Star of “Cabaret”
Performs Today-Sunday at Actor’s Express
Libby Whittemore, who will be performing at Actor’s Express today through Sunday, has been performing in cabaret clubs and in musical shows since the 1970s. I first saw her perform as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” in 1974 at Northside High School (now North Atlanta High School). Whatever magic Liza Minnelli had as Sally, Whittemore had it too. The show made her a star around the city.
Just after graduating that year, Whittemore began performing in musical theater professionally around town. When she got an invitation to perform in Los Angeles in the ’80s, she moved there for a while, hoping to find bigger jobs, bigger paychecks and, of course, fame. But her showbiz career dwindled there, so she moved back to Atlanta where she could always sing in cabaret clubs.
But crowds and musical tastes change, and in the 1990s the clubs where Whittemore played so frequently, one by one closed. To make ends meet Whittemore resorted to stocking videos at Blockbuster. But just like Sally Bowles in “Cabaret,” Whittemore was determined. With the help of a backer, in 2000 she opened up Libby’s Cabaret, where she and her friends sang. There were nights when the room was packed and sold out, but there were plenty of slow months too. She closed the club New Year’s Day 2007.
What’s it like to be one of the most talented singers in the city and to be able to perform continually for years? What does a local star do when work dries up? Whittemore spoke to me on the phone from her home in Atlanta, where she lives with her mother.
SA: I remember your doing numerous musicals at Northside High School. Tell me how you started as a singer and where you got your training.
LW: I was singing along with records at home, with Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland records. I started doing that when I was in grade school, but I was always singing, so my family tells me.
SA: Were there singers in your family?
LW: No. I don’t know where it came from. I loved The Beatles, and Carole King, and I sang along with the radio all the time. When I got into seventh and eighth grade I got into Streisand and Judy.
SA: Do you remember what happened that prompted that?
LW: I don’t know. It was like a switch flipped, cause prior to that I was really a tomboy on a softball team and a volleyball team. In eighth grade I got to Northside, and I didn’t really like sports anymore, and in my ninth-grade year I decided to take chorus.
SA: Did you take that with Billy [Densmore]?
LW: Oh, yeah.
SA: Did he then say you should join the school of performing arts?
LW: I never went to the school of performing arts. It didn’t become a school of performing arts until the year after I graduated. My junior and senior year we had a touring group that did musical reviews, like Broadway reviews, and we would go around and perform at other high schools. The thrust of it was: Northside’s going to become a performing arts school starting next year, so if you’re interested, come sign up, come audition. We were sort of the promo for the performing arts school.
SA: After high school what did you do to continue your training?
LW: I just started working. My first singing job after high school was at the Harlequin Dinner Theatre at Peachtree and Piedmont. I was hired there in October of ’75, and I worked there for a couple of years. I did “Where’s Charlie?” “110 in the Shade,” “Little Mary Sunshine,” “Promises, Promises,” “South Pacific,” “Hello, Dolly.” I was there for a couple of years, and then I auditioned at a club that was at Peachtree Battle called Manhattan Yellow Pages. I did the last show there before they moved downtown. It was an Irving Berlin review. Then Showcase Cabaret opened up at Ansley Mall, and that’s where we did the first “Della’s Diner.” I had met Tom Edwards [the show’s writer] at The Harlequin because he worked there as an actor. He’s got a new novel that just came out called “Blue Jesus” that’s, I’m telling you, the 21st Century’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s a brilliant book, and it’s just come out. So I was at Showcase Cabaret where we did “Della’s Diner,” and “Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces,” and a bunch of other stuff. I was there in ’78, ’79, and then in ’80 we did the third “Della’s Diner” at the downstair’s space at the Alliance Theatre. And then in ’81, I did my first one-woman show at Upstairs at Gene and Gabe’s. I was pretty much there the whole decade of the ’80s and did two more “Della’s” there, and a bunch of one-woman shows, singing and chatting with the audience. And I played Sally in “Cabaret” at The Alliance in ’82 I think. And cabaret [venues] pretty much died out in the ’90s, so I started doing film and television work.
SA: Tell me about the film and TV work you did.
