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For a Song

The audience is small and shows are few and far between, but walking musical encyclopedia Ralph Lampkin lives and breathes cabaret.

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September 11. The phone had been ringing all morning as friends and family checked in, commiserating. Ralph had been one of the first. A transplanted New Yorker, he'd quickly reported that everyone he knew there was all right, "thank God." Now, later the same morning, he was calling back. His voice, full of a melodrama not unusual for him, was weighted with an extra dollop of emotion. "Do you know what they've done?" he queried, horrified. "They have shut down Broadway. They are closing the shows for the night!" After a timed pause, his voice lowered. "Do you know what this is going to do to the cabaret scene?"

Ralph Lampkin Jr., cabaret veteran and stage producer extraordinaire, was used to the hardships that seem to go hand in hand with the creative triumphs of the business. His "nothing's going to stop me" attitude had carried him through 20 years on the scene. True to form, within days of the tragedy he was taking action. Another phone call, another pronouncement: "I have to do something to show my patriotic side--my love for the place I grew up in, so why not do a show here and use Chicago talent? I think I'll call it 'A Time for Love.'" If the benefit would raise money for a worthy cause and highlight the singing talents of his friends--not to mention his own skills as an impresario--so much the better.

A traditional cabaret show has a pretty structured format: it consists of a vocalist and a piano accompanist (who sometimes also sings) performing "a one-hour show--one hour ten, max," says Lampkin. "The old-style cabaret was classic songbook numbers--Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Weill--one or two comedy things, and the big 11 o'clock number, which is always the showstopper. It's like a play: a good one must have a beginning, a middle, and an end--and great patter." Cabaret has a much larger following in New York than in Chicago. "In New York there are 20 rooms you can work in once you get your show together. Here, we have Davenport's, which follows the New York formula--an intimate room that holds no more than 75 people with the audience right on top of the performers, who are working for the door." The other room in Chicago that's thought of as cabaret is Gentry, "where you are actually paid for singing--but it's a three- to four-hour shift. You might make anywhere from $125 to $200 in salary and you also get tips in the jar--but it's still not enough to live on unless you have a steady."

Financial security, as Lampkin makes clear, is not something many cabaret artists enjoy. "Very few performers have regular gigs--Beckie Menzie, Alexandra Billings, and Honey West have long-term gigs at Gentry, Spider Saloff does a steady at the Metropole Room, Tommy Oman has been at the Zebra Lounge for years, Buddy Charles was with the Coq d'Or at the Drake until he retired, and Nan Mason was at Yvette for years. There are a few others. That's out of hundreds of performers in Chicago. There are a lot of piano player/singers vying for the same work--so you do private parties, wedding band gigs, you teach or coach. You play piano in the hotel lobbies and the malls--although player pianos are replacing even those."

A cabaret act, by necessity, becomes "something that you do in between all the other things that you have to do for a living. Listen, you don't do this for the money--unless you have 155 people in your family and they're going to come to every show for ten years. People do it because they love the focus on the hour show. You have to have a love of the field, a passion for the music and for communicating what the songs are saying to the audiences that want to hear this style."

Sound check at Lampkin's A Time for Love benefit for the Red Cross is in full swing by 6 PM on an unseasonably warm December 3. It's two hours before curtain inside the Apollo Theater, which donated the space for tonight's performance, and the producer is weaving his way through the seats in the house, making sure the levels pass muster. The performers sit slumped around the theater in street clothes, some reading, some talking in lowered voices, a few watching the stage. As Martha Lorin stands at the microphone onstage, Lampkin, a bear of a man dressed in a black suit and a black dress shirt, sits for a moment. "Martha's performed all over the world and she's flown here tonight from New York City to be with us." He almost chokes up listening to her sing the last few lines of "New York State of Mind." Recovering, he whispers sotto voce, "I like to keep around me the people that I know can deliver if I ask them to do something at a certain level of performance and dedication. Martha is a master at what she does. Period."

