Editor’s Note: Actor, singer, and all-around raconteur Jane Blass, who called Chicago home from 1988-2006 before she relocated to New York, where she performed on Broadway and in the touring companies of many shows, died at 59 after a long struggle with stomach cancer on August 6. Dorothy Milne, her friend and cofounder of the long-running women’s storytelling collective the Sweat Girls, compiled these remembrances from those who knew and loved her in Chicago and New York.
Dorothy Milne: Family, friends, and fans across the nation are bereft at the untimely death of Jane Blass. Actor, singer, storyteller, muse, Jane brought wit and laughter into every room she entered. She was an eagle-eyed thrifter, inventive crafter, a most thoughtful and specific gift-giver, and a devoted and supportive friend. And she is famous for her endlessly entertaining Facebook series, “OK, Kitchen Friends . . . Is this safe to eat?” as she regularly dug aging food out of the back of her fridge—or discovered groceries left on the counter overnight.
Born in Jackson, Tennessee, to an artistic family, Jane’s mother, Sue (who died in 2017), was an artist/educator, the director of the art programs for Jackson-Madison County schools for many years. Her father, Joseph, is a musician, a retired professor of music at Union University, and Jane’s first voice teacher. Jane’s loving family also includes her sister Nancy and brother-in-law Maurice Hollingsworth, niece Elizabeth, and nephew Blass.
She first made her mark at 12 years old as The Wicked Witch in the Parkway Junior High production of The Wizard of Oz. More important than her zestful performance, her classmates remember her as funny, kind, and inclusive. Lifelong friendships were formed, a trend that continued as Jane went on to Jackson Central-Merry High School, Union University, and then the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Jane arrived in Chicago and made a splash in 1988 as the lead in the Chicago premiere of Cynthia Heimel’s A Girl’s Guide to Chaos at the Gallery Theatre in the Royal George. Jane worked steadily in the Chicago non-Equity theater scene for the next 15 years, making friends and gaining fans with memorable performances at Organic Theater, Lifeline Theatre, Pegasus Players, About Face Theatre, and many more, while also appearing with pianist and composer Chuck Larkin at cabaret venues such as Gentry and Davenport’s. In addition, Jane was a founding member of the storytelling collective the Sweat Girls in 1993 and was a prolific writer-performer with the group for the next decade. In this period, Jane also performed vocals and keyboard with Flapperjack, a rockabilly funk band.
In 2003, Jane was cast in the first national tour of Hairspray. After three years of touring she moved permanently to New York City, which was thereafter her base for regional work, off-Broadway, national tours, and Broadway performances.
Jane Blass (on doing a photo shoot with David Bowie, shared on Facebook in 2016): This was from a photo shoot in 2004, I think, for an ad for Audi. It was a campaign called “Never Follow” and they honored several innovative artists like this. I got it because the production company spent all their money on Bowie so when I auditioned wearing my own waitress uniform I was a shoo-in. It was shot at a tiny grubby little diner in uptown Chicago. They only had one trailer so we extras had to come early and dress and get out before he arrived but somehow they forgot to give me pantyhose so I was waiting in the trailer for someone to bring them to me and people kept coming in and saying “You have to leave he’s coming!” And I said “I can’t leave until I’m dressed.” Cut to me walking out of the dressing area just as he walked in and I almost ran into him. THE EYES!! Fortunately the whole shoot was us just staring at him and him being incredibly charismatic. The photographer put on some great music and we would shoot for a little bit and then he would hold forth about The Pixies or Screaming Jay Hawkins and the photographer would put the camera down and we all listened. I would’ve paid them to be in that shoot. It ran in everything from cooking magazines to Vanity Fair. I think I made $200 total.
Stephen Rader: Like Jane, I attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, but we weren’t there at the same time. We met working on a show here in Chicago—Pegasus Players’ production of Side by Side by Sondheim. At the audition, I said something to the person sitting behind the desk and Jane immediately walked over and said, “Where you from?” When I told her Knoxville, we were friends from then on. Jane and I were lucky to be a part of that production. It eventually toured the Middle East (don’t ask why we were doing Sondheim in the Middle East). My favorite memory of Jane is the two of us walking and chatting through the Souk—the marketplace—in Cairo. Suddenly, a man walked up to Jane, stood directly in front of her, and said, “You will die in two days.” And with that, he was gone. Jane didn’t move. She turned to me and said, “Two days, huh? Good to know.” And we went on with our walk. The next day at breakfast, Jane said, “Hey, Rader! One more day!” And didn’t say another thing about the man or his ominous words for the rest of the day. The day after that at breakfast, Jane said, “Rader, today’s the day!” As if it was her birthday. As if she’d been waiting for this day and this event her entire life. The following day at breakfast, Jane walked up to me full of false outrage and said, “That lying son of a bitch! Two days, huh? Well, I’m still here, asshole!” And I have been laughing about it ever since.
