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In Good Hands

Singers of every stripe maek their way to Beckie Menzie's weekly open mike.

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By Justin Hayford

It's around 10:30 Sunday night at Gentry, the only gay piano bar left in downtown Chicago. Behind the keyboard Beckie Menzie is about to start the second set of her weekly open-mike cabaret. Tonight anybody who wants to can sing with her. It's like an invitation to shoot some hoops with Michael Jordan, even if you can't dribble.

Usually the room is packed at this hour. Wannabes, misfits, local notables, retirees, struggling actors, and the occasional bona fide star sit quietly and listen; Menzie insists on that. Some appear on Broadway regularly. Some couldn't carry a tune with a forklift. But on Sunday nights, when den mother Menzie presides over her eclectic troop, everyone is an artist. The talented and the tone-deaf wait side by side for a chance to belt out two numbers to Menzie's sumptuous playing.

Tonight, however, most of the regular crowd is otherwise engaged; seven people stare at her in silence. "Between Halsted market days and Donna Summer at Ravinia, it may be just us tonight," she says, then attacks the keys with her trademark sophisticated recklessness. It sounds like she's got 17 fingers on each hand. When she really starts cooking, she improvises with such daring it's nearly impossible to envision how she'll find her way back to the melody. She begins singing the open-mike rules, to the tune of "Don't Rain on My Parade."

Don't warble something trite by Jerry Herman

Don't belt unless you're built like Ethel Merman

And don't bring me up a song that I don't want to play.

You left your music home, forgot to bring it?

You can't recall the key, but could I wing it?

Don't tell me it's a song that I don't want to play...

She's been doing the show for a decade; this Sunday at 9 she'll mark her tenth anniversary. In addition to a loyal corps of regulars, national cabaret stars like Ann Hampton-Calloway and Michael Feinstein drop in from time to time. "When Feinstein is here, all the boys want to sing for him," she says with a smile so broad you fear it might swallow you whole.

Let Phantom fade out

Lay off Les Miz

Dump Chess, it's played out

Take my advice and

Don't ever bend a note like Streisand

It's only open mike...

Tonight's first set was a giddy cavalcade of gaffes and blunders. Menzie's voice cracked on the third measure of her opening number, a satirical homage to plastic surgery she just wrote called "Color Me Beautiful." Then Tracy came up from the tiny audience and proceeded to drop several lyrics. Dawn-Marie started her second song in the wrong key. I took a stab at "Let's Take a Walk Around the Block" and stared stupidly for a good 30 seconds trying to remember the second verse. But then there are few things more valuable to a musician than a safe place to fall on your ass.

The only person who didn't screw up was Dave, who sings nothing but ballads every week. He started coming to Menzie's open mike two years ago when his cancer went into remission. "I always wanted to sing, and I thought I'd better do it sooner rather than later," he says. "It saved me, singing with Beckie. It's joyful. Well, I only sing sad songs, but it's joyful to sing with her. She feels what I feel. It's therapy."

Don't worry if your pitch is not perfection

I'll try to lead you in the right direction

Just don't tell me it's a song that I don't want to plaaayyyy...

When Menzie was in third grade she walked a few blocks to Bernice Noble's house every week for her piano lesson. After only a few months she found herself playing more notes than the ones written on the page--a lot more. "I don't really know how that happened," she says with a laugh. "But it infuriated my teacher. She said, 'You have to learn what's on the page.' And I said, 'But I feel more.' I didn't understand what I was doing. But I knew I was making her unhappy."

After three years she stopped going to Miss Noble's, but Pierceton, Indiana, with less than a thousand residents, didn't offer many alternatives, so she played on her own. By the time she reached high school a new teacher, Ruby Ross, had come to town.

"She loved the fact that I was embellishing," Menzie says. "She was just as interested in developing my mind as my music. So she started challenging me to improvise." After two years Miss Ross told Menzie she had nothing more to teach her.

With high school graduation approaching, Menzie auditioned for and got into several music conservatories but opted for Manchester College, a small Church of the Brethren school 20 minutes from home with a solid music program. She declared a double major of voice and piano. Within a month after classes began she had hordes of juniors and seniors asking her to accompany them.

"I would go to their voice lessons, and they were very advanced," she recalls. "It was all about growing and moving on, making things really happen musically. And then I would go to my lesson--I had never studied--and it was so rudimentary. Basic technique and boring songs. So I thought I must be terrible. I dropped the voice major and wouldn't sing for a long time."

Manchester became an exercise in self-doubt. Then, the summer after her sophomore year, Menzie got a job at the Wagon Wheel Theatre in nearby Warsaw playing second keyboard in Dames at Sea. She was promoted to musical director for the next show, where she worked with Broadway performers like Jim Walton, Faith Price, and Gregg Edelman. "Here were all these amazing people, and they liked what I was doing."

Wagon Wheel's musical director, Earl Rivers, was on the faculty at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and offered her admission on the spot. "I had many accompanying commitments at Manchester, so I said no. But returning to a school without the electricity of the performers I had worked with all summer left me lost." She filled her free time working as musical director for student productions and, of course, accompanying. "I felt the faculty allowed me to get into a place where I was serving the department more than it was serving me."