A friend appears, handing him a CD of rare Streisand material, and he screams with gratitude, becoming so giddy he almost hiccups. "Oh my God, oh my God, here's an outtake of 'Home' from The Broadway Album--I used to do that in my show!" "Ralph, Ralph," a stagehand calls, interrupting his reverie. Pursing his lips and fixing the intruder with a stony look he asks impatiently, "Yes?" A quick word from the stagehand, and Lampkin tosses the CD aside and is up and out of his seat. The duo of Beckie Menzie and Tom Michael now take their turn onstage as Lampkin goes to the sound booth at the back of the theater. As Michael sings, he hums along.

Lights flicker off and on as they're checked. Next up is Alexandra Billings, who saunters onstage wearing a square-shouldered mink coat and gigantic blue hair curlers. She immediately says into the mike, "Ralphie, where the hell are you?" From the booth, Lampkin's voice booms out, "Up here where I belong!" In the audience, Honey West and several other performers laugh at the banter between the producer and his star. Lampkin's adoration of Billings is legendary. "I waited a long time to find someone as gifted as Alex. First, of course, I had to realize that my love for exquisite talent was greater than my own love for performing. But it took me a long time to figure that out."

Betty Jane Rothschild was 30 in 1955, living on the upper west side of Manhattan. Indulged by her wealthy parents, she spent her time going to the theater, hanging out at Harlem's many jazz clubs, and partying with her friends. She'd taken a sales job at Saks to help her "kind of figure out how it was to work in the world," says Lampkin, but her father didn't push it. One night she was warming a booth at Turks Bar on 119th Street, sipping her scotch and soda, when she was introduced to the club's manager, Ralph Lampkin Sr. Ralph Sr., then 37, had been an entertainer, a triple threat who played piano, sang, and danced all through his 20s and early 30s. But he had left performing when he realized that he would never be as famous as the man he was repeatedly told he sounded like: Nat King Cole. Ralph and Betty started dating, and within a year she brought him home to meet her parents. The Rothschilds were Russian-German-Jewish and white. The Lampkins were English and African-American. The meeting did not go well. "My grandfather had a tantrum," says Ralph Jr. "He threatened my mother, saying, 'You'll never get a penny' and 'How could you do that' and yak yak yak yak, and my mother basically told him to go screw himself. It was a pretty big deal at the time, but when my mother said, 'That's the way it's going to be, get used to it,' that was it. She's a very strong woman."

The marriage took place in 1956, with Ralph Jr. coming along over a year later. A sister, Lisa, was born in 1959, and brothers Mark and Craig followed in 1962 and 1969, respectively. Lampkin supported his family by continuing to manage nightclubs and real estate properties. Ralph's mother stayed at home. Both parents made sure that their children had a healthy dose of culture. "We went to movies, the theater, ballet. My Aunt Carol was a ballet dancer," he recalls. "My father started taking me to different jazz sessions that were three, four, or five hours long. He wanted me to hear different jazz musicians and music, and I didn't understand one thing about it. I remember asking my father, 'Why do they play "I Got Rhythm" for half an hour?' and he said, 'Well, that's called improvisation. When you get older, you'll understand.'"

Betty's father thawed about two years after Ralph Jr.'s birth. "He saw that obviously my father was doing a good job raising us. He wanted to be part of our lives again." When Ralph was eight Betty's mother died, and the family moved into her apartment on Amsterdam Avenue. After being robbed during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965, they moved to the West Bronx, where Junior began to take violin lessons and to teach himself how to play the piano. He and Lisa attended public school, and it was very different from the Manhattan neighborhood they'd left. Taunted by the kids for being "prissy" and "well dressed" (Lisa, who was a tomboy, defended him), Ralph turned to singing. "I was a soloist in the Bronx boroughwide chorus. I could sing the soprano tones of A-flat, B-flat, and high C. We got to perform at Carnegie Hall--all over Manhattan. 'Jesus Christ Superstar' was our big number. We'd also do these talent shows in school. They didn't have a piano player so you'd sing with the record, with the mike. Of course, my big song was 'Don't Rain on My Parade,' from Streisand's Greatest Hits LP."

