Remembering one who fascinated us all: Karen Kuykendall, 1937-2007


When Karen Kuykendall entered a room, you knew it. She made sure of that. She might announce herself with a slightly too loud greeting to the first person she saw, carefully pitched just above the drone of casual conversation so as to catch everyone's ear; she might introduce herself to an old friend as if the two had never met, drawling "Karen Kir-ken-doll" slowly and with exaggerated enunciation, as if the party to whom she was speaking was hard of hearing (or simple); or she might offer some dry judgment on the quality of the other guests or the host's attire or the alcohol being served. Or she might just make plain in that famously smoky voice her need for some gin.

As an actress of no little experience, Karen understood the importance of an entrance. But unlike many performers, who leave that knowledge at the stage door, Karen applied it in life: to every party, every social occasion, every encounter with a friend. It wasn't necessarily about making herself the center of attention (although Karen surely enjoyed attention); it had more to do with her desire to entertain – in terms of both show business and hospitality. Early on, she learned the pleasure she could give others with her singing and acting, and she delighted in doing that all her days. And her mother, Mary Faulk Koock, who turned the family's South Austin home into the restaurant Green Pastures, showed Karen the special grace of hosting others: welcoming them into your home, sharing your food and drink, feting them. Karen came into a room aiming to please, and when she spoke, you knew it.

When Karen left the room, you knew it, too, by the sudden absence of her singular presence, the energy and glamour and star power and joie de vivre that she radiated like some puckish little sun. Of course, she always left you with a memory, some compliment or joke or introduction to someone she thought you should know. Karen has left the room for good now, but true to form, she's left her countless friends – and all it took was meeting Karen once for her to consider you her friend – with so many memories: of her performances, of her wit, of her kindnesses, of the way she embraced life so fiercely and thoroughly. In tribute to this remarkable woman, who would have celebrated her 70th birthday this week, here are a few fond remembrances of her.

Sterling Price-McKinney

Composer, performer

I met Karen Kuykendall because the playwright Marty Martin asked me if I had written any sad songs. I had, and one night in my loft apartment at Sixth and Trinity, I played and sang him some. Several months later, a play of his called The Necessary Luxury Company had a run at Capitol City Playhouse. I threw him a preopening night party and met the man I live with today, Lorne Loganbill, who was playing Apollonaire. It was also the first time I met Karen, who was Alice B. Toklas in the play. She was impressed by the intimate soiree I had thrown on a starving artist's budget. For years, she enjoyed telling the story that I had bought the champagne for that party one bottle at a time and that she knew we would be good friends because I "aspired to be pretentious." Both statements were, of course, true. I am no more practical now than the moment we met.

I had seen her on the stage first in Marty Martin's Sarah Bernhardt: Farewell Performance and a bit later in Stephen Sondheim's Company. I took note of her because I had a song I wanted, or perhaps needed, someone to sing. And it couldn't be just anyone. To me, it wasn't just a song, it was a credo – one that stated up front that life is a series of disappointments but that it is one's duty to survive, even thrive, in spite of everything. Life goes on. And so must you. And so must we all. The song is called "The Ballerina Song," and we performed it many times over many years. In a social world where many considered us an unlikely couple, "The Ballerina Song" was the common denominator that leveled our playing field. It puts all the cards on the table, flying in the face of polite society's usual nondisclosure. At seven minutes, simultaneously telling off the world and embracing it, it was perfect for her. She gave that song its voice. For many, it is our most enduring collaboration.

When I arrived to accompany Karen to the B. Iden Payne Awards the week before she died, she was doing her hair and make-up. Or rather, it was being done for her as she sat in front of the mirror. I had flown in from New York the night before and hadn't seen her for about three weeks. As she stood to put the finishing touches on her cheeks herself, I was struck by how fragile she seemed and wondered aloud if we should be going out at all. But instead of responding to that, she fed me the opening line from one of our longest-running backstage jokes: an appropriation of a famous exchange between Helena Rubinstein and one of her assistants that we often used to dispel tension before events. With a wry smile, she queried, "Is this enough rouge?" I answered (as always), "I don't think it's too much." There was a longer than usual pause before her response, a pause that spoke volumes about determination, pain killers, and sheer exhaustion. I took her hand for a second, and as we looked at each other in the mirror, we said the punch line together: "I already know it's too much. The question is, 'Is it enough?'" Luckily, it was.

