In the 25 years since cabaret singer Julie Wilson last performed in Los Angeles, she has sung on Broadway, gone into semi-retirement, made a comeback and become the toast of New York's cabaret circuit. "I guess I've just been working elsewhere and I didn't have any offers (here)--it's that simple," the 61-year-old singer said the other day in the Roosevelt Hotel's Cinegrill, where she'll be performing with pianist Billy Roy from Thursday to Aug. 23.
New York critics have become entangled in superlatives when describing the chanteuse's renditions of both standards and obscurities by the likes of Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Rodgers and Hart and Stephen Sondheim. Through diction and phrasing, her interpretations rank her among the genre's finest stylists.
"All I can say is that I was very lucky . . . because I had a brilliant agent," said Wilson, a former Miss Nebraska.
That agent was Barron Polan, and it was after Wilson's eight years of semi-retirement that he outdid himself.
Wilson had returned to her home in Omaha, Neb., in 1976 to care for her ailing brother and father and to spend time with her two sons. But eight years later, her children left home, and her parents and brother had died, so she contacted Polan and told him she was ready to resume her singing career.
A few days later, Polan caught a bus and literally bumped into Hilary Knight, an artist. Polan told Knight of Wilson's intentions.
Knight, who, among other things, designs posters for Michael's Pub in New York, contacted the people at the club, and Henry Luhrman, the director of public relations at Michael's, rang up Wilson in Omaha.
"Well, he called at Christmas time, and I needed to be ready by Jan. 3," she recalled. "And I said, 'Oh, I need a new act!' "
"And he said, 'You don't need to be ready. We want you to do Cole Porter.' "
A veteran of such Porter shows as "Kiss Me Kate"(she played the role of Bianca on Broadway and in London), "Panama Hattie" and "Anything Goes," Wilson accepted the offer, and her comeback was under way.
Wilson's performances at the Cinegrill recall her first career triumph, which was at the Mocambo Room in Hollywood in 1948, when she was 23.
"When I was here," she recalled, "I was a little girl, a baby doll. I did some material that I didn't quite understand like 'A Man Is a Wonderful, Wonderful Thing.' And you know, I thought it was a cute song, but when you've lived 45 years, you really know what the song says."
Released in 1949, the song became Wilson's first record. However, when she turned the upbeat Ray McKinley version of the number into a slow, sensual tune, it was banned from radio play because it was considered too risque.
"Isn't that a hoot!" she said.
Wilson thinks her career "has nowhere to go but up." She recently performed in London for the first time in 30 years, and her repertoire has been beefed up through numerous American appearances. Wilson plans to continue singing cabaret, and thoughts of Broadway are also on her mind. But for now, she's savoring her return to Hollywood and her revitalized career.
"It feels like a new beginning," she said. "A lot of the fears and the insecurity of never believing that I was good held me back. And now I realize that it all can't be luck, it isn't all fate. I figure this is the last time around, so whatever happens, I'm gonna take a flyer and take a chance. I'm not afraid."