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."