A Very White Christmas in Atlanta: The Plaza Lets It Snow with Two Bing Crosby/Irving Berlin Christmas Classics

Posted on: Dec 20th, 2013 By:

HOLIDAY INN (1942); Dir. Mark Sandrich; Starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds; Friday, Dec. 20 – Wednesday, Dec 25 (visit the Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954); Dir. Michael Curtiz; Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen; Wednesday, Dec 25 – Tuesday, Dec 31 , in repertory with MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947) (visit the Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

How much Bing is too much Bing? Trick question. There can’t be enough Bing this time of year. So when the Plaza Theatre offers up Der Bingle in HOLIDAY INN and WHITE CHRISTMAS—teamed with stars like Fred Astaire, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye and Marjorie Reynolds and built around numbers by the legendary Irving Berlin—well, it’s a Christmas present for every classic Hollywood musical lover.

In 1940, songwriter Irving Berlin came to Paramount Pictures with an idea he’d first toyed with after writing the song “Easter Parade” in 1932: a film set at an inn open only on holidays, featuring a series of different holiday-themed musical numbers. Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby—both riding high on waves of popularity—were quickly attached to the project, and filming began on November 1941. However, despite its reputation (and that the film begins and ends during the holidays), the film isn’t really a Christmas film at all. It’s the tale of a love triangle between Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby, as the retired stage performer who runs Holiday Inn), Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire, as Jim’s caddish former performing partner on a path set for stardom) and Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds, as the inn’s featured performer and Jim’s love interest, who is tempted by the future of fame and fortune promised by Ted).

Furthermore, while the song “White Christmas” is featured three times (once in the opening credits, twice in the film itself), its appearances are dictated more by the dramatic developments of the plot than to evoke memories of Christmases past or holidays longed for in the future. In fact, the song was unpopular at first (being released in the middle of summer might have had something to do with that) and was overshadowed by another song from HOLIDAY INN. “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” Crosby himself was initially indifferent to the song, simply saying “I don’t think we have any problems with that one” when first hearing it. (Irving Berlin, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic, calling out to his secretary “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written—heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”)

By the end of October, things had changed. The song skyrocketed to the top of the “Your Hit Parade” chart where it sat until the new year dawned. It also nabbed the “Best Song” Oscar in the 1942 Academy Awards. To date, it is the best-selling single of all time. (There’s some dispute over that, however: because standard record charts weren’t in existence when Crosby’s single was released, there’s a lack of hard info on just how many copies were sold. As a result, some have claimed that Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” holds that title at 33 million copies sold. However, Guinness World Records—after extensive examination—concluded that the single had sold 50 million copies as of 2007, thus beating out Elton.)

As a result, the film has become somewhat pigeon-holed as a Christmas staple, even though little of the film takes place during that holiday (the Fourth of July seems to take a much more prominent role, due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunging the country into war during the filming). What the film lacks in explicit Christmas content, though, it more than makes up in the fantastic performances of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Berlin’s music is tailor-made to be sung with the easy-going elegance of the film’s stars, and Astaire is at the top of his game during the film’s dance sequences. Marjorie Reynolds is a standout dancer and utterly convincing as the aspiring performer Linda (though her singing was dubbed by Martha Mears). The film is crisply directed with a sure hand by Mark Sandrich, a veteran of numerous Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, and his camera showcases the musical performances beautifully.

Because the film was such a success, and because people just kept buying that Bing single, Paramount decided to return to the well again 12 years later with the film WHITE CHRISTMAS. It was intended to be the third Crosby/Astaire/Berlin feature (after 1946’s BLUE SKIES), but Astaire passed on the script. Crosby did, too, deciding to spend time at home after the death of his wife. When Bing returned to the project, finding a co-star proved problematic. Donald O’Connor was slated to take Astaire’s role, but suffered an injury prior to filming, so Danny Kaye stepped in at the last minute.

Determined to take full advantage of “White Christmas”’s perennial popularity, Paramount decided that the entire film should take place at the holidays. This time, the plot revolves around two ex-Army men who have made it big in show biz after WWII (Crosby and Kaye). They find themselves tangled up in a romance with two aspiring singer/dancers (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and a deal to perform a new show at a ski resort run by their former commander over Christmas. However, when the winter proves unusually warm and no snow is due on the forecast, the resort’s future is in jeopardy and the team step in to try to save the day.

Keeping in line with the song’s continued success, the film was the top moneymaker of 1954, bringing in almost twice as much as its closest competitor, THE CAINE MUTINY. And why not? It’s hard to go wrong with such an appealing cast and such a great set of Irving Berlin tunes. However, I feel it lacks the dramatic edge of HOLIDAY INN, and while it may be a more traditional Christmas movie, it errs on the side of schmaltz a little too often for my taste. Danny Kaye makes for a particularly saccharine replacement for Astaire, replacing Astaire’s lean elegance for a cloying sweetness.

But on the plus side, Crosby’s as on as he ever was (though he’s a bit long in the tooth by this point to be the love interest of Rosemary Clooney, some 25 years his junior), and Clooney and Vera-Ellen are both incredibly engaging. Director Michael Curtiz brings his trademark flair for inventive camera set-ups and capturing the emotion of a scene to the proceedings and makes the film—Paramount’s first shot in the widescreen VistaVision process—a visual delight. My small criticisms aside, the film is undoubtedly worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great Hollywood musicals, and is a bona fide Christmas classic.

With the holidays as hectic as they are, it’s important to take the time to cool down. And here’s a perfect excuse to do just that. Simply sit back at the Plaza and let the glorious tunes of Irving Berlin and the incomparable pipes of Bing Crosby carry you away to a White Christmas of your own.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Kool Kats of the Week: Joy Kills to the MCW! Having Their Cake and Eating It, Too, While Moshing!

Posted on: Dec 12th, 2013 By:

This weekend, unwrap a Monstrosity Championship Wrestling (MCW) double header at Club Famousstarting with a Silent Night, Deadly Night Friday the 13th Holiday Horror Show Dec. 13 at 9 p.m., followed by a special all-ages Holiday Matinee  on Dec. 14 starting at 2 p.m. We’ve heard rumors of a seasonal showdown between Santa and Krampus, as well as those rowdy redneck Wolfmen taking on the trio of Dragula, Natureboy Paul Lee and the “Leatherback of Notre Dame” End Zone in a two-out-of-three-falls match and ” The Lethal Dose ” Stryknyn defending the MCW Championship against The Dark Mon! Not to mention raffle prizes from the likes of Diamond*Star*HaloAtlanta Zombie ApocalypseChocolate F/X and more!

Providing the music between the mayhem is the The Joy Kills! We caught up with frontman Eric Haugh and guitarist Mike Westberg recently to find out more about what the fearsome four have planned for Friday night, as well as a sneak peek at their new EP, due out in February from  Blood Drunk Records. [FYI Spooky Partridge play the Saturday show; if you missed it, you can catch up with our Kool Kat interview with Atlanta's rockin'est mom Katy Graves here.]

