Life is a Cabaret, the Anne-Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love
My writing brand focus is “telling stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” and the following New Horizons profile I wrote about cabaret singer Anne Marie Kenny is an almost perfect match of writer and subject. She is a multi-talented woman whose love of music and adventure has driven much of her life. She is one of those bright spirits I feel drawn to, and I think you will too reading her story. She comes from a long line of Omaha women who have made careers as cabaret or torch or big band singers – from Anna Mae Winburn to Julie Wilson to Richetta Wilson to Camille Metoyer Moten to Karrin Allyson. These chanteuses all share in common at art and craft of interpreting a song. Indeed, they all feel a kinship with one another, and Kenny is quick to acknowledge that she adores Julie Wilson’s work. Much like Wilson had to once take an extended leave from the performing world she loves so, Kenny did as well. My story charts some of the ups and downs, twists and turns, and various adventures of her life in and out of music.
©by Leo Adam Biga
As appeared in the New Horizons
“What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, come to the cabaret…”
Singer Anne-Marie Kenny’s life is a cabaret alright. The story of how she left Omaha to follow her dream in Paris is storybook stuff. It only gets better when you learn she came back home to find true love in dashing advertising executive, John Bull. Then she left for Paris again, only this time with her man. The two lived an enchanted life as expatriates abroad. She sang, he painted…
But then like the tragic-romantic songs this chanteuse sings in clubs and concert halls, their fortunes changed. They struggled financially and then John fell ill. She gave up music to go into business, reinventing herself as an entrepreneur in the newly liberated Czech Republic. Just as her company took off and a new life dawned in Prague, John’s condition worsened. He later died.
That was 15 years ago. Since then Kenny’s reinvented herself again. She remarried, though this second union didn’t last long. She has no children of her own but is involved in the lives of her step-children.
After selling her company she resettled in Omaha, now the base for her intercultural consulting and training business. She’s fluent in French, Italian and Czech, Along the way she earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership from the College of Saint Mary..
Today, this vivacious world citizen, businesswoman, vocal coach, choir leader and cabaret singer still lives her performing dream. She looks forward to whatever life holds, certain she’s prepared to take the bitter with the sweet.
Growing up, Kenny’s musical family met tragedy when her father, attorney Dan Kenny, drowned at 35. While on a fishing trip with buddies his motorboat capsized. Everyone ended up in the chilly waters that fateful day. He was a good swimmer but between the cold, the heavy clothing he wore and his head likely hitting the motor, he didn’t survive.
Anne was not quite 3. She, her four older sisters, a brother and their mother, Veronica Janda Kenny, were on their own. Until the initial shock wore off, their Field Club home, usually filled with the sound of music, was silent except for weeping.
“My father played instruments, saxophone, a little bit of piano. My mother played the piano. My father had a great singing voice, so did my mother. They loved music — it was a big part of their lives,” said Kenny.
All the kids took piano lessons.
Soon, music took its rightful place again in the Kenny home, serving as healing therapy for the still grieving Irish (her father’s side) and Czech (her mother’s side) clan.
“I think the music redeemed whatever loss we had.”
This was the mid-1950s, long before professional counseling became de rigueur for children touched by trauma.
“In those days, no, you just forged ahead,” Kenny said. “I think the music was a godsend for us. I don’t know what we would have done if we had not had it. I think life might have been a little bit harder, but music was our outlet, and we harmonized.”
When old enough, Anne joined her sisters in the four-part harmony group, the Kenny Sisters. They performed at Show Wagons, service clubs, receptions and various other events. All her siblings have remained musical into adulthood.
Not all was peaches and cream. Anne’s mother, formerly a traditional stay-at-home mom, suddenly had to be the breadwinner.
“I can look back now and I realize what an amazing mother we had because she made sure she provided for us, there was no thought of welfare or anything for Mom,” said Kenny. “She had to go to work and she found a way. She worked hard. She started as a secretary in my dad’s old law firm.
“Then she moved to Creighton University, in the career placement office. Even though I’m sure we had very little money, we always looked good because Mother sewed all of our clothes. She made sure we had a parochial education.”
Anne attended St. Peter Elementary and Mercy High Shool.
Everyone pitched in to make ends meet. Mother Kenny made sure of it.
“She made us start working at a very early age, so that we helped with the finances,” recalls Anne, who with her sisters worked at St. James Orphanage. “I remember having to go get a work permit at age 13 or 14 to be a child care worker. I would pick up babies and feed them three nights a week.”
Meanwhile, Anne blossomed into a beauty with an angelic voice and a fetching personality. She couldn’t go to a party without being prevailed upon to sing. Her late ’60s repertoire included folksongs, Beatles hits, show tunes, et cetera.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was in high school, all I know is that everybody loved my music. I could play the guitar, I could sing, I could play the piano a little bit. I got the leads in the plays — the musicals, even the nonmusicals.
