No Business Like Show Business. Many people dream of being in show business. They want the glamour, fame and adoration of loyal fans. One thing is for certain: Success takes talent, big dreams and lots of hard work. Meet four Denver women who have successfully become the entertainers they were born to be.
“From the time I came out of the womb, I never wanted to be anything but some sort of performer, dancer, singer or actress,” says Lannie Garrett, singer and cabaret owner. Her big break started as a big lie. She met singer and entertainer Ron Henry and told him that if he ever needed a backup singer to call her. He called. “I didn’t know how to sing backup harmony (still don’t), let alone actually sing onstage in front of people,” she recalls. But Henry hired Garrett and with his group opened shows for Ray Charles, The Four Tops, Richie Havens and more. “I started to get my ‘stage’ legs and learned how to interpret songs — it was my school,” she says. Then, after many years of talent and hard work, it was serendipity that helped Garrett realize the dream of owning her own club. She had just ended a decade-long stint as the house entertainer at a now-defunct restaurant when the space in the basement of the D&F Tower downtown became available. Simultaneously, her friend, actor and now business partner Jefferson Arca moved back from New York, and favorite interior designer Lonnie Hanzon was available to create the space. “It happened without much real planning,” says Garrett. “We just held hands and JUMPED.”
Open since January 2006, Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret was designed to be a sensual, aesthetic space where “artists can put on real shows with lights, a great stage and a gorgeous environment,” according to Garrett. “I wanted a variety of eclectic entertainment that you might not see in other rooms in town.” The Cabaret has hosted local and national acts, including Leon Redbone and The Mills Brothers as well as burlesque dancers, hypnotists and vaudeville performers. Garrett herself performs nearly every weekend with a rotation of her themed shows, including the popular Patsy Decline, a country spoof comedy show she created. There is a disco-themed show, a salute to music from the movies and Under Paris Skies, a tribute to the French jazz style. Outside the club, Garrett is regularly in demand to perform for private functions, fund-raisers and concerts.
Garrett’s dream for the Cabaret is “to have a viable business with happy customers and to work with people I like.” As a club owner, she finds her days full of meetings, answering countless e-mails, booking talent and promoting the club and its acts, including herself. Describing her age as being “older than Cameron Diaz and younger than Susan Sarandon,” she wants to keep the cabaret going for as long as possible, but would personally like to taper off and sing about half the time. “I would like the time to discover who I am without having to work all the time. I’d really like the luxury of dinking around my garden, reading more, taking road trips and some classes. I also want to build a home and a life with someone special,” she says. Garrett is currently dating Dan Brogan, publisher and editor of 5280 magazine, whose own flexible schedule makes working around Garrett’s possible. Now a fixture on the Colorado music scene, with six CDs, Garrett says the road has not been easy. “It took a long time for an untrained, non-music-reading chick singer to gain respect from male musicians,” she recalls. However, she says she finally proved herself to a good chunk of them and works with some of the best players in town, who support what she does.
The financial struggles of the entertainment business have also been a challenge over the years. There were times when she was tempted to quit, but then serendipity would strike with a club’s offer for a steady singing job. She had no idea that, as a performer, she would also have to learn to be a businesswoman, booking the gigs, doing the contracts and negotiating. “I just wanted to sing!” says Garrett. “Fortunately, over the years the audiences kept showing up, so I carried on.”
She says her greatest successes included getting a standing ovation with her big band when they opened a show for her idol, Ray Charles. She is also proud of performing with the Colorado Symphony and singing nationally and internationally. Watching Garrett deliver a song and work a room, it’s hard to believe that she is sometimes a bit frightened to be in front of people and would just as soon hibernate. “But the moment my foot touches the stage, I’m there,” she exclaims. “I love the audience. My adrenaline starts, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere in the world but with that audience in that moment.”
