A visit with Miz Kitty

Vaudeville, treasure-hunting, and toilet repair move to the Alberta Rose with Miz Kitty's old-time variety show

If you happen by the Alberta Rose Theatre on Saturday, don’t let Lisa Marsicek’s saucy corset and bright orange boa fool you. The incomparable and indefatigable variety show host of Miz Kitty’s Parlour is about the most down-to-earth and nurturing diva you could meet. At times, she almost seems meek as she pussyfoots daintily around her star acts to guide her adoring crowds through an evening’s entertainment. But she doesn’t mind getting friendly, either, linking arms with the winners of her “door prizes” and rummaging through a dressup chest to find just the right accessories to complement them.

At the last installment of Miz Kitty’s Parlour, Fall Follies, the novelty never ceased. Three spry white-bearded jugglers effortlessly flung their clubs while impishly snatching off each other’s bowler hats. Adam Goldthwaite somehow took a bit that could be comic—covering Phil Collins on banjo in full Cats makeup—and made it sensual, surreal and haunting. Later on, a sprightlier country-folk combo brought the room back up, rocking out on a trashcan bass.

mizkitty

A female Igor figure, “Eye-gore,” hammed up her role with a witty twist on the classic hunchback look: uneven stuffed breasts that migrated around under her sweater. After dry-humping a few audience participants and generally acting a boob, she unleashed a lovely soprano voice to lead a chilling sing-along of “Have You Seen the Ghost of John.”

It was the Parlour’s first, and not last, show at Alberta Rose; to be followed this weekend by an all-new lineup of “January Enchantment.” But with a long history behind it at various venues, and one consistent frontwoman over 13 years, ArtsWatch figured it was high time to get the scoop on Miz Kitty.

How long have you been doing the Parlour, and what venues have hosted over the years?

I started the show in September 2002 at Artichoke music, a 50-seat hall, then moved to Mississippi Pizza, who had 80 seats; it was super cozy and intimate. Outgrew that space and I moved again to Imbibe for a few months, then to the Mission Theater. In the spring of 2014 the Mission discontinued all their live entertainment, so it was time to find a new place. The Alberta Rose was a natural choice, a lovely stage, great seating layout and a super fun location.

What made you start the show?

I’ve always been interested in variety shows. When I was a little kid, my folks would watch The Muppet Show, Carol Burnett, Sonny and Cher, Saturday Night Live, reruns of Ernie Kovaks…that was some real Dada television. A lot of those actors had roots in Vaudeville, parents who did it, the Saturday Night Live folks all have improv roots. When I was at Artichoke Music Kate and Steve asked if I wanted to do something with the theater in the back of the shop, and it was an ideal situation. I knew so many musicians from playing in bands, the teachers there, and the amazing music scene here in Portland. I had also met a lot of dancers, jugglers, and comedians…it was kismet… like a Little Rascals episode… “Hey, let’s put on a show!”

Where do you come from?

I am a solid Midwestern Chicago girl, ask me to say “apple or sausage,” lived in Colorado teaching printmaking for a couple summers, moved to Georgia, and then landed in Portland in early 2000.

What instruments do you play, what theater have you done, what first got you into vaudeville/variety?
I was teaching art in Colorado in a little tiny town called Blackhawk. At night a little bar up the dirt road had music, some guys would ride their horses down the mountain with their fiddles and banjos and play all night, I was hooked. I taught myself to play fiddle and banjo when I went back to Chicago, then picked up a little standup bass and guitar as well. Always been drawn to acoustic, jazz and roots music. In Chicago I got a little Victrola from a friend. Started collecting 78rpm records and that music really spoke to me. A lot of the musicians from that early recording era played the circuit, did stints in the variety shows and traveled around playing music. Those 78 sides, they are 3 minutes of heaven. I played in a bunch of bands in Chicago, and was fortunate to get to record with Freakwater in the 1990s , moved to Atlanta to get up close with the string~band music and its roots, then Moved to Portland and played with The Flat Mountain Girls and Sassparilla.

I did some theater in Chicago, and Atlanta as well, got to tour the South with a theater company…weird and amazing. In Portland I have been fortunate to work with Artists Repertory Theatre, Oregon Children’s Theater, Sowelu Theater Company, and lately with Leo Daedalus and his “Late Now” crew.

What made you choose the moniker Miz Kitty, and what does it evoke/mean to you, and how is it received?

The Miz Kitty name just sort of happened (no connection to Gunsmoke here). The Miss Kitty and Pussycat and all the double entendre that comes from that seemed to fall right into place. I am having a big party where I have my favorite bands and writers and acrobats, dancers, jugglers and comedians…I get to stuff myself into a corset like a sassy Madame, be a smartass, go to second hand stores and find little things that crack me up and give them to people, this show is all of my favorite things to do. Dreamy.