ATLRetro: What’s the secret origin story of the Joy Kills and how did you get your name?

Eric: If I told you, then you’ll be carrying a life-threatening secret you must guard from the likes of the FBI, the CIA and PETA.

Michael: Which is to say we met on OKCupid. The date didn’t work out, but we decided for form a band anyways.

Eric: The Joy Kills came out of our drummer’s mouth by mistake. It’s the best mistake he ever made. He’s to blame for such irony. After much amusement with the name I finally realized that the Joy DOES Kill. It kills us all. The Joy Kills mean life, and how brief and fun and scary it can be for everyone. The Joy will kill you too.

The Joy Kills in a urinal. Photo courtesy of The Joy Kills and used with permission.

We’ve heard the Joy Kills called  “garage-punk,” but that you also have a heavy blues edge and are influenced by Black Sabbath. In a few words, how would you describe your music to the uninitiated?

Eric: Music for the dining banquet of a mental health institution, in Hell! For tonight, you’ll be entertained by a lovely three-piece with an escapee from the institute leading them in the charge.

Michael: You’re so glib… I like to say we’re all over the place with our influences and can’t make up our mind.  I think one thing we can agree on, though, is we like to be in that little spot between punk and rock. That way we can have our cake and eat it too, while moshing.

What are three acts and/or bands which influenced you and why?

Eric: Iggy and The Stooges, Jay Reatard and Butthole Surfers have all equally scarred me with wild, intense sounds that attacked my pleasure senses of my brain in a way that seems inappropriate for the some viewers. All of them were known for being kick-ass live shows to see back in the day that was both revolutionary as well as fleeting.  All of them are now defunct. Something about the brief and candid explosiveness of their time(s) really inspires me to do more with music than just explode. So I hope to stick around.

Michael: Iggy and The Stooges still play!  Although their original guitarist, Ron Asheton, died not too long ago.

The Joy Kills Capturing Her First Prize in Charm City. Photo courtesy of The Joy Kills and used with permission.

You recently did a holiday song. Why you did you go for such a scary aspect of the holidays as “Black Friday”?

Michael: Because the holidays are scary! It’s such a petulant time; family you don’t really like, and an obligation to buy crap for other people who are just going to be disappointed you didn’t get them something better.  I remember one Christmas I got a STAR WARS action figure from a distant relative, but it was some crappy “B” character from the Mos Eisley’s cantina scene.  I will not see this relative again until their funeral, when I shall place the unopened figurine in their casket.

Eric: It’s really funny. All the songs on that compilation appear to carry the same tune of very jaded view of the December holiday. We didn’t realize this until AFTER the release on Blood Drunk Records. We must all hate the holidays! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

Short answer: Our singer Eric was born three days before Christmas Day. Since that day it he’s been competing with Jesus ever since to offer YOU low prices.

Why play a wrestling show?

Both: Why not? It’s America!

Which MCW wrestlers are you rooting for this Friday and why?

Eric: All of them. I will make them fight for my affection.

Michael: Eric is an only child, see?  We’re only here on this Earth for his amusement.

The Joy Kills' Eric flying! Photo courtesy of The Joy Kills and used with permission.

Do you have any special plans for this Friday’s gig?

Eric: Possible costume requirements: mask, silly string and a chainsaw… you do the math…

Michael: Is that why you asked to borrow my chainsaw and my plague doctor’s mask?

Can you tell us anything about your second CD? It’s coming out in February, right?

Michael: It’s a secret! The kill collar around my throat will activate if it senses me even muttering anything about the new rec…

Eric: But we can tell you it will be a four-track EP available only on vinyl and digital release. Keep an eye out with us and BloodDrunkRecords.com.  Oh, and if you want a taste, we had a prerelease of one of the songs, “Betsy,” on our Blood Drunk Compilation.  Which I highly recommend everyone go and get now! [Listen to 01 Betsy!]

Michael: I’d like to reiterate that as well!  It’s worthwhile to support your local music scene, and not just your friend’s band. There’s a lot out here in ATL and beyond, and a lot of these bands bust ass to make music for people to enjoy.  I suggest going to random shows and trying new things.

Eric: We always try to keep things interesting, not just in our live show, but with little videos and quirky updates.  Get people wanting to be fans, and keep the fans engaged is the name of the game!

For more on the Joy Kills:

Preview teaser for Friday the 13th Holiday Horror Show

Interview with Wrestling with Pop Culture’s Jonathan Williams

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A Charlie Brown Christmas Is What It’s All About: Jeffrey Butzer and TT Mahony’s Jazzy Musical Tribute to Vince Guaraldi’s PEANUTS Score Comes to The Earl & Nine Street Kitchen

Posted on: Dec 10th, 2012 By:

Nostalgic adults and kids will dig Jeffrey Butzer and T.T. Mahony’s jazzy musical tribute to Vince Guaraldi’s A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS.  This year, the duo will be presenting their holiday treat at The Earl Fri. Dec. 14 and Sat. Dec. 15 and performing a more family-friendly reprise at Nine Street Kitchen in Roswell Mon. Dec. 10 and Thurs. Dec. 20. All shows will start with an instrumental set by Jeffrey’s band, The Bicycle Eaters and also feature surf favorites from THE VENTURES CHRISTMAS ALBUM  rendered by Chad Shivers and the Silent Knights.

As noted last year, the seasonal sell-out shows of A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS are a labor of love for Jeffrey, a musician/composer whose solo works tend towards the minimalism of the simple Christmas tree in the iconic Charles Schultz special. His band, the Bicycle Eaters, takes a different bend, inspired by Ennio Morricone spaghetti western scores, klezmer and gypsy. And he’s been collaborating with recent Kool Kat The Residents’ Molly Harvey lately, too. Frankly that’s just a small taste of the musical adventures of this diverse Atlanta performer and affirmed cineaste, who was our Kool Kat of the Week last March.

ATLRetro caught up with Jeffrey to find out more about this year’s A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, and what’s next for him with The Bicycle Eaters and as a solo composer/musician.

How old were you when you first saw A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS on TV and what did the show and its music mean to you when growing up?

I don’t remember a time NOT knowing who Charlie Brown was. It is like Bruce Lee, Elvis or Grandma, something that seemed to always exist to me. Growing up, it was always my favorite special. I liked how blue it was. Both literally and figuratively. Cartoon music in general affects you strangely. Like Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott with the Looney Tunes, I wasn’t aware of them until I was older and started playing music. But again, it is hard to remember a time when I didn’t listen to that record every year.

How did you and TT Mahony get the idea of developing A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS holiday show, and for how many years have you been doing it?