LW: It was a lot of stuff there for a while. I was in “Something to Talk About,” “Forces of Nature,” “Blue Sky.” I was in a bunch of made-for-TV movies on Lifetime. Did a couple of episodes of “In the Heat of the Night,” and sort of had a day job working at the talent agency that represented me, answering phones and doing stuff like that. Then in 2000, I opened the club [Libby’s Cabaret] and had that till 2006, and during that did Mama Rose in “Gypsy” at Actor’s Express. I then did another show at Actor’s Express called “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.” And now they’ve allowed me to come in like four times a season and do the kind of stuff we used to do at the club. And that’s what I’m doing now. And some of it’s one-woman stuff and some of it’s the musical reviews we did at the club.
SA: Can you give us an idea of the types of songs you’ll be doing? Will they be Broadway tunes?
LW: No. For this show, the second act is going to be all country because it’s the character that I played in “Della’s Diner.” The first act is gonna be—it’s kind of a mishmash. There’s a Pointer’s Sister song, I do a Carole King song, and then an old jazz kind of song. Lisa Paige does a Bette Midler [tune], but this time we’re trying to stay away from Broadway stuff, cause we just did a Broadway review in February at Actor’s Express. So, this is more pop, and maybe some ’50s and ’60s stuff.
SA: What are you doing when you’re not performing there?
LW: I play golf and do private gigs, parties. In August we’re going to be going to Reynold’s Plantation to do the girl groups show that we did in April at Actor’s Express. It’s a salute to girl groups, me and three other gals. Next year I’m going to be singing with DeKalb Symphony. This’ll be my third time singing with them.
SA: Did you ever go outside of Atlanta to pursue your dreams?
LW: I did go to L.A. for about 4½ years. When we did “Della’s” at Gene and Gabe’s, Warner Brothers got wind of it, and they thought about buying the show, so they flew us out to L.A., and we did a performance on the set of a television show that was going on at the time called “Alice,” with Linda Lavin. We used her set because it was a diner. Through that I got a woman who wanted to be my agent, and she seemed to be very sure that she could get me a lot of work on television and stuff. I wasn’t so sure, but I thought if she thinks she can. So I did go out there for about 3½ or four years, but did a lot of small, not very important things. I basically was working two jobs to make sure I was paying rent, and coming back to Atlanta to do shows at Gene and Gabe’s for like four months, and then go back out to L.A. I thought: why am I doing this? I can go back to Atlanta and work whenever I want. What am I doing here? I want to work in my chosen profession. So I packed up and moved back home. That was in the mid to late ’80s, and I did some more shows at Gene and Gabe’s, and decided I wanted to work doing what I want to do.
SA: What do you think it takes to make it in this business?
LW: I hate to say it cause I hated hearing this when I was just starting out. You know so much of it is timing. And I was very lucky that I came along in Atlanta at a time when cabarets were really the thing. You know, there were a bunch of rooms in this town in the late ’70s and all through the ’80s. There was Zazu’s, Tyrone’s, and the Purple Parrot, and the Plush Room. There were all these great places for singers, and now there aren’t.
SA: What happened?
LW: Well, you know everything is cyclical. Times change. I think people’s going out habits have changed drastically. People don’t go out as much. There’s so much to keep people home now, and this was even before the economy went into the crapper. And what they choose for entertainment is different. The backbone of the cabaret business when I was doing cabaret was the gay community, and the 20-somethings and 30-somethings in the gay community back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, they enjoyed going and seeing those kind of shows. Nowadays I think the 20-somethings and 30-somethings in the gay community just like something else. They’re just not interested in that form of entertainment. That’s not to say there isn’t an audience for it, cause I think there is. We certainly had great crowds at the club [Libby’s]. It was just so expensive we couldn’t financially make it, cause the rent was so expensive. And it was bad timing. There was 9/11, the war, and the economy, just a lot of bad stuff happening. But we had great audiences, and they loved the room. But people don’t go out after the holidays. There’s dead time. People don’t go out January, February, March. And the summer’s very difficult. People go out of town.
SA: Is your income coming from these other gigs, or is there something else?
LW: No, that’s pretty much it. I moved in with my mom, which I did back when I had the club, and it worked out pretty nice. I took care of her and she took care of me. It helps when you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to pay rent.
SA: When you were younger, singing to those records, did you have an idea of what you thought your career might look like?
LW: Oh, God, yes. Didn’t we all?
SA: Yes. And that’s why I ask?
LW: I was going to be the next Liza Minnelli. I was going to have a Tony, and an Oscar, a Grammy and an Emmy. I was going to do it all. I was going to be on Broadway, I was going to be in films, do concerts, I was gonna do it all.
SA: How old were you when you realized that that might not come to fruition?
