Quiet Please, There’s A Lady on Stage

Karen Mason

There’s a line from the musical “Gypsy” when Mama Rose accuses her daughter Gypsy of trying to be an intellectual by telling her “You read book reviews like they were books.”

Like Gypsy, I used to read concert reviews like they were concerts. Though I loved music, I didn’t have the dough to hang out in cabarets and piano bars. Instead, I lived vicariously through Howard Reich, the Chicago Tribune’s long time music critic whose column over the years introduced me to a multitude of musicians and helped nurture my unquenchable taste for Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, and thru him I also found out about a lot of new singers I might never have heard of, like a fresh faced newcomer named Madeleine Peyroux, whose debut CD “Dreamland” I rushed out to buy after reading Reich’s glowing review of her back in 1996.

Another artist Reich adored was a singer named Karen Mason, who got her early start singing in Chicago’s cabaret scene (according to her Wikipedia page, she was once a singing hostess at a place called Lawrence of Oregano!) before graduating to better things. If you’re unfamiliar with this 12 time MAC Award winning vocalist, it’s time to get you up to speed. In addition to being a famed cabaret artist, Ms. Mason’s credits also include starring in several Broadway shows, such as playing Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”;  she also originated the role of Tanya in “Mama Mia”, and she played Velma Von Tussle in “Hairspray”. Additionally, Karen has appeared on TV in “Law and Order: SVU” and she was in the film version of “A Chorus Line”.

Though I became familiar with her name from reading reviews of her shows at the Park West or at Davenport’s, I never got to see her perform live until she was booked as the entertainment at an AIDS Benefit.

At the time I was hitched to a pharmacist and we attended so many of these events, as his employer Walgreens was a major sponsor and would buy up multiple tables and distribute the tickets to their pharmacists and executives. Over the years of attending these benefits, we got to see a lot of great acts, like the B-52s, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and Koko Taylor among others.

No offense to the pharmacy profession, but pharmacists make for lousy audiences. I remember that one of these events was hosted by Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider, who was very pleasant and graciously introduced himself to my group of already over-served seat mates, who kept embarrassingly insisting he do the “making copies” guy from SNL, which he declined.

With the B-52s, these overpaid drunks got a band they knew, so they behaved, but Koko Taylor got no such respect. Neither did Karen Mason.

I was so excited when I found out Mason was performing at one these benefits because I’d read so much about her amazing vocal talent, but had never heard her in person.

Well, the pharmacists weren’t fellow readers of Howard Reich, so they had never heard of Karen. Instead of shutting their free wine holes or leaving the room when Karen Mason took the stage, these philistine boozed up bozos proceeded to talk over the music. Now, when they did this to Koko Taylor the year before, the event organizers went around chastising the loud mouths, but no one was coming to Karen’s rescue.

Except me.

I shushed more than a few of those professional pill pushers that night. Despite the rude crowd, I still managed to enjoy the vocal prowess of this amazing talent.

When she concluded her set, I felt an impulse to apologize. I spotted her heading to the escalators and followed after her. There she was, a glittering gowned diva all alone riding a hotel escalator. So I sprinted up to her, “I’m so sorry that people were so loud, I really enjoyed your singing,” I told her.

Then I explained that these weren’t music lovers, but just a bunch of drunks who got free tickets and didn’t appreciate great music.

Anyway, Karen Mason is in town at Davenport’s this week and I’m so excited to be going. And if a mother fucker opens their mouth while she’s singing, I’m going to throat punch them.

Here’s some samples of the great Karen Mason, whose new album “Its About Time” is now available. Check her out and witness the perfect example of a great singer who is also a gifted actress.

Karen Mason in Sunset Boulevard

Karen singing “This Nearly Was Mine”

Karen celebrating equal  marriage, “It’s About Time”

Goodbye Eileen Brennan

Eileen Brennan and Karen 001
by John Smith

Eileen Brennan, the Oscar nominated actress/comedian, always makes me think about my Aunt Karen, a former dancer on the old Mitch Miller TV series who got her start in theater touring with Eileen Brennan in summer stock.

