Back at Bemelmans: Jim Caruso talks one of New York’s most famous spots

This spring, Jim Caruso, Billy Stritch and Steve Doyle return to Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle. I got to catch up with Jim to talk about what excites him about the new dates and the art that continues to challenge and wow him.

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Billy and Jim photos by Bill Westmoreland

Your career is storied and robust. What most excites you about this newest residency?

I’m just proud to be a small part of the cultural treasure that is The Carlyle Hotel.  For the past five years, every single time I enter the building, I think of the famous photo of President Kennedy going through the same revolving doors. Starting in the 1930’s, music has played a huge part in the hotel’s history. Starting with classical music, then jazz and the Great American Songbook, Bemelmans and The Cafe Carlyle have been home to some of my all-time favorite entertainment icons, including Bobby Short, Barbara Carroll, Betty Buckley, and Elaine Stritch. That Billy Stritch, Steve Doyle and I can continue the tradition with our own twist, is a wondrous thrill.

You’ve seen a lot at Bemelmans. Pick out a surprising moment that lingers with you.

Bemelmans Bar is a see-and-be-seen place, and one of the last vestiges of old-school New York glamour. We’ve seen some very fancy and famous faces come through the door and I’m happy to say a bunch of them have sat in with us. One of our best moments happened a few years ago, when Bono showed up with an entourage of extremely attractive people. They sat in the corner, and every once in a while, he’d give me the ‘thumbs-up’ when he’d enjoy a particular song. At some point, the group decided to leave. They went through the door, but Bono lingered behind, putting his hand on my mic-holding hand to express his appreciation. Billy was just starting to play “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which Bono had recorded with Sinatra. All of a sudden, Bono was sitting on the piano bench harmonizing into the mic. Happily, Steve Sorokoff was in the room taking photos, and caught the moment. Three days later, I called Billy and left the following message, “This will probably be the only time I will tell you that we are in Rolling Stone Magazine this week.” We received all kinds of crazy press for about 40 seconds of music!

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What continues to drive you as an artist?

Pretty much everything drives me as an artist, and as a human.  Lauren Bacall said (unfortunately, not to me), “Let’s face it. I want it all. Just like you and everybody else. It may not be in the cards, but the prospect is so dazzling that I have to try.” New York drives me. My talented friends drive me. I just keep doing what I do. If you love what you’re doing, you can never go wrong.

What was the last show that really touched you and why?

I just saw Sunday in the Park with George. I can’t even fathom the mind that could create that kind of art. And that’s the topic of the show! Stephen Sondheim’s talent is otherworldly. Comparatively, I’m just a barnacle on the hull of show business.

You routinely work with legends. Who is a legend-in-the-making you have loved working with and see a big future for?

I guess I’m the first person who thought Miranda Sings (the creation of Colleen Ballinger) was more than a crazy internet fluke. I booked her at Birdland before she had a show…she’s now performing in concert all over the world, has a #1 New York Times Best Seller, has hosted The View, been on The Tonight Show, and is filming the second season of her Netflix series. Not only do I think she’s a comic genius, but the way she celebrates and cares for her vast audience of kids warms my heart. If there’s a comedy God, Miranda and Colleen will attain legendary status.

Jim and Billy will be at Bemelmans on March 12, March 19, April 2, April 9, April 16, April 23 and April 30. For more information, visit www.thecarlyle.com
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