One of the talented performers who has appeared at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret is jazz singer Marguerite
Juenemann. “I’ve never been anything but a musician for as long as I can remember,” she says. From playing instruments in school to jamming with her musical family in their living room, performing has been a fact of life for her. Juenemann, 52, feels that her background studying and playing seven different musical instruments enhances her singing abilities. “There were disciplines required for whatever instrument I was studying, so the habit remains to practice consistently,” she says. It’s no wonder that Juenemann has been called a “musician who sings.” Her professional career started while she was still in college. She put up a sign in the music department to see if anyone was interested in playing or singing folk music, just for fun. She got an immediate response and, along with her brother, started a group. “It was nonstop education from that point to right now, with so much more to get into yet,” she says enthusiastically.
After performing professionally for several years, Juenemann decided she wanted to become a jazz singer when she saw the legendary Betty Carter perform in 1978. “I watched her just stun the audience with consummate musical skill, using only her voice and a trio,” recalls Juenemann. “That became the only thing for me to pursue as a singer.” Juenemann was a founding member of Rare Silk, a small female vocal jazz group that started in Boulder in 1978. Success came and grew as the women toured with Benny Goodman and his orchestra, playing concert halls (including Carnegie Hall) and music festivals all over the world. Rare Silk was even nominated for a Grammy Award for its debut album. Since the group disbanded in the ‘80s, she has had a very active solo career, playing mostly concerts, festivals, private functions and clubs here and internationally. She has two solo CDs and has appeared on a number of other musicians’ CDs. Juenemann also teaches voice and is a host of a weekly jazz jam session for professional and amateur musicians at a local restaurant. Despite having performed and lived elsewhere, she is happy to stay grounded in Denver with her garden, friends, family and loyal fan base. Like Garrett, she has faced obstacles from males in the industry but has gained their respect over the years. As for having a personal life, she says it is possible, but then smiles and quotes Katharine Hepburn, who said, “Men and women should live next door to each other.”
When it comes to performing, Juenemann says, “I’ll testify to feeling anxious nearly every time I hit the stage. There’s a part of your musicianship that you trust, always, so you know you’ll be able to play the music. The part that sometimes makes you anxious is wanting every utterance to be stellar, and sometimes it just isn’t.” She loves performing because it’s a chance to share something she loves with her friends and strangers. “It’s nice to be a part of humanity from any aspect, whether you are the one performing or in the crowd,” she says.
When Wende Curtis was a child, she considered becoming the president of the United States. But she wanted to be in show business even more. Curtis achieved her dream when she became the first female owner of The Comedy Works, a local comedy club in Larimer Square. Although there are a lot of women in the comedy industry working as agents, managers and publicists, there are very few female comedy club owners. Curtis, 44, has heard the stories of women in the industry being held back by men, but says she’s never experienced it herself. She thinks this may be because of what she considers to be her male as well as female traits — daring, courageous, aggressive. She continues, “But I’m also very warm and fuzzy to those I deal with — from our customers to my staff and our comedians — a bit motherly, I guess.” Of her business ownership style, she says in a good-humored tone, “There are a lot of male club owners who should stand up and pay attention.”
Curtis got into the comedy club business while finishing her degree in acting and directing at CSU in Fort Collins. She was so eager to get into show business that she worked as a cocktail waitress at the local Comedy Works location just to get her foot in the door. After graduation, she became the general manager, booking acts. After doing different projects for Comedy Works’ various ventures, she developed a reputation for being able to come in and turn a struggling location around.
Eventually, Curtis landed at the Comedy Works location in Larimer Square. She had worked every angle of the business and ran it well, so when the opportunity came up five years ago, she and two others bought it. “Then in a huge ‘aha’ moment, I bought them out!” she adds. Although she is very supportive of female comedians, Curtis doesn’t make an effort to book more females than males. “My agenda is and has always been to book the very best and biggest, whoever they may be,” she explains. “If all of the acts were white males of average height, the audience would just be confused by them,” she believes. “Diversity makes the whole show more memorable.”
