MAC Remembers cabaret legend Julie Wilson with show and dedication of memorial plaque at Don’t Tell Mama
by Linda Amiel Burns
On Sunday, October 30, 2016 a sold out crowd gathered to honor the memory of Julie Wilson with a show and dedication of a memorial plaque to hang at Don’t Tell Mama. The afternoon was hosted by MAC President Lennie Watts with several singers and musical directors, including Julie’s son Holt McCalanny, sharing their memories of this beloved cabaret legend who passed away in the Spring of 2015 at the age of 90.
Debbie Damp was Julie’s constant companion and escort the last few years of her life. She said that when they met it was a “divine appointment” but Julie said it was “Kismet.” Accompanied by Tex Arnold who also shared his memories of Julie, Debbie sang “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” as Julie showed her how to “live life to the fullest.” Christopher Zelno, also a dear friend of Julie’s, said that it was his job to look after her and sang the protective “Not While I’m Around.” Chris Denny, her long time accompanist, said that Julie was a complicated woman, yet very simple. He spoke of the time that she walked up twenty flights to his apartment during a blackout, rehearsed full out, and insisted on sleeping on the floor that night as they had a gig in Atlanta the next day.
Stearns Matthews spoke of Julie’s encouragement when he was first starting out and sang “My Romance.” Lorinda Lisitza performed “Surabaya Johnny” as she was blown away the first time she heard Julie sing this dramatic Weil song at Town Hall, and then watched her perform during her act at the Metropolitan Room every night.
Sidney Myer had many memories of Julie over a 30 year period, and as people had talked about her “Nebraska pioneer spirit,” Sidney blurted out, “well I am a pioneer woman from Philadelphia!” He recalled a time when her son, Holt, came into the club and the staff was all excited as he was on TV and in the movies. When they asked Julie what it was like to have a famous son, she replied, “He knows how to treat people” and that was what was important to this special woman. His tender rendition of “I Want To Be With You” was heartbreaking.
Holt McCallany, is now shooting a new Netflix TV Series called “Mindbenders” with Jonathan Groff in Pittsburgh and was given the weekend off to attend this tribute to his wonderful mother. Holt showed a brief trailer of a documentary entitled “But Beautiful” that is in the works. He brought noted trumpet player Seneca Black on stage to add to the magic as he sang a rousing duet of “That’s Life” with Jonathan. It was the perfect ending to a tribute for this remarkable woman who experienced all the ups and downs of life, but always pushed through even after several strokes, showed up at everyone’s show, always concerned about others, and who moved us all with her deeply personal song interpretations.
There was not a person in the room who didn’t love Julie and have special memories of her. On a personal note, Julie was a dear friend of my father’s, so I have known her all of my life. I remember my dad taking me to the Maisonette Room at the St. Regis as a teenager, and I was overcome when I saw this beautiful woman, in a gorgeous gown, gardenia in her hair, singing just to me. We really bonded again when she returned to NY and found ourselves in the cabaret world. Sometime she would phone me late at night just to talk for hours.
On a personal note, Julie attended multi performances of The Singing Experience over the years as she loved to encourage talent, and her lifelong buddy Jerry Laird (in 75 workshops) fulfilled his dream of singing that began late in life. Jerry and Julie grew up together in Omaha and shared a birthday (born 12 hours apart) so we often celebrated together either on Oct. 21 or 22! My students were always thrilled when Julie came up to each and every one after a performance to say something kind and loving to them. It was something they never forgot.
With the upcoming documentary, the plaque at Don’t Tell Mama, the CD’s she recorded, and our memories of this extraordinary woman…….Julie Wilson will live on!
Photos: Maryann Lopinto
Video: Magda Katz