Paul Beutel

Former director of the Paramount Theatre, actor

I was once married to Karen Kuykendall – onstage. It was in a production of Stephen Sondheim's Company in 1981 at the University of Texas, back in the days when UT staged musicals in the summer and would mix students with community actors. Karen played Joanne, the middle-aged, acerbic woman who handled life with the aid of several vodka stingers, a role immortalized on Broadway by the great Elaine Stritch. The only thing Karen had in common with Joanne was the dry wit, but no other actress in Austin had the presence, the comic timing, and the ability to pull off Joanne's great, angry anthem, "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Karen and I had done Company together a few years earlier at the old Center Stage theatre on Sixth Street. She was Joanne, of course, and I was a minor character. Karen had so owned the part that when UT decided to stage it, any other actress in the role was unthinkable. As I was the oldest male (age 30!) being considered for the UT production, I ended up playing Larry, Joanne's husband, even though Karen had a dozen years on me. The technical rehearsal at the B. Iden Payne Theatre was a nightmare, as the director battled with the lighting designer and the set malfunctioned, almost maiming a couple of actors. The cast was frazzled. On opening night, Karen was brilliant in Joanne's extended monologue that is the focal point of Act II. Then, without warning, she twisted a key line of dialogue so that it effectively skewered the show's director. No one but the cast and crew got the in-joke, and the scene still played as intended. Nevertheless, it was a glorious catharsis for all of us who had suffered through the rehearsals, and we loved her for it. The director took it well. How could anyone be mad at Karen?

For the next 27 years, whenever I would encounter Karen at the theatre or at parties, she would always refer to me as her "stage husband," and I would fondly recall the Company triumph that she made her own in more ways than one!

Connie McMillan

I'll Take Café Manhattan: Karen and musical partner Sterling Price-McKinney, 1980s
I'll Take Café Manhattan: Karen and musical partner Sterling Price-McKinney, 1980s

Theatregoer par excellence

After almost 40 years of theatregoing in Austin, I have brigades of Karen Kuykendall characters marching through my head – so many that it's hard to zero in on a single one. And some of my favorites have already been noted in other tributes: Karen smashing tomatoes to the floor as the old Italian mother in Big Love, Karen shaping a complete little one-act opera out of Sterling Price-McKinney's "The Ballerina Song." So I'll focus on the Voice – that smoky, plummy, pseudo-British, grande-dame stage voice. It took that kind of voice to embody the larger-than-life Joanne in two productions of Company. It took that kind of voice to embody the demanding, unreasonable Agnes in The Shadow Box, who abuses the kindly daughter who is her attentive caregiver. It took that kind of voice to embody a resilient German landlady in Cabaret, an ancient Jewish rabbi in Angels in America, an American fashion icon in Full Gallop, and a certain former Texas governor with cotton-candy hair in House Arrest. Perhaps the Voice was best known by Austinites from radio and television ads where she always made performances of Ballet Austin's The Nutcracker sound slightly seductive (maybe even a little dirty). Ah, nothing like that whiskey voice! But what I remember best is her voice hollering a greeting to me across a lobby after a show – with a good-old-girl twang that showed her Texas roots. I always wished she had done more shows in that voice.

Dave Steakley

Artistic director, Zachary Scott Theatre Center

My fondest Karen memories are from Angels in America, because I was getting to know her in-depth over the course of a full year while staging this mammoth six-hour play. There was a scene where Robin Christian, who played the angel, had to passionately kiss Karen as the Mormon mother Hannah. Robin kept freezing up when we got to this moment because she was going to have to make out with this Austin legend and she was completely intimidated. After the third failed attempt, Karen railed, "Oh for God's sake! Have you never kissed a woman before? How am I supposed to act with this?"

