When folks speak of giants walking among us, Karen Kuykendall is the kind of person they mean. Not that she was physically imposing; on the contrary, she was the epitome of petite, almost – to borrow a word often applied to Audrey Hepburn – gamine. But Karen seemed to belong to another time, when people were bigger than we are today, in their personalities and spirits, in what they accomplished and what they gave back to their city, in who they knew and how they socialized. Karen was certainly larger than life, in her talent, her manner, her glamour, wit, charm, and generosity. When this performer and friend of the arts died just before midnight on Oct. 31, the city lost the grandest of its grande dames.
Her roots in Austin ran about as deep as anyone's could. She came into the world a fifth-generation Austinite and was born into a family whose home would become a city landmark: the pastoral manse that generations have come to know as the restaurant Green Pastures. But when Mary Karen Koock arrived Nov. 19, 1937, it was still just the home of Chester Louis Koock and Mary Faulk, and South Austin was still mostly rural – with Karen the first baby baptized at St. Ignatius, Martyr Catholic Church. In the Koock family Christmas pageant (a tradition that survives today), a very young Karen made her stage debut – as the Virgin Mary! – and the spotlight proved addictive. By junior high, she had joined the Parks and Recreation Department's Children's Theater of Austin troupe and was acting in versions of Little Women, Tom Sawyer, and other kiddie-lit classics that toured local parks and grade schools. By the late Fifties, she was performing with Austin Civic Theatre (now the Zachary Scott Theatre Center) and appeared in the community group's first-ever musical: The Boyfriend in 1958. Zach would later become Karen's performance home, the site of her triumphant work as Diana Vreeland in the solo show Full Gallop, Fräulein Schneider in Cabaret, Andy Warhol in The Rocky Horror Show, part of the ensembles of Angels in America and The World Goes 'Round, and Ann Richards in House Arrest (with the former governor in the audience staring right back at her). Small wonder that when Zach began developing plans for a new $20 million 500-seat theatre facility, one of the first decisions made was to christen its main stage the Karen Kuykendall Stage.
Not that Kuykendall was ever aligned with just one theatre or one art form even. She performed on stages across Austin, playing Sarah Bernhardt in Marty Martin's Farewell Performance at the Paramount and Alice B. Toklas in his The Necessary Luxury Company at Capitol City Playhouse, Joanne in Sondheim and Furth's Company at the University of Texas, Honey Wells in John Walch's The Dinosaur Within at the State, Austin author Frances Nail in Robyn Turner's I'm Not the Woman I Was for Pollyanna Theatre Company, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet for Austin Shakespeare, and Bella in Chuck Mee's Big Love for the Rude Mechs. She performed with Ballet Austin in Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, sang with the Capital City Men's Chorus, and spent 25 years in partnership with Sterling Price-McKinney, singing his original songs and great American standards under the name Café Manhattan. That pairing, as right as scotch and soda, almost single-handedly gave birth to a cabaret scene in Austin. For these and her many other good works – such as serving on the boards of Ballet Austin, Conspirare, and Austin Musical Theatre – Karen was named Best Diva in the Chronicle's "Best of Austin," inducted into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame, named the Girl Scouts' Volunteer of the Year, and given Austin Cabaret Theatre's first Arts in ACTion Award. Kuykendall's last public outing was to the 2007 B. Iden Payne Awards ceremony, where she accepted the Austin Circle of Theaters' Special Recognition Award for outstanding contributions to Austin theatre.
Perhaps taking her cue from her mother turning their home into a public place, Kuykendall frequently opened her home to the community, making a setting where people from different walks of life could meet, talk, and bond. She was as gifted a hostess as a performer, making each guest feel as if he or she were the life of the party – though everyone knew that role always belonged to Karen. She is survived by her son, Marshall Jr., his wife, Margaret, and their children, Wylie and Jennie; daughter Mary Alice Naiser, her husband, Jerry, and their children, Haley and Catherine; daughter Sarita; and siblings Kenneth Koock, Gretchen O'Boyle, William (Guich) Koock, Timothy Koock, Judy Strassman, and Martha Koock Ward. Contributions to the Karen Kuykendall Stage may be sent to the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, 1510 Toomey, Austin, TX 78704. A public memorial service will be held sometime in the future.
At her funeral mass in St. Ignatius, Martyr – packed, not surprisingly – Kuykendall got in something of the last word, when her recording of "The Ballerina Song," a Sterling Price-McKinney composition that was her signature, was played. She sang, "I danced to the music life played me/Full and with force/And a style all my own." That was Karen, setting the standard for style, commanding attention with her inimitable presence, intoxicating everyone with her gloriously deep and smoky alto. She was Austin royalty. And as was said of another royal, "We that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long."
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