This is year four. I approached TT after he played a Leonard Cohen/Tom Waits/Nick Cave tribute show I worked on. He is an amazing piano player, very witty , too. I had kicked around the idea of doing a holiday show in the past but never really knew a pianist that could handle Guaraldi. Robby Handley is the best upright bass player I know. Great hair, too. And here is an odd fact about TT. He can jump really, really high. I’ve told him he should find some way to compete. I once saw him jump from the ground onto the top of a Toyota.

I understand last year’s shows were packed. Are you surprised that so many adults are so enthusiastic about music from a 1960s kids TV show/Christmas LP? What kind of comments do you get after your performances?

Yes, we were hoping for the best, that our fans and friends would enjoy the show and hopefully some new faces would come out. But the response has been overwhelming. Last year we had to start doing two nights. As far as comments, the one we get the most is “Can you do an all-ages one too…for the babies?” The reason we haven’t is because. the mood we set in The Earl seems to really suit Snoopy and the gang. It is cozy, dark, and has energy almost like a rock show. We are really looking forward to playing Nine Street Kitchen, it sounds like it is going to turn into a great venue. And playing for children will be a blast. My 3-year-old son Francis is happy he can come out to “Dad’s Show.”

What can audiences expect at The Earl this weekend?

Cookies, dancing… It is basically a big Holiday Party with 300 of your closest, newest friends.

What are you doing at Nine Street Kitchen (in Roswell) to make it even more kid-friendly?

The show will not change much.

Why pair Peanuts with The Ventures? 

Well, the albums were released around the same time for one thing. They are both classic ‘60s albums. They are both easy to dance to.

And what about that opening set from Jeffrey Butzer and the Bicycle Eaters?

My band (The Bicycle Eaters) play Frenchy-Jazzy-Spaghetti Western-inspired instrumentals. We are releasing a limited EP at the show

What else are you and the Bicycle Eaters up to? Any more collaborations with Molly Harvey or new 2013 recordings you’d like to tell readers about? 

We have a vocal album on the way called collapsible with our new singer Cassi Costoulas and French singer Lionel Fondeville, as well as several other great guests: Brent Hinds, Don Chambers. Possibly Molly Harvey.

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Retro Review: It’s a Wonderful Life With George Bailey in It: See the Capra Holiday Classic with Family and Friends on the Big Screen at the Vintage Earl Smith Strand Theatre

Posted on: Dec 18th, 2011 By:

By Thomas Drake
Contributing Writer

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946); Dir: Frank Capra; Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Travers; Wed. Dec. 21 8 p.m. at Earl Strand Smith Theatre; traditional TV screening on Christmas Eve on NBC (Channel 11) at 8 p.m.; Trailer here.

Short: “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

Medium: George Bailey is a man with big dreams and a big heart. As a youth he decides to set out for the big city and become an architect and explore the world. While he loves his family, he looks down with scorn on his small hometown, BedfordFalls. But on the day he is set to go out into the world, his father becomes ill. The problem is, George learns that the film’s villain, Mr. Potter (No Relation to Harry Potter of the Same Name), plans to take over the bank and remake the town in his dark image. George is forced to take up his father’s mantle and save the town, initially only for a little while, but as he puts roots and settles down, the years slog on. Until fate gives Potter a chance to destroy Bailey. Bailey is at the end of his rope and considers his life a total failure.

Heaven itself hears the prayers of the town and sends an incompetent angel in the form of Clarence to help out. Clarence gets the brilliant idea of showing George Bailey the world without him in it. Horrified, George repents of his wish for death and rushes back to the happy ending typical of Hollywood movies of the era.

George Bailey (James Stewart) at a low moment in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife Mary (Donna Reed) and children try to trim the tree and enjoy Christmas. Copyright: Paramont Pictures, 1945.

Maximum Verbosity: This is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s not every day that a movie can establish a new kind of story that is copied over and over again in many mediums. There might be a story that did this before IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, but this Frank Capra-directed holiday classic certainly turned the idea of showing someone what the world would be like them on its head if it did. I’ve seen more television episodes and cartoons that show how critical a piece someone makes in the lives of others roughly based on IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE than I can even remember. And I can remember a lot.

When the film originally came out, it didn’t really do so well. In fact, it might have been doomed to an ignoble death like so many otherwise excellent Hollywood films until someone discovered that it had ‘slipped through’ the copyright trap, and thus became exceedingly cheap for small television stations to run over and over again around Christmas. So it became an American favorite and a classic. Now the American Film Institute, on one of its many arbitrary lists, calls IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE one of the 100 best films ever made—and I’d agree with them on this one. Of course, that was not to last, as eventually the zaibatsus managed to loophole the loophole and now only NBC can show it (Dec. 24 at 8 p.m.).

In a rare holiday treat, the film itself, however, is going to be shown at the Earl Smith Strand Theatre, an art-deco former movie palace in Marietta. With all of the trouble iconic Atlanta film venues have been going through recently such as the Plaza up for sale; with the zaibatsus getting rid of their 35mm film collections; and even books themselves slowly going the way of the Kindle, supporting such grand old institutions as the Earl Smith is more important than ever. An artistic experience isn’t just about the performance, it’s who and where it is being performed. [Ed. note: this screening is not in 35mm, but we still think it's mighty special to see even a digital print at such a cool Retro venue, esp. if the kids have only seen it in TV.]

Bumbling angel Clarence (Henry Travers) startles George (Stewart) by showing up in a nightgown. Copyright Paramount Pictures 1945.

So why do I love this movie? Let me count the ways. Jimmy Stewart is the most awesome actor in all of Hollywood history, and given some of the people that have worked in film, that’s saying a lot. The man was humble and had a genuine all-American quality to him that I found fantastic. That combined with one of his [and Frank Capra's] other great seminal works, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, to me sums up what it means to be an American. He is the true Everyman hero, the one who stands up for what is right when all others demand that you surrender to the wrong. Indeed, if every man would be as Jimmy Stewart, then the very foundations of evil would be shaken from the world forever. Not that that’s going to happen.

Let’s talk Clarence (Henry Travers). Clarence is a delightful fuck-up. When one thinks Angel, one traditionally thinks Cherubim and a Flaming Sword guarding the Garden of Eden, not a bumbling old guy in a hat who doesn’t even have his wings yet. Of course, don’t underestimate old Clarence, because the old guy can turn visible or invisible at will and rewrites the very laws of reality to weave out George Bailey. If that’s what an angel without wings does, you can imagine how many power-up’s you’d need to take on a fully developed one. But his bumbling incompetence is why I like him. I like the idea that God, or at least his minions, are well meaning but not all powerful. But maybe that’s just me. It’s easier to accept the world the way it is if you think that.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE also is a great romance. Donna Reed is easy to lose in the crowd among all of the things that are going on in the film, but as a subplot, George Bailey’s courtship—both before and after they are married—is a true classic. She went on later to have her own highly successful sitcom, but seeing her in this is like all of those obscure ‘80s movies that have actors in them before they became truly famous. Like Kate Mulgrew in REMO WILLIAMS (1985).