Most actors say "Line" in rehearsal when they can't remember their next line. For Karen, it was always a very long pause followed by a coquettish, "Is it me?" When she knew she had the next line but wasn't sure what it was, she'd utter a deadpan, "What is it?" completely falling out of character in her distinctive baritone. Even if it was something as mundane as asking for a line, Karen made a "moment" of it.

When Angels Part II was in performance, we went back into rehearsals to get Part I back on stage in rep. At our first rehearsal, Martin Burke as Louis and Karen as the rabbi shared a scene, and Karen completely went up on her lines. But instead of the usual "What is it?" Martin, under his breath, began feeding Karen each of her lines for the entire scene, which she began repeating verbatim. She started to chuckle, then laugh, then her eyes watered from laughter, but she kept saying the lines. By the end of the scene, she was in complete laughing hysterics, shouting and doubled-over, as was I and the entire cast and crew. We had to stop and just laugh nonstop for 10 minutes. I have never had such an amazing side-splitting laugh with a group of people. Karen always complained teasingly that she had to "carry" Martin in all of their scenes because he was so incapable. The truth was that she adored him and loved being on stage with him.

When Angels playwright Tony Kushner came and did an event for Zach prior to the show's opening, he was completely entranced with Karen and holed up with her in a corner of the lobby. Afterward, when I took him to his hotel, he couldn't stop talking about her. She had that effect on all of us.

Shawn Sides

Rude Mechs co-artistic director, actress, director

I had the great honor of working with Karen on Big Love in 2001. She single-handedly doubled the Rude Mechs' audience by luring her friends and fans to our shabby little warehouse in what was then a scary-looking part of town. And she couldn't have been a better sport about the less-than-luxurious dressing room. Performing with her was a lesson in the power of stillness and calm. She was light as a feather, both physically and in temperament, but she exerted this formidable gravitational pull. You always sort of tipped toward her on the stage. Certainly the audiences' eyes did. We Rudes can get a little overfrenetic, and we were really lucky to learn from such a grand teacher the power of a pause and a look. And of "more rouge, dear, just a little more rouge."

Stephen Mills

Artistic director of Ballet Austin, choreographer

Karen was on the board of directors when I joined Ballet Austin in 1986. We immediately became friends and over the years had the opportunity to work together a couple of times. I remember Karen for her thoughtfulness. When I made Red Roses, my first ballet for the company, I received a handwritten note from Karen. It was on bright-red stationery, written with a black Sharpie, and the stamp was placed in the middle of the envelope. She mentioned several things she liked, things so small that I wasn't sure anyone had noticed them. She noticed everything. She continued to write notes after every ballet I made. It was always wonderful to receive her critiques. Even when others didn't review the work positively, Karen always did. As an artist, how could you not love that? The dances I worked with her on were Kisses, a piece where Karen was onstage singing torch songs, and Light/The Holocaust and Humanity Project. During the making of Light, probably the most personal work I've had the opportunity to make, Karen was unbelievably supportive, nurturing, and awesome. I will always remember Karen for her caring, her inspirational courage, her beauty, and that wonderful trademarked white hair.

Virginia B. Wood

How Green Were My Pastures: Karen at her childhood home, 2007
How Green Were My Pastures: Karen at her childhood home, 2007

Austin Chronicle Food editor

In the 30-some-odd years I've called Austin home, I had known several members of the legendary Faulk/Koock family long before I ever met Karen (Koock) Kuykendall. I knew her by reputation, of course, and certainly appreciated her theatrical and cabaret performances, but we didn't actually meet until 2001, when University of North Texas Press reissued Mary Faulk Koock's seminal work, The Texas Cookbook, as part of their Great American Cooking series. I considered the book an important piece of Texas culinary history and had treasured my long-lost signed copy of the original. Karen was handling local publicity for the book, and we got together to discuss it around the kitchen table in her comfortable West Austin home. Like thousands before me, I was captivated. Karen shared stories about her mother's hospitality and spun tales about growing up on the (then) rural estate that Mrs. Koock eventually turned into the Austin landmark restaurant Green Pastures. I told her about a childhood memory of a family meal at Green Pastures and mentioned what an inspiration Mrs. Koock had been to me as a caterer and food writer. I admitted to being more than a little jealous that she and her siblings called the graceful Southern mansion their home. We bonded over my admiration for her mother and our mutual appreciation of good food and hospitality. From that day on, Karen treated me as though we'd always been friends. I realize that I'm only one of many who shared that experience, but I consider myself so lucky to have been in that number. (See "Among Green Pastures Again," Oct. 19, 2001.)

