. Gianni Valenti agreed, and the party got a permanent home.

“You never know who’s going to drop in, and the idea is to take chances, because the audience is not full of critics,” said Kole, who sang “I’ve Got the World on a String” for Tony Bennett when he came by a few months ago. On another night, Martin Short showed up with Paul Shaffer and sang a new song: “Summer Makes Me Want to Cheat on My Wife.”

Keeping it informal

Sometimes terrible is wonderful. Recently, Caruso was flummoxed by a young singer who mumbled garbled, monosyllabic answers to questions like “What are you going to be performing tonight?” When the urbane host could stand it no longer, he turned to the audience and said dryly: “I’ve lost my will to live.”

The party is kept humming by regulars, including folk singer and satirist Christine Lavin; Jenna Esposito, who sings Connie Francis tunes; cabaret legend Marilyn Maye and Klea Blackhurst, who is appearing in a one-woman show about Ethel Merman.

It’s all informal. The goal is to lift spirits (Caruso frowns on downbeat ballads -- no Edith Piaf, please) and to keep things moving. But sometimes lightning strikes when you least expect it. Several years ago William Blake, a shy young Texan with a powerful high tenor, began electrifying crowds at Birdland.

He was working as floor manager this month when Feinstein -- a longtime “Cast Party” booster and mentor of young talent -- called Caruso and said he’d like Blake to perform with him in an upcoming concert. Within two weeks, Blake’s name was on a poster at Carnegie Hall.

“I was shivering in my boots, I was beside myself when I got the news,” the singer said. “My life has been changed.”

Caruso hopes the same magic takes place next month when “Cast Party” hits Los Angeles. The early signs are good, said Matt Patton, events manager at the Magic Castle, who recently launched a series of cabaret nights at the 101-year-old mansion.

“The cabaret and theater worlds in Los Angeles are somewhat disconnected, and the news about ‘Cast Party’ is already bringing people together who normally would not be together,” he said. “There are people who have never been to my cabaret or me to theirs, but we’ll all be there for ‘Cast Party.’ We’re looking forward to a great night.”