A Diva's Best Friend

Stuart Moulton knows what becomes a legend most. Just ask Carol or Charo or Eartha or Elaine ...

A Diva's Best Friend
Photo by Traci Goudie

Manhattan need not be worried that Austin is about to become the Live Cabaret Capital of the World. Our town is still a far cry from Midtown, where you can't swing a dead scat without hitting a show-tune belter or standards-bearer polishing his or her cabaret act. Still, that intimate theatrical art form has grown much more prominent in Austin over the last decade, most notably in regard to cabaret's heaviest hitters sharing their talents in the Violet Crown. The city has had visits from Tony Award winners Donna McKechnie, Faith Prince, and Debbie Gravitte; Grammy winner (and Manhattan Transfer member) Cheryl Bentyne; Golden Globe winner (and UT grad) Amanda McBroom; Broadway stars Andrea McArdle, Karen Mason, and Sandra Reaves-Phillips; TV and theatre star Paige Davis (Trading Spaces); and cabaret royalty Ann Hampton Callaway and Steve Ross, not to mention bona fide entertainment legends Carol Channing, Eartha Kitt, and Charo. And this week, you can add the incomparable Elaine Stritch to the list. (See "Elaine Everlasting.")

For that particular constellation of stars, you need only thank one man: Stuart Moulton. The ebullient performer, who can camp it up pretty fiercely as Ms. Channing when he chooses, presented every one of those artists and more under the banner of Austin Cabaret Theatre, the small arts company he founded in 2001. In the seven years since its debut (with Ann Hampton Callaway at Scottish Rite Theatre), his love of cabaret and personal efforts to connect with its finest artists have almost single-handedly extended the Manhattan city limits deep into the heart of Texas.

"I always joke that Austin Cabaret Theatre is my Rosie O'Donnell Show, 'cause she always had the people on her talk show that she liked but [wanted to] introduce to a bigger audience," Moulton says. "I can pretend to be altruistic and say that I want to introduce good music to Austin and introduce this audience to these people, but it's all about me, because I'm a fan of these people and friends with a lot of them." [Laughs] "I'm like, 'Come on down!' Feels very Mickey and Judy. 'Let's do a show.'"

Doing the tango with Charo
Doing the tango with Charo

Now, it isn't that cabaret was unknown here before Moulton moved to town in 2000. But it was largely a homegrown affair, generated and sustained by locals such as the late, great Karen Kuykendall and her longtime creative partner, Sterling Price-McKinney, in their cabaret act Cafe Manhattan; song-and-dance man Jerry Conn in the revues he performed around town; and various theatre artists who worked up acts that they performed at Zach Theatre and, all too briefly, Cafe Bremond. What Moulton added to the cocktail shaker was a jigger of imported spirits: artists considered the crème de la crème in the cabaret capital.

When Moulton launched Austin Cabaret Theatre, he was well-positioned to secure the services of the cabaret elite. As a performer in touring shows himself, he'd met and befriended artists who have since gone on to musical-theatre success (or become the agents for artists who have), which gave him one rich pool to draw from. And in the late Nineties, when he worked at the Invisible Theatre in Tucson, Ariz., the company hosted a concert series in which cabaret performers would be brought in to perform once or twice a year. "That was gold in the sense of getting to make these connections," Moulton says, "so that when it came time for me to do this here, I could pick up the phone and say: 'Hey, you know what? We've got a place in Austin now.'"

And the people he didn't already know he wasn't shy about approaching. One essential thing to know about Moulton: He's no shrinking violet. As heat is to a Texas summer, so flamboyance and fearlessness are to the Austin Cabaret Theatre founder. He'll call up whomever he wants, no matter how far up the entertainment food chain that person may be. ("I just ask. All they can say is no.") What may sound like a kind of brazen bravado is to Moulton merely seeing these artists as people rather than megawatt celebs.