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a wonderful romance, too, between George (Stewart) and Mary (Reed). Copyright Paramount Pictures 1945.

But I think above all, the philosophy of the film is why I love so much. Life isn’t about wealth. You can’t take it with you, and while it can certainly help in some circumstances, you can’t eat it and it won’t love you. “Remember George, no man is a failure who has friends.” I guess somehow when I heard that, it translated in my mind as, “The true measure of the worth of a human’s life is in the quality and strength of the relations he keeps.” And I’ve lived my life that way ever since. People matter. Friends matter. Family matters. And this movie is the quintessential guide to that.

It might be hokey. It might even have a healthy dose of sappy cheddar compared to the realities of corruption, malfeasance and dereliction we have today. The world needs more George Baileys, because God knows we’ve sure as hell got enough Mr. Potters running around with their derivatives and their credit default swaps and their vast indifference to the suffering of humanity. Our world has come to more resemble the dark mirror of George’s life, where people don’t give a shit about each other. But this is the Holiday season, damn it, and whatever your affiliation (Kwanza, Hannikua, Christmas, Festivus, X-mas), they are all about love and being greater than yourself. (Well…maybe not X-mas which is largely about buying as much as you can and trompling your neighbor in the process.)

Celebrate Christmas by living a bit of it each day of your life. And the best way to do that, is to be like George Bailey. Merry Christmas.

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Really Retro: Tidings of Comfort and Joy: The Toast of Christmas Past Revives Traditional Caroling in Vintage Victorian Style

Posted on: Dec 13th, 2011 By:

A trio of carolers in The Toast of Christmas Past, including left to right: Rivka Levin, Geoffrey Brown and Fiona Leonard.

Other Atlanta vocal ensembles may sing carols, but local acapella group The Toast of Christmas Past is reviving the tradition just as it was performed in 19th century England by wandering groups of singing Samaritans dressed in bustles and bonnets, frock coats and top hats. All of which reminds that while some may consider Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL a great ghost story, but one need look no further than the title to see that the popular Victorian storyteller saw music as synonymous with the spirit of the season. Apparently contemporary audiences also long for simpler Dickensian customs as The Toast of Christmas Past tends to be booked almost every night during the holidays.

The Toast of Christmas Past is led by Fiona Leonard, an eclectic and energetic actress, singer, costumer, make-up artist and mistress of many trades well-known for her work with local theatre companies, film productions and attractions such as the Georgia Renaissance Festival where she sang in a rollicking pub band called Wine, Woman and Song. As a costumer, she started sewing and designing as a teenager and has won numerous awards and attained master class status at science fiction and costuming conventions. In recent years, however, Fiona has focused her creative energies more towards recreating the look of past eras than fantasy ones, and her caroling venture seems perfectly suited to a lady increasingly seen dressed in exquisite Victorian attire.

Curious about the origins of caroling, we asked Fiona if she would tell us what she knew about its link to Medieval wassailing and how the practice evolved into a mainstay of Victorian times. She also shared the story behind her own journey into caroling and Victoriana, as well as a bit about how listening to traditional holiday melodies seems to bring “tidings of comfort and joy” in this time of giving.

Geoffrey Brown, Fiona Leonard in red, and two other members of The Toast of Christmas Past.

ATLRetro: How did you first get the idea to start up an acapella caroling group, who are the group’s members, and why keep caroling alive in the 21st century?

Fiona Leonard: My dad [Al Leonard] and I worked at the Georgia Renaissance Festival for a number of years, and someone contacted them one year looking for carolers. They passed that on to my Dad and he put together a little quartet to do it. I replaced someone the next year, and we had several people ask us for cards at the event. So the next year I came up with a name and had cards printed up. We got three more bookings and The Toast of Christmas Past was born. From that point in 1994, we grew and in our best year had 55 bookings!

Each year I have anywhere from 12-24 carolers on call, who sing in trios and quartets. Most of my singers are musical theatre performers, so they have lots of personality and are good at engaging strangers. Although it is a great way to make extra money for the holidays, it is also a really great feeling to have people come up and tell you that your singing has put them in the holiday spirit. Making people feel something is really what performing is all about, and we really do get to spread joy wherever we sing. 

How did Christmas caroling door to door (or in public places) get started? 

Caroling comes out of several traditions, some going back over a thousand years. Religious songs composed for the common man to sing first started appearing around the 10th century, but really caught on as Protestantism began to spread around the world. But I think the most direct ancestor of our style of caroling is wassailing. This was basically legitimate begging. During winter holidays—whether solstice, Christmas or yuletide—groups of peasants or other poor would go from door to door, singing blessings on each house and demanding compensation in return. This was usually in the form of drink (hard cider, mulled wine or spiced ale), food (sweets, figgy puddings, cakes), money or at the very least a spot by the fire to warm up.

Everyone in The Toast of Christmas Past wears Victorian clothes and embraces that era. Why was caroling so popular in Victorian times, who did it, who did they sing for and how did Victorian caroling compare to caroling in previous and later times?

There was a great trend in the Victorian Era to romanticize things of the past and things from other cultures outside the Empire. Christmas trees as we know them became popular at this time, and the beginnings of Christmas as a commercial holiday come from that period as well. What was a fairly small celebration started adopting traditions from older times (wassailers, Morris dancers and pantomimes); strangers with gifts (magi, St Nicholas, Norse gods); sacrifices to older gods of meat, drink and produce (geese, roasts, horns of plenty, trees hung with fruit or even game); and evergreen boughs, holly and mistletoe hung to repel evil spirits in the dark of winter. All of these combined to make Christmas the celebration we know today.

Caroling or wassailing is fun, it’s something the whole family can do, [and] it’s much more acceptable than straight begging, since you at least offer entertainment. Victorians did it for all those reasons, and Dickens set the practice in the public mind with his caroling urchins in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. The story itself has become such a classic that we tend to think of Christmas as described by Dickens to be “classic” Christmas, something to hark back to and try to achieve. Really, this era has just as much tendency to romanticize the past as the Victorians.

Fiona Leonard dressed to carol.

What were some of the greatest hits of Victorian caroling, and do you limit yourself to songs dating from that era or do you throw in some more recent seasonal favorites, too?

We do not limit ourselves to Victorian carols, but some of the songs we sing that were popular then include: “Good King Wenceslas,” “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “We Three Kings,” “Twelve Days of Christmas” and “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.”

When you were interviewed for PBS Radio [listen to it here], you talked about one of the reasons you enjoy caroling being actually turning around someone’s mood. Do you think caroling has a therapeutic effect on either the listener or the caroler or both?

I have always found singing to be therapeutic and cathartic. I think live carolers invite listeners to feel the music in a way that recorded music can never truly achieve, which makes the emotional impact very intense.

How do children react to your caroling in costume?

I get called a princess a lot! Kids really seem to like us and often want to join us, which we encourage.

