Friday, January 17, 2020

Theater's balm, calm, fun helps in best, worst times of our life

During a period of challenge, loss and tragedy,a fine production of "A Chorus Line" at Welk Theatre, buoys the spirits.
This week's column bids farewell to a longtime treader of the boards and theatrical talent while saluting new productions. Our late friend, Karen Jackson, could have played several roles and sung "Tits and Ass" or "What I Did for Love." 
The fine production runs through March 22.  -- photo by Ken Jacques

Although she never smoked and seldom 
drank, Karen Jackson could vamp it up.
Her memorial is in Billings this Saturday. 

and theater marketing departments

Everything was beautiful at the ballet
Graceful men lift lovely girls in white
Yes, everything was beautiful at ballet

Hey! I was happy... at the ballet -- from "A Chorus Line"

Karen Jackson, second from left,
would second the motion that theater
can heal, comfort, elevate, stretch us. 

THIS WEEK's column is part eulogy, part testimonial. It weaves a tribute to my friend, Karen Jackson, with our mutual love of theater and kudos for a quartet of fine productions we've seen this week in San Diego.
Karen Jackson's life will be celebrated in Billings Montana, Saturday.
She died before the holidays after a brief, ferocious battle with cancer. Critical care for my beloved Yorkie, Nora, and my partner Bruce Keller's Scripps post-transplant tests prevent my being in Montana for the tribute, championed by Karen's longtime collaborator Julie Omvig. Another actor-mime friend of theater, Bonnie Banks, will read my piece.
Bruce Keller and Cookie
in Coronado for
"Babette's Feast."
I KNOW Karen would want us to "go on with the show, so celebrating her love of theater, we're seeing seven plays in two weeks here in San Diego.  With each one, I toast Karen's memory and think how much fun we'd have sitting side by side as the house lights dim.
A beautiful, melancholy story of love, loss, longing and life's
paths not taken, "Bloomsday" runs at North Coast Repertory
Theatre through Feb. 2. --photo by Aaron Rumley
The lovely line from "Everything Was Beautiful at the Ballet" epitomizes what theater does for us, for our souls, our peace of mind, our place in the world. Theater transports us, opens larger worlds. Karen did that.
Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado mounted
a lovely production of "Babette's Feast."
The west coast premier runs through Feb. 16. 
When I think of Karen, I laugh.  She was one of the funniest people I worked with. In many musical collaborations, we sometimes shared the ladies' dressing room.  At Gramma’s Drammas in the late 1970s, Karen was brilliant as the formidable Carrie Nation in Barry Manilow’s “The Drunkard.” I was music director. One night, the house manager called "five-minutes" as we crammed Karen into her corset. We giggled as we reached the top snap, about to fasten it when it blew! The girdle whipped off Karen and hit the wall.  We collapsed in laughter. As we wrestled it a second time into submission, I quipped, “Well, I guess that rules out breathing.” Karen deadpanned: “Who’s breathing?”    
Karen Jackson, right, with her longtime collaborator
in dozens of productions, Julie Omvig, who organized
Saturday's 3 p.m. celebration of life for Karen.
Karen cultivated her gift for making us laugh to an art form, at Gramma’s Drammas, Billings Studio Theatre and Calamity Jane’s.  Like many comics, her sense of humor was her salvation.  She suffered sorrow, disappointment, deep personal losses, including a beloved brother and many adored pets. Like all of us in theater, she picked herself up, started over again. The show must go on.  Karen’s caustic look and withering eye masked a heart the size of Texas.  Her humor coped with hurt, buoyed us up, helped us cope.  What a wonderful gift she gave us in making us laugh – at the world, our town, our foibles. 
 "The Humans" at San Diego Repertory Theatre is on stage
through Feb. 2. Funny, troubling, textured, Karen Jackson
would have loved it and probably played the mother. --Photo by Jim Carmody
And that voice. Expressive, perfect timing.  Karen was versatile.  A comedienne extraordinaire, she also melted hearts with her ballads. I loved being in her company off stage, and accompanying her on stage.  We shared a lifelong love of musical theater; she was one of the few people who knew every tune I played from The Great American Songbook.  Our tastes were similarly eclectic: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Kander and Ebb, Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim.  When “Company” debuted in the early 1970s, I suggested we sing
Karen Jackson, third from left, was a
gifted clown with a fabulous voice, here
in one of her many Calamity Jane's roles.
"You Could Drive a Person Crazy.” HOW I WISH that had happened.  We did collaborate though, on several Sondheim pieces when Bruce and I,
Todd Yeager and
Karen Jackson, upper left, as Carrie Nation
in Barry Manilow's "The Drunkard" at
Gramma's Drammas in Billings.
Karen and a half-dozen other talents sold out the house in  Skip Lundby’s BST “off-nights.” Karen sang two Sondheim ballads. Todd and I sang “Class,” that irreverent “Chicago” lament.
Besides timing, humor, stage presence, Karen exhibited grace. She usually aced the lead, but one time, not. She auditioned for Sally Bowles in our 1977 BST production of “Cabaret.” As head of the bawdy Kit-Kat Band, I listened to her deliver the title song perfectly. However, the lead went to Kathy McCarty. Karen graciously agreed to play Fraulein Kost, who lives down the hall in the boarding house. It's not a huge role but she stole the show with her haunting “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” creating a
Karen Jackson, seated with cane and dog, had hundreds of
roles, dozens of faces. A natural clown who could sing! 
memorable cameo. What a pro. Bruce Meyers was a splendid emcee and Todd, her life partner, was Cliff Bradshaw, the writer who travels to Berlin and falls for Sally. The four of us formed a fast bond during that long-ago show.
Karen and I would be orchestra center for "Murder for Two,"
an inventive new musical coming soon to New Village Arts.
It features JD Dumas and Tony Houck. (Karen and I would
audition, too!) -- Photo by Daren Scott 
THEN IN 1979, when Bruce and I saw Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury in Broadway's “Sweeney Todd,” I dreamed of Bruce and Karen collaborating again. Todd would play Judge Turpin. Julie would be Lucy Barker. Vint Lavinder would be Pirelli or the Beadle.  Cameos for all, a huge chorus of friends. I would be music director. Skip Lundby would direct. It would be magnificent.  But that was not to be, so we save it for a heavenly encore.
Everyone on both sides of the footlights loved Karen's humor, grace, compassion, enormous talent, her ability to make us laugh, shed a therapeutic tear.
Heaven sent us a gifted clown and now has called her back. “Isn’t it rich?” Yes, she was.  Rich, rare, one of a kind.  How we miss, cherish and honor her.  
Karen's life will be celebrated Jan. 18 from 3-5 p.m. at the Columbia Club (former Knights of Columbus) 2216 Grand Ave., Billings, Montana)