LW: I think when I came back home from L.A. I think I realized the music industry’s changed. My choice was what do I do now? Do I go try New York, where again, I’m gonna be a nobody, and have to probably wait tables? Or do I stay in Atlanta where I can work, doing what I love to do? So that’s when the decision comes. Do you let go of the dream of becoming a star for the reality for being able to work in your chosen profession, and just getting joy out of that? That’s what you come to. And I was lucky. I had a place where I could work: Gene and Gabe’s. I was also lucky that about the time cabarets died out the film work picked up in town.
SA: When you were in those films, were they bit parts, or did you ever have a part that you felt was a substantial role?
LW: No. Basically what they do when they come here to film a movie, they’ve already cast all the major roles before they get here. In this market, it’s a good job if you get a part that takes two or three days to shoot. Probably the longest work I had was on a film called “Blue Sky” that filmed in Selma, Alabama. I was on that film for three weeks, but I didn’t have that much to do. It’s just the way they shot it, why I was there for three weeks. But most of the stuff that’s filmed here is what comes under the category of a day-player. You have lines, but you’re maybe in only one or two scenes.
SA: Knowing the hopes and dreams you had, and everybody else I knew who went to New York had, what recommendations do you have for young actors or aspiring singers either in their teens on in their twenties? What do you say to these people?
LW: Boy (pause), you know (pause), be sure you really love it. I think if you want to be a stage actor, depending what your age is, try to get in things here in town, but ultimately, you have to go to New York if you want to be a star. That’s what you have to decide. If we’re talking about those people who still have those dreams about being a star, then you have to go to New York if stage is what you want. And same thing if you’re a singer and you want to do musicals. If you want to do Broadway, you got to go to New York. Cause you’re not going to get discovered here. This is a nice place to build your resume, so that when you go to New York you’ve got credits. But, you know, it’s a—this is not a market where you become a star. This is a market where you learn your craft and go on to some place else. If you’re like me, and didn’t make the right choice—probably should have gone to New York in my twenties—but I wanted to work. I think I was scared. There’s no doubt about that. Just go to New York by myself and just be another face in the crowd?
SA: So what happens when these kids get to New York and they find out that there are 200 people who are auditioning who are just as good as you, Libby, and they have that same cute gamine look?
LW: I think there comes a time when you have to be honest with yourself. And you have to really sit down and evaluate yourself and say: Am I really as good as I think I am? That’s number one, because maybe you’re not. But if you are and you’re just not getting anywhere—you know, it’s such a personal call. I don’t think anybody can tell anybody else: OK, you’ve banged your head against the wall enough. It’s time to do something else. I don’t think anybody can. Nobody can make that decision for anybody else. It doesn’t matter what I say. It really doesn’t matter what advice I may give somebody, cause they’re not gonna listen. And they shouldn’t. They shouldn’t listen to what I say. Because what works for me may not work for them. And it’s all such a personal call. I think everybody knows when they get to that place, and they have to make that choice. Then you have to decide: Is this really what I want to do? And if this is what I really want to do, maybe I need to go someplace else. Maybe I need to stop worrying about whether I’m going to become famous and go someplace where I can work, doing what I like to do. And that may mean coming back home to Atlanta. That may mean trying Chicago. That may mean trying a different market that has better theater. I think a lot of time people really get wrapped up in their pride. It’s like, oh, I can’t go back home cause then I’m a failure. I think everybody goes through that, too. You just have to decide: How can I consider myself a failure if I’m doing what I love to do? Would I rather be in New York waiting tables? Or, would I rather be someplace on stage doing a show? And that’s such a personal call that only that person can make it for themselves.
SA: What is next for you?
LW: I get the rest of the summer off, and I’m taking it easy until we do the Christmas show at Actor’s Express in December. And there may be other things that come up between now and then.
SA: About how many private gigs do you normally do a year?
LW: Some months you don’t have any. You tend to get more closer to the holidays. Me and Robert Strickland, my music director, we’re doing a Christmas show at the Capital City Club. We did that last year too. Some months you go with nothing. The thing is, that’s OK, cause I don’t have to worry about paying rent. I’m very, very lucky. I have to embrace the downtime. It’s not easy to do that. I have to get out of that: Oh, my God, I don’t have anything coming up. I seem to have spent most of my adult life that way.
Libby Whittemore performs June 25-June 28 at Actor’s Express at 7:30 p.m.