By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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.
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.
You can also show her heading into yet another school, another classroom, another closed society with a determined pecking order not to be messed with. And you can show her being utterly unbowed by the challenge.
"She always had an easy time being in front of people," her mother says. "With all these moves into different schools, I'd drop her off the first day, and when I came back to get her she'd be surrounded by a big group of kids wanting to know everything about her."
"I would just march into a school and pick out who the most popular girls were and go right on up to them and start in," Cooper says. "People who hear about my upbringing sometimes say stuff like 'That must have been so hard,' but I think I'm more confident and happy than a lot of my friends who had traditional middle-class upbringings. A lot of it is because of my mom -- she sent me into the world with a lot of confidence I think my friends who are fucked up, I think it comes from a lack of self-esteem because they didn't get enough reassurance when they were little."
Act I, Scene 2: Love and Heartbreak
Things weren't that simple, of course -- Cooper spent much of her time as a latchkey kid. She began a lifelong love affair with television, mesmerized by Lucy, entranced by Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley musicals, captivated by the snappy patter of Myrna Loy and William Powell in The Thin Man.
Therein would lie a song, no doubt, a fantasy scene that would highlight Cooper's ability to do slapstick comedy, demanding dance numbers and witty dialogue.
The TV also served as a way to avoid her parents' deteriorating marriage. "Obviously, they were different people," Cooper says. "My mom didn't want to live in a school bus and drive around the country, and he did."
They divorced when she was seven, but the worst was yet to come.
"Within a year of the divorce, he was having a real hard time -- there were definitely some screws missing at that point," she says. "He hooked up with this really unstable woman and decided to cut off all contact with his family. It was hard for me, because it wasn't the classic businessman running off with the young secretary and still calling his kid every once in a while."
Instead, one day when she was eight years old, Cooper was talking to her father on the phone. " 'Hey, I'll call you right back,' he said to me. And then I didn't hear from him for 11 years."
She usually knew where he was at any given time, because he traveled with (naturally) the Renaissance Faire, selling carvings of Celtic crosses, Stars of David and Klingon symbols.
"When I was living in Houston I would know when the Renaissance Faire was in town, and I would have these dreams of going to it and walking right up to him and saying, 'Hey, Dad, it's me.' But I never did it," Cooper says.
Instead, she pined for her father -- every musical needs that heartfelt ballad of loss -- and got on with her life, helped by her mother's lack of bitterness.
"I just kept telling her and telling her," Bottger says, "that he would show up again someday and that he really loved her."
Cooper kept in weekly touch with her Chicago paternal grandparents, an apparently zany crew who she says is right out of the raucous dining room scene from Annie Hall. (A death in the family kept her father from talking to the Houston Press for this story.)
Act I, Scene 3:
Home At Last
Things continued on; the constant moving slowed, and eventually Cooper's mother was hired to help open the Whole Foods Market in Houston in 1984.
Cooper began attending the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, coming in with an academic record that allowed her to begin her junior year just as she turned 15 years old. At HSPVA she met a half-dozen of the folks who would become the backbone of Infernal Bridegroom Productions.
"She came in, and she's kind of this gigantic personality," says Nodler, one of IBP's founders.
It was hard to avoid being swept up in it all -- the days spent taking dance classes, the nights collaborating on productions, talking about The Meaning of It All, doing whatever drugs seemed handy, falling in love with whoever seemed most intense. (Here's where the requisite Fame number -- or, more likely, a spoof of the requisite Fame number -- comes in.)
So it came as an unpleasant jolt a year later when Cooper's mother told her that once again they would be moving -- this time to California.
"I said no," Cooper says.
And partly through hippie benevolence, partly through a trust in her kid, partly because she needed to move whether her daughter came or not, Cooper's mother let her stay in Houston. The teenager lived with a series of family friends -- including, she says, yet another couple of "crazy hippies," this one "with lots of sticky, naked children running around."
"It was such a sacrifice for my mother, because we really are best friends, and I was her only child at the time," Cooper says. "But she saw what it meant to me and she let me stay."
And there's the first act closer -- the spunky teen waving good-bye to her mom, on her own in the big city with a big dream about making it big someday. Think Gypsy, maybe, or 42nd Street.
Any intermission involving Cooper will no doubt involve a costume change. Clothes are life to her. She can all too often be found at the vintage clothing store The Way We Wore, which sports a name that's right up there with Nothing Is Real when it comes to business names that should be rethought.
