A Girlhood Dream Realized

A Girlhood Dream Realized

Betty Buckley performs ballads from the American song book about the longing heart

In the twilight-darkened Bemelmans Bar of the Hotel Carlyle, Madison Avenue and 76th Street, the hands of the very young son of an attractive couple at a nearby table were bouncing along in midair, playing piano in concordance with the music flooding the room.

“Look,” said Betty Buckley, “he’s even hitting the right keys. That boy has a future.”

Four nights earlier, Ms. Buckley had been dressed to kill, a platinum-trussed, if somewhat nervous, deity this time out, opening her sixth engagement at the Café Carlyle. Now, on a late Saturday afternoon, fresh from “my osteopath putting my body back together,” she was clad anonymously in sneakers, jeans, and an old gray sweatshirt.

What had given her a touch of insecurity opening night had been the decision to include in her repertoire “Blues in the Night,” that great Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer imprint of American longing.

“A rather painful moment in my past,” she told the audience. “I was a totally naive seven-year-old in the third grade in Fort Worth, Texas, one year ahead in school. We had a little show in school, and I was cast as Iris, in a beautiful papier-mâché costume. To this day, iris is my favorite flower. But there was this other little child, and she was all dolled up in a rhinestone costume—and she got to sing ‘Blues in the Night’ while Iris stood around, burning with ambition. I told myself, there at age seven, I will sing ‘Blues in the Night’ some day.”

And then, opening night in the sacrosanct Café Carlyle, Betty Buckley did just that. Midway in her 90-minute roster of Americana, she sang “Blues in the Night.” She belted it. She sang the hell out of it, and an interviewer now told her so.

“Thank you,” she said—and then revealed something astonishing. Until the preparation for her present program, she had never sung “Blues in the Night” from that day in Fort Worth to today.

“I’ve been avoiding it all these years. I didn’t know why. I told Kenny”—her musical director and pianist, Kenny Werner—“I didn’t know why.”

The traumatic moment back in the third grade a lifetime ago “was my first realization of ambition, of wanting to perform.”

Does she remember the name of the other little girl, the one in rhinestones?

“No, I don’t.” Two beats. “I think it was Sheila, actually.”

It is with Kenny Werner that Ms. Buckley works out the format of each of her cabaret undertakings.

“It’s a process that usually takes three or four months, but they called me on very short notice for this gig. Kenny was on the road, and I had just bought a ranch and moved to Texas. I started looking through material, and we got together one weekend at Kenny’s house in upstate New York.”

What they worked out was a song list leaning heavily on time and place and remembrance, from songwriters who specialize in the haunting, including Rodgers & Hart (“Where or When”); Ray Noble (“The Very Thought of You”); Lyle Lovett (“Pontiac”); Richard Thompson (“Dimming of the Day”); Mary Chapin Carpenter (“I Am a Town”); Amanda McBroom (“Dreamin’”) and Paul Simon (“Old Friends”).

The title of the current show is “Portraits.”

Meet Betty Buckley, portrait painter.

“When I first met Kenny,” she said, “because he was a jazz pianist, I didn’t have a common language with him. I would bring out one painting or another and say: ‘I feel such-and-such a song should sound like this painting.’ Each song with its own colors. And its own style—Impressionist, Surrealist, whatever it might be. I feel that my cabaret shows are like installing paintings in a gallery.”

Once, in Las Vegas, “years and years ago,” she was explaining to impresario Steve Wynn about a song that should sound like a particular Monet of water lilies at Giverny. “I have that painting,” Wynn said, and took her inside and showed it to her.

“Look at that child,” Betty Buckley remarked about the tiny pianist-to-be pinging at the air. “How alive he is.” She tossed a smile toward the kid’s parents, a tall daddy and pretty mother.

The former Miss Fort Worth 1967 landed a part in the Broadway musical “1776” her first day in New York in 1969.

“I was the original Martha Jefferson. I was 21, and so was Martha. Was in that show seven months and then went to London to do the female lead in ‘Promises, Promises.’”

