The great Julie Wilson passed away on April 25, 2015. At 90 years old, she was still a vibrant member of the cabaret community, both as a performer and as a cheerleader for cabaret artists. Below, some MAC Members share their memories of Julie.
Julie was always quick with her comments. It was at one of her engagements at New York’s Helen’s when, post-show, a group of us were sitting around one of the long tables in the bar area. At the far end of the table, a young man said to his equally youthful date, “You know, Julie’s going to be giving a show here in October, on her 80th birthday.” The lass replied, “80! Who wants to be 80 ?” Julie, hearing the exchange, leaned over and offered, “Someone who’s 79, dear.”
~ Peter Leavy
The first time that I met Julie Wilson I was the new kid in town and Julie was a legend! She performed regularly at the Oak Room of the Algonquin (“the Gonk,” as we lovingly referred to the place) and I had yet to begin there. On that first day in 1987, I would never have imagined that I’d perform for twenty-five years into the future. I was waiting behind a curtain for my rehearsal to begin and Julie, who was headlining at the time, caught sight of me. She boomed into the microphone: “Tell her the old broad ain’t through yet!” I quaked. My knees knocked, my head began to spin, and I felt like I wanted to melt into the oak paneled walls. But Julie, who never had a mean bone in her entire body, gave me an encouraging hug and our long friendship and mutual admiration had begun. Julie was a bright light – always interested, always caring, always inspirational. Her generosity of spirit extended from being a glamorous fixture at opening nights for the well-established to giving a boost to a newcomer with her shouts of enthusiasm from the house. The last time that we saw each other was in Los Angeles, at The Gardenia, shortly before she passed away. Typical of Julie, she’d come to Open Night Mic, to support the next generation of cabaret singers. ANDREA MARCOVICCI
We all know that Julie Wilson was a great artist and an elegant lady. But she was also refreshingly down-to-earth. One evening in the early ’90s, a friend and I ran into her on Seventh Avenue. We stopped to talk—and talk and talk. She spoke very candidly about a number of things and people. Her Rainbow & Stars engagement came up, and she asked whether we wanted to know how it had come about. Of course we did. She said, “I was sitting at home, when [her manager] called me and asked what I was doing in October. I told him, ‘not a fucking thing.’ He asked whether I’d like to play Rainbow & Stars and I said ‘sure.'”
“How is your lovely voice?” What a way to say hello! She was always warm
and generous with her time and, no matter what I wanted to know about her,
she was always more interested in learning what I was up to. But, then,
she was like that with everyone. When I was writing a feature for Cabaret
Scenes, I called her to get some insight on the artist. She spent a lot of
time giving me more information than I could have used. (I should have let
HER write the article!) One of the last times I saw her just before I was
to perform at a Cabaret Cares event where she and Sidney Myer would be
honored. I told her how thrilled I was to have been asked to be a part of
the show. I also confessed that I had just learned the show had a
theme…Broadway show tunes. The song I had chosen, which I new meant
something to both Julie and Sidney, was not a show tune. When I told her
that she said, “Sing whatever the hell you want!” I’ve been following her
advice ever since.
I will always cherish the memory of celebrating Julie’s 79th birthday together onstage at The Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room with Musical Director Alex Rybeck. I will never forget at our first rehearsal, with Julie sitting on the sofa in Alex’s living room, softly speak-singing “I Thought About You.” No gardenia, no boa, no gown, just Julie, just devastating and me, sitting by her side, hearing the lyric anew, tears running down my cheek.
“I peeped through the crack
And looked at the track
The one going back to you
And what did I do? I thought about you.”