Lampkin was fascinated with Sammy Davis Jr. and other singers he saw on TV--Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, the Jackson Five on The Ed Sullivan Show ("We never missed that on Sunday nights"), and of course Judy Garland. "My mother loved all her movies. We would walk in Central Park and she'd tell me about Easter Parade. My mother said she was there the day they filmed that huge crowd scene." He also had a thing for Barbra Streisand, which started "when I saw On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in a movie theater in 1970. The minute she walked down the pavilion with the white sequined gown in that Cecil Beaton outfit, I was in love. Period. And then that voice coming from the screen--the emotion, the passion, the range, the quality, the tone."

He yearned to attend the School of Performing Arts. "My father said, 'No, you're going to a school where you can study a trade. I've been doing this for a long time and it's not a business for you. You're too soft-hearted. You're a sissy.' I decided to go to the NY School of Printing and Journalism because I could at least learn how to write about music, and it was in Manhattan so I would be closer to the theater district."

That first year, his father came to parents' night. "My choral teacher, Phillip Ames- Fein, said to my father, 'You have to transfer your son to music and art where he belongs,' and my father replied, 'My son is going to rot in this school, and he's not going into the music business.' I was so devastated that I started skipping school. I'd head toward the theater district. I'd sing in the alleys. I'd go to Central Park and sing 'On a Clear Day' like Barbra in the movie."

He moved in with his grandfather in Manhattan during the last year of high school. "I wanted to get away from the house. Basically I told my father, 'I'm gonna try to sing, I'm gonna try to do that. I'm gonna show you that you're wrong.' I went to school during the day and I started going to open mikes at night. I went to Arthur's and the Duplex. I'd do 'What I Did for Love' and 'God Bless the Child' and anything by Johnny Mathis. I was 18 and so in love with his voice. I still am. I have all 150 of his records. We sound alike--I've been told that for a long time."

On Lampkin's 18th birthday, "My father said, 'We're going to see some friends of mine,'" he recalls. "He knew that I was singing and working on my dream, but that was about all. I was living with my grandfather, remember. He took me downtown to the Gershwin Theatre, and he said something to the doorman, yak yak yak yak, and we went into the elevator which goes upstairs. The door opens, I get out, my father stays in the elevator holding the button. Onstage is Sammy Davis Jr. performing with an orchestra. He sees me there, stops rehearsal, and comes over. 'Hello, Ralph Jr., how are you?' Well I was shitting in my pants. I'd adored him all my life. What I didn't know is that when I was one or two he was part of our life. My father hadn't seen him in years, but he'd set this up for my birthday present. Sammy says, 'Happy birthday, so nice to see you, my God you've grown since the last time I saw you.' I was overwhelmed. He says, 'Call me Uncle Sammy,' and I said, 'Thanks, Uncle Sammy,' and he did a tap step, and then, before going back to rehearsal, he turns to my father and says, 'They're in the back room.' We go into the back room, and there are the Nicholas Brothers--who, it turns out, are two of my father's oldest friends. They had danced together years and years before. This was all before the show.

"Afterward, we went to the Howard Johnson's at 52nd and 8th Avenue with the Nicholas Brothers and my dad and no one else. We talked for four hours about the business. My father had a better business sense than a talent--meaning that he knew there were other people like him, better than him, so why go into the business? It was quite an acknowledgment of me going into the business." His father hadn't exactly given him his blessing, but it seemed like they had finally agreed to disagree.

Just out of high school in 1975, Lampkin was working at a Burger King in Times Square. "I started meeting people in the theater and seeing movies and experimenting with my sexuality--I was starting to come out of my shell. This laughter started bubbling up in me." He kept going to open mikes, and one day he walked into Colony Records, Manhattan's acknowledged show-tune mecca, where he met his first mentor, Ronnie Coles, manager of the 45s department. "He had played Cornelius with Pearl Bailey in the black Hello Dolly in '65. He was a DJ, six foot three and Puerto Rican and black and stunning to look at. I would spend hours standing behind Ronnie at the record player while he played me all this great stuff. I started getting into stuff that is now so obscure: Julie Budd, Helen Schneider, Sissy Spacek's country-and-western record. I started seeing the cabaret legends around town and having an appreciation for them. I was learning my craft and trying to work totally on my music."