“When my mother asked me what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to be an actress, so I was thinking along those lines in those early days. And singing is acting, because you’re selling a song, you’re becoming the character of whatever the song is.”
It would be a few years yet before Anne became a polished vocalist but right from the start she understood the importance of breathing heart and soul into a song and winning over an audience.
“I learned early on, when I first started singing professionally at 21, that you have to lose yourself in the song, and that’s what you do when you’re acting. You have to lose the nerves, you have to lose the everybody’s-looking-at-me mentality and get into the music, interpret that music, let it take you away.”
That expressiveness, she said, only comes “after you do your homework and learn the words and learn the song, and learn some technique and how to deliver it.” It only comes, she said, “after you have really concentrated on studying it.”
One of Kenny’s musical idols is fellow Omaha native Julie Wilson, the legendary singer. Wilson’s a revered figure in New York City cabaret circles and is still going strong at 86. Kenny said no one does cabaret better than Wilson.
“Julie is a master at that. She really sells the song. You’ve heard that Rodgers and Hammerstein song a hundred times, yet you hear Julie Wilson sing it and it’s like you’ve never heard it before. It’s her phrasing and the color and tone she brings to it. And her diction is impeccable. I am a huge fan of Julie Wilson.”
She said unlike some singers who bore after awhile, Wilson holds you spellbound.
“Never do you feel you want it to get over. You’re hoping there’s another verse. She’s completely into it. I would say I am too when I sing but I don’t know if I get it across as well as Julie.”
Kenny said while Wilson’s voice is limited in range now, age has also ripened it. “She delivers it with such intensity and emotion,” said Kenny. “She just has it.”
All this insight was was still ahead of Kenny in 1973. Music then was an avocation, not a career. She tried office work for a time, but felt her creative impulses stymied.
“I knew it wasn’t for me, and that’s when I decided to move from Omaha. I was 21, I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go, I just knew I needed to spread my wings.”
“Put down the knitting, the book and the broom, time for a holiday…”
In truth, Kenny knew exactly where she was headed: France. She studied French in school and became a Francophile. At 18 she made her first trip to Europe, to then-West Germany, where a sister and her military husband lived. Even though Anne didn’t make it to Paris that time, she said, “That trip did tell me I’m coming back to Europe and I always knew someday I was getting to France.”
That day came sooner than expected when she finally threw caution to the wind and booked passage there.
“It was just welling up in me and I still feel this way today — I cannot not do my art. If I don’t, I’m not healthy.”
Still, the idea of going off to Paris alone was daunting. Yes, she was adventurous but also insecure enough that she kept her plans secret. She was even too timid to tell herself she was pursuing a singing career.
“I didn’t dare tell anybody I was going to Paris. I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t know anything, except I knew some French. So I sold my little Volkswagen Beetle, all my possessions. I knew I couldn’t tell anybody who would naysay. I’ve held that principle all my life — don’t talk about any big plans to anybody who cant help you or isn’t going to be encouraging. I knew my mother would talk me out of it, but I was old enough to do this, so I did.”
She found a great deal and made the voyage on a luxurious Italian oceanliner.
“That was an education in itself – this Omaha girl on a ship,” she said.
She disembarked in Marseilles, where she caught a train bound for Paris. En route, she said, a French passenger asked what her plans were, “and I don’t know why but I said, ‘I’m a singer, I’m going to sing,’ and that’s the first time I admitted that to myself. I remember being surprised to hear that come out of my mouth.”
Once in Paris the romance and reality of the City of Light set in.
“When I first moved there by myself I didn’t know a soul, but the minute I hit Paris I felt like I was home. Paris is about beauty and art all around you. That’s how I see it.”
That electric energy aside, there was still the matter of supporting herself.
“I only had like $2,000 to my name to last me — I had to start earning money. I did get a job as an au pair, so I at least had a secure place to live, and the family was just wonderful. It was a great job. I’m still friends with these people today.”
But how does an unknown young American break into the Paris music scene? In Kenny’s case, by pluck and luck.
“I put this sign up at a place called the Centra Americain that read, ‘Singer looking for musicians.’ I don’t know how I had the guts to do this by the way. And lo and behold a couple days later a phone call — this deep resonant voice on the other end. The person spoke French but I could tell it wasn’t a Frenchman. He was a guitarist named Carlos. He’d worked with a lot of singers.”
It was attraction at first sight. He, the tall, dark Argentine virtuoso. She, the lithe, lovely American song stylist.
“We didn’t even talk much. He started playing, and he just played with such purity and exactness. He’s the best guitarist I have ever heard. Anything I knew, he knew. We were very good together musically. After we had about 10-12 songs under our belt, he said, ‘I think we’re ready to perform in the streets.’ I said, ‘No way,’ but he talked me into it.
