Tamarie's Time

Whole Foods, hard wit, the legacy of Lucy and offspring of hippies have helped the woman of Tamalalia take Houston by storm. But where's she really headed?

The moment definitely calls for a Big Number, and Tamarie Cooper, the all-singin', all-dancin' Toast of Montrose, no doubt began imagining it immediately.

After six long years, she is finally quitting her job at Whole Foods Market to work full time in the theater. For six years she has been a customer service rep ("Most people with any snap move up from that, but I never did"), juggling her duties with her serious roles for Infernal Bridegroom Productions and, especially, the annual goofy musical she puts on that has become a Houston institution.

Thousands of theatergoers pack the so-called Tamalalia shows each summer to watch Cooper tap away to songs about her love life, her crushes on bad 1980s celebrities and her struggles with what she believes to be her too-broad butt. With a wildly expressive face reminiscent of Joan Cusack, with a comedic voice that's a mix of classic Broadway comediennes like Judy Holliday and Faith Prince, she's a cartoon character come to life.

Cooper reconciled with her estranged father, who attended this '94 Hanukkah pajama party with her.
Cooper reconciled with her estranged father, who attended this '94 Hanukkah pajama party with her.

And it's no act -- off stage she's a cartoon character come to life, too. To her, Montrose is a small town where she knows everybody as she loudly dashes about in retro fashions, happily looking for rides to her next destination because somehow, even at age 31, she has never gotten around to learning how to drive.

To many, she has become the public face of Infernal Bridegroom, even more than Beckett-loving co-founder and playwright Jason Nodler. And Infernal Bridegroom is a very good place to be these days -- its traditional antimainstream bent has lately been matched by so much remarkable success in getting grants that the group's budget has gone from $50,000 a few years ago to $250,000 today. The company is moving to an actual home soon, a performance space that will serve as an interim spot while a multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign to build a permanent theater takes place. Times are definitely good.

So the idea of quitting her grocery store gig to work full time at IBP pretty much demands a musical number, with dancing bagboys, spirited high-kick romps past the produce section, and maybe -- since it's Whole Foods, after all -- something involving wheat germ.

And Cooper would be just the one to do it, accustomed as she is to putting parts of her life on stage. As it turns out, though, her entire life could have come from a musical comedy. It's got laughs, it's got a big brassy broad, it's got tears and abandonment, it's got friends and warm feelings. Not to mention a star with a seemingly very bright future.

Act I, Scene 1: Peace, Man

It would open with her resolutely hippie upbringing. It could start with her birth, an at-home event forever preserved on audiotape that featured "my husband's best friend holding one of my legs," according to Cooper's mom, "the woman whose house we were living in holding the other, and then when Tamarie came out we all yelled, 'Welcome!' There was this little 'eeeep' noise from her, and right then Let It Be from the Beatles started on the stereo."

A birth scene might be a little much, though, so it'd be better to start with a montage of the early years -- moving 42 different times by age 12, mostly to different homes in Chicago, where her father Mark Cooper's family lived, or Austin, where he and her mom attended the University of Texas.

"I had no concept of living in any one place for more than four months," Cooper says.

Her mother claims the actual number of moves in that time was only 32, and she doesn't see anything that unusual about it. "It was just the hippie lifestyle," says Cheryl Bottger, now a vice president in Florida for a large natural-foods company called Tree of Life. "We didn't have lots of money, so we'd always get into some run-down place, and I would start painting and fixing it up and then something would always happen -- the plumbing would blow up or the landlord would sell the place and we'd have to leave. It was a lot of moving, but it was all pretty much in Austin."

"My parents were total hippies," Cooper says. "My mom was the hippie that cleaned up after all the other hippies, and my dad was just this crazy Jew from Chicago, a real hippie Groucho."

Before she married, Bottger would do such perhaps unadvisable things as dashing off to Mexico City to be a street performer or dating Townes Van Zandt ("I went backstage and told him about my mother once," Cooper says, launching into a serviceable imitation of the chronically wasted singer. " 'You're not my kid, are you?' he said. Then he hit on me.")

As for Dad, it's probably enough to say that he opened what Bottger calls "an all-night, black-light ice cream shop" in Austin called Nothing Is Real.

Cooper remembers eating a lot of ice cream for dinner, although her mom says that's overstated.

At any rate, Hair would have nothing on this when it comes to staging -- the music writes itself, of course, and you can end with the sight of Cooper as a toddler, standing outside Nothing Is Real hawking business, the beginning of her showbiz career.

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