Who hires a Victorian caroling group and at what kind of events do you perform? How can we hire you?

You can hire us by going through our website: www.toastofchristmaspast.com. We have been hired by malls, entertainment venues, museums, townships, business associations, property management, the airport and, of course, for plenty of private holiday parties. If you are traveling through [Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport] Monday Dec. 19 or Tues. Dec. 20, look for us between 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

Is it correct that you made your Victorian caroling dress? Did you make all the costumes for the group? If yes, how far did you go to ensure the clothes were period-accurate, and can you recommend a few online resources for Victorian costumers?

I do make my dresses and many of the other costumes we wear. Some of the other ladies have made their own dresses, and even one or two of the gentlemen have put together their outfits. My preferred period is 1878-1882, a brief window when the bustle was still present but very small. I just think the dresses from that period are very pretty and graceful. You can get away with a little lower neckline and 3/4 sleeves for that period as well, which I find more comfortable. Most of the ladies do wear corsets and petticoats with their costumes. There are all kinds of resources online, but mostly I just order corset supplies online, usually from Farthingales or dealers on etsy.com.

The Toast of Christmas Past performs at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

You’ve done a lot of Victorian costuming and performing. You’ve won awards for your work and regularly are a costume judge at Oakland Cemetery‘s Sunday in the Park annual event in October. In broad terms, what appeals to you personally about the Victorian era, and if there was one aspects of it that you wish had survived to the 21st century, what would it be?

Honestly, I just love how decorative things were. I love ruffles and fringe, and curlicues and flowers, and men in well-tailored clothing. Also I read way too much Barbara Cartland, and I am just sure some tail-coated dandy is going to sweep me off my feet if I have enough ringlets in my hair! If there was one aspect of the era I wish had survived, it would be the practice of giving dances and balls as standard social gatherings. I love a good waltz!

What’s up with Wine, Woman and Song?

We retired from the Georgia Renaissance Festival in 2002. We still perform together occasionally, usually for St. Patrick’s Day or historical re-enactments. We can still be booked through the Toast website.

What else are you up to performance and costuming-wise when it’s not the caroling season? Anything exciting coming up in 2012? 

I work full-time at Costumes, Etc…, which is a family owned business in Midtown off Cheshire Bridge Rd.They do rentals and retail, but they also take on a certain number of special commissions which I get to make a lot of. I will be costuming GUYS AND DOLLS for Habima Theatre at the MJCCA at the beginning of the year. I am hoping to actually get out and perform in a show or two next year, time permitting.

In 2012 I  hope to record a CD of The Toast of Christmas Past to make available for purchase. I am also considering putting on a Toast concert early in the season next year for the public.

Editor’s Note: All photographs are courtesy of The Toast of Christmas Past and Fiona Leonard.

Category: Really Retro | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ho Ho Howdy! Really Big Big Santa Throws a Seasonal Shindig for All Ages and Conquers the Martians at the Plaza Theatre on Saturday Dec. 3!

Posted on: Dec 2nd, 2011 By:

When Really Big Santa dropped a personal invitation to  ATLRetro readers or all ages.  He’s making a list and checking it twice, and if you really want that vintage Red Ryder, we’d recommend you not be naughty and miss SANTA’S SUPER SATURDAY SHOW this Sat. Dec. 3 at the Plaza Theatre. Here’s an exact transcript from the big guy at the North Pole…

Ho Ho Howdy!

There’s a new tradition in Atlanta Christmas events, and it’s happening at the historic Plaza Theatre on Ponce de Leon! Really Big Santa and his fine friends from Blast Off Burlesque are throwing Santa’s Super Saturday Show on Saturday, December 3rd. There is a Kiddie’s Matinee at 1pm and a “Grown-ups” show at 10 that night!

There will be vintage Christmas shorts, commercials and cartoons before the show starts! Then a live holiday show performed on The Plaza stage, with some of your favorite Christmas tunes performed by some of your favorite performers in a way never before seen! It’s a chance to sing and dance with Santa Claus in person!

After the show, it’s movie time! Stick around because there’s a screening of the [1964] B-Movie Christmas Classic, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS!

Tickets for the 1pm show are just $5. The 10pm tickets are $10. For each new, unwrapped toy for Toys for Tots you bring you’ll get $2 off one ticket! There will be pictures with Santa in his big chair  before the show! $10 gets you a 5×7 print and a high resolution digital copy sent to your email!

A portion of the proceeds goes to help support The Plaza Theatre, and your toy donations go to help our brave Men and Women of the United States Marine Corps in their drive to provide gifts for families in need. If there’s one thing you can do for Santa this Holiday season it’s this: Help local businesses by supporting your neighborhood merchants and help those in your community that are less fortunate!

Yours Truly,

Santa Claus
——
Coming to you Directly
From the North Pole
Top O’ The World at True Magnetic North

Category: Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

‘Tis the Season To Be Merry: Hark the Honkytonk Devils Sing! Whiskey Gentry Throws a Merry Y’All Tide Celebration at Variety Playhouse.

Posted on: Nov 28th, 2011 By:

When a band named The Whiskey Gentry throws a Merry Y’All Tide Celebration for the holidays, you might be expecting the same old twangy country renditions of favorite carols. But this spirited band loves to defy expectations, and their seasonal shindig at the Variety Playhouse this Friday Dec. 2  is no exception to that raucous rule. It’s not that The Whiskey Gentry aren’t influenced by the kind of ballads that came down from the hills of Appalachia, but like a certain rebellious red-nosed reindeer, they’re bound and determined to be musical misfits with a diverse list of influences that spans from Patsy Cline to Bela Fleck to Social Distortion. Yeah, that Social Distortion. The accent is on the Whiskey in this Gentry who speed things up with some fiery, high-energy licks that suggest punk and old-time rock ‘n’ roll and even a touch of vaudeville in their stage shows.

The Whiskey Gentry’s 3rd annual Merry Y’All Tide also features The Packway Handle BandShovels and Rope and My Three Keanes, an act made up of veteran producer John Keane, who has produced CDs for R.E.M., the Indigo Girls and The Whiskey Gentry’s 2011 CD, PLEASE MAKE WELCOME, and his two daughters. All proceeds from the $15 in-advance/$17.50–at-the-door benefit the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and fans are encouraged to bring at least three cans for donation. As an extra incentive, the band will be giving our a specially designed poster to everyone who participates.

While The Whiskey Gentry prefer not to nail down their sound into any one genre, ATLRetro managed to corral lead singer Lauren Staley and guitarist Jason Morrow—a couple both musically and in real life—into a sneak preview of Merry Y’All Tide. While sitting an spell, they also opened up more than a bit about the band’s origins, why they love the holidays and their favorite whiskey. And when you’re done reading, check out this this nifty little video they made about this Friday’s show.