“He felt we should go to the Champs Elysees, the busiest street in Paris. We had crowds all around us listening. I passed a long glove. We made pretty good money.”
Her first big break happened only days later when a talent scout discovered them.
“Somebody came along from ORTF radio and asked if we would come for an audition, and we did, and we got a job on the radio.”
She and Carlos appeared on the popular Le Petit Conservatoire de Mireille, a showcase for emerging talents.
“The French loved the show,” said Kenny. “We were on almost every week, and we got paid — not a whole lot, but enough to get me ‘off the streets’ so to speak.”
The duo also appeared on the show’s television spinoff. More offers poured in.
“It got me an agent, who was also a songwriter. He wrote songs that kind of fit my voice. He got me gigs in theaters around Paris.”
All this after being in Paris only weeks. She chalks it up as “meant to be,” adding, “I just think things do fall into place, and if they don’t maybe they’re not meant to be.” Plus, she sad, “I was determined.”
She and her Argentine dream boat were more than musical partners, they were lovers. But their romance and collaboration didn’t last. Se la vie, as the French say.
After a year living her dream, she ran short of funds. After all, singing is at best sporadic work. Besides, it was time to return home.
“No use permitting some prophet of doom, to wipe every smile away, come hear the music play…”
Kenny took her first formal voice lessons from teachers Diana Morrison and Mary Fitzsimmons Massie. After she performed Edith Piaf and Jaques Brel songs at an Omaha Alliance Francaise concert, the late Morrison offered to work with her.
“She got me started in a whole new world of learning the technique of singing,” said Kenny. “Now, before that, I had a good natural voice, but she got me into classical music. I must say I love it. But I love the Great American Songbook, too. With good technique you should be able to do it all, you should be able to sing operatic but then when you sing a pop song not sing it in the operatic style, but switch those gears.
“I don’t think there’s many people who have a cache of different voices to use.”
With training, she said, she’s learned to “try on different voices” to suit the song, the mood, the venue, the audience. Therefore, she can project, in a belting voice, in all the registers, but can also “pull it way back” to a soft, intimate purr. She likes leading off her opening set with a “wow” song, then throttling down a few notches, before closing with her favorite, “La vie en rose,” or saving that emotional number for her encore.
She’s further honed her instrument in master classes at Juilliard, Peabody and Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris. She’s fluent in the full French and Italian repertoire.
It was the late ’70s in the Old Market when Kenny became a hot item singing at M’s Pub, V Mertz and the French Cafe. Meanwhile, she’d met her future husband, John, socially. He was a Mad Man ad whiz from Chicago come to work at Bozell and Jacobs. His big account was Mutual of Omaha. Sparks flew when the two met and their mutual attraction developed into a full-blown courtship.
“Every time I performed, he was there. He clearly was interested in me.”
They married in 1980, honeymooning — where else? — in France.
Back in the States she sometimes traveled with him cross-country as he made syndication deals for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Then one day he surprised her by announcing he’d quit his job and they were moving to Paris.
“We had talked about one day wouldn’t that be wonderful. He wanted to live his dream too — of painting. Talk about a risk taker. But it was a shared dream. So off we went to live our dream.”
They started their new life together in Paris in 1983.
“We lived the life. We were two artists in Paris. It was a beautiful life. We had a lot of fun, contact with other artists. We had musical parties. I would sing at his art shows, He was always so supportive of my music.
“We just blended so well. I heard life, he saw life. We would go places and he would notice things I would never even see. Likewise, I’d pick up on other things.”
The couple lived in an idyllic setting, too, in an apartment on the Iie Saint-Louis, an island in the River Sienne, right in the heart of Paris.
Whenever she visits Paris that’s where she heads — to that arrondissement or district where she still knows the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, as well as all the neighborhood cafe proprietors.
Her next big leap as a singer came under the formidable vocal coach Janine Reiss, who’s worked with world class artists Maria Callas, Luciana Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Kenny knew it was a long shot that Reiss would take her on as a student but she no sooner phrased a few verses at an informal audition then Reiss agreed.
“I was shocked.”
They worked intensively together and are friends to this day.
“She was meticulous, you could not get by with anything,” said Kenny, who appreciates how much Reiss pushed her to improve, saying, “She took me deeper into my art.”
The student-teacher relationship “is way more than just the singing,” said Kenny. “Invariably you need to talk about what is this song saying and where do you find that emotion within yourself. It’s like method acting. You end up having very intimate conversations. You need to be very vulnerable with your teacher, and Janine would share as much about herself.”
Kenny applied her finely honed technique and artistry at some posh venues, such as the Oak Room at the Paris Ritz Hotel. “Probably one of my favorite gigs of all time,” she said, “They treated me so well and they’re real connoisseurs. Sophisticated.”