Stephen Wallem: The first time I shared the stage with Jane was in 1990 for the second national tour of Into The Woods out of Chicago. A “bus and truck” in every sense of the phrase, we hit 120 cities in nine months. The Baker’s Wife and Rapunzel’s Prince share no moments together in Into The Woods, but living on a bus for a year in pre-Internet, pre-cell phone days leaves endless opportunities to get to know someone. I fell madly in love with Jane Blass from moment one, even her chronic lateness. When I think of loading onto the bus every morning at the crack of dawn to journey to our next venue, I think of Jane frantically joining us long after call-time, a five-dollar bill clutched in her palm (the fee implemented for tardiness . . . because of Jane). Cut to a few years later when we finally had lots of theatrical interaction in Lifeline Theatre’s weird and wonderful Lizard Music. Among other multiple roles, we joined voices as giant lizards in a giant television set. As usual, Jane sunk her teeth into every quirky role with relish and hardcore commitment.
Kate Buddeke remembers casting Jane as part of Monsters II: Visiting Hours at American Blues Theater in 1992. “It was a piece by Paula Killen called Taped Response and Jane had to lip sync to herself, pre-recorded on a cassette. Back then of course there were technical problems pretty regularly, but Jane never missed a beat—her ability to improvise with herself was a thing of brilliance. I pretty much sucked as a director but Jane made it an intriguing piece of theater. We were friends ever since and later in NYC lived for many years in the same building.”
Lesley Bevan: Jane was a formidable presence on stage and we made two extraordinary plays together. But I want to tell you how she left her mark on me. Jane gave me a home when I desperately needed one. I lived in her orbit for a year, on the second floor of a ramshackle vintage two-flat in Chicago. The building was crumbling, closets were tiny, and rent was dirt cheap, so instead of a roommate, she had dedicated an entire dusty bedroom to her vast vintage clothing collection. She lovingly showed me through her racks of treasures, then brought me to the corner of the room where she gingerly pulled back a layer of old wallpaper to reveal another layer from the 60s, then the 50s, then the 40s, and back to the 1920s. She had a penchant for dragging funky treasures in from the alley. The living room was piled with unfinished artful projects and collections. I would find her late at the kitchen table, making an insanely thoughtful gift, fine-tuned to the spirit of some particular friend or another. We would go thrifting together and the best, most enviable treasures would never escape her radar. Like a crow, she had a gift for collecting rhinestones and sparkly things. No one was as glamorous.
Her gravitational pull was so strong that we once went shoe shopping and I came home with a pair of heels so uncharacteristic of me that I can only explain their existence in my closet by saying I was Drunk on Jane. When I accidentally painted my teeny, crumbling room an unfortunate shade of salmon, she walked in, took one look and said, “I can’t let you live in here,” grabbed her keys and drove us back to the paint store. Years later, after she had moved to New York, and I had shifted from theater to ceramics, she beat the drum of my pottery business with such fervor, I should have paid her. She was a ferocious supporter of her friends’ endeavors and a hearty consumer of all things artful. She took part in a three-day ceramics congress out of sheer curiosity. She yearned to try her hand at jewelry making, at painting, and when she became ill, she mused about threading together her journey into a play. This was Jane—she had the eyes and soul of an artist, forever curating the beauty around her. And our old vintage apartment, in retrospect, was Jane, personified. An old soul with stories to tell, a chaos of treasures within, layers of history, and endless room for more beauty.
Martie Sanders: Jane and I grew up together through our late 20s into our 40s while she was here in Chicago and we performed as Sweat Girls together. We met in the theater, sealing our friendship onstage and in ladies’ dressing rooms. There was an unsightly 60s bouffant wig Jane had to wear, a huge updo that no amount of Aqua Net could rescue from the nightly torture of a romping dance number. Sections of hair fell open in big flaps, exfoliating outwards. “Time to put on THE ONION” she’d say, placing the disaster on her head. Jane’s spot-on observations, her witty turns of phrase, the idioms she’d share from her Tennessee roots, (“Well that’s like white on rice!”) and her outstanding comic timing onstage, and off, made her someone so easy to fall in love with. And her stories! Jane told me that when she was a little girl her family would have “scariest face contests” at the family dinner table and she’d get angry because everyone would laugh at hers rather than find it scary.