One afternoon at Burger King a woman named Sarai (Hebrew for "princess") Padilla walked up to the soda station and asked for a Coke. "I ran to get it for her. She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen." Padilla, recently arrived from Puerto Rico, returned the next day, and soon the two were dating. "I'd only been out with one girl before, Denise Aaron, who I took to see Carol Channing in Lorelei when I was 16." Within a short time Ralph and Sarai got an apartment in the Village. "But that was just for a brief time. We broke up--yak yak yak yak--I stayed in that apartment, and it was then that I started to see the most beautiful men. I still adored women, but all these men that were there...!"

By that point Lampkin was doing open mike at the Duplex so often that they hired him for Saturday nights. This led to gigs at the Good Times Restaurant and Beefsteak Charlie's. While the disco craze was swirling around him, Lampkin was busy belting out "Tomorrow" from Annie. His frequent accompanist was the rehearsal pianist for that show, the late Marc Malamed. "He would find great, obscure songs for me--'Yellow Roses on Her Gown' from Mathis's Send in the Clowns LP. Brilliant things, brilliant things. In those days they called it a nightclub act. You did an hour of material with a five-piece band. I just wanted to make a living at it." He worked on his lyrics, took jobs as a demonstration singer for songwriters, and "continued to learn."

Along the way he met Karen Mason (now starring on Broadway in Mamma Mia) and Pat Benatar. There was a chance meeting with legendary jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughan, which led to dinner and a revelation from Sassy: "I could have been your mother--I was in love with your father back in the 40s." There was the night he was called into a limo by Stephanie Mills, then starring in The Wiz on Broadway. Once inside, Cookie ("to those of us who know her") extolled Lampkin's talents to LaToya and Michael Jackson, and they ended up taking him to a Sammy Davis Jr. show at Radio City Music Hall. Mills and Lampkin linked arms as the quartet strolled down the red carpet.

Every person Lampkin has ever met, worked with, or bumped into on the subway is grist for his showbiz story mill. Everyone in his life is attached in his mind by their connection, no matter how tenuous, to someone or something in the Business. Sooner or later, no matter what he's talking about, he'll get to a name or a song that you'll recognize. As in: "Jeannie Napoli, whose career was paid for by her husband, was an OK singer but a great songwriter. She introduced me to her songwriting partner, Doug Frank, who wrote 'After You,' which was recorded by Cissy Houston's sister, Dionne Warwick, who is, of course, the aunt of Whitney Houston." These digressions appear to be unconscious, like a speech impediment or a facial tic; he doesn't seem to hear himself.

In 1979 Rocky Rockhold, a pianist from Chicago who was in New York on vacation, saw one of Lampkin's shows. Rockhold, liking what he heard, urged Lampkin to try a gig in the Windy City. The two began a correspondence. "During the two years that he was writing me, I had more success than I'd ever had. I opened for the cabaret legend Sylvia Syms; I worked more frequently. I never had a manager or an agent." He saw The Wiz 30 times, saw Liza Minnelli in The Act 28 times, and got hired at the ultimate cabaret room of the period, the Backstage Restaurant.

"This is a definite turning point," Lampkin says. "It was at 35th Street and Broadway and had been opened by Ted Hook, who had been Tallulah Bankhead's secretary in the 60s. I sang there with Steve Ross, who was the piano player and is now a legend in the cabaret world. I sang there every week with him." His voice is rising. "I met Karen Akers, Erv Raible, the legendary godfather of cabaret. Chita Rivera came in--Lola Rivera, her sister, managed the place." Then, of course, the coup de grace: "Liza came in! This was it as far as being accepted by your peers. I mean all the show people came in. My sister Lisa used to come in dressed in her furs to watch me sing. Of course, I also met some evil people which we will not go into, subject closed. Period."