"There's never been any question about her ability on stage or her ability to shop and buy clothing," her mother says. "I can remember when she was two years old, she tried on 40 bathing suits one time. I was just standing there and couldn't stop her."
Some may call that overindulging a kid -- after maybe a couple dozen bathing suits, even the most toddler-besmitten mom might throw in the towel -- but without that kind of patience and the clothes addict it produced, The Way We Wore might not have stayed open past its first month. And Montrose would be denied the daily fashion parade of billowing '40s and '50s skirts and kitschy accessories that Cooper displays at coffeehouses like Brasil or bars like Rudyard's.
Act II, Scene 1: Let s Put On a Show
The improbable rise of Infernal Bridegroom Productions has been written about before (see "Kicking A," by Lee Williams, February 24, 2000), but there's more than enough there for a number.
From drunken half-assed productions of plays staged in a decrepit nightclub to edgy original stuff in sweltering temporary theaters, it's a comedy montage. There's the night Cooper was doing Tennessee Williams's Camino Real in the Spanish-themed courtyard of an abandoned shopping mall and the arachnophobic actress was set upon by an invasion of tree roaches. (She was found screaming and pulling at car doors in the parking lot, desperately trying to get inside one.)
Or the night they were doing Beckett's somber and dark Endgame in another borrowed space, and just as a character bleakly intoned how there is naught but nothingness, the owner's cat loudly meowed.
It might have been a bumpy ride, but Nodler's determination to put on the most difficult plays (Beckett, Brecht, Ionesco), and the company's enthusiasm and skill have taken IBP from its scruffy beginnings to its promising position.
IBP has allowed Cooper to take on more dramatic, meaty roles.
"She's the actress I'm proudest of," Nodler says. "She had no acting background -- her background was in dance and choreography. Now she's one of the finest actresses in Houston."
She played the lead, an emotionally wrenching modern version of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne, in one of IBP's coups, garnering critical acclaim in the world premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks's Fucking A. She was buried to the waist and held the stage for two hours in Beckett's Happy Days.
"I just keep trying to find new challenges for her, and she keeps knocking them down," Nodler says.
His friendship with Cooper is an integral part of IBP.
"The kind of rapport they have is stunning to watch," says IBP associate director Anthony Barilla. "The rehearsal process can be very scary, but Tamarie and Jason implicitly understand that it's a raw situation and they won't do anything to each other to piss each other off. There's an incredible trust there -- he gets to say what he wants to say, and she gets to try what she wants to try."
"I've seen her do silly, broad, rubber-face, simpleton comedy and also now get to the point where she is very apt and able and a pretty adroit performer in a serious dramatic way," says IBP vet Andy Nelson.
IBP productions are often dark, if not outright pits of despair. Except for each summer, when a new edition of Tamalalia rolls around.
Act II, Scene 2: Tamaramania
Tamalalia has turned into a cash cow for IBP -- it all but sells out each year, and would run longer if Stages Repertory Theatre could spare the space. Given IBP's success with grants, ticket sales are no longer the sole lifeblood of the company, but for a few years Cooper's annual production more or less funded the rest of the year.
It began simply enough six years ago, as a fund-raiser at the Orange Show. Cooper put on some skits, sang some songs and cooked pasta both nights for cast and audience.
The second year audience members piled on a bus and were entertained on the way to several sites around the city where performers were waiting to do musical numbers. (With occasional time-outs to catch part of a Rockets playoff game; IBP is home to several Rockets fanatics. One Tamalalia featured "The Villain Song," with Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and the Utah Jazz.)
The bus driver was only skimpily briefed by the company that rented the bus to IBP -- "He basically thought it was going to be a bachelor party with strippers," Cooper says -- and he balked when told he was supposed to act angry at one point and kick everyone off the bus.
By the end of the night, of course, he was in full Brando mode. "I still have people coming up to me all the time saying that they were On the Bus," Cooper says.
Ensuing Tamalalia productions were less mobile and began to develop themes, one year a cocktail party, another a campout. All dealt with Cooper's life and had the kind of campy risqué humor (and frequent use of drag) that has left her, as she puts it, with being "this kind of gay icon" in Houston. Straights flocked to the shows, though, too, for the inventive choreography and clever writing.
Cooper has had various collaborators on the shows; Barilla now writes the music, and Nelson helps with lyrics and dialogue.
"She really knows what she wants when she goes into a new Tamalalia," Barilla says. The trio began meeting a couple of times a week six months before the premiere of this year's edition, a '30s gangster fable.