She won a 1983 Tony Award for her Grizelda the Glamour Cat in “Cats,” received a Tony nomination for her Hesione in 1997’s “Triumph of Love,” and in London in 1993 was, to this theatergoer, a far more dazzling Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” than the one who subsequently starred in New York.

Ms. Buckley, what’s the difference, for you, between cabaret and a Broadway show?

“Well, a Broadway show is like being in a novella, or a novel—being a character in an extended story. Cabaret is being in a series of short stories.”

Yes, she said, “some very close friends” have died of AIDS. “By one count, something like 85 percent of the original male cast of ‘Cats’ were lost to AIDS. There was a period of years when the majority of my public appearances were AIDS benefits—one after another after another.”

Any thoughts about George W. Bush’s recent utterances in support of a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage?

“I don’t know why he—why any of these people—should have anything to say about what anybody wants to do in their private lives. I just think it’s absurd. Beyond absurd. I don’t understand what the problem is,” she said with calm, controlled intensity. “You’d think—wouldn’t you think—they’d have something better to be concerned about.”

Betty Lynn Buckley is the daughter of Betty Bob Diltz Buckley and the late Ernest Buckley, civil engineer, builder, and, toward the end of his life, dean of engineering at South Dakota State University. He died of lung cancer 14 years ago—“a chain smoker to the last.”

The singer/actress has three kid brothers: twins who are civil engineers “and Norman—a gay man—who’s the lead film editor of the new Fox television series ‘The O.C.,’” one of this season’s hits.

“My mom says I sang in church when I was two”—about the age of the little boy at the nearby table—“but I don’t remember that. When I was 11, it was discovered I had a really big, unique voice. My mom took me to a touring company of ‘Pajama Game.’ I came out wanting to sing ‘Steam Heat.’

“There were two guys in that show, Ed Holleman and Larry Howard, who liked Fort Worth and decided to stay there. They opened a studio, and I studied with them all through high school and college”—Texas Christian University—“so I was pretty well trained when I came to New York.”

In her mid-20s she met and married Peter Flood, a director, acting coach, teacher, and sometime art gallery owner. The marriage lasted eight years.

Ever want to have children?

“Not then,” she said dryly. “When I turned 40 I thought, jeez, I better have a child, except there wasn’t anybody I wanted to have a child with. But I teach, which involves nurturing skills. Last year I taught scene study and song interpretation at the University of Texas at Arlington.”

The song in her current performance at the Carlyle that most nearly reflects her own life, she said, is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Am a Town,” about “a town in Carolina on a detour on the right” but representing, for Betty Buckley, a small town anywhere, like the one in Texas near the ranch that’s now her home.

“I think 9-11 put everything into high relief for all of us. We all know our time on this planet is limited, but I was turning 55 that [2002] summer, and I thought I’d better get my horse—my cutting horse—now or never.”

A cutting horse, the woman in the jeans and sweatshirt explains, is a horse that cuts one steer or another out of the herd. Another of her talents as a youngster had been as a “barrel runner” in rodeos. “You race on horseback around three big oil drums in a clover-leaf pattern… Well, after 9-11 I got my cutting horse. His name is Purple Badger, and I wanted to live where he lives, so I decided to sell my Upper West Side apartment and buy a ranch.

“But I’m a New Yorker,” she hurried to say. “I couldn’t live without New York. I’ve lived on West 78th Street, West 86th Street, West 79th Street, 108th Street.”

She closes her show, come to think of it, with “On the Street Where You Live,” but of course that’s referring to a London street. Now show time was closing in once more. On her way out, Ms. Buckley stopped to compliment the young parents on their bright, promising son. The mother, quite a beauty actually, smiled politely at this unknown lady in the Bemelmans Bar saying nice things about her kid. A journalist took it upon himself to murmur to the young woman: “This lady is Betty Buckley.” The young mother did a triple-take and then burst out with: “Oh my GOD!”

It was all that the portrait painter needed by way of acclaim. Two hours later, in other clothes, she approached the stage singing “As Time Goes By.”

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