This was particularly sweet music after a stinging disappointment: an ill-conceived audition for Debbie Allen (of Fame fame) for a disco label. "I sang and danced to 'Last Dance,' and she said, 'Well, you're obviously not a disco singer, but you're sexy as hell,' and I said, 'I may be cute but I don't think sexy.'" Allen passed the demo tape on to her husband, a vice president at Epic records. He listened to it and pronounced, 'There's already a Johnny Mathis, Ralph, sorry.'"

Now it was 1981, and this time when Rockhold beckoned, Lampkin listened. "He wrote that he had a job for me at the restaurant he was playing piano in and that I could stay with him. The Backstage Restaurant gig was over with, and I wasn't doing that much. Things were at a low for me personally. I said, 'Yeah, I'll come out.' I thought it would be maybe three months at first."

Lampkin's train pulled in to Union Station in early 1981. Everything fell apart within weeks. Lampkin and the restaurant management didn't hit it off. Rockhold's wife had a heart attack and needed constant nursing. But even in such a short period of time, Lampkin had come to befriend a handful of local performers: Sasha Dalton, Sue Conway, Suzanne Palmer, Shay Jones--"all these people that I know now 21 years later. I moved in with Sasha on the south side for a while. I would take the bus all the way into town." Dalton was the first of numerous roommates he would have in the next several years.

Lampkin had come with some savings, and he began researching the clubs, scouting for cabaret jobs. When the money began to run out he got a job as a bar back at the Loading Zone, a gay bar in a basement on Oak Street. Almost a year later he still hadn't landed a cabaret gig when his old friend Karen Mason, back in her hometown for a visit, made a phone call that got Lampkin a job at His-n-Hers, a lesbian bar under the Howard el Addison stop. "I remember the first night, I was terrified--the gay women's basketball team was in the audience. The place was packed, and not because of me. I hid behind the table next to the bar and I had them turn down the radio and I started singing 'Pure Imagination' a cappella, which shut them up because they thought it was Mathis on the radio and from there it went fine."

Lampkin was there off and on for two or three years, and he took other jobs where he could find them. Even though there weren't many steady gigs, things were more laid-back in Chicago. "There's not the level of-- well, let's just say that New York audiences are very, very difficult. Everything has to look beautiful all the time. You have to play the game; you have to go to lunch, to dinner. That's exhausting."

A potential break came when Lampkin met an older man at the Loading Zone who loved his voice and agreed to pay for an album. "I began recording with Bruce Robbins, who was Chicago's Liberace double. He played for Diahann Carroll and Totie Fields--he was exquisitely gifted. Jennifer Girard [was] shooting me for the cover. Then, in the middle of recording, the guy dies of a heart attack. I was devastated. We stopped recording. I don't even have the recordings. His wife, I think, might have them. I certainly wasn't allowed to get them."

Not long after that he took a job at Coulsons Music Matters on Van Buren, where he eventually got put in charge of ordering all the Broadway and pop sheet music for the store. Lynn Orman, a freelance music publicist and event producer, met Lampkin around this time. "I just fell in love with him," she says. "To me he's always been a walking book of music knowledge--he always blew my mind. I was new in the industry and he knew everything. I assumed that he'd been reading Variety and Billboard since he was like three." Lampkin began writing press releases for Orman's clients. Then, depressed about the scrapped recording, "I also started writing poems and prose again. I had done that in school." In 1986 his roommate at the time, Debra Schwartz, liked what she read and got him a job covering nightlife and the Chicago music scene for the short-lived magazine Jam Sessions. "This is how I met so many people," he says. "Plus I could write about the people that I loved in cabaret."

The more he wrote, the more he pulled away from singing. "I began to transfer my passion for singing into sharing my experiences and knowledge with new performers." Lampkin, who was also by now managing Showcase One, at Belmont and Sheffield, had met scores of other cabaret singers and was starting to coach and offer career advice. "I realized that I got a better kick out of helping people than rehearsing on my own. I wanted to get work for people that I thought should be seen."

