John O'Neil - Interviews

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New England Entertainment Digest, March 2006

John O'Neil – Mr. Cabaret

by Pamela Enders

It was perhaps the coldest night of the winter, and John O'Neil and I were headed to the Café Ole. One of us was wearing a sensible down coat. The other – a big fluffy raccoon fur coat. If you know anything about John O'Neil, you would guess (rightly) that it was he who was wearing the fur. In Cambridge yet!

I have known John O'Neil since 1998. At our first meeting, I asked him if I were too old to begin a cabaret career. His response was immediate and passionate. "I've seen plenty of 20 years olds who want to sing "The Man That Got Away" and they haven't got a clue as to what they're singing about! You've got to have lived in order to be a good cabaret performer!" And with that – here is the story about Mr. Cabaret.

O'Neil grew up in Brookline, "the working class, Irish part of Brookline near the churches." His first venture on stage was at the tender age of 5. Judy Kelley, his babysitter, decided to mount a musical extravaganza in her mother's basement. She collected all the folding chairs she could, draped a sheet over her mother's clothesline and charged everyone 10 cents to get in. O'Neil remembers 3 things about his debut:

First, Judy cast me in the role of Peter Pan and I was to have made my entrance down the basement stairs in some type of an Isadora Duncan/Martha Graham style interpretive dance while she played a 78 rpm record on her little Victrola. Second, she made me wear he mother's green tights and third, although she charged a nickel to everyone who came in – I never saw a dime of it!"

O'Neil's musical career began at age 7 with piano lessons, which his beloved Nana paid for. He recalls a neighborhood policeman giving the O'Neil family an upright piano, which several of the men in the neighborhood helped to move with the promise of a six-pack! O'Neil's mother had played some piano and knew two songs which she played "with the longest fingernails" resulting in a loud clicking sound that served as a rhythm section while she played.

O'Neil was alternately hated and envied by the other kids in the neighborhood (particularly Eileen Melville) because the piano teacher, Helen Zimbler, would hold him up as an example of how far one could go if one practiced. "Of course, the other kids knew I rarely practiced!" But when he did practice at home, his red cocker spaniel, Sandy, would rest his head on the soundboard. O'Neil noted how patient his family was while he pounded away on that up right for hours at a time.

At age 12, O'Neil made his cabaret debut at his eight-grade graduation ceremony when he sang Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind." "The music teacher, Mr. Larson, chose the song and I had no idea who Bob Dylan was nor what I was singing about – a stupid choice, in retrospect, for a 12 year old."

As a freshman at Brookline High School, O'Neil was cast in The Boys from Syracuse "'as third policeman from the left.'" Nonetheless, he was thrilled to be on a real stage with real lights and a real proscenium. O'Neil tells the story:

"Opening night the boy who was playing the chief of police came down with strep throat and I was to go on in his place. I had my first line on a real stage and I never forgot it – 'Round em up, boys.' This line closed Act 1 as I recall and the boys who were playing policemen were to round up the girls who were playing the courtesans. This was all well in good when I was the third policeman from the left because I was supposed to carry off my good friend Leslie Griffin who, at that age, was all of 4'11". As chief of police I was to carry off the lead courtesan – my good friend Margaret Gunther who, at the age of 14, had the very unfortunate circumstance to be all of 5'10". I hadn't taken physics by that time but I knew nonetheless that I was never going to get Margaret Gunther off the ground. Needless to say, the show must go on- the end of Act 1 came up – I called out my line – and all the other boys picked up their courtesans and carried them off except me – I looked at Margaret Gunther with what I remember to be great fright. And, as God is my witness, Margaret grabbed my arm, threw me over her shoulder and carried me off stage.

High school and college days were filled with choir performances, more musicals, piano recitals, and, after dropping out of college (O'Neil realized a career in education was not for him), everything went on the back burner for about 10 years. "By that point (after a stint teaching disco dancing) I had moved from Burlington Vermont to St. Louis Missouri to Los Angeles. While in L.A. O'Neil discovered his first piano bar. After surveying the scene for a while, he finally had the gumption to get up and sing a song – Old Cape Cod. He recalls taking his parents there one night and telling them that he had a surprise for them. "You're not going to sing, are you?," they asked. Well he did, and he hasn't stopped since!