Sisters Misha Minesinger, Christene "Cookie" Meyers and Olivia Cosgriffe
(in red) and niece Amarylla Ganner, enjoy their "jumpers" or "jackets"
which we Americans refer to as sweaters and coats.
UP NEXT: "Brit Speak, America Speak" could be the title of our next column, a lively essay about the differences in language and word play, with the Atlantic Ocean dividing them. Jumpers are sweaters, nappies are diapers, and a boot might be what we Yanks call the trunk of a car. Meanwhile, remember to explore, learn and live and catch us Fridays for a fresh look at travel, nature, family, love, loss and the arts:


  1. Chicago Theater BuffsJanuary 17, 2020 at 10:48 PM

    Lovely tribute to a talented friend. I am sure she will be greatly missed and celebrated this weekend. Felt as if we knew her.

  2. Minneapolis Play GoersJanuary 17, 2020 at 10:56 PM

    What a wonderful way to combine eulogy and life.

  3. Magnificent. Hope it os shared far and wide.

  4. San Francisco Theater BuffsJanuary 19, 2020 at 8:03 AM

    Felt as if I eere there at toyr funny, talented friend's send-off party.

  5. Rochester DramatistsJanuary 22, 2020 at 5:41 PM

    Wowzer of a column with so many subtle points on what makes for a rich relationship, and a full, fun life. Kudos to you and your talented friend.