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LAist Interview: Janet Klein

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The past is always present for Janet Klein. A devotee of early 20th century popular culture, Janet sings old hits on her ukulele and performs with her band "Janet Klein & Her Parlor Boys." Last year, they hosted a weekly show called "Janet Klein & Her Borscht Belt Babies," directed by Amit Itelmann, at the Steve Allen Theater. The show recreated a vaudeville show, featuring a variety of performances involving animal acts, speakers, singers and dancers.

The group's latest CD is entitled "OH!" and covers tunes popular from 1910-1930. Janet Klein has what my grandmother would call an "old soul." It's on display even when she's not performing; you can see it immediately in the way she dresses, wears her hair or holds a parasol. You can check Janet's charisma out for yourself in September when Janet and her band will perform at the "Vaudeville Extravaganza" on September 16, 2006 at the Alex Theater in Glendale.

Age and Occupation
Born in 1907, you do the math. I don't really go by numbers.
By day: I work for Delta Graphics, a commercial printing company on the Westside, making books and other printed matter.

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By night: I am a ukulele chanteuse and bandleader. We're called "Janet Klein & Her Parlor Boys", performing obscure, naughty and lovely tunes from the 1910s, 20s and 30s.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?
My parents were students at UCLA at the time that I was born, so LA is my birthplace. They went east for teaching jobs, that is, east as in San Bernardino and Perris (definitely not France). I always knew I'd come back to Los Angeles, since 1981 spending most of my years in the Miracle Mile, Fairfax district. My husband and I fell on Alhambra and we now reside there in a 1908 craftsman house on a palm tree lined street on what was once an avocado orchard.

Why do you live in Los Angeles?

LA is home to me. There are people, places and institutions that I love here.
When my family would come to LA to visit (from San Bdno) I loved the colorful houses nestled on those hills near Cal State LA. I'd see Soto Street and knew I'd come to town.We'd go to Canters on Fairfax and always pass the forever mysterious Silent Movie Theatre. The "Silent Movie" reminds me that I've always had a calling for old things. I adore the visible layers of the city that remain from the past. Downtown, Hollywood, midcity around MacArthur Park and the Adams district..on and on. My motto with LA is that "Poverty Saves", meaning that if certain areas of the city had been more prosperous and popular in the 1950s-80s, they'd most probably have been torn down to make way for cheap and modern eyesores of architecture. So perhaps if places like the Broadway Theater District and all the wonderful old neighborhoods in LA hang in long enough, they will be rediscovered for their charm and beauty and restored… and gasp, revered even. Images of old California (turn of the last century) give me a real thrill. When I can see the old city within the new, it's a beautiful thing..look at the old neighborhoods in Pasadena, South Pasadena..the trees they planted, the libraries and other public buildings…lovely, in a lasting way.

What is your latest project about?
When I talk about new projects, it always is about old things. We have just released our 5th CD entitled "OH!" If anyone has a hankering for knowing what things sounded like in this country from 1910-1938 that is what we are after. We dig and scratch and crank our Victrolas and spin 78 rpm records and play piano rolls and revive and share the wonderful material from this era. The music we perform comes from old sheet music, Vitaphone film shorts, vaudeville, incidental music used in feature films. I am lucky enough to have friends with incredible record collections and to enjoy the company of historians and local legends about town.

This year we have polished up the concept of performing live musical sets ahead of silent feature films. We have opened for Harold Lloyd at the Palace Theatre, via the Los Angeles Conservancy, and a series of performances for a silent film series at the Armand Hammer Museum, opening for films with Louise Brooks, Anna Mae Wong and Clara Bowand will be at the Alex Theatre in Glendale in September for more of this sort of thing.

What do you love most about doing vaudeville?

In general we play "concert shows" within which we do a smattering of songs that were used in vaudeville. I love harmony duets from this period and adore the "patter" i.e. planned banter that comes with these tunes. For instance, I recorded a number (with crooner-historian Miles Kreuger) that was originally performed on stage by George Burns and Gracie Allen. Their personalities and rhythms are really embedded in this material.. it's an archeological thrill.

Last year we did a run of a show called "Janet Klein & Her Borscht Belt Babies," directed by Amit Itelmann, at the Steve Allen Theatre. It was fascinating to see Amit transform from "Director" to old time Booking Agent. He had the task of drumming up acts and mixing up the bill for the entire run of shows, no two were the same. The energy of everyone honing their moments on stage to 10 minutes or less and being surrounded by such a wide variety of acts: knife throwing, juggling, stump speakers, opera singers, comedians, talking geese and other animal acts, sword swallowers, magicians, marionettists.. this was interesting. The sounds backstage were enough to send a person right into a time warp.