How do you find your acts?

I love, love, love playing music~ and being entertained, love a live performance. I met a lot of the musicians playing shows with them, and it was easy to say, “Hey, I do this variety show, I would love to have you on.” There are so many amazing performers in the Portland area, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, actors, comedians and so on. I love going to see them perform…and bringing them in. Some of the performers at the show have been coming back since 2002. It is so great to look back and see how performers have changed and grown. Some people who have performed at the show are now national acts, or working in television, some have passed on.…13 years is a pretty amazing run, and there is still so much to do. That’s the charm of a show with revolving acts, it’s always new, and with a new venue there is room to grow and change and experiment.

How do you curate a bill? What emotional or performance elements are you trying to balance when you put together a show?

I try to keep a good mix, different musical styles, some loud, some soft, some funny, some touching, everyone is so connected and yet disconnected these days, we are all constantly in touch with each other. With the Internet I know what people from high school I have not seen for years had for dinner, but might not know what my good friend is feeling, right? A lot of being so in touch and also so very out of real touch. I think everyone has been in a room with a bunch of folks, all doing email or Facebook or Snapchat or whatever and not paying attention to the actual people in the room. The idea of being at a live performance… everyone is watching the stage, really being present and in that moment in time where you don’t know what is going to happen, What is the band going to sound like, will the juggler drop something…oh my gosh he is so funny, is the acrobat going to fall, oh my gosh…did you see that? Turning to the person next to you that you might not know and sharing a moment of wonder and delight. A raging band, a dancer’s moment of grace, an acrobat writing poetry with her body, a heartbreaking solo that takes all the air out of a room…everyone is silent and holding on to that one lovely note… That is so amazing and so great and it can make me cry…and I love that, I love all of that and when I get to share that wonder with a bunch of other people…nothing is finer.

What are your thoughts on emceeing? What do you think an ideal host does and doesn’t do? How much spotlight do you take vs. how much you shine on others? How has your approach to hosting changed over the years?

Boy, as far as being a host goes, I don’t want the focus to be on me. I am there as a sassy spirit guide, setting a fun mood, having a good time and filling in the spaces. I direct and produce it, dress up and host it, but the focus is definitely on the performers and their art. Most of the work I do for the show is behind the scenes, the curating, and promotion and all of that. The frosting is the dressing up and getting to shoot off the one liners.

There’s a part of your show where you choose prizes for audience members, including clothes you dress them in. What are your secrets for sizing up and dressing a stranger, and making them comfortable onstage?

I love the door prizes. There is so much funny stuff out in the world, fun old yearbooks and cookbooks, weird sculptures, peculiar art, goofy costumes and knicknacks. I can’t resist them. If I didn’t have the show to give them away, I would be a hoarder of curious things. The door prize thing started as a way to fill time between acts while microphones were being set up, or props assembled. It quickly became one of the favorite parts of the show. Everyone gets a ticket when they come in, and who does not like to win something. Most people will say “I never win anything,” that feeling of “OH MY GOSH THAT IS MY NUMBER!!” How fun! I call numbers sometimes and no one comes up, maybe they lost their ticket, or saw what the last person got and think, “No way am I getting up there”—and that’s fine. Everything I give away is fun, unique, silly…some people come up kind of shy…and I try to give them something subtle and silly and fun. The person that storms the stage an is jumping up and down… they know what they’re getting themselves into, and they’re getting the silly costume. About 8 years ago, I was fixing the plumbing in my house…I bought the wrong flusher for the commode, and never took it out of the package, someone wound up getting that and a wig for a door prize…they were not too excited. Two months later, they came back and said, “this is crazy, but a week after your show, my toilet broke…and that damn flusher you gave me, that fixed it. My wife made me wear that wig while I fixed it.” See? Spirit guide.

What should we expect from the next Parlour?

The next show, January 10th is going to be so much fun. The move to the Alberta Rose and the big stage has given me the ability to have bigger bands… The Satin Chaps, an eight-piece 1960s groove pop outfit, are going to blow the roof off of that place! That mixed with the amazing 1930s jazz of Boy and Bean, the stunning poetry of Mindy Nettifee, The Quiet American playing their beautiful songs, Rhys Thomas’s juggling and comedy…off the charts. Erin O’Regan, who helped found the Stumptown Improv Festival, and Starr Ahrens, two amazing women in the improv and sketch comedy scene here in Portland are also involved, as well as the house band The Cur Tails. Squeeee! I have a house band!

That, and of course, the door prizes.

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