Whoever has witnessed Jane’s sly sarcastic eyebrow raise, her no-holds-barred Don Knotts mug, and all the other more nuanced turns of her malleable face know that the family game was defining, fostering both the comic power she had as a character actress and vulnerability that she brought to all the souls she played on the stage. And as a friend, Jane was the best. Always willing to plan or follow along on any madcap adventure: a party hosted by a props guy she was dating, wherein a 30-foot flame of pyro glory rose up, leaving us with singed eyebrows. And a belly piercing we did together, a request on her 40th birthday, infections to follow. And her love of treasure hunts . . . at garage sales, thrift stores, arts fairs, warehouses, and roadside junk stands. Jane could always find the best, not only in the stuff for sale, but in the people selling that stuff. She’d linger with them, listening and finding joy in their stories, making a genuine human connection, all the while noting their distinct idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities that she could catalog away for future reference to the many characters she’d take on. Whether a fleeting encounter or a long-term friendship, Jane made so many people special to her, celebrating her treasure finds of friendships, and really loving from her core.
Joe Winston first met Jane in the fall of 1994 when he cast her in Beer and Pretzels Theater, a late-night show at the Organic Theater, playing while the Sweat Girls were also performing at the Organic. “Jane introduced me to the Sweat Girls; you [all the Sweat Girls] were sitting at a table at Bar San Miguel. I suggested that you each take me home to your mothers and introduce me as your fiancé and we’d film their reactions. Jane immediately shot down that idiotic idea but the conversation turned into our collaboration for The Motherlode. I later remember asking Jane to perform in a live Beer and Pretzels show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, singing a duet with a Butt Creature. What a good sport she was.”
(“Play With Me,” cowritten by Blass and Flapperjack drummer Mike Phillips, December 18, 1998, at the Lyons Den)
Dave Awl: I was lucky to get to know Jane when she was a member of the Sweat Girls here in Chicago, back in the days when I was their webmaster and general hanger-on. And I was blessed to have Jane sing in one of the early excursions of The Partly Dave Show—the very first “Gathering of the Gods” edition when we were all doing monologues as mythological figures, and Jane showed up and belted out the Pretenders’ “Hymn to Her” like the goddess she was (with Paul Gilvary on guitar). Those pipes! That utterly uncalculated elegance and grace. I know I’m not the only one who’d give a lot for the chance to rewind time a little and say goodbye to Jane. She was so kind, so funny, so present, it’s hard to imagine her absent.
Clare Nolan: If you worked with her or saw her onstage, you remembered her . . . long and tall and a bit of drawl, and more than a bit of talent. If your path went along with hers for a while, you know she was smart and so flipping funny, and sweet in the things she’d remember or share that had something particular to do with you. I’ve never been with the girl when we didn’t meet someone she knew. Heck, I’ve never been with the girl when she didn’t charm someone she’d just met. When you consider Jane’s legacy, there are so many directions in which to look. You look at what she produced onstage, but you’ve also got to look at the woman she was offstage. You look at her humor, but you’ve also got to consider her depth of feeling and passion about the world. I’ll freely admit that, for me, there are mysteries that remain, not the least of which is under what very specific conditions Jane might actually allow tomatoes to pass by her lips. But one thing is no mystery. She’s loved by most everyone who spent even a little time with her.
Christopher Cartmill: I met Jane in the second play I did in Chicago—a uniquely awkward production of Craig Lucas’s Reckless during those inspired and fertile years of the late 80s. Jane played multiple roles in her inimitable way. She could be alternately beautiful and seriously goofy. Jane was like water—refreshing, transformative, and she could smooth the rough places with her easy humor and sense of humanity. She was a good listener on- and offstage. I was proud to call her my friend and, when an opportunity came to play on a little short film together, she became a muse.
Peter Davenport: My friendship with Jane began on a talent van at 5:45 AM leaving Manhattan for a New Jersey diner location to shoot “Pray the Gay Away” for ABC’s hidden-camera show What Would You Do? hosted by newsman John Quiñones. Jane has always been a friend with whom, no matter the time passage, we easily picked up right where we left off. Her nonchalance about her incredible talent was refreshing in an industry where most actors are compelled to speak nonstop about themselves and their work.
Robert Anthony Jones: Jane and I met three years ago when we were both performing in John Cleese’s Bang Bang! at Shadowland Stages. We would drive back and forth from rehearsals and shows together and the rides were nonstop laughs. One time, my husband was in the car, and Jane read us this story of the background of her character in Bang Bang!. It was this in-depth analysis, so deep and rich and scream-out-loud funny, our sides hurt from laughing so hard.