You’d asked for stories about Julie. There are so many that it’s hard to choose just one. And so many of us had the same experience with her – her kindness and generosity, her indomitable spirit, unwavering loyalty, and her good humor. She was a wonderfully entertaining raconteur and could teach lessons with every story she told. For someone so accomplished she also possessed an incredible sense of humility and dignity. Here’s a perfect example:
The first time that I met Julie Wilson wasn’t on stage aglow in romantic lights thrilling the hearts of a responsive audience. It was in the restroom of Eighty Eight’s, in the village on tenth street, shortly after the club opened. She was changing from sneakers to heels – a far more appropriate match to the skin-tight glitzy gown which hugged her slinky frame. She smiled at me as I was doing exactly the same thing, minus the glitzy gown and the slinky frame. It was a ritual that we we’d repeat, time after time, in clubs throughout Manhattan. Julie was famous among the cabaret literati for her ‘sneaks’ as she deftly negotiated New York traffic before traversing the Hudson river on New Jersey transit back home late at night. But as magical as she was in performance, it seemed like donning her sneaks was akin to Clark Kent putting on his glasses to hide the Superman within. Few people recognized Julie as she scurried about and Julie never seemed to notice, although it truly surprised me whenever we’d walk down the street together. But one evening Julie was part of a big Hollywood celebration of movie musicals at Carnegie Hall. She shared the bill with Cyd Charisse, Betty Garrett, Kathryn Grayson, Celeste Holm, Van Johnson, Ann Miller, and Donald O’Connor, just to name a few. Julie welcomed me backstage and it was, indeed, surreal to be surrounded by so many film icons. Julie took it all in stride, and when it was time to go she warned me as we approached the stage door, “Be careful”, she said, “There’s going to be a lot of people out there and I don’t want you to get hurt.” It was typical of Julie to think of others before herself. Sure enough, the door swung open, and the moment she stepped outside the crowd descended. People started shouting her name, asking for autographs and to pose for pictures. With deft charm, and the assurance only a lifetime of experience can bring, Julie handled it all with aplomb. Then she quietly walked down the street, anonymous once more. LESLEY ALEXANDER
As a schoolgirl in another time any potential swain who took me to The Maisonette to see Julie Wilson won my heart. I never imagined that in another life we would become intimate friends.
She came to every cabaret act I did, usually twice, to check my “enunciation.” And then we would go to Joe Allen where watching Julie focus on devouring every last bite of burger and fries was a lesson in itself. Before our last “blunch” in the fall I got to watch Julie brush her new silver hair, swiftly pin it into her twist and give me some quick pointers on applying makeup. Off we went for a lovely afternoon of omelets and laughter. Julie enriched my life in many ways. I cherish each memory, phone call and many photos from a camera…truly blessed.
Julie was all heart. When my partner died, she called me at home and was so caring in her message to me when she herself had suffered the heartbreak of losing her son. And for his memorial I asked her to sing the great song from Legs Diamond “The Music That Went Out of My Life.” She said she hadn’t sung it in years and looked for the music. She found it and rehearsed it with Tracy Stark the afternoon of the Memorial at Don’t Tell Mama. When she got up to sing it, she did forget some of the lyrics and prompted by Tracy she went back and started over. The friends of Frank who were not aware of who she was were stunned and asked who was that woman with the boa and the gardenia. Everyone at that Memorial sang a special song that had special meanings to Frank and me. And she was so compassionate to me when I thought I had found a new partner and expressed anger when it did not work out. And she always remembered everything we had done and said together, even in her last days. Her Memorial at Town Hall was one of the highlights of this year. She was a great artist but she had the biggest heart in the business. I remember seeing her at an Arlen tribute at Carnegie Hall when she hadn’t appeared in New York for years, living in Omaha with her sons! She was the best singer on the all star bill, I think she sang “I Had Myself A True Love” and it was stunning. I remember the first time I saw her in person in the music tent tour of “Babes In Arms” when she delivered “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “Johnny One Note” in a company that included Barbara Sharma and the music director was Peter Howard. And I never missed any of her shows at the Algonquin and took my uncle and aunt to see her there. They were great fans of Lisa Kirk but they rapidly converted to Julie Wilson fans. And it’s true, if there were only one or two people in the audience on a blizzard night she still did a full show! JOE REGAN
We all know Julie as the most timelessly beautiful, witty and heartfelt queen of cabaret. Many of us were also lucky enough to have experienced the kindest and most generous of souls. Julie went out of her way for people like no one else I’ve ever met. Julie was there for me both professionally and personally at every turn. Julie captivated me since I first saw her performing at Brothers & Sisters during the 1970s. It was my annual tradition to celebrate my birthday (falling the same week as her in October) attending her latest breathtaking show at the Algonquin, which my grandparents (Ben and Mary Bodne) owned from 1946-1987. She would have cut short a high school reunion in Nebraska to perform at a planned memorial when my grandfather passed away (though my grieving grandmother canceled the event). She was the highlight of the subsequent memorial to both of my grandparents in 2000, after my grandmother passed. She was always happy to learn and perform my songs at benefits and other events. She coached my son Steven, whom she was crazy about, on his singing when she attended his bar mitzvah in NJ. She was extraordinarily inspiring when I arranged for her to oversee a Master Class in cabaret arts. There never was and never will be anyone like the great Julie Wilson. – Michael Colby