"She choreographed my writing of the show as much as she did the music and the dance," Nelson says.
Cooper throws out her ideas, Barilla starts plunking out chords, and Nelson begins developing lyrics and transitions.
Eventually a script comes out, followed by six weeks of six-nights-a-week rehearsal.
"She reminds everyone all the time while we're doing this that some shows spotlight the human condition, some shows make you think, others deal with the delicacies of certain people getting along with certain people, but this show is just meant to be plain and simple monkeys-jumping-around-on-a-hot-plate fun," Nelson says. "It's a luxury for the company to have a show each year that's a big, broad, entertaining, colorful song-and-dance thing, because all the other things the company does are intense, dark and twisted."
With Tamalalia, Cooper has created a local phenomenon that some people look forward to as eagerly as a big rock tour, one that has made a unique mark on the Houston theater scene.
Act II, Scene 3: Finale
Where does she go from here? Although Nodler says other theater companies in town have tried to get her to leave IBP, Cooper says she can't imagine being anywhere else.
"It really is a family," she says. The IBP members have big plans, to become a Houston version of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. But they also seem to have a genuine affection for one another.
"The company aspect of it is a heavy thing. It's the whole point," Nodler says. "At least half the people who are members of the company don't have any die-hard interest in acting. It's the working together that they like."
Nodler often says his goal for the group is to be on the cover of People magazine. "We're going to be bigger than them all, but we're going to do it on the right schedule," he says.
"Tamarie does have very grand ambitions, it's just that they're all with IBP," he says.
Cooper says she's often asked why she doesn't go to New York or L.A. "I don't have an agent, I don't have head shots, I'm not peddling commercials," she says. "Making Doritos commercials is not something that's artistic. I'm part of a company here, and we can stand behind all the work we do. All the great play movements have come from companies, not individual persons. We want to take it as far as we can go -- national recognition, a tour -- and I think it's best if we do it here. Houston has been very good to us."
(There are limits, of course: "I'm not saying if someone came up and said they wanted to screen-test me, I would say, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no.' Of course I would do it.")
Leaving Houston would mean leaving behind a family that has grown extraordinarily close. IBP members make a point of celebrating Thanksgiving together each year.
"She loves her life and her friends," Cooper's mother says. "In some ways it's a dream existence, doing exactly what she wants with a company that's becoming more and more established each year, with friends who've been friends for a long time. It's kind of like a garage band that makes it big."
"I just have a sense of contentment right now," Cooper says. "I feel enriched and happy to do what I'm doing."
That contentment includes re-establishing connections with her father. He called her one day during her sporadic and ultimately unsuccessful college career at the University of Houston. He was in Magnolia, where the Renaissance Faire was set up for its Houston stop, and wanted to come to town to see her. "I screamed and cried at him for two hours on the phone in this kind of mad rant," she says. "Then I called my mom, and she said I should see him, so I did. Within an hour of hanging out, we were singing songs from West Side Story. He says what he did was the greatest mistake he ever made, and that getting together again was the greatest second chance he ever had. I love him; my humor and my mania are definitely from him."
"Generally, she's one of the happiest people I know," says Nodler, who might know her as well as anyone outside her family.
Cooper has a longtime boyfriend, fellow IBP member Troy Schulze; she's also got a sense that things are going great. "I've never felt more focused, or on a path," she says. "I mean, I can always go back to school if I decide again that I want to be an elementary school teacher. And someday I want to have kids and a big family, but I have ten years to do that. Right now there just seems to be this opportunity, all these things happening."
So what would be the finale to this grand musical? The big dance scene where she wins her freedom from Whole Foods?
Nah. Not surprising, it turns out she loves the guys at Whole Foods ("They're my biggest cheerleaders"), so quitting her job there is not exactly a case of finally sticking it to The Man.
A better finale might be a moment from this year's Tamalalia. It was just a dance number in the middle of the show, a piece where Cooper and two other dancers started into a tap routine.
The music built, and more dancers joined in. Then more.
And all of a sudden Cooper was tapping furiously toward the front of the stage, arms stretched out to the audience, heading a chorus line right out of MGM with music to match. There she was, starring in her own show, in front of a thrilled crowd, a key part of a company and a family that seemed to have only the brightest future in front of it.
A giant smile broke across her face, as if she just couldn't imagine anything better than this, this moment that embodied the dreams that had come from watching old movies on TV, being on top and still having bigger worlds ready to conquer.
Maybe things can't get any better than that for Cooper. But chances are they will.