Janet Klein lives in two places at once. I don’t mean that she’s bi-coastal or has one house in Malibu and another in Long Beach, but rather that she inhabits both the present and the past. Sure, that’s some trick, you’re thinking, but the granddaughter of magician Marty Klein pulls it off seamlessly.
Janet Klein, in all her sepia glory
To phrase it simply, Janet Klein is Betty Boop with a ukulele. She’s got a lilting, high-register voice that prances its way around popular tunes from the early 20th century, mainly the 1920s and ‘30s. Collectively, Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys perform “obscure, naughty and lovely songs – that’s how I like to describe what I’m interested in.”
Her ensemble performs Friday and Saturday evening at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center. As the press release says, “Janet Klein is a musical archaeologist hiding in the body of an F. Scott Fitzgerald heroine.”
Lives it, breathes it
There are some people who seem to have missed the boat with regards to living in the era they were meant to. Everything about Klein gives one the impression that she was fated to be on the vaudeville stage in the early ‘20s, but somehow there was a delay in the cosmic transaction. Instead, she was born well into the second half of the twentieth century.
So, how did she come to be what she is today?
“It’s kind of a long story,” Klein replies, “but there’s something about the idea of New York City in the 1930s that pulls me towards that time period.” Her forebears emigrated from Poland, presumably to Ellis Island, about a century ago. Her grandmother’s boyfriend, she says, “threw her a Sweet Sixteen party at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.”
The elder members of her family told her stories when she was young, but I think it was something a little more tangible that really did the trick:
“I remember opening up my grandmother’s clothes closet, and it was like opening up a door into another dimension. I remember seeing these sparkling, fabulous gowns and asking her, ‘Where did you get to wear things like that?’ And she would tell me, ‘Oh, I used to go out dancing (formal) three times a week.’ And she’d tell me about the nightspots.”
See? Her grandfather wasn’t the only magician in the family.
“I was growing up in San Bernardino, California, in the 1970s, and it was all kind of grim,” Klein says with a light laugh, “so it captured my imagination.” She has press photographs and clippings and bits of film footage of her grandfather performing his magic act. “My grandmother and my aunt were his assistants, and they told me some good stories and detailed all the outfits they got to wear… When I come across things like George Burns and Gracie Allen on film I just relate to those kinds of characters because they were like people in my family.
“I used to call on my Aunt Gloria – and Aunt Gloria sounds just like Gracie Allen… I just couldn’t get enough of these old family stories. There’s something about that time frame that really gets me going.”
As Klein has said elsewhere, “I love objects and places infused with the presence of a person or a history.”
Janet Klein and one of her Parlor Boys, Randy Woltz. Photo by Gloria Plascencia
Those were the days
Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys have several recordings available, and each one contains a treasure trove of old tunes. Today, people often bring them to her attention.
“Nowadays I’m lucky that way,” she says, “because when I started I really didn’t know anybody that was interested in that kind of music. And it was before the internet that I got interested in it.”
However, she grew up in a nurturing environment.
“My father had a really great record collection. He was an artist and had a painting studio, and I used to go in there every night and we had listening sessions of records from his collection. But he was mostly interested in classical music, and some world music. He really liked Frank Zappa and the Firesign Theatre, things like that.”
I know what world music is: Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, 17 Pygmies and Caetano Veloso. Frank Zappa, on the other hand, would have to be filed under out-of-this-world music.
“That was just part of life for me, a little bit of musical exploring,” Klein continues. “When I went to college I spent a lot of time in the UCLA music library and started to find things that interested me.”
She mentions one such unique find, made early on: “It was a set of studio recordings [that] weren’t ever meant to be released; they were just working recordings of Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin hammering out tunes in the studio. Finding things like that just drove me crazy, it was just wonderful! Hearing the composers sing their own material, and here’s all this wonderful songwriting where the lyrics are just so clever and so interesting.”
Also, she says, “At that time I started to find recordings by Lotte Lenya and Fred Astaire and Josephine Baker and some of those folks, and listening to them sing made me feel like, you know, it isn’t all about having a big trained voice – some of it is just getting the songs across in an authentic way that allows you to enjoy the cleverness of the lyrics of the song. They have a sincerity to them that I could just listen to all day long. And I think maybe hearing things like that made me a little braver, ultimately, to go out myself and share those kinds of things with other people. You don’t have to be a lush, trained, musical theater artist to pull these things off.”
She laughs and says, “So that’s all the stuff that got me going.”
“I made my first record before I had my band, in 1998,” Klein says. “That’s about the time when I started to have band fantasies, I met some wonderful musicians, and things started to happen in a way to bring that group together. And we’ve pretty much recorded a record every two years since then.”
What about the lineup, her personnel?
“It’s changed a little bit,” Klein replies, “but mostly it’s been additive. I usually have a group that’s about four or five band members, but I think it’s about finding my tribe. When I meet musicians that also have a strong magnet for this type of material I feel like I’ve just found another member of my tribe.
“When we play I often have a reconfiguration of my band, so there’s always different textures and things from show to show.” For instance, she says, “I may have an accordion one night and the next I’ll have piano and vibes. Or, when we play down at the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo one of my band members plays on the Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Anyway, we’ve got all kind of great players here, and most of them play multiple instruments, so we get a whole lot of variety and texture. And then some material lends itself to breaking the band into little pieces and doing things maybe with just vocal and piano or guitar and violin.”
These combinations surely keep it interesting.
“That’s exactly how I feel about it,” Klein says. “Like Rocky Road ice cream. You put the spoon in and then you get something different every bite. It certainly keeps me entertained.”
So here’s the ticket
“We’re really looking forward to the two cabaret nights,” Klein says, referring to this coming weekend. “Christian Wolf at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center has been very supportive over the years. He booked us a few times at the Escondido Center for the Performing Arts. For one show, he booked us to open for the Smothers Brothers, which was a great experience. It was like being on a bill with a vaudeville duo, and I thought, ‘These folks, they really are a link to that type of entertainment.’ Their timing was just so great in a really old school way. I really loved that.”
Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys perform at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 10 and 11, in the George Nakano Theatre, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance. Tickets, $33. Doors open at 6:30 and dinners are available from Red Car Brewery. (310) 781-7171 or go to torrancearts.org.