ATLRetro: How did Whiskey Gentry get started?
Lauren: Jason and I met around Christmas 2007, and we were both in separate bands at the time. Once we started dating, we decided to join forces and begin writing tunes together. We both came from different musical backgrounds, but we immediately found a niche together with this style of music.

For those who haven’t heard the band before, how do you describe your sound, how did it come about and how does it relate to what’s come before musically?
Jason: Describing our sound is probably the hardest thing we have to do in this band. We’re not country. We’re not bluegrass. We’re not punk or rock or old-timey. Yet we ARE all of these things at the same time. I think we take the formula of an old country tune, turn it up to 11, give it some punch, add pretty vocals, and top it off with a few of the best pickers in the southeast. This came about from all of our shared love for country and bluegrass, but we wanted to really dig in and add the fire behind it.

The Whiskey Gentry. Photo courtesy of The Whiskey Gentry.

Many contemporary bands couldn’t rush further away from the sentimentality of Christmas, but you’ve become known for an annual live holiday show, which is even bigger this year. What’s the origin story behind the Merry Y’All Tide Celebration?
Jason: We love everything about the holiday season – anything from cinnamon broomsticks to watching our nephews and nieces open gifts. It’s a festive time of year, and we’re a festive type of band. We love this season whether it’s “cool” or not.
Lauren: I think people love to get in the holiday spirit in general. People go bananas over it. Did you see the Black Friday riots? I mean, come on.

At Merry Y’All Tide, will you be playing your own takes on traditional carols or original songs? Is it all Christmas music or will you be playing non-holiday fare, too?
Lauren: Back in the day, any artist who was somebody cut a Christmas record. Those tunes are classics, and we like to do our own takes on those as well as newer Christmas tunes. The majority of our set will be non-holiday fare, but we’ve got some awesome holiday songs picked out to cover. But we can’t tell you which ones they are – it’s a surprise. :)

What other shenangans are planned? Is Santa gonna be there, tapping his feet, clapping his hands and swigging a PBR?
Jason: We hired the crappyist Santa we could fine, and he’s going to be there chugging whiskey and PBR and trying to get pretty girls to sit on his lap.

Much merriment was had at last year's Merry Y'All. Photo Courtesy of The Whiskey Gentry.

Why We Three Keanes, Packway Handle Band and Shovels and Rope?
Jason: Shovels and Rope because they are our new favorite band, also a husband and wife duo. Packway Handle Band because Josh and the boys are some of our good friends and were part of our Christmas show last year. We Three Keanes because John Keane helped us make the best record of our career thus far, and he and his twin daughters will be doing a 20-minute, all-holiday song set promoting their Christmas record. He will also be sitting in on pedal steel with us.

Why did you want to partner with the Atlanta Community Food Bank and the Georgia Conservancy?
Lauren: We think the holidays are about giving, and we wanted to do our part to help out.

Why does your CD, PLEASE MAKE WELCOME, make the perfect Christmas present, and will there ever be a MERRY Y’ALL TIDE CD?
Lauren: Because it fits easily into a stocking and is also super easy to wrap—if you suck at wrapping like I do. And who knows—maybe we will have a Merry Y’all Tide CD for next year’s show!

What’s next for the Whiskey Gentry? You’re about to embark on a Southeast tour, right?
Jason: We are basically on tour every weekend, Thursday to Sunday. We already have 36 dates booked in 2012, so yes, we will be busy.

Finally, got to ask, what’s the band’s favorite whiskey, why and how do you drink it­- straight up or with ice?
Lauren: Ironically, I hate whiskey, so I’m a terrible person to answer this question.
Jason: If I had to speak for everyone, probably Jameson. In shots!

Category: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

We’re All Misfits: Behind the Scenes of a Glowing Live Production of Rankin-Bass’s RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER at the Center for Puppetry Arts

Posted on: Nov 18th, 2011 By:

Bumble menaces Rudolph, Hermey and Yukon in The Center for Puppetry Arts' live production of RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER. Photo credit: Clay Walker.

“Could it be that you don’t know the story of Rudolph?” Sam the Snowman poses at the beginning of the Center for Puppetry Arts live stage production of Rankin-Bass’s stop-motion animated TV show about RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, which runs through Dec. 31. It’s unlikely if you grew up in America any time within the past nearly half-century since the show, based on a popular 1949 song by Johnny Marks, premiered in 1964. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the TV networks aired and re-aired a magical assortment of holiday specials for kids, and even when they cut back and many of these classics (including other Rankin-Bass treasures like SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN and THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS) became relegated to secondary cable, video and DVD, CBS continued to broadcast RUDOLPH (this year’s air-date is Dec. 4 at 8 p.m.). In fact, if you don’t get your tickets quickly, you may even miss the Center’s production. The Center for Puppetry Arts sold out its two-month run of RUDOLPH last year and deservedly so.  Already almost all of this December’s performances are now sold out, and only limited tickets are available for the remaining November shows.

What’s behind the enduring appeal of a tale of a reindeer with a deformity that causes derision not just from his fellow deer (we all know children can be cruel) but surprisingly from Santa himself? At ATLRetro, it was always easy to understand. Rudolph, Hermey the elf who wanted to be a dentist, the misfit toys were us—the different kids, the geeks, the readers, the ones with glasses. And as we grew up, we found out, like Rudolph, we weren’t alone and that our differences were great reason to band together and declare ourselves “independent,” whether as science fiction fans or punk rockers or proud of being gay. As Clarice tells Rudolph, the fact that his nose is different from the rest is what makes it “special,” and it’s interesting and seems unlikely to be coincidental that RUDOLPH first aired in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Even the Bumble Snow Monster has a role to play; all he needed was a friend like Yukon Cornelius, willing to look beyond his monster-ness and listen. Well, after he removed his teeth—but who said that a 1964 TV special would or should be completely politically correct. I’d like to think that RUDOLPH taught me key lessons about tolerance, and hopefully it does for the kids, like me, who embraced it. I’m proud to say that I have watched it every Christmas season since I was two.

The raccoon and bunny pairs in the Center's RUDOLPH match perfectly with the CBS special. Photo Credit: Clay Walker.

Seeing it again at the start of this season reminds how true it is to the look and spirit of the TV show, which seems perfectly suited to puppetry. Even King Moonracer, the identical pairs of woodland creatures and the Christmas trees are perfectly crafted to match what we saw in our living rooms. The voices match unexpectedly well, too, including then-famous folk/ballad singer Burl Ives, who voiced the original Sam. Last year I was a little disappointed at the simplistic projected graphics intermingled with the show, but I’m over that now, and have to say that as a package, it’s nearly picture-perfect. Even RUDOLPH purists like me cann’t complain about a few subtle changes and additions here and there, such as a playful hide and seek between Dolly and King Moonracer, because they weave seamlessly into the action and remain true to the characters. And it was so cool to hear the audience of school children around me singing and clapping along to all the iconic tunes! “We’re all Misfits” indeed!