Meanwhile, his personal life, on the back burner for so long, had taken a turn. On a hot July evening in 1985, Lampkin accompanied some friends to a bar in South Bend called the Sea Horse. He found himself standing on the outside deck. "I was bored and turned around and there he was, and he was so gorgeous I was having a tantrum. He looked like Don Johnson. In fact, he had just won the Don Johnson look-alike contest at the bar. I asked him to dance, and we go dancing, and we're together for hours talking, and the next day we went for lunch."

Beau Lawrence, an artist and hairdresser, fell for Lampkin as well. Lampkin began commuting back and forth to Indiana. In 1989 he moved into Beau's Victorian house in South Bend, which they've shared ever since. That same year the two opened Beaux-Arts, a combination art gallery and hair salon, and Lampkin began making his name known around town as a music coach and event producer. "Beau," Lampkin says emphatically, "is the reason why I did not go back to New York. I came to realize that something had been missing from my life."

In 1988 Lampkin got a call from Michael Cardella, husband and manager of the comedian and nightclub performer Pudgy. "He asked me to come to New York for three months and run her shows at the Blue Angel and Catch a Rising Star. This was the turning point of me just running shows, doing lights, sound, everything."

At the behest of Orman in 1992, Lampkin began coproducing events with her. Among the duo's projects were jazz singer Spider Saloff's Gershwin tribute and Broadway performer Hinton Battle's one-man show. On his own Lampkin has produced New York debuts for Audrey Morris, Corey Jamison, Tom Michael, and Beckie Menzie. In December 1999 he put together a show at the Mercury Theater to benefit Teen Living Programs; A Holiday Cabaret moved to Bailiwick for its 2000 and 2001 incarnations.

He's had his share of disappointments--like producing a demo for Wendy Como, granddaughter of Perry, who eloped before it could be finished, or trying to shop a nightclub act for Roslyn Kind, who refused to use any references to her stepsister Barbra Streisand in her billing. On the upside, he's moved into producing CDs, first with sax instrumentalist Danny Lerman and then with Loretta Del Los Rios, David Gurland, and Martha Lorin.

In 1995 he reconnected with Alexandra Billings, the transgendered singer and actor he'd first met back in the early 80s. "I went to see her cabaret act with Pudgy, and I was blown away. She was absolutely amazing. It was just incredible how she could go from one thing to the next with split-second timing. I said to Alex, 'That's it, we've got to talk about doing a CD.' It took me forever to talk her into that." At about the same time he was producing Lorin's jazz CD Come Walk With Me for the Southport label, and he brought the Billings project there. After two years' work getting financing and recording, Being Alive was released in June 2000, with two parties--at Gentry (where Billings continues to have a rabid following) and Pops for Champagne. By this time Lampkin had introduced Billings to New York audiences, and she returned there with the CD in tow.

When Lampkin speaks about Billings, it is immediately clear that she is the One. "There is no one who does what Alex does--no one. The timing, the acting within the song--she is fully within the song, as opposed to other people who are listening to the beauty of their own voice. She has that spark, it, whatever it is. And I should know; my grandmother was best friends with Clara Bow. I want Alex to do a Broadway musical, Carnegie Hall, perform in every major room that she can. I think she can do that."

Billings, who's currently in New York appearing in Melancholy Baby! (a revamped production of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Hamlet! The Musical), bursts into bawdy laughter upon hearing Lampkin's tribute. "Oh my God, Ralphie. Oh Ralphie. How flattering and wonderful. You know, I can't remember a time when he wasn't in my life--isn't that interesting? We have mutual respect. I can't tell you how brilliant he was in the studio. Plus the guy is a walking library--you stick a card in his ear and out comes sheet music. He's like a musical ATM machine."

Being Alive sold out its initial run of 1,000. Another run is on the way, and a live CD will follow by the end of the year, with Lampkin again producing, in partnership with Orman. After years of hard work there might actually be some money to be made.