One of her goals was to expand the club, and she seriously considered downtown Chicago. “Ultimately, I decided to shore up my own back yard first,” says Curtis. Her new location, Comedy Works South, opens in November in the DTC area with a show room, martini lounge and restaurant. Curtis divides her time between the two clubs, planning every detail, handling countless phone calls, meetings and emails. She is often at work well into the evening, especially on show nights. Weekends are the busiest times, so she is present for every show. “I love the energy of the weekend with so many people and so much going on,” she says. This happy workaholic says she takes Sundays off but then adds, “Well, I come in for a couple of hours every few Sundays. It’s never done, I can tell you that … never, never, never.” Curtis readily admits she puts her job first, which has made a personal life difficult. Although there have been tough times, Curtis says that success has come easily, but adds that she’s very driven. “I’ve always been ‘hungry,’ and a lot of people lack that hunger,” she says. ”I’ve done the time, and I’ve worked my tail end off. I’ve given up a lot and put this first to be the best … and I’ve been nice to people — what a concept!” she exclaims. “The people who are not nice to others are missing the point entirely. They’ll never achieve truer success than I have.”
When she was in third grade, Hazel Miller toyed with the idea of being either a singer or a marine biologist. She was advised not to pursue marine biology because at that time, there were no “colored people” in that profession. So from that point on, she wanted to be a singer. “It’s who I am,” she says matter-of-factly.
For the past 37 years, Miller has entertained audiences performing blues, rock and jazz, first in Louisville, Ky., and then in Colorado. “In Louisville, I had the best band in the city. I was considered a local celebrity but wanted a larger challenge. I wanted to go to Los Angeles, like every singer with big plans,” she explains. On her way to LA, she stopped in Denver and changed her mind. “Colorado seduced me,” she says. “There is an abundance of music here and a love and support of local musicians that I have never seen before. I cannot think of any place in this country that has the opportunities that I’ve found here.”
Miller, 54, got her foothold in Colorado working as a backup singer with the group Bighead Todd and the Monsters. With the group, she found major fame. “It is no picnic to be that famous,” she says emphatically. “I learned a lot watching the Monsters handle all the fame and money and stay true to personal values. It was not for me,” she continues. “I think I was meant to find the niche that fits me and build from that place. I believe I’ve done just that.” That niche included creating her own band here in Colorado, continuing her sometimes challenging role as band leader. Being part of a band was fun for Miller, but she was always at the mercy of other people’s decisions. Running her own band meant that she could make the band revolve around her life, which included her children and their needs. Miller says that finding men who could and would work with a woman band leader was not hard, but inspiring loyalty and quality output from them was.
“In my business, women are fringe, even when they are the featured performer,” Miller says, her jovial tone changing. “I am seen as driven, but that’s a quality admired in men. So why can’t I be driven? I have learned to ignore the reasoning from men who don’t want to know me as a good band leader, worthy singer
and solid businesswoman.” Realizing her dream of being a performer has come at the cost of Miller’s personal life. “My prime years for dating were taken up forging a foothold in the Colorado music scene and raising my sons,” she says. “My friends say I have to be ready for a companion before I can find one or he finds me.” She adds, “So I’m getting my thoughts in a positive place and getting control of my business so I can be ready for a relationship.” Despite her many years of performing, Miller still gets very nervous before a performance. “My guys will tell you that I can be hard to be around before the show,” she says. “It’s a mixture of stage fright and anxiety. I want the audience to like my performance, but I’m afraid that my voice may not be enough.” She needn’t worry about that. With her group, the Hazel Miller Band, she regularly performs at concerts, special events, corporate and private functions. Miller has four CDs out and is working on a fifth. “I love the time on stage,” says Miller. “I love the energy and the unexpected moments of perfection we achieve while performing.”
By COURTNEY DRAKE-MCDONOUGH
Photography KIT WILLIAMS