Jamie Pachino: I always loved watching Jane on stage. She was so smart, so hilarious, and so filled with humanity—because that’s the way she was in life. We didn’t spend much time together after I left Chicago, but one of my all-time favorite memories was seeing her on Broadway in Annie. [Blass played several roles in the 2012 Broadway revival and understudied Miss Hannigan.] We brought the kids, and Jane met us after, bringing us all up on stage to see some of the magic. She was gracious and open-hearted and so happy to be part of the Broadway community.
Beth Milles: In 2019 I was honored to direct August Osage County at the Hangar Big Play Festival. I had the pleasure and joy (and privilege) to create with the gorgeous and iridescent Jane Blass. OMG—this was a life-altering experience. Jane was risky, funny, audacious, strong. She lit the stage and ignited the audience as Violet—it was indelible. Idea sprang after idea—she was voracious and willing (eager) to delve into the darkest places. In our lives we hope to meet those who open the sky in the work process—and Jane Blass was such a person.
Barbara Marineau: Jane was a remarkable, one-of-a-kind, supremely talented, funny, kind, inventive, glamorous, kitty cat-loving, food-expiration-date investigating, wonderfully eccentric, life-loving, dedicated professional taken too soon. Our paths crossed, too briefly, in the beautiful Theatre Under The Stars production of Mary Poppins. She was “comedy GOLD!”
John Reitzammer featured Jane in a video he produced about performers from Jackson, Tennessee, who were now doing national work. John spent the morning of March 25, 2017 with Jane in NYC and she spoke about being an artist and why we do what we do.
Milne: Jane lived in her fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Woodside, Queens, until her final few days. Her desire to be at home with her cats, Perkins and Peanut, was made possible by the indefatigable efforts of Ellen Fleming, across-the-hall-neighbor and RN, and Michelle Duffy, who moved into Ellen’s spare room for Jane’s last months. The doors between apartments were always propped open and in Jane’s final weeks, as care became more complex, they were joined by Ashley Blanchet who slept on Jane’s couch. Ryan Chotto came every day, ready to run out for whatever very specific food Jane craved. Terry Palasz, Jeff Still, Cindy Hanson, and other New York intimates visited and accompanied Jane to doctor visits, while Scott Calcagno organized logistics from California, and he and other long-distance friends were able to visit in Jane’s last months.
Michelle Duffy: Jane was the quintessential steel magnolia. The greatest girlfriend —of infinite loyalty, perception, generosity, and patience. As kind as she was funny, which, if you knew her, you know means off the charts. Ridiculously talented. Soft and lionhearted. A warrior—think Madeline Kahn as an Amazon—and a peacekeeper. Incredible and original sense of style. Nothing “plain” about her except just plain incredible. She was my favorite part of NYC, and I’m grateful she graced my life.
Cindy Hanson: There was a song I always requested at Jane’s cabarets. I could never get the title right—I would call it the kiss song or the what people know song. Jane would correct me: it was “Some People’s Lives,” a Bette Midler standard, but Janey sang it better than Bette—and Bette’s rendition is amazing. It’s one of the songs we played for Jane on the evening of August 6. Michelle, Ryan, Ashley, Virginia, and I were there. Her father called and Michelle held the phone to Jane’s ear as he spoke to her. Afterwards we continued intermittently playing music and singing together. Michelle and Ashley sang “Nothing’s Going to Harm You,” and someone mentioned that was a role Jane would have played the heck out of—Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. We were gathered around her, gently touching a shoulder, her feet, a knee, stroking her hair when Jane reached straight up—her arms had such strength and purpose. Afterwards, her breathing seemed to change. It was about 9:15 PM. We quietly sang “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Jane smiled and then was gone. We kept singing through the end of the song.
Wallem: My last text from Jane was in response to a YouTube video I sent her of Carol Burnett and Jim Nabors singing a corny, fantastic medley on Gomer Pyle. Jane and I were both chronic night owls and one 2 AM back in Chicago found us watching this particular Gomer episode at the same time in our respective apartments. We talked for decades afterwards about finding someone to transcribe that wacky medley for us to perform in a cabaret somewhere. We never did. But I finally found the clip on YouTube just a few weeks before she passed. Despite her complete lack of strength, she responded in all capital letters, “OMG! YOU FOUND IT!!! AWESOME!!!!”
Nope. You are, angel.