Two weeks into the pandemic — and his 17 years run at Birdland with the iconic weekly Cast Party broken — Jim Caruso was in bed “watching every single episode of West Wing, eating Oreos and ice cream and basically pulling my covers over my head.”
Even though he was “sad and depressed and stuff” his next action created a brand new show — Pajama Cast Party — that reached a weekly audience which peaked at 15,000 (the maximum Birdland crowd is 150) and connected him with a young producer (who had first attended Cast Party at age 6). His action was going LIVE on Instagram…
“I just thought, I’m going to get on Instagram Live, which I’d never really looked at. I was sitting on the couch and I saw people I knew. And there’s a thing that says, ‘can I join you?’ and all of a sudden you’re looking at them and everybody that’s watching you is looking at them. It’s like, oh my God. It’s like a television show — a really janky television,” Jim recalls. That first night, there were songs and “then my friend, who’s a juggler popped up and I said, ‘juggle something’. And now we’re starting to build an audience. It was a couple of hundred.”
One of those joining in that night was 21-year-old Ruby Locknar (now 22). She sang a song with her sister Ava and her mom, Emmy Award-winning songwriter Victoria Shaw.
Ruby first went to Cast Party when she was 6 years old (there’s a picture of her on stage with Jim). When she saw the format she texted Jim saying: “You need to call me tomorrow because I’m going to produce a show for you.” She recalls that all he texted back that night to her was: “huh?”
Persistence paid off, Ruby called Jim the next morning. “I live in New York, but I was quarantined in Nashville. My mom and I both said, ‘this needs to be a weekly thing until the pandemic is over’ — in March last year, we thought that would be another two weeks.”
Ruby was an actor working in retail in between gigs — but had always been “techie”. Their first Pajama Cast Party (‘Pajama’ was Ruby’s mom’s idea) went live at the end of March 2019 — and was a success. “I remember getting off the phone and saying to my boyfriend, ‘it’s so cute that Jim thinks it’s only going to be a one-off’,” said Ruby.
The result has been a collaboration that has produced 63 weekly shows and brought a new diversity to Cast Party of both audience and talent.
“Being the producer, I was thinking that although it was not the same as Cast Party in person (nothing will compare) this is a different kind of fun and magic. People are connecting. The comment section was exploding,” shared Ruby.
The show continued the Cast Party tradition of “Broadway people, jazzers, cabaret singers, comedians — and the juggler, Marcus Monroe,” shared Jim about their virtual pajama version. “We added TikTok stars, undiscovered kids who had gone viral on the internet and students who had been shut out of their high school musical or graduation song.”
The show was originally transmitted from Jim’s bedroom, with Ruby working the tech remotely (our photo of Jim and Ruby is the first time she has actually been to his apartment). Jim eventually moved from his bedroom to his living room, because he “was sitting against a wall looking like a CNN host…without the gravitas or salary.”
“During the pandemic, we did skip a week of the Pajama Cast Party for the election,” said Caruso about their commitment. “For 17 years, we did Cast Party every single Monday — I had a guest host when I had heart surgery. When I was on the road with Liza Minnelli, I got back each Monday. We are the type of people that if you give us a project — it’s going to happen. I didn’t know that about Ruby. To me, she was just this really talented kid that I would get on my knees and talk to when she was little six-year-old Ruby in her glasses.”
Their pajama escapade has given Ruby a new career path — “four weeks later I had 20 clients and I had built a virtual production company. I’m so thankful for everything that this time has brought me” For Jim, he’s ready to get back to work with Cast Party at Birdland on Monday, July 5 with a new set of talent and a virtual audience ready to come and sample the “real thing” in New York City.
“We’ve always welcomed people from all over the world at Cast Party because Birdland is this incredible iconic venue. People get off the plane at the airport, put their luggage in the cab and say, take me to Birdland,” said Jim. The venue reopens on July 1.
What about the future of Pajama Cast Party? “We’re going to keep that going on a Wednesday, starting July 7. “Pajama Cast Party is accessible for those who still can’t travel yet. It’s great for a younger audience who can’t go to Birdland by themselves. This time has shown us that the arts and theater has to be more accessible, because once it is your audience grows exponentially,” said Ruby. Meanwhile, the guest list for tonight’s (Monday, June 28) Pajama Cast Party is Tony-winning leading man Paulo Szot, YouTube superstar singer Matt Bloyd, deaf/trans/singing drag queen The Mother Birdie, and the 94-year-old singer recently featured in the NY Times, Madeline Forman!
Jim says that: “It’s been a joyful, inspiring gig. It’s like nothing since I created Cast Party 17 years ago. This has been a blast.” The duo are now looking for new opportunities, sponsorships, and maybe a “Regis and Kelly” gig on Broadway’s red carpets. Watch this space…