ATLRetro caught up with the Center for Puppetry Arts Artistic Director Jon Ludwig, who adapted and directed RUDOLPH, to find out more about how he managed to pull it off with such integrity and reverence to the original source material and yet keep it fresh for a new generation of kids.

How old were you when you first saw the Rankin-Bass Rudolph on TV and what impact did it have on you as a child?

I was 11 years old when I saw the first broadcast in 1964. I thought they had written it just for me. How did they know I felt like a misfit? What an inspiration it was to learn misfits, too, have a place in the world.

How did you and the Center for Puppetry Arts come to produce the first licensed puppet version of RUDOLPH?

We researched the trail to who held the rights, Character Arts, and then made a proposal that won them over. We really wanted to be very faithful to the original. It is a great story and a great script. We didn’t want to change it or ruin it by adding crazy ideas just to be different. They trusted us and were a monumental help in creating the piece.

Sam the Snowman supervises the decorating of "Silver and Gold" decorations on dancing Christmas trees with the help of some woodland friends. Photo credit: Clay Walker.

Last year’s production sold out early in its run. How gratifying was that and why do you think this show has such an enduring appeal?

A sold-out run is the best any theater can hope for. The story and characters are still relevant today. It is about coming to grips with yourself and finding your place in the world. This is a theme that never gets old.

I know of plenty of adults who were as excited or more so than the kids to see it last year. Do you have any sense of how adults came to see it on their own out of nostalgia? Will you have any night performances targeted at adults, and are adults welcome to make their own Rudolph puppet, too?

We have seen many couples and groups who come without kids. I think they are re-living their childhood. It makes for a very good date. There are 3 p.m. shows Saturdays and Sundays and a 7 p.m.  show on November 25.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in adapting RUDOLPH from TV screen to stage and how did you surmount it?

We had to change the visual language from film to stage.  We have used supplemental projected animation to help with transitions. We use a change in scale to get long shots, i.e., we use small versions of the same characters. There are many set changes to get a sense of the journey that is essential to the story. Sometimes we had to add lines and business during entrances and exits. In the film, they just cut away. We found out that the live puppet actors still had to walk off. So we added some lines that are totally in character that allow the puppets to get off stage. We had to combine some scenes to get a better theatrical flow. All of this was a lot of fun and challenging.

Rudolph's nose is revealed to Fireball & other fawns during Reindeer Games. Photo credit: Clay Walker.

Did you make any changes this year or is it the same production?

The script has not change. Why mess with something that has worked since 1964. There have been improvements with the puppets. What is different about this year is the energy and fun that the performers are bringing to the show. It is the same cast. So they are really focused on the characters and the story. Having gone through the process of getting it on its feet already, they are a championship team. They are having a blast and that is reaching our audiences.

RUDOLPH has so many colorful characters from the misfit toys to the elves to the rabbit and raccoon pairs and that squirrel and that ornery gold nugget. Beyond the misfit heroes Rudolph and Hermey, do you have a personal favorite among the secondary characters and why?

When I was a kid I loved monsters; still do. So I really liked the Bumble Snow Monster of the North. And, in the end he finds his place in the world, too. The monster is accepted.

One thinks of puppetry as a skill in movement, but it also requires a lot of vocal flexibility. Did you consider vocals in casting and did the puppeteers use any special techniques to get their voices so close to the original TV cast?

We held several long sessions with many of our regular and, I must say, gifted puppeteers. We recorded them reading for multiple characters. We even had Allison Murphy, who plays Rudolph, read for the Bumble just for fun. We then spent a lot of time listening to the reading and made our selection. They all did great, but we had to narrow down the field. Those who were chosen then spent many hours listening to the original voices. They still listen to them when they feel they might be drifting from the original voices.

For the most part, you stuck faithfully to the plot, dialogue and songs, but in a few places, you added a few fun—let’s say—embellishments. I hate to give away any surprises, but how did you decide when it was OK to make a change, and how has the audience reacted to that?

We only changed when it was necessary to further the story along for the stage. We threw in some puppet trickery. And the cast understands these characters so well that they were allowed to ad lib if they felt an urge during the rehearsals. This led to some embellishments which deepen the characters rather than just go for a cheap laugh.

Our audiences are very smart. They know that we must make some changes in order to adapt the film for the stage. We keep any changes in character. And any changes were put by Character Arts first.

The Misfits from Christmastown land on the Island of Misfit Toys. Photo credit: Clay Walker.

It’s interesting how you handled a couple of spots of political incorrectedness.  At the first point where Dasher says searching for Rudolph is “man’s work,” you maintain the comment but beef up the bonding between Mom and Clarice who obviously disagree (and did in the original, too!). Later, after the apparent vanquishing of Bumble, you omit Sam’s statement about how they “had to get the womenfolk back to Christmastown.” Any comments?

Yes, Dasher’s statement about “Man’s work” is very much made fun of in the original by Sam the Snowman. As far as getting the “women folk” back to Christmastown, “the times they are a changing.” It was easier just to omit that line. The mood is very sad at that moment because they thinkYukonhas perished from the fall off the cliff. The “women folk” line would probably have gotten a laugh or been distracting to the moment.

Do you have any interest in adapting any of the other Rankin-Bass stop-motion animated holiday specials such as SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN, THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS or HERE COMES PETER COTTONTAIL?

We have not considered other titles at this time. However, Character Arts has been very open about further collaborations, so we’ll see where that leads.

What question did I not ask that you’d love to answer about RUDOLPH? And what’s the answer?

You have really done your homework! Great questions. There are long debates about why the elf tosses the bird that cannot fly but swims off the sleigh without an umbrella. You can hear the laughs at that moment from those who really know the film. So, if anyone knows the reason for this moment, please let us know.

Category: Tis the Season To Be... | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kool Kat of the Week: A Jazz Interlude With Kayla Taylor: Why She Loves ‘30s/’40s Classics, the Unsurprising Success of Her New CD and the Pleasures of Playing the Vintage Artmore Hotel This Friday

Posted on: Nov 16th, 2011 By:

Atlantans who love classic jazz won’t be surprised to hear that Kayla Taylor’s new and sixth CD YOU”D BE SURPRISED hit #23 on the CMJ Jazz charts this week and is receiving airplay across the nation and throughout Europe. Instead, we’re liable to say it’s delovely and just one of those things that had to happen. But then local audiences have had the treat of listening to this Atlanta native and chanteuse extraordinaire resurrect top tunes from the ‘30s,  ‘40s and ’50s  live for a decade or more with musical partner/guitarist Steve Moore. And because this Friday night, Kayla will be performing at one of Atlanta’s coolest vintage venues, the courtyard of the Artmore Hotel in Midtown whose building dates back to 1924, we thought the timing couldn’t be more perfect to make her Kool Kat of the Week.

