Terese Genecco :: out of the office, onto the stage

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 22, 2010


It's hard to believe that the dynamo who sings with the eight-piece band every month at the Iridium and beyond, for many years made a good living selling insurance, but such is the case for Terese Genecco.

In late 2008, Dwight Halvorson, a Sacramento man who had given her a start in the insurance industry many years before - and where she ended up after many moves back and forth from the East to West Coast - told her, "There's nothing left for you to do here." In the economic downturn, he was forced to reduce expenses, so he laid her off, gave her a severance package and encouraged her to pursue fulltime performing at last. Unbeknownst to her, that was perhaps Halvorson's dying wish for her, as he succumbed to cancer in January 2009.

Genecco's journey has been circuitous, to say the least. Born and raised in upstate Canandaigua, New York, she recalls, "There were no major traumas: a big Italian family, a 3000 square foot home on the lake. It was like an amusement park for kids." Genecco spent summers with her older brother and several cousins, had a paper route, and helped out at the racetrack (her father trained thoroughbred horses).

"I did run into a motor boat while waterskiing and that blew out my knee for a year and a half," she says. That incident had implications for her career in musical theater, when she had to bow out of a production of "West Side Story" several years later because of the rigor of the dance rehearsal.

Nevertheless, prior to that defining moment, she had majored in musical theater at Syracuse University. Although she acknowledges a good education there under the tutelage of Brent Wagner and Linda Sabo, Genecco struggled with the usual performer decision after graduation: New York or L.A.?

"I couldn't make up my mind and my mother finally said, 'Just do something!'" Genecco laughs. As it happened, she decided to call an old camp counselor who had once told her to contact her if she needed anything. They hooked up, and she and Genecco motorcycled to California together.

"Of course, school didn't teach us how to audition for television and film in L.A.," Genecco says. Her Hollywood outing lasted just a few months.

Living in the moment

From there, she was off to San Francisco and then Sacramento, where she met up with Halvorson and stayed for five years. "Dwight was also a singer, guitarist and English major and he really took me under his wing and taught me the business," she says. Learning about business from the inside out would later help her navigate the perils of show business, she says.

Of the Sacramento years, Genecco says, "I was living in the moment, not thinking past the next month. It was a big party and suddenly you'd be off to Lake Tahoe for the weekend!"

Family illnesses brought Genecco back to New York after that, where she worked at the Geva Theater in Rochester and at Writers and Books, a literary center where she helped book several reading events and met many prominent authors. "I smoked a joint with Ken Kesey," she recalls with a mischievous smile.

At one point she performed in a cabaret act at the theater and, after hearing her, the artistic director told her, "I don't want you working here anymore"-in other words, get out of the office and onto the stage.

Genecco was still trying to figure out where to go. She looked up an old college roommate in Nashville and tried out that city, to no avail. It was back to Rochester, where she put together an all-girl rock band and wrote a play that was featured in the Pyramid Arts New Play Festival.

"It took me a good fifteen years to get my head on straight," Genecco admits. "I was acquiring business knowledge, I was around venues that did concerts, learning advertising and sales-basically learning how to run a business."

Genecco then met a girl online and the relationship blossomed; however, she was in San Francisco, so it meant another move, carting her things across the country. The year was 2001.

The two were making good money-Genecco was selling insurance again-and held lavish parties in their home. She credits two gay male friends from home with helping her find her musical direction by convincing her to do "a Rat Pack thing" at their house. "Before that, it was singer/songwriter stuff from the '70s, Elton John, Billy Joel, that kind of thing."

Just as she was about to sign up for a cabaret class with Barry Lloyd, the house was destroyed in a fire and they lost everything. "What I learned from that is what I've always known: It's not about the stuff," Genecco says with a shrug.

Off to San Francisco

In 2003, Genecco entered a cabaret contest that was held in the basement of Johnny Foley's Irish House in San Francisco. She won the debut category as well as "Entertainer of the Year," and it was more reinforcement about the kind of music she should be doing. She began studying with Wesla Whitfield and then did the Summer in the City workshp with Lennie Watts and Lina Koutrakos in New York in the summer of 2004.

She sank a lot of her hard-earned money into an award-winning show about Frances Faye. Faye was a Brooklyn-born cabaret and recording artist in the mid-20th century who became famous for slipping double entendres about homosexuality and lesbianism into her act. Genecco's tribute ran for five weeks at The New Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. "What I learned in those five weeks was that I wanted to recreate what it was like to be at a Frances Faye show, but with my own personality intact."

Although Genecco seems very comfortable with, and even playful about, her own sexuality on stage, that was not always the case. As a child, she was one of the first girls to play on the Little League team with the boys, but describes herself as "the funny girl who hung out with the other girls."

Growing up Catholic, she thought gay was a sin and actually came out to her parents very late in life. "It was much easier to explore my sexuality living three thousand miles away from home," she says.

By the end of 2005, Genecco was performing at The Plush Room and Jazz at Pearl's in San Francisco, as well as being booked in New York and Los Angeles, but she was faced with many challenges. She lost her lucrative job in San Francisco and had also broken up with her partner; sent returned to the safe haven Halvorson provided in Sacramento.

Over the next few years, she juggled her insurance career with her growing success as a cabaret and nightclub singer, racking up awards on both coasts.

SF’s Entertainer of the Year

In 2008, Genecco was booked at San Francisco's The Rrazz Room on Saturday nights. "We came on at 10:30 after Paula West, and it was a slow, steady build for the rest of the year. We had a blast!"

Still, she felt it was time for the Big Apple on a full-time basis.

Genecco had debuted at the Mabel Mercer Foundation's Cabaret Convention in 2005 and was asked back for a return engagement in 2007. With the aid of the owners of The Rrazz Room, she and Her Little Big Band opened for Steve Tyrell at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in New Jersey on November 1, 2008, followed by a sold-out midnight performance at the Metropolitan Room the same night. The success was bittersweet for Genecco: she had recently said goodbye to Halvorson and the lucrative insurance industry career and was uncertain of her future.

Enter producer Scott Barbarino, who books the Iridium Jazz Club on Tuesday nights. At a cocktail party at jazz singer Shaynee Rainbolt's apartment, he offered her a monthly spot at the club, she couldn't turn it down. She's been playing there since March 2009, which now makes Terese Genecco and Her Little Big Band the longest running nightclub act on Broadway.

She also moved in with Rainbolt at her upper west side digs and proposed marriage to her on December 24th, 2009. "She said yes to a long engagement," Genecco jokes.

"Scobar Entertainment produces the show and it's a rare financial guarantee for the band-and me as headliner," Genecco says. "He really believes in what I do with the Little Big Band and, so far, we're doing pretty well, even in a tough economy."

The Iridium offers a midtown location, which brings in some tourists. "The tourists feel close to me," she says of her welcoming persona. "They want to touch me after the show."

Genecco would love to run the show seven nights a week, offering it as a big party where everyone wants to be. "I'm not traveling as much as I'd like," she also acknowledges, saying the show could do well on cruises and in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

Still, having won two MAC Awards, the Bistro Award and a 2009 Out Music Award as well as San Francisco's Entertainer of the Year, in the last couple of years, with growing audiences in New York and bicoastal performance dates on her schedule, Genecco's fulfilled dream seems to be just a matter of time.

Terese Genecco will appear at the Iridium Jazz Club (www.iridiumjazz.com) on Tuesday, October 26, 8:00 and 10:00 sets. Her new single, "If I Was a Boy" can be downloaded on www.cdbaby.com. Visit www.teresegenecco.com for more about the singer.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).