So a few months later she dropped out, joined a band "a little bit higher up than a wedding band," and fled to Elkhart, Indiana. She was 19 and making very little money. But for the first time in her life she was answering to no one.

"I really lucked out," she says. "The guys in the band gave me back a confidence in singing that I had lost. And they turned me on to an amazing array of musical styles that I had never known. They would sit me in front of their stereo and have me listen to Phoebe Snow or Patrice Rushen or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. Up to this point my exposure to American popular music had been Lawrence Welk."

Two years later, in 1979, she left the group to get married. She hums cheerily to herself for a moment, then rolls her eyes. "That was fun."

There are two rules at Menzie's open mike: you don't have to be any good to participate and no matter how good you are you'd better not take yourself too seriously. "Sometimes the people who aren't 'good' are the best to watch," she says, "because the performance is not about ego. It's about loving a lyric."

That makes Bob the perfect open-mike groupie. A slightly disheveled, terminally good-natured guy who makes his living betting on horse races, he's been at Gentry almost every week of Menzie's reign. "I don't have any musical training, I can't keep a good tempo," he says with a shrug. "But singing is my hobby. I have zero stage fright. I just get up and do the best I can. This is a hoot."

Tonight he attempts "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." He bungles the first verse so completely he's forced to start again. "This is Bob, take two," Menzie quips, as she always does when a singer needs a second chance. Bob starts again and by the middle of the first refrain he's run away with the tempo. Some measures have five beats, some three, some disappear altogether. But his shoulders are bouncing happily, his pitch is unwavering, and he's nailing the high notes. It's a performance of pure bliss. And Menzie stays underneath him the entire time, never letting him fall.

Menzie's marriage only lasted two years. For some time after that, music continued to fade into the background of her life. She ended up in Fort Wayne as marketing director of the Embassy Theatre, a 2,700-seat restored auditorium that hosted Broadway tours and musical acts like Tom Jones. She continued to gig regularly, but one very bad week at the Embassy convinced her to seek her fortune in the big city.

"I had booked Dionne Warwick," she explains. "You could always tell what the act was going to be like when the crew arrived at eight o'clock in the morning. If they are unhappy, if they're mean to the locals, then they aren't being treated well." Warwick's crew, it seemed, wasn't being treated well at all. "She was coming from Radio City Music Hall to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and she was just in a bad mood. She was condescending to an audience of people who had paid a fair amount to see her, condescending to her crew, condescending to everyone. And when I had to hand over that check to her manager, I sat on the floor against my office door and cried."

A few days later she went to the theater's board meeting with a proposal for an organ concert. It was designed to appeal to seniors and had a modest budget by Warwick standards--only five or six thousand dollars. She thought the theater would take a loss on it, although not much of one. "The purpose of the theater in my eyes was to be an arts resource for the entire community," she says, "not just to bring in Dionne Warwick and Broadway tours which made money. Certainly that's what our mission statement said."

The board debated her proposal for nearly half an hour but couldn't come to a consensus. Then the facilities committee submitted a proposal to buy nine vintage-looking wastepaper baskets for $1,200. "This was more than the anticipated loss for the organ series," she says. "It was approved right away. And I thought, 'I don't want to be here.'"

So in the spring of 1989 she packed up and moved to Chicago, where she'd landed a job as marketing director with the Pegasus Players. A few weeks after her arrival she headed out to Boombala, a funky, cramped cabaret in west Lakeview where her friend Mark Hawbecker was hosting an open mike. Menzie got onstage and banged out a few numbers, and the owner quickly hired her as pianist for the house band.

Boombala didn't pay much, just a cut of the door. But a few months later Menzie was at a party and met Dave Edwards, the owner of Gentry. "I wanted to work at Gentry. It was a club I'd heard a lot about, and I liked Dave. So I filled in at open mike on Labor Day weekend, and I never left."

These days Menzie is one of the most well-known and versatile musicians on the local cabaret scene. She plays almost every night of the week at Gentry or Catch 35, regularly accompanies local heroes like Honey West and Tom Michael, writes sparkling songs with lyricist Cheri Coons, and occasionally lets loose with her own jazz trio. But the open mike remains her favorite gig. "I think a lot of it has to do with the circle of friends I've found who all share an interest in music. And even the people who may not be as talented as others, sometimes I see them find a family."

It's nearly one o'clock in the morning as the open mike draws to a close. Menzie was right about Northalsted Market Days and Donna Summer; the room was never more than a quarter full. As the six of us who stuck it out blink wearily, Menzie closes with a lush, heartbreaking version of "Don't Go to Strangers." You could swear she lived every moment of the song. Her voice is thick like a summer rain, and her instrumental break is more outrageous than anything she's done all night. Alone in the spotlight against a blue velvet curtain, she pushes herself to the limit, "dancing on the precipice" in her famous phrase, for the benefit of a half dozen sleepy people who are ready for bed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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