One of those rare actual Atlanta natives, Kayla literally grew up singing, in her school chorus, church choir and in the shower, but winning two awards in a 7th grade talent show cemented her ambition to make music a career. Along the way, she has performed country music, gospel, R&B and classic and original rock ‘n’ roll until she finally found her heart resided in the golden era of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin—all of whom are represented on YOU’D BE SURPRISED’s playlist. ATLRetro caught up with Kayla to find out more about why she decided to embrace one of our favorite musical eras, what she has planned for this Friday night at the Artmore, her new CD, what’s next and where you might catch her singing while shopping…

ATLRetro: According to your bio, you always sang even as a little girl, and through the years, in addition to jazz, you’ve performed country, gospel, R&B and rock n roll, too. How did you come to embrace vintage jazz?

Kayla Taylor: I have always loved vintage jazz. The charm and romance of the ‘30s and ‘40s was something that always attracted me. I love how clever the lyrics are. When I was a kid, I watched a lot of old movies that were filmed and set during that time period and found all of it to be a natural embrace. Then in the mid-‘80s, Linda Ronstadt—one of my rock heroes—came out with her Big Band albums with The Nelson Riddle Orchestra and the romance started all over again.

Photo credit: John Lee Matney.

I understand that your earliest award was for singing Irene Cara’s “Out Here on My Own” from FAME? What’s the story and how big an early influence on you was the movie, FAME?

I wouldn’t say that FAME had a big influence on me, but the music and Irene Cara’s voice definitely did. I loved the pure emotion that was in her voice when she sang “Out Here On My Own.” The school talent show was coming up, and so I decided that I’d sing that song. I practiced for weeks in my room with the door closed. I must have played that record hundreds of times. My parents had no idea. I wasn’t trying to win—I just wanted to sing in front of all those people. I was also in a girls’ trio that performed “Sincerely”— a tune from the ‘50s. Well, the trio took 1st place, and I took 2nd place. I was so thrilled and excited. My parents had always been supportive of whatever I wanted to try, but at that point, they jumped completely onboard with my singing adventures.

Who are some of your favorite classic jazz composers and performers, and why do you think their music remains so timeless and relevant today?

Cole Porter, The Gershwins, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer . . . there are so many amazing composers from that era that I adore, but these are just a few of my top picks. As far as performers, Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Etta James, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. I think the music is so well-crafted that it can’t help but remain timeless and relevant. Most of the songs are about love or the loss of love—that will always be timeless and relevant.

How did you meet Steve Moore and end up working together?

Great Story! Steve Moore was in a rock band called A Fine Line—an original rock project. They ran an ad in the Creative Loafing looking for a female vocalist. (That’s what you did 19 years ago—you ran an ad in a printed publication if you were looking for a musician.) I called about the position. They sent me a demo of some of their tunes, and I thought they were really cool, so I learned them and showed up at the audition. Later that night, Steve Moore was the one who called me to tell me I had gotten the job. That was the beginning of an amazing relationship as friends, co-writers and business partners. We went through several original rock projects together (A Fine Line, OneWithout) and even an acoustic duo (The Adventures of Kayla & Steve). One day we were talking about all these great jazz standards that we both loved and how much we would both love to play that music one day and to have our own jazz combo. Five minutes later we had made a decision to start working towards that direction. That was over 10 years ago, and we’ve been at it ever since.

Kayla Taylor and Steve Moore. Photo credit: John Lee Matney.

Can you tell us a bit about YOU’D BE SURPRISED came together, and what it means to you that it’s doing so well?

To say we are excited is an understatement. OVER THE MOON with excitement might scratch the surface. All of this came about because we hired an expert to handle it for us. We’re indy artists—SmartyKat Records—that’s our own label. We don’t have the connections personally to make this kind of airplay and exposure happen, so we hired Kari Gaffney and Jeff Williams of Kari-On Productions to handle all of it for us. Kari has over 21 years experience promoting and marketing CDs to radio and print media. I have never seen anyone work as hard as she has been working. I don’t know when she even has time to sleep. She’s done a fabulous job for us.

What’s your favorite song on the CD to perform and why?

WOW. To pick one tune—that’s tough because I love every song that’s on the CD. It’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. If I have to pick one, though, I’d have to say the title track—“You’d Be Suprised.” What I love about that song are the great lyrics. They are so clever!!! I love the Marilyn Monroe version.

The Jazz in the Courtyard series at the Artmore, where the building dates back to 1924, promises an urban escape with “sultry music, sexy vibes and sinful drinks.” And the signature cocktail is “The Prohibition.” Can we surmise that the goal is to create a speakeasy atmosphere, and will you be tossing some Roaring ‘20s tunes into the mix?

Artmore is a great hotel, and the courtyard is a beautiful venue. We have a great time playing there and love that they have embraced our music. We’ll still be hanging out in the ‘30s and ‘40s era but love that they have created a speakeasy feel—with a modern twist. All concerts take place in the courtyard, and there is a fabulous firepit and heaters to keep everything warm. If it should rain or turn freezing cold—we’ll move the show into their basement speakeasy lounge. I think we might be good to have this final concert of the season out in the courtyard, though.

Anything else you’d like to share about Friday’s gig at the Artmore?

Reservations are not required, but if you want to reserve a seat, you can email them at sales@artmorehotel.com. Come prepared to have a great time. I have a retro-styled microphone that is wireless so I can move all over the courtyard, and I love to come by and sing to anyone who seems like they might be receptive. Trust me, though—if it’s clear you’re there with a date and you just want to make eyes at each other—I’ll stay out of your way.

Where else will you be playing in Atlanta soon, and any plans for a tour to promote YOU’D BE SURPRISED?

Our next big show will be at Feast in Decatur on Saturday, December 3. This will be a great show because it’s the beginning of the holiday & Christmas season, and we’ll have some of the great jazzy Christmas tunes from the era to throw into the mix. This show generally sells out, so it’s a really good idea to call them to make a reservation. We play from 7:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. with the five-piece combo. The food at Feast is fantastic and we always have a great time. [Call] 404.370.2000 - for reservations.  As far as a tour to promote YOU’D BE SURPRISED—definitely something we are thinking long and hard about we just have to make the numbers work out.

Do you really burst into song at the grocery store? If yes, where do you shop?

Not every time I’m in the grocery store, but yes, I have been known to burst into song in the middle of a shopping excursion. My sweet husband, Scott, has been so good about dealing with those moments and I know they have been embarrassing—but sometimes a song just wells up inside and I have to blurt it out. For the record, my favorite place to shop locally is Publix—the stores are smaller and easier to navigate and everyone is super-friendly. If I’m going to travel away from my neighborhood to shop, you’ll find me at Whole Foods.

Finally, we’ve got to ask. What would we be most surprised to know about you?

Two things: first, I am an avid gardener. I love digging holes and putting plants in them and then nurturing them and watching them grow. It fascinates me! The next thing . . . I actually suffer from stage fright on occasion. It’s true.

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