In the meantime there are other projects in the works. Lampkin is on the board of the Bailiwick Arts Center, in charge of their cabaret series. He's vice president of the Chicago Cabaret Professionals Group (which has 200-plus members). There is more publicity to be done on the Robin Kay dance single, "I Didn't Go to My Prom," which Lampkin produced last year as his label's debut. And though he didn't have an official hand in this weekend's Chicago Cabaret Convention, organizer Donald Smith did call him for advice early on. Lampkin says multitasking energizes him. "I don't see a problem with producing, coaching, lighting, designing, directing, doing the press--if you can do it all. There's nothing wrong with that. I call it the Streisand Syndrome." On his weekly train trips back and forth between South Bend and Chicago, he writes press releases, makes to-do lists, jots down notes on his performers. That's when he listens to Johnny and Barbra. Sadly, Beau doesn't have a taste for Miss Buttah, so "I get my fix on that two-and-a-half-hour train ride. Listening to Barbra always cheers me up."

Backstage at A Time for Love, stage manager Rusty Hernandez begins to gather everyone for a last-minute word from their producer. The women, now decked out in stage makeup and evening gowns, and the men, mostly in tuxedos, begin to cluster. Lampkin enters the large dressing room, thanks everyone for donating their time "and your God-given talent," and says that he expects "nothing less than greatness tonight. We've got a good audience out there just dying to give it up for you." There is a spattering of applause as he heads toward the wings. Hernandez calls, "Five minutes."

Tonight there are almost 30 performers on the bill (with this writer's alter ego, Dick O'Day, serving as emcee). Standing in the wings as he puts on a headset so he can cue the lighting and sound technicians, Lampkin explains his lineup. "This is the way I like to present talent to the general public. An eclectic group of people--from my ten-year-old new discovery Susan May, who I'm producing in the studio, to legends like Audrey Morris, who worked with Billie Holiday and Oscar Peterson, to Nan Mason, who audiences remember from Yvette, to Tommy Oman, who started his career working with Barry Manilow." He is pacing, holding the start of the show while a few latecomers find their seats. He leans in, whispering, "They are going to shit in their pants after this is through!" He goes to take a peek at the house and quickly returns. "It's a terrific, fabulous house--I knew it would be. I look fabulous, the place looks fabulous, we have fabulous talent here tonight." A glance at his watch: 8:10. "That's it. We're up. House lights down," he hisses into the headset.

On a chilly February Sunday more than two months later, Lampkin is up in the tech booth setting the lights for Bailiwick's cabaret series. This is its second year, and tonight he's debuting a young Laura Linney look-alike named Alanda Coon. She's a musical-theater veteran, but this is her first cabaret show.

The small theater, which looks to hold 60, is packed. Despite his large frame, Lampkin scrambles down the rickety ladder from the booth. He has given last words of advice to Coon and has his set list in front of him. She enters in darkness as her accompanist and musical arranger Alan Bukowiecki begins to play. Her program follows the traditional cabaret format exactly.

Watching from the booth, Lampkin gets misty during her rendition of the torch classic "Cry Me a River." With a big sigh, he says, "Cabaret is a world made up of artificial emotions. It's only onstage that you can be allowed to be big and boisterous and theatrical." At the end of the show he's delighted with Coon's daring encore selection, a song called "Annie Sprinkle," an original about the performance artist that Coon sang earlier in the season in a Bailiwick musical revue.

At the conclusion of the performance he rushes backstage with congratulations. After the two exchange promises to work together again, he's ready to go to dinner. In a booth at the Golden Apple at Lincoln and Wellington ("This is so New York--like a diner you'd find on 42nd Street"), he is momentarily heavy with the weight of the world. "I feel like a musical underdog sometimes, because cabaret has such a small place in our culture. But I'm also a person that loves seeing someone connect with a song that was meant for them. That is the ultimate validation for me. If the act works well and the show works well and the audience hears what I hear--the joy of first discovery. It's an extension of who I still am. That little 13-year-old kid singing along with the Streisand 'Don't Rain on My Parade' record."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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