"I don't get starstruck," he states flatly. "There are people I admire, people I am in awe of from a talent perspective. But I'll start up a conversation with a light post. I'm not very discriminating." When he's in New York and sees an artist he likes, he'll troop backstage after the show – never a problem because he's developed a rapport with the different clubs and cabaret rooms – give the artist his card, and say, as he puts it, "Hey, we've got this great room down in Austin, and my audience would eat you up with a spoon." According to Moulton, every person that he's done that to has responded, including Eartha Kitt and Elaine Stritch.

Twin belters: Moulton and Carol Channing
Twin belters: Moulton and Carol Channing

And once he has such artists in hand, Moulton knows how to treat them. "We can't pay what some places pay guest artists, but by God, we treat them like stars when they're here," he says. He's able to set them up in a glamorous boutique hotel with the showroom actually in the building (the Mansion on Judges' Hill, now in its fourth season as Austin Cabaret Theatre's home); give them a performance venue that's as intimate and elegant as a Manhattan nightspot, but more spacious ("The New York artists love it for that"); guarantee them an audience that's educated and appreciative ("Every one of our guest artists raves about Austin audiences, how savvy they are and how smart"); and show them a good time before and after the show ("We take 'em out, we wine 'em and dine 'em. Their first night here, I like to take them out to a little fun place, something very typically Austin, and have dinner and settle in and relax").

The attention being paid to them has not gone unnoticed by these Austin Cabaret Theatre guests. When Debbie Gravitte walked into her room, she looked around and sighed, Moulton says, asking, "Why can't all the gigs be like this?" Jim Caruso, who has a standing gig at Birdland on Monday nights hosting the cabaret-flavored open mic called Cast Party, offered an unsolicited testimonial in a recent newsletter to his New York cabaret faithful, noting that Moulton "has been unbelievably generous to so many of us performer-types. Trust me, if you have an act, beg Stuart to book you. You will never be treated as well – he goes beyond the call of hospitality duty."

Even the legendary divas who have been recruited by Moulton, those showbiz royals who know what it is to be treated well, have found something special in Moulton's company. And that may have less to do with lavish accommodations than personal attention. Moulton listens to these artists, hangs on their stories, shows them a love of tradition and honor for what they've been through in their careers – and not as fan to star but as person to person. That makes him more than a producer who's hired them; it makes him more like a friend. "I've always been able to strike up a really great rapport," Moulton acknowledges. "I think they like that someone has taken a personal interest in their careers. I don't know if they're thrilled that I'm trying to carry the torch and keep something like this going. I don't know."

Elaine Stritch knows. Before she even set foot in Austin, the latest diva to be seduced into performing for Austin Cabaret Theatre had a bead on Moulton and what makes him special. During our interview, she's the one who brings him up, proclaiming him "one of the loveliest guys I've met in a long time." "I see something very rare in this guy," she adds. "He's a kind, gentle sweetheart of a guy. And funny. And I don't know anybody that's that light in the loafers. In my whole life, I've never met anybody as gay as Stuart. Never! In all the right ways. He never says what the ordinary line is, like, 'Oh, you were wonderful.' He just goes, 'I don't be-lieve it!' His talent is extraordinary, and he's not the least bit aware of how delicious he is. He's just outgoing. Outgoing. A hundred percent. God, he made an impression on me."

So who will be the next diva to fall under Moulton's spell? "I want Liza," Moulton says, with as serious an expression as you'll see on his face. "Why not?" he adds. "If you'd told me eight years ago that I'd be producing Elaine Stritch, I'd have thought you were on crack. So why not Liza? She's gotta work."

The face breaks into that Broadway-marquee smile, and you figure: Before long, Ms. Minnelli is likely to find herself with a new best pal.

Austin Cabaret Theatre presents Elaine Stritch at Liberty Wednesday-Saturday, Sept. 3-6, 8:30pm, at the Mansion at Judges' Hill, 1900 Rio Grande. For more information, call 289-2287 or visit www.austincabaret.blogspot.com.

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Austin Cabaret Theatre, Stuart Moulton, Elaine Stritch, Karen Kuykendall, Sterling Price-McKinney, Jerry Conn, Carol Channing, Eartha Kitt

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