While Eileen Brennan went on to win Emmys and an Oscar nomination for “Private Benjamin”, Karen retired from the business to marry legendary jazz drummer Frank Garisto, who was then the drummer on the “The Tonight Show” – as well as the bongo player heard on the original Star Trek TV series theme song!

Having a successful dancing career was nice, but Karen got more pleasure raising babies on Long Island, living in a fancy home next door to Bill LaVorgna, Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall drummer and Liza Minnelli’s long time conductor.

Karen wasn’t really my aunt – but she was my very own Auntie Mame growing up in rural, redneck, homophobic Ohio. We called her our Aunt, although I wanted her to be my Mom! Her years-ago stint on a famous TV show gave her an unbelievable glamour factor to me as a child. She was also a great beauty.

When I met Karen, she had divorced her drummer husband and moved back to her parents home in Akron, Ohio with two boys in tow.  She found a job and became a co-worker of my also divorced Mom in the Photocopy Department of the United Rubber Workers Union. The two divorceés quickly  became close friends. And I instantly developed a crush on Karen from the moment I met her as an impressionable 5th grader.

Karen once took me to audition for a part in “The King and I” at our local equity theater company called the Carousel Dinner Theater. For kicks, Karen decided to audition too. She knew she couldn’t accept a part due to her work schedule. (The concept of flex schedules hadn’t caught up to the Rubber Workers that would have allowed Karen time off for Wednesday matinees.)

It was magnificent seeing her glide across the stage like the pro she was – still. I couldn’t believe it. She owned that stage and the producers were visibly impressed. Later, it was hard not to be jealous when Karen got offered a part and not me!

You would think after years of living a storied life among New York’s show biz elite, the transition to the photocopy room at the United Rubber Workers would be a bummer, but she never let on around me. She was the most upbeat person I’ve ever met.

I loved hearing Karen’s show biz stories. She had worked with a lot of famous people . She was also good buddies with Liza Minnelli’s conductor, Bill LaVorgna, and that got me backstage for a one-on-one meeting with Miss. Minnelli.

Actually, I got her reunited with her old pal. I was 20 and had just moved to Chicago when I read that Liza Minnelli was playing the Chicago Theater. When I told Karen I bought tickets for Liza, she suggested I send a note bakstage to Bill dropping her name. Which I eagerly did.

At intermission, I checked with the stage doorman, who informed me Mr. LaVorgna had not responded yet, and suggested I come back after the show. When I returned, there was a huge crowd gathering at the stage door waiting for Liza to exit. I made my way thru the throng of people back to the doorman, who sadly informed me there was still no response.

Dejected and feeling sad for Karen as well, I made my way back thru the crowd to go home, when suddenly two security guys came running after me calling my name! They escorted me back thru the crowd and thru the stage door to meet Bill LaVorgna, who was thrilled to hear from his old friend he hadn’t spoken to in 10 years. I was then taken upstairs to the green room to meet the legendary Liza Minnelli! She couldn’t have been nicer, though I was a nervous wreck.

Afterward, I made my way back out the stage door where a large crowd was waiting for Liza. When the door opened, I heard a “There she is!” Followed by a collective groan of disappointment when they saw it was only me.

Karen would talk wistfully about her early days when she performed with Eileen Brennan as a dancer in a touring theater company. It sounded like the most fun a person could have.  I also remember Karen being really upset when her old buddy, at the height of her “Private Benjamin” success, was hit by a car and critically injured while crossing a busy Los Angeles street. We both sent get-well wishes to her and Eileen responded back to me with a sweet thank-you note quoting the “Irish Blessing” with a message “love to Karen”.

It sucks that awesome people have to leave us – Karen died a few years back from cancer. I was so angry at the universe for taking her. The world needed more people like her, not fewer.  But I’d like to think that Karen – and now Eileen – are dancing again in the heavenly equivalent of  summer stock.

Eileen Brennan and Karen on-stage crop

 Eileen Brennan (left) and my very own Auntie Mame, Karen Conner (right)

ImageEileen Brennan 2nd from right and Karen on the right

ImageKaren was also a gorgeous model!ImageKaren Conner (her inscription: “An Aardvark in the making!” was an inside joke)

Eileen Brennan autograph