February 6, 2003
Janet’s Retro Planet
Songbird Janet Klein keeps her turn-of-the-century banner flapping.
It could have been a scene aboard the deck of the Titanic -- before that pesky iceberg hit.
As the live band performed tunes from the early 1900s, couples swing danced on the black-and-white checkered floor of an elegant art deco venue. In between songs, Cherry Tartes, burlesque strippers dressed in skimpy raincoats, strategically folded and unfurled their umbrellas to reveal, conceal and tease the supper club crowd.
While it may have felt like the turn of the 20th century, the supper club was in the Fenix Room of the Argyle Hotel on Sunset Boulevard.
In the center of it all was the self-proclaimed "ukulele chanteuse" Janet Klein -- a svelte woman with bright eyes, a brunette bob and a long gown that might place her as a contemporary of Theda Bara and Clara Bow. On a winter Monday night, she belted out vintage numbers such as "Hollywood Party," "You Keep Me Living in Sin" and "Nasty Man," with her backup band, The Parlor Boys.
"I like to say that I was born in 1908," said Klein, who coyly describes her age as "30-ish."
Born sometime after that in Los Angeles, Klein grew up in the San Bernadino foothills, with her parents, UCLA-educated educators with an Eastern European heritage.
"I always thought I had the soul of an old lady," Klein said. "I was always very close to the older people in my family. I loved the stuff they had in their houses."
Klein's ancestors were Polish leather-workers, and she has held on to their handmade, knitted, sequined gowns.
"I had a vision of me in a long gown with a candelabra," said Klein, who now dresses in these family heirlooms when she performs.
Even as a teen attending Pacific High School and Temple Emanuel, Klein cherished the 1910s, '20s and '30s.
"This period has been poorly stereotyped," said Klein of the decade maligned by visions of Betty Boop and the Charleston, when, in reality, "it's blessed by some of the greatest ever music produced by immigrants and blacks."
Brad Kay, the Parlor Boy on piano and coronet who hooked up with Klein in 1998, agrees that there is relatively little appreciation for the music.
"Our tendency in our culture to completely trash the past," Kay said. "Americans especially are prone to dismiss anything that's older than 20 minutes, which is completely opposite of the rest of the world."
A trained classical pianist, Klein first picked up the ukulele in 1995. Within months, she went up to Santa Cruz to patronize a noted luthier, who created Klein's customized black lacquer ukulele -- adorned with cherry blossoms, a "Coeur de Jeanette" logo mugged from a French cologne label and birdseed fret marks.
Lori Brooks, who works at Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica, brought down the staff of her shop to the Argyle show. She also caught Klein at Fais Do Do in November when a building code violation bust -- teeming with people dressed in period clothing -- enhanced that evening's allure.
"It really had this 1920s Prohibition feel to it," said Brooks, 24. "At the strike of midnight, the fire department showed up. The bartenders was quickly getting out of there. It seemed like all of LAPD was out there."
Klein finds the vaudeville-era tunes, a lot of them written by Jewish songwriters, "lively and clever and heartwarming."
Parlor Boys' ukulele and accordion player, Ian Whitcomb (whose "You Turn Me On" was a pop hit during the British Invasion), observed that Tin Pan Alley was a natural outlet for the East European Jews passing through Ellis Island.
"The professions, such as banking, were closed to them," said Whitcomb, who recently scored Peter Bogdanovich's "The Cat's Meow." "So they entered rogue businesses, such as cinema and Tin Pan Alley."
These Jews developed an ear for the genre's urban vernacular, he said. "Being outsiders, they could see American mass culture much more objectively....In a way we can thank the czars for the pogroms [that chased from Russia] Al Jolson, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and the like."
Klein even tosses Jewish numbers into her sets, such as "Yiddish Hula Boy" and "Rebecca from Mecca."
"Yiddish gives me a kick," she said.
Kay said Klein excels at what she does because "she has great respect for this music."
"It's not kitsch to any of us," he continued. "It's just music."
Janet Klein will perform at McCabe's on Feb. 7; at the Silent Movie Theatre on Feb. 14 ; and at the Argyle Hotel on March 3. For information, visit www.silentmovietheatre.com or www.janetklein.com . p>