Songbird Janet Klein's Hotsy-Totsy Music Designs

By day, Janet Klein is a printing industry representative and sidekick to world-class designers and art institutions. By night—and on weekends—she’s a uke-playing chanteuse. And here in Los Angeles she’s a legend among aficionados of early 1900s ditties, and vintage design. Accompanied by Ian “You Turn Me On” Whitcomb and her other “Parlor Boys,” she performs “lovely, naughty, and obscure tunes from the ’10s, ’20s, and ’30s” with wit, verve, and entrancing elegance. R. Crumb and Matt Groening are among the artists who’ve immortalized her and her backup musicians over the years. And her CD graphics and collateral designs are always a delight to the eyes.

In the following interview, Janet shares her journey from design to music, her deep love of print ephemera, and how she creates her vintage graphics and came to sing with Crumb’s band. She also gives us an exclusive sneak preview of her brand new “Kleinette Firefly Flapper Banjolele.”

Art: Ashley Fisher

Why did you decide to become a singer?

For most of my life I thought of myself as a visual artist, with an inkling that I had a ham-bone streak. I dabbled with performance art and started to write poetry and to do recitations in the 1980s. In spite of the fact that I never expected anyone to listen to me singing, I had a vision of myself as a chanteuse and presented my poetry be-gowned and with candelabra, music stand, and hankie. The impression might have been somewhere incongruously between Andy Kaufman and Beatrice Lilly. Anyway, I started to incorporate musical elements into my readings with triangle and then ukulele, sharing some of the old tunes I had been collecting from the 1920s.

That’s when and where the singing came in: about 1996. By 1998 I made my first CD, singing and playing ukulele.

“Living in Sin” inside booklet photo by Rick Whitmore

And how did your Parlor Boys come together?

Somehow when I started to play the ukulele, musicians began to cross my path—extraordinarily, players who were entirely focused on 1920s and 1930s music. The first musician I met was John Reynolds, a wildly talented guitarist, banjoist, and whistler. It was at a party, and I was asked to “jam” with players there. I told them I only knew how to play alone, so I started in on a blues song called “If I Can’t Sell It I’ll Keep Sitting On It,” and halfway through the tune I realized that they were all accompanying me. From there it was a little like Dorothy on the yellow brick road. I kept tripping into curious characters.

Who’s your audience, here and abroad?

We attract people of all ages at our local venues in and around L.A.—film and music history buffs, animators, magicians, dance enthusiasts, and folks who appreciate a good time warp.

I would say we get a pretty loving reception most everywhere we go. We have been really well received in Japan many times now, and in Australia most recently. When we travel I like to investigate music of the 1920s and ’30s from the place we intend to visit. We’ve found amazing material that way and usually manage to surprise people abroad the same way we do here, by digging up great forgotten tunes from that era.

“Whoopee Hey Hey” inside booklet graphics by David Barlia

What are your most requested songs?

I think the requests started with two tunes I do solo: “Love Is A Boomerang” and “Banana In Your Fruit Basket.” The latter one was a risqué blues number originally recorded by Bo Carter that, when I did it, became something else: naughty, surreal, and maybe gender-bending; I’m still not sure what, but everyone likes it a lot.

With my band, I think I get the most requests for “Yiddish Hula Boy” and “Cohen Owes Me $97,” which are both extremely rare “Hebrew Vaudeville” numbers. Why, you ask? Why not!

Inside graphics for “Put a Flavor to Love”

What led to your print industry career?

I studied graphic design in college and worked for several art and music magazines and have always loved printed matter. I was offered a position with a commercial print house in 1990 and it made perfect sense for me. The combination of seeking out and collaborating with great designers and pulling together all the right physical materials, finessing color reproduction, and helping to make beautiful things—that has been the draw for me.

Paper company holiday promotion

And are you responsible for its nostalgia-themed promo material?

Yes, when I’ve put out promos for the companies I have worked for, I do incorporate reproductions of vintage ephemera from my collection. Partly because they are so texturally interesting and beautiful and tell you about the history of design and printing.

Also, a neat aspect of printing is that if you are clever, you can use every inch of the press sheet efficiently. So I have made alternate versions of every print promo with another intended use for my band.

Embossed, die-cut paper promotion and “Parlor Boys” promo with art by Ariel Bordeaux

When did you start your collection?

I started to pick things up in junk shops in the 1980s, and by the 1990s I had amassed a great deal of vintage photographic ephemera, miniature books, et cetera. Old printed paper items attract my eye. I am fascinated with the typography, the illustrations, early photography, the content of old manuals and brochures and magazines, the incidental notes scratched on the margins. All windows into the past!

From Janet Klein’s ephemera collection

What sorts of material?