Describe your ideal day if you lived in Los Angeles in the 1920s?

All right then, I'd get up and pick some oranges or figs from the fruit trees in the backyard garden and bring them in for breakfast. We'd be visited by the milkman, the iceman and the Helms truck might come by with something nice. Sit out on the front porch and read the paper and do a little mending. Then we'd take an outing, maybe go to Mount Lowe, take the funicular up the mountain around Altadena, and have a walk in the woods up there, get together with some of the painters of the Arroyo... or maybe go to Gay's Lion Farm, or take a trip out to the Venice Pier for amusements or to the Bathing Pavilions down in Long Beach...picture the little tents and chairs you'd have there, the cute beach outfits! in those days the fellows not in bathing costumes would be in suits with straw hats, shoes etc...maybe have a cigar, some oyster sandwiches and a beer.

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In the evening, since I can only describe one ideal day...we go home and change and go out dinner dancing..maybe at the Biltmore Hotel, see Earl Burtnett's orchestra, or the Biltmore Trio, performing 1920s hot Hawaiian specialties. Maybe later, we'd see Gus Arnheim at the Ambassador Hotel.....then check out some jazz places on Central Avenue, they'd sure be open late....or go to a vaudeville show downtown...see W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Sophie Tucker etc...or visit pals at the Garden of Allah...

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
Practically anything with Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, the little Rascals, so many of the old movies were filmed here in LA and so a great part of the fun is getting to see what the city looked like at that time. As for more modern films.."Sunset Boulevard" and "Chinatown" were both wonderful and that movie "Touch of Evil" by Orson Welles, where the movie is supposed to be taking place in Mexico, but as a local, you can see that it's Venice, California...also a film by Curtis Harrington called "Night Tide" with Dennis Hopper and a girl who plays a mermaid...it's great just to spend time at the seaside in old run down Venice of 1961.

Best LA themed books?

"Day of the Locust" by Nathanael West is a classic. I just finished and enjoyed a book by Donald Bogle called "Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood", and I can recommend a nice LA bible of the offbeat, that would be "LA Bizarro" by Matt Maranian.

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?
Early 20th century

What is the "center" of LA to you?
I have heard that the epicenter of the city of Los Angeles geographically would land you at the Dart Square Drugstore at Beverly and La Cienega. I guess that I subliminally imagine Wilshire Boulevard to be the equator. Downtown, and MacArthur Park area feel like city centers to me.

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?

I must say that I love my house...maybe I wish that I'd have lived there in the teens and twenties though...Certainly Carroll Avenue must have been a dream in its day, old Pasadena, Bunker Hill long ago..Wilton Ave...Adams District, Victoria Park Circle, the Gamble House, the Ennis House...

People often stereotype Los Angeles as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?
I do disagree with that, although I can understand that LA might be alienating to some...especially visitors. Because of the sprawl and the time in the car and that the city is not obvious, it reveals itself slowly..that is the beauty and the beastliness of LA. I find it a great place for people with niche interests..once you dig in, the place starts erupting with interesting and friendly people.

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What is the city's greatest secret?
It just may be that the biggest secret is that LA has a history or a sense of history at all, this may be the secret that LA keeps from itself! As far as being "the greatest" secret, well, that might not be so great, but at least there is a broad sense of potential.
As I said, one of the greatest things about the city is that it isn't obvious. I have lived here a lot of years and I love the idea that there are so many parts of the city I don't know about yet..that there are discoveries and surprises. Because we perform old music, we are often invited to play in historic venues like the the Oviatt Building, (including Art Deco Penthouse, wow), the Bradbury Building ( the security fellows showed us the remains of the old speakeasy in the basement), the Queen Mary, the Argyle Hotel, Wiltern Theater Building, Santa Anita Racetrack...We just played a private party/concert with some of the best poets in town, Laurel Ann Bogen, SA Griffin and Michael C. Ford at "the Folly Bowl" in a handmade amphitheatre at a private home in Altadena..whadda night!

I had lived here 18 years and never heard of Alhambra..the whole San Gabriel Valley is a new to me and the mom and pop businesses, the specialty shops and markets and restaurants.. Chinese, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Malaysian whoopee! Places like the Museum Of Jurassic Technology, the world class presentations going on at the UCLA Film and TV Archive and at the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences, East Indian Music Concerts at Occidental College, Early Music Concerts at USC, the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo..

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?

It's not nice to brag. So, you visit me, I visit you, live where you will be happy.

Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
Indubitably

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
With my honey in Alhambra.