O'Neil had two very successful careers in the hospitality industry and mortgage banking. Once back in Boston, he was introduced to the old Napoleon Club in Bay Village which had been a gay piano bar for about 50 years. Located right behind the old Coconut Grove, legends such as Judy Garland would stop by to hop on the piano and sing.

On a Friday night in October, the piano player didn't show up for work and O'Neil went up to the manager and said he could play. "Why I said that, I'll never know but he said 'you're on.' I went home, changed my clothes; got every piece of Broadway music I could find and was seated at the piano in an hour. And when I began to play – I WAS TERRIBLE!!!!! But I was enthusiastic and everyone had a great time. I was invited to fill in a couple of times and by the end of the year, I was working four nights a week and playing by the seat of my pants."

At the Napoleon club, he became known as the piano player with the hats. This began when he brought a hat back from a trip to San Francisco and wore it while he played piano. The next week, a patron brought hi another hat and this started a delightful pattern of people bringing O'Neil hats. (His condo is decorated with some of these hats from his Napoleon days.) O'Neil stayed at the Napoleon Club for about 8 years, 4 nights a week. Because he sang without a microphone at the club, he developed some vocal problems, so he cut back on his Club dates and stared to give voice lessons and also to do some gigs elsewhere – in Provincetown and Fire Island. But perhaps most importantly, O'Neil realized that "I had something to say...I needed to do something more than just play for others and ruin my vocal chords."

It was around this time that O'Neil first heard Carol O'Shaughnessy sing at a Valentine's Day show. This inspired him to think, "This is what I want to do!" He made friends with Carol, who coached him for his audition for the Cabaret Symposium (an intensive 10 day boot-camp like experience for cabaret performers which was held at the Eugene O'Neill Estate; the Symposium has since been reincarnated as the Cabaret Conference at Yale). O'Neil did not get in that time but did a few years later. Although intense and difficult at times, he found the Symposium a vitally important experience. "Before it was all about me; now it's all about the audience." Ellie Ellsberg, who co-directed the symposium with Erv Raible, suggested to O'Neil that he should take a look at Danny Kaye material. "I stored that thought advice, although I really wasn't sure what Danny Kaye was about back then." Of course, eventually O'Neil put together his IRNE nominated show 'So Kaye: The Songs of Danny Kaye, which he has performed numerous times to rave reviews. "Ellie was right!"

When O'Neil was starting his career, like most beginning singers, all he wanted to sing were ballads. "I wanted to be a romantic leading man, and I spent time trying to be something I can't be." I soon told myself, "Hey, can't you hear them laughing, John? Let go and get out of your way." John discovered he is more a vaudevillian than a leading man. " I am a throwback to people like Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers or Donald O'Connor." He said," When you're Irish, everyone is funny. I'm just like everyone else in Irish Brookline...and I love helping people on their life's journey with a little laughter."

Perhaps the other Irish trait O'Neil possesses is a fascination for words, especially "what is hidden versus what is being said...we are always trying to hide what we want to say. On stage I feel home enough to say what I really want to say." And it is that ability that endears John to his audiences – his talent for communicating his feeling, thoughts, and beliefs in a truthful, authentic way either through humor or poignancy.

In addition to O'Neil's numerous cabaret performances, he keeps busy performing regularly at many independent living and assisted living centers for the elderly, teaching at Cambridge Center for Adult Education, the Riverside Cabaret Institute, Wheelock Family Theater and in his own studio in Boston. A perfect way to experience O'Neil at his gregarious (and often his sassiest) best is to check out the scene every Saturday night at Frank's Steak House in North Cambridge, where he performs and hosts an open mike. If you are a first-timer, O'Neil will make you feel welcome. If you are an old faithful, he will make a fuss over you until you blush.

On March 10, John O'Neil will be appearing in Lullaby for Broadway at the Riverside Theater in Hyde Park. Don't miss it! For more information, see www.cabaretfest.com.

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