Robyn Turner

Author, playwright

Karen had a way of making everyone feel as though she had something special to offer them every time she came around. She made each person feel as though she was an advocate for that person, and even though she was a Scorpio, you just knew that if you had to have a brief shouting match with her, which I once did during rehearsals, she'd bounce right back to being a great friend, and she always did, regardless of the circumstance.

More than anything, I adored her honesty, brutal as it sometimes was. If she was bullshitting, however, and especially when she knew you knew, she made a point of owning up to it right away by making fun of the situation. She was very direct, and that straightforwardness I found attractive.

I loved working with Karen on creative endeavors. Nothing was out of the question with her, and thus, we were a perfect match. She went to NYC with me to talk with a producer about a play I was writing. She starred in the play I scripted about Frances Nail; I was in the audience all 14 performances, mesmerized by the evolution of her solo performance. Being with her during rehearsals and on John Aielli's talk show, I marveled at her ability to think on her feet. She was always on hand to respond to and edit wild and woolly ideas.

As busy as Karen was, she was just about always there to talk with, relax with, drink wine with, run *$#($#() on people with, travel with, go to plays with, party with at my house or at her house, celebrate with, philosophize with, dream with, think with, brainstorm with, and she was such a good listener. God, she was smart. She could hear something, process it, and come back to you immediately with a cogent and an insightful solution – regardless of how much gin she had downed. Rare. I love it that Margaret Keys described her as a lioness. She looked like one, and she lived like one.

One night she and I went to see Peter Pan at the Paramount. To the line, "If you believe in magic, clap your hands," not only did Karen clap her hands, she stood up – we were on the front row – and yelled, "Yeeesssss! I believe in magic, you bet I do!!!" She turned to the audience and got them going; everyone started screaming for Tinkerbell.

Steve Moore and Katie Pearl

Playwright and director, Physical Plant Theatre

At Don Howell's suggestion, Karen came to a table reading of Peter Pan 16 days before she died. Don had said – and Karen confirmed – that she'd always wanted to play Peter, so we cast her as Peter. Of course.

From the moment we'd signed her up, we'd been looking forward to hearing Peter's words with Karen's puckishness, her charisma, her fearlessness. She did bring those things, all of them, exuberantly and without fuss – and just as the Lost Boys in the play look to Peter as their leader, all of us in the room looked to Karen. Some of us knew her well, some a little, some not at all; it didn't matter. When Karen was in a room, she commanded it with her attitude of I-don't-give-a-damn-what-you-think-of-me-I'm-gonna-love-you-anyway-and-say-whatever-I-want.

But for all that, as she read Peter, she also found his tenderness and vulnerability. Playing that character well means letting the audience see that Peter is swimming desperately to escape a whirlpool of dark self-knowledge. Playing the character beautifully, however, as Karen did that day, means letting us see that at any moment the whirlpool might win.

Mostly Peter swims away from that darkness, and sometimes he swims right at it. Sometimes he's thriving when he thinks he's drowning and drowning when he thinks he's faring well. Ebullient as she was by nature, Karen knew that, all of that, had been through all of it herself. Knowing it made her a heartbreaking Peter Pan – a Peter with a wheeze in his voice: swimming to escape, pausing to be pulled back, swimming again.

We videotaped the reading and, on the tape, Karen is tiny and frail. Those who knew how sick she was knew we might not see her again. Despite all that, in that room on that day, she was just Karen: large, strong, so classy, so funny, and so ready – as always – to offer to all of us what she offered to Peter: that deep empathy of hers and that true and effortless kindness. To encounter her that day or anywhere at any time was to feel her leaning in, looking deep, and saying, "Darling, you're going to be fine."

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More Karen Kuykendall
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Karen Kuykendall, Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Capitol City Playhouse, Cafe Manhattan, Sterling Price-McKinney

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