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Karen & Ro's Story

by John Kenrick

Beginnings

Karen KillerKaren Miller was raised in the Miami area. An aspiring singer and actress, she came to New York in the mid-1970s. On her very first day she auditioned for a job playing piano at The Duplex, a piano bar/cabaret on Grove Street in Greenwich Village (the location is now Rose's Turn). Hired on the spot, she found her first week so difficult that she offered to quit. However, the management insisted that they needed time to find a replacement, and she agreed to stay a while. Karen's unaffected charm and enthusiasm for showtunes quickly won her a following, and she stayed at the Duplex for more than ten years. Aside from her stint at The Duplex, she appeared in several cabaret acts and was musical director for several off-off-Broadway projects. Her acting stints included a play at The Public Theatre and a California tour of Off-Broadway's The Club.

Rochelle SeldinRochelle Seldin grew up in the suburban serenity of Redbank, New Jersey. Her uncanny ability to switch from atomic belt to operatic soprano eventually brought her to Broadway, where she appeared in the chorus of They're Playing Our Song. She followed this with national tours and several stints in summer stock. One night, a friend took her to The Duplex for a cocktail. Karen was at the piano playing showtunes, and the connection was almost immediate. Rochelle became a regular and was soon hired as a singing waitress. While Rochelle continued to work in theatre, she and Karen developed a large and enthusiastic weekly following that packed the Duplex every weekend, with throngs singing showtunes until the wee-hours.

The low-ceilinged, brick-walled basement bar at The Duplex became a second home for performers, composers and lyricists honing their talents. Some of the best newcomers in cabaret and musical theatre stopped in to sing a few, and many hopefuls took the mike for their first solos in New York. Rochelle shouted and jostled her way through the wall-to-wall crowd, and Karen presided over the chaos from behind the battered upright piano. The crowd could be rowdy, but so could Karen and Rochelle – their spats were a regular part of the fun. Perched on rickety wooden chairs or standing in the mob, their fans were packed sardine-style all the way back to the entrance. People returned week after week to cheer on the soloists and join in the showtune sing-alongs.

Eighty-Eights

Karen, Irv Raible and RochelleIn 1988, Karen and Rochelle joined forces with Irv Raible (former owner of The Duplex) and opened Eighty-Eights. With velvet banquettes, smoked mirrors, plush carpeting, a baby grand piano and a two-story atrium, it was the poshest piano bar/cabaret New York had ever seen. Many considered it an insane gamble, but the room was packed from its first night. NBC's Phil Donahue Show featured Karen, Rochelle, and a small army of staff and regulars in a special episode on "Stars of the Future," giving the room national exposure.

For the next ten years, Karen and Rochelle's Friday and Saturday nights packed them in at Eighty-Eights. Broadway stars, and more than a few producers, came to see and be seen. Many who came for the top-line cabaret acts upstairs stayed for the weekly party downstairs. One could rub elbows with Lauren Bacall, literally bump into Margaret Whiting, or get an appreciative glance from Harvey Fierstein. I recall the shocked delight when Liza Minnelli took the microphone for the first time – it was like we had all died and gone to musical heaven.

Karen and RoFor the regulars, the sense of family was palpable. Week by week, accomplishments were cheered, birthdays celebrated, pains shared. Like all families, there were rough moments – partings, deaths, arguments. But the weekly sing-alongs carried on, and so did we. Some moved on as their lives changed, but new faces always appeared to perpetuate the legacy. At a time when so many things around us were changing or disappearing (heck, even Donahue got cancelled!), Karen and Rochelle kept the songs coming.

Karen also discovered a remarkable talent for raising and training pedigree dogs. Her solo business, The Confident Canine, provides positive, motivational in-home training for dogs of all breeds. If you are interested, she can be reached through this website or at vizsla@earthlink.net

New Windows

As popular as Eighty-Eights was, an uncertain economy and cultural changes took their toll. In 1998, Karen, Irv and Rochelle took on a new partner. The club underwent renovations and all seemed well, but a lot happened behind the scenes that cannot be discussed here. When a Florida spin-off of the club failed, it was the beginning of the end for New York's classiest piano bar.

Karen and Ro performed for a few weeks at The Garage in January 1999, but decided it would never provide the intimate environment they thrive in. Karen continued to play at Eighty-Eights on weekends until its closing at the end of May 1999, while Rochelle took over a snack shop in Provincetown.

In July of that year, Karen brought her sing alongs to Danny's in the theatre district – the ultimate group of theatre buffs was performing a mere two blocks from Broadway. The sing-alongs still drew enthusiastic crowds every week. Exhausted by two years of uncertainty, Karen decided to give up playing the piano and devote herself to animal care and training. Twenty-three years of weekly performances came to an end at Danny's in December of 1999, as emotional friends cheered Karen on.

Josh and Eitan, 2004Karen's work with dogs has taken her to Seattle, where she is living as a "day person" for the first time in decades. Rochelle and her partner Hanna are the proud parents of two gorgeous boys, Eitanand his younger brother Jonah Ray (photo left). Hanna is his biological momma, and Rochelle is momma by adoption. They have all moved to Florida, where both moms work in Hannah's family business.

In the autumn of 2004, Karen and Maggie moved back East, where Karen accepted a position at an animal refuge. With Karen in Upstate New York and Ro in Florida, it's anyone's guess what lies ahead for these thriving survivors, but its bound to be something exciting – and this website will be watching and reporting as it happens. After all, these two ladies sure as hell know how to "keep bouncing back for more!"

(To be continued . . .)

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