Offbeat New York

On The Move In Manhattan: A Visit to Helen's

by Carla Rupp and Jason Rupp

New York City is full of great music, cabaret, dance and theater. If you want a really terrific offbeat cabaret, travel a little over twenty blocks from the Theater District to Helen's in the heart of the Chelsea area of Manhattan.

Helen's, on 8th Avenue at 19th Street, is friendly, joyful, old-fashioned, yet hip. Fun and cool.

Jimmy James, an amazing entertainer, began the summer in his New York City multi-media premiere at Helen's selling out to appreciative audiences. This show, Divas are forever! directed by Michael Schiralli has been extended, and we highly recommend it. J.J. and his musical director and pianist Ricky Ritzel have found a home, and we discovered this performer for our column readers.

We found the one and many voices of James astounding. Why? There are uncanny live vocal impressions of Madonna, Eartha Kitt, Cher, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, and many more.from Bette Davis, Patsy Cline, Marilyn Monroe, Macy Gray and Tina Turner to Norah Jones, Liza Minelli, Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin, Diana Ross, Mae West and Bette Midler.

Everyone is the Hideaway Room laughs, reminisces, applauds, and applauds some more. We loved his stories, and the Bette Davis routine is wild. James is certainly offbeat and trendy --but not as well known as he should be. Yet he is loved by those who do know or know of him. We decided to find out why Jimmy James is so beloved throughout his 20-year career and why he chose a great place for a "home." This included doing some man-on-the-street interviews in the bar and restaurant and hanging out on the street in front of Helen's on 8th Avenue at 19th Street. What did James's admirers, who come from all walks of life, have to say?

"I first saw J.J. 15 years ago in Boston, and I was amazed. I am the biggest Marilyn fan of all time, and J.J. (Jimmy James) is a reincarnation on Marilyn Monroe. It's like she came back to life," Richard Fiore, a New York jewelry salesman told our column.

Just then Pat Kelly, a New York City policeman, rode up in front of Helen's on a horse (yes, he did!), and said, "I've known Jimmy for years. I knew him from Provincetown (on Cape Cod, MA). He's the best. Jimmy's excellent and sounds better than Cher sounds as Cher. I couldn't believe it."

We further queried passersby in front of Helen's. Veronica Vera, who runs Miss Vera's Finishing School for Boys Who Want to be Girls: "I recommend every student of my academy see Jimmy James perform. He's a great female role model. And Michael Beau, of Jet Blue's customer service, told us, "J.J. is obviously a legend in his own time-the sweetest person I have ever met. He's a darling. I met him 18 years ago at Manhattan's Webster Hall. I sing with the Gay Men's Chorus of New York and he sang with us. He's fabulous, just amazing. His Judy Holiday and Billie Holiday voices are to die for!

At the bar eating a burger, we found Helen's early shift bartender Rick Collar also raving about Jimmy James, "I think he's a national treasure. He's a remarkable entertainer. I worked with Jimmy in Provincetown 20 years ago. Oh, our food is great. The food is made by down-home chef Sara Daniels, who is fabulous."

The club itself gets ravs as well. Jean Barlow, who works for a company that manages songwriters, says," I love the ambiance at Helen's. And Jimmy here is an added bonus."

Tommy Femia, who plays "Judy Garland Live!" in the Theater District on Restaurant Row at Don't Tell Mama's Cabaret (every Saturday at 11 p.m.), came by Helen's. "There are so few fabulous, live entertainers left! And Jimmy James is definitely one of them. And I think Helen's is one of the prettiest cabarets of the old style left. Absolutely it's a lovely club-with great food." Femia has been "doing Judy Garland" singing (and looking like her) since 1991

Helen's is named after one of the owner's (Colm Reilly) mother. Helen's regular Bob Marten, said he likes Helen's because "there's always live music, it's never pushy, food is phenomenal-and you find the friendliest people, plus it's in the Heart of Chelsea. And there is an open mic for us divas."

Yes, you and anyone can get up and sing in the bar area. All of the staffers at Helen's are performers and pop a song or two. So can the customers. It's really a great place. Exclaimed Marten, a musician, "What better for us frustrated singers!"

Besides the show in the back, there are two different pianists every day in the front bar area. Even Jimmy James might sing a song after his Friday or Saturday night 9:30 PM - 11 PM Divas show. It's always a rollicking good time.

Helen's is service-oriented, small and classy-and worth a trip out of Midtown. Says singing waiter and bartender David Colbert, "It's fun; we all sing. The owner Reilly also sings: he is an Irish tenor and has a beautiful voice. It's a blast."

The songs can be anything at Helen's, an offbeat gem. Helen's is the new kid on the block for cabarets and is fast becoming the place to go for cabaret-lovers in-the-know. You would choose Helen's for its authenticity, its lively atmosphere. You can eat at the bar or at a table-or better yet at Jimmy James' show. The chef Sara Daniels is from Bermuda and the food reflects her heritage and food discoveries. Owners Shane Mathews and Colum Reilly love the food.

Helen's bar pianist Lucy Galliher (every Sunday at 6-10 p.m.) sold us on her playing of standards and jazz tunes. We bought her CD ("Live at Helen's"), and listened to her favorites from the CD: "Ain't Misbehavin'" and others. (For reservations to Jimmy James, call Helen's at 212-206-0609.

Carla Rupp and Jason Rupp are freelance travel writers who are long-time residents of Manhattan. Photo by Jason Rupp
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