She found time, too, for the part of Miss Moneypenny in three feature films shot on the Riviera and principal roles in plays and operettas.
“Come taste the wine, come hear the band, come blow your horn, start celebrating…”
Life was grand, and then the bottom fell out. The American dollar took a dive and the unsteady income from her singing and John’s painting no longer allowed them to live in the manner to which they’d become accustomed. It meant downsizing and moving to the South of France, where things were less expensive.
“I sang a lot in the South of France, but they weren’t the same opportunities I had in Paris,” she said, “so I wasn’t as happy.”
When John fell ill, things became even harder.
Then something straight out of one of the sentimental songs she sings occurred. It was late fall 1989 and the Iron Curtain was falling in Eastern Europe. The Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic was capturing people’s hearts and imagination. The new president, Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright once imprisoned for his dissident views, took office in a bloodless regime change from communist to democratic rule.
Watching on TV Kenny was enthralled by the charismatic Havel, a fellow artist, at the head of this movement. She was moved too by his writings.
“He was the moral voice of the people,” she said. “If you read anything he’s written you would be inspired, too. He’s the Nelson Mandela of the former Soviet bloc countries.”
Amid the nationalistic fervor, she took new pride in her Czech heritage.
“I’m half Czech, so I felt extra connected. I hoped to go one day.”
Caught up in the spirit of it all, she did something rash.
“That was one of those moments when I think I had too much champagne,” she said. “We had just seen on TV the celebrations in the street and I went over to the piano and I wrote some English words for the Czech people to Jacques Brel’s song “If We Only Have Love” and I sent them to President Havel with a congratulatory note that said how moved we were to watch this happen.
“And by gosh I got a letter back on behalf of President Havel inviting me to sing that song at the Reduta Jazz Club.”
That Prague club is a national landmark and playing it is considered a high honor, so naturally she accepted the offer. Her performance there marked the beginning of her own Czech Spring, as she witnessed first-hand the opportunities being afforded by the country’s new found freedom. With John sick and the couple needing a stable income, she began looking at making a major life-career change.
“I knew we had to do something and I was ready to make a break with music.”
With the Wild Wild East wide open to economic development, Kenny learned that companies struggled finding enough employable talent. That’s when she hatched the idea of a training and staffing firm. There was little competition at the time.
“Everything was new, laws were changing and it was the best time to go in. It was just a great place to be. I was very inspired there. I also realized I would have to throw myself completely into it if I was going to start this business.”
But could she really walk away from music to become a CEO? It’s then that she recalled a meeting with her idol, Julie Wilson, years earlier at New York’s Algonquin Hotel. Kenny was there to see Wilson perform. The two had never met.
“Julie walked into the room and I was alone sitting at one of those wonderful round booths, and as she came by I said, ‘By the way, I’m from Omaha and I’m a singer, too, and I’m so excited to hear you.’ Julie said, ‘Do you have time for dinner afterwards?’ ‘Why, yes,” I stumbled. ‘Good, I’ll catch you after the show.’ And we just had a great talk over dinner.”
As Kenny weighed her options in Prague years later she thought back to something Wilson told her that night — how this queen of the stage and the cabaret set had to quit when her marriage failed and she needed to attend to her trouble-prone sons in Omaha.
“She told me right out there came a time in her career she had to stop and give up what she loved doing the most to work a regular job to support her kids. I was so touched by her story. I thought, That’s what I have to do, I have to give up music. And it wasn’t a huge hardship. I’d been doing it professionally 20 years. But it was different.”
Kenny said she also identified with and took solace in something else Wilson told her: that once an artist, always an artist, “even if life takes you away from it.” And as Wilson proved, you can always go back to it. It’s never too late.
All of Kenny’s deliberation was rewarded when her company flourished, becoming Easter Europe’s go-to staffing and training service for multinationals.
“I knew I could do it. I just wont accept failure. Once you stand up at the Oak Room of the Paris Ritz Hotel and sing to that clientele, you can sell yourself.”
She ended up living 10 years in Prague.
Just as Julie Wilson resumed her singing career, Kenny’s performing again. She works gigs in Omaha, in Florida, in the South of France, all around her busy business schedule. Her intercultural work is ever more in demand in this flat world, digital age, global economy, where cross-cultural competency is vital.
She also enjoys passing on her expertise to vocal performance students she trains at her Dundee home. A new passion is leading the Siena Francis House Singers, a spirited choral group comprised of that shelter’s homeless residents.
Kenny looks forward to whatever new adventures await.
“I don’t know what my future is, but I don’t expect it to be any less exciting than what my life has been so far.”
There is one dream she pines to fulfill: “I would love to do a cabaret show with Julie Wilson. The two of us back in Omaha. I just know we’d pack ‘em in.”
“Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, isn’t that long a stay, life is a cabaret old chum, only a cabaret old chum, and I love a cabaret!”
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