Sheet music from 1917 to 1937. This is a rich era for song sheets: gorgeous printing and illustration, wonderful songs, and almost always with special arrangements for ukulele accompaniment!

Band- and vaudeville-related photographs, postcards, and promotional images from the 1890s to the 1930s give us visual clues to what the landscape of entertainment looked like, and flesh out a picture we can only otherwise imagine through 78 rpm recordings. Many, many of the acts from that time never made it to film. Promo photos from this period often have painted and hand-drawn border vignettes and white-out retouching prepared for publications. Often, press photos have newspaper clipping attached to the back to show their final usage.

I collect novel printed matter with moving parts, metamorphic designs, and “hold-to-light“ cards. These all play with illustration, photography, die-cutting, print effects, the translucence and opacity of paper in clever ways. I love to share these things with clients and designers for inspiration. I literally wallpapered my website with designs from my stash of 1920s wallpaper catalogs.

I am drawn to photographic “slice of life” images: of craftsman home interiors, photos showing rustic ways of life, paper moon photos, studio images with painted backdrops, candid photos with accidentally interesting cropping, and superimpositions and photographic evidence showing that women have always had attitude, even in the Victorian era.

Announcement design: Rick Whitmore

How do you work with designers to create your own promotions?

Almost everything that we’ve produced uses a vintage reference as a starting point. I usually stare down things in my collection searching for some textural aspect that I’d like to draw from. I usually make rough sketches and collages. My husband—and occasional Parlor Boy—Robert Loveless and the designer collaborate on our band photography. And then everything goes to the designer, usually with a box of things picked from my collection. It’s like Woody Allen superimposing the Zelig character into old film footage in a natural and seamless way—that is what I aim for.

I want to jump into these old things in every way I can. So part of the process is that I huddle with the designer and we pore over the minute details—like the patina of aging embossed tin or photographic emulsion; the neat things that happened when the ink registration in print was imprecise; the use of positive versus negative space in images where the designer was trying to get the most effect out of working with two ink colors; et cetera, et cetera.

After all that, then all kinds of things happen as the designer brings ideas, elbow grease, and typographical know-how to the process. Once I have stocked them up with as much source material as I can, I let go and have trust. And the final outcomes are always way beyond what I could have imagined. Over the last 14 years, I have only worked with three designers and I think everything has a richness and consistency that I am so proud of. At the same time, fans of our packaging can discern the work of Stephen Walker, Rick Whitmore, or David Barlia. I am very thankful for their amazing contributions.

How did you come to perform with R. Crumb?

Years ago, the only living people that I knew who were playing music from the 1920s were R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders, which was the name of his band of underground artists: Robert Armstrong, Terry Zwigoff, Al Dodge, Tom Marion, and others. Also the Beau Hunks in Holland.

Well, in about 1997, the second musician I encountered in my path was Tom Marion. We started working together musically, and I think he told those fellows about me, probably sharing my first mostly solo CD, called Come Into My Parlor. And then we started to congregate at the Hayward Ukulele Festival in Northern California. Robert Armstrong and Tom both recorded on my next record—the first with my Parlor Boys—called Paradise Wobble. They brought a 1920s hot Hawaiian, as well as Ragtime-era, instrumental aspect to that record. Fans of the Cheap Suit Serenaders would immediately recognize their sound. I’ll always be over-the-moon happy about those recordings.

Anyway, Crumb was planning a yearly trip to California from France to play with “the Suits,” and they asked Tom and me to come up to Berkeley to play with them at the Freight and Salvage. That might have been the first time I tried out the “Yiddish Hula Boy” song.

Art: R. Crumb

And how did he come to draw “Borsht Belt Babies”?

We were doing a variety show, “Janet Klein & Her Borscht Belt Babies,” developed by Amit Itelman, the director of the Steve Allen Theater in Los Angeles. The concept was that we would do a Catskills-style revue, with grandbabies of vaudeville performers. There was me—my grandfather was a professional prestidigitator; his act was called “Ten Minutes with Ten Fingers”—and John Reynolds, grandson of the character actress Zasu Pitts, singing and jazzing. We had the granddaughter of Buster Keaton doing a hula hoop dance, and the grandson of dancer Rubber Legs Lou, who had a talking goose act that was hilarious. There were knife throwers, magicians, tap dancers, opera singers, stump speakers. I was the hostess, and I peppered the show with the Yiddish dialect numbers.

How the drawing came about is still a mystery to me. Tom Marion called Amit and me for a meeting; he wouldn’t say what it was about. Then he unveiled the drawing at an H. Salt Fish & Chips. I was flattered and slightly horrified by my “likeness.” But I appreciated it as a really nice drawing.

Art: Matt Groening

Tell me about some of the other artists who’ve done your portrait.

