"Welcome to The Cat's Pajamas!" she says. "Our theme tonight is 'Stone Fox and Bangs!' Now, who can tell me what a stone fox is?"
"You!" someone from the audience shouts right back.
Murray has said only two sentences, and already she has the crowd eating out of her hand. That's stage presence. More, that's charisma.
I'd been warned about this.
"You're going to fall in love with Ginger," said the person who turned me on to The Cat's Pajamas -- a monthly cabaret "celebrating art, history, and the joy of aesthetic integration." "Everybody falls in love with Ginger. I'm in love with Ginger. Trust me ... those skirts."
After wowing crowds for two years, last night was the last Cat's Pajamas to make The Make Out Room.The series is taking a hiatus until June, and when it re-opens, it will be at Slim's.
"It's a much bigger venue," says Ginger, "and I want to be able to feed all of the magnificent artists we have here." Until then she's taking a break "because after two years I need the time off."
San Francisco has a lot of MC's with stage presence, but charisma is something different, and it makes an event play out differently. Let's talk about charisma for a moment.
Some believe that charisma is the ability to persuade people to do something for you -- which fits the classic academic definition proposed by Max Weber in 1947. But it's not true.
It was sociologist Philip Rieff, one of Weber's most perceptive critics who noted in a posthumous 2007 volume that ...
Yeah, I know, this is getting "smart." You got a problem with that? Did intelligent critique of cabaret end with the ascension of the Third Reich, the way the Vienna coffee houses
did? Is that what you're telling me? Because ... shut up.
I loved those coffee houses.
Anyway, look: Rieff's point was that people don't need to be CONVINCED to do something ... they'll figure out a reason to do it on their own. Stick their fingers in light sockets, kill 800,000 Tutsis, ride in Critical Mass -- people do this stuff just because they can. They don't need a charismatic authority to convince them, but just an opportunity.You don't need to be charismatic to get a crowd to shout "Woo!" - you just need to be loud. But you do need charisma go get them to pay a the kind of close attention that closes off other options for the purpose of fully realizing your vision. Ginger Murray has that gift, and it makes for a completely different kind of show.
Many shows have a theme, and it doesn't really matter, does it? Whether it's a cabaret, a literary reading, Burning Man ... whatever ... the theme is generally extraneous and irrelevant: a small influence at best. What matters is the caliber of the performers. A good performer who goes against theme is far better than a mediocre performer who sticks to it.
Not so at The Cat's Pajamas. There the theme counts for a hell of a lot, because Ginger is up there setting the tone, setting the style, giving little history lesson about it ... and she steers the aesthetic for the rest of the show. The audience goes along, giving up its interest in other aesthetic options to become surprisingly focused on the vibe set at the beginning. Tonight's theme was 1960s cool, 1960s chic, and amazing 1960s women - and it counted.
So the fact that jazz poet Jennifer Barone was reciting relatively mediocre verse ("Sometimes I feel like a tomato because I am juicy and dangerous" ... "when you discover the unpredictable insides of me") didn't matter: Her act was in tune with the note Ginger set at the beginning, and so the audience grooved happily, even when it wasn't paying attention. During Barone's set I caught someone reading extensively off his phone.
"That's not a good sign, is it?" I asked him.
"What?" he said. "Oh, well, you see, Foreign Policy is attacking Seymour Hersh. But," he thought about it. "But this?" he gestured at the stage. "This is great! Let's bring this all back!" He was totally sincere ... even he went back to his phone.
On the other hand, a capable performer like actress Joyful Raven lost the crowd because she went off the rails. Her act was clever: a British wet nurse thinks she can sell her whisky flavored breast milk directly to consumers in San Francisco because it's imported, local, and organic all at once. Funny. But come on - a cockney wet nurse in 2011 San Francisco went completely against the 1960s cool grain, and the crowd's attention scattered. It got noisier. Conversation picked up. She absolutely got a big laugh when her breasts "squirted" milk into Ginger's mouth on stage, but the audience wasn't concentrating anymore.
Likewise the burlesque performer Dottie Lux had a harder time getting the crowd's attention than she should have because her schtick - a contest in which three audience members came on stage and competed to see who could pop a balloon in the sexiest way possible - didn't really fit. The audience had implicitly made a deal to give up anything that wasn't '60s chic tonight, and it was trying to live up to its end of the bargain.
But there is a limit. Ginger explained that the musical group Fox and Woman are "radical political folk music" in the '60s tradition. It's hard to think of a less apt description of Fox and Woman (The Knights of the Round Table? The Post Office? Watch the clip above from an earlier performance and decide for yourself). But it didn't matter. Fox and Woman's exceptional musicianship and tight harmonies blow the roof off whether they're singing Portuguese folk songs, country and western, or David Bowie covers. They're going to be huge someday. The crowd surged.
The evening ended on a very '60s note, with The Bang - and there's no denying that they have a great '60s sound. I tried denying it. I did. It's impossible. Save yourself the trouble.
When the show was over, Ginger asked "What do I do now?" The crowd, still hungry for more, demanded she stay on stage and lip sync.
"Okay!" she said. "Just ... oh, aren't you the most amazing audience? Can I just enjoy you for a little while?"
The Cat's Pajamas doesn't come back 'til June. The woman's earned her rest.