I remember being introduced to Matt Groening through a friend, probably in the 1980s when he was mostly known for the Binky cartoons, “Life In Hell.” When I was going through some old papers of mine recently, I found a drawing that he had given me in a card. I realized that he must have come to one of my poetry readings because he rendered me—in pre-Marge Simpson style—and quoted a quirky line that really was from one of my poems.

Rick Whitmore, who worked with me exclusively on all my graphics from about 2001 to 2005, was our most prolific illustrator/art man. He dedicated countless hours to extremely intricate drawings and designs for my website, as well as wonderful postcard announcements for our shows.

Other illustrations of me and the band came about by artists illustrating the Steve Allen Theater season brochures, which were chock-full of amazing drawings. I’ve become a big fan of these artists and went on to do some side projects with Joe Matt and Ariel Bordeaux, and hope to do more.

Art: Joe Matt

Finally, what can your fans expect in 2013?

We are working feverishly on CD number eight, which is due for release very soon.

We hope to make more musical film shorts. I’m hankering to make animated musical film shorts as well, like the vintage selections that historian Jerry Beck presents at our monthly shows at the Steve Allen Theater. We are currently in our ninth year there and foresee more of that in 2013.

The “banjolele”

The cartoon artist Thom Foolery and I have collaborated on a design for a novelty “banjolele” that we will be debuting this week. It is called the Kleinette Firefly Flapper Banjolele, and will be available to the public February 7th! With luck and a song, I am hoping to find a publisher to help me produce a Flapper Songbook, for aspiring ukulele-istes.

Most importantly, we will continue to dig up and dish out rare and wonderful early jazz and play it all over town and beyond.

Postcard design: Rick Whitmore

Janet’s upcoming shows include her regular gig at the Steve Allen Theater on Thursday, February 7. On Sunday, March 24, her classic 1930s outfits and vocals will fit right in with the glorious Deco surroundings at the historic 1928 Oviatt building when she returns to Maxwell DeMille’s Cicada Club. And you can sample her tunes at her website, here.

Art: Mookie

Art: Shin Ami

Design: Rick Whitmore

CD back cover for “Oh!”

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ADD A COMMENT

15 COMMENTS

  1. Janet,
    What a wonderful article and such a great insight into your career interests and how your fabulous zany performaces came to be and still continue to evolve. I love your music and your evocation of the teens and the twenties. Keep up the good work – you are truly a one-of-a-kind! And oy, so good that Cohen finally paid back the ninety-seven dollars.
    David.

  2. Hi Janet!!
    You sexy thing, you! We have been following you for Years.Play your cds over and over. Need to get some new ones. How can you beat the tunes that you have already recorded! The doctor song, great big babykins. Hope to see you next week, cos you are the cat’s pajamas. AND look forward to seeing the new banjolele!
    Tata!
    Ginny and Norm

  3. Hello Janet!

    I’ve admired your designs ever since I bought my first Janet Klein CD: “Paradise Wobble.” Of course, I’ve collected the others as they came along. You are absolutely amazing! I’ve seen you perform a few times either at the Coffee Gallery or at a ukulele festival. You are so much fun to listen to and watch! I look forward to hearing more songs from the 10′s, 20′s and 30′s. Thank you!
    All my best,
    Cathy

  4. Hi Janet,

    You’re a living doll that represents the best of the 20′s, 30′s +… you bring this past beauty to the present with much love, creative expression and joyful music = Thank you for being you!!! XO’s Joan

  5. Yes, I agree. Phenomenal is the word!
    Fantastic, all the designs and illustrations are so great! Can’t wait to see the show.
    Congratulations.

  6. SO proud of you guys and your success and stick-to-it-ed-ness! One of my favorite memories is when I found you and said to myself “Hallelujah! A band I love and they’re all alive!!” Those of you who love this kind of music will know EXACTLY how I feel… ;o)
    Can’t wait to see you at Cicada Club coming up; we’ll be there with bells on!

  7. Thanks for the insights, Janet. The “Yiddish Hula Boy” song was published in 1925 under the original title “Becky (I ain’t coming back no more). I sing it on my CD “Hapa Haole Hit Parade.” I learned it from an old LP by Hilo Hattie. I searched for, but never found, sheet music for the song, so I don’t know if Hilo Hattie was faithful to the original version. A google search turns up a 1925 entry in the Victor discography that singer Monroe Silver recorded 4 takes of the song, which were destroyed. I don’t know of any old recordings which still exist. I believe my recording and Janet’s are the only versions available today; Hilo Hattie’s recording is out of print, but copies can be found. My band name is Hot Steel & Cool Ukulele, and our CD prominently features 4 hot steel guitarists. The songs are english lyrics in the swingy pop jazz style popular in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. We are based in San Francisco. Much aloha to Janet.