After about a week in Kansas City where I was behind enemy lines I traveled south to Branson Missouri. A town of roughly 11,000 people in south-western part of the state, Branson is widely recognized as an entertainment Mecca. Since one of my goals on my trip is to experience the places I visit, not just drive through and look at them, I decided to catch a few shows in the town so when I say I was there it would mean more than that I had just driven through. With much of my time on my trip having been spent in more remote places I welcomed the opportunity to participate in civilization once again.
After arriving in Branson I took a look at the roster of shows in town. I’m sure there must have been 100, maybe more. When I read on TripAdvisor that The Cat’s Pajamas, an a cappella group, was very highly regarded and well reviewed it was for me a slam-dunk choice in terms of shows to see while in town. I have always enjoyed a cappella. Now, having seen the show myself, I can highly recommend it to you.
Another aspect of my trip is to feed this great hunger I have to become connected to people in the places I visit. For me it wasn’t enough to go to the show. I wanted to know how it came to be, I wanted to know somebody in the show, how he got there, what it was like for him, what his life was like, who he was. I wanted to take a deep breath, inhaling something of his life so it would become a part of the fabric of my being, so I would know, so it would always be with me, be part of me. It was natural for me, then, to find someone in the group to talk to and upon inquiring I was directed to Brian Skinner. When I asked if he would sit down with me to share a little bit about his story and that of The Cat’s Pajamas he graciously agreed.
Skinner, as he is known, in addition to performing in the group, is also the group’s founding member and producer. He is a tall, slender, exuberant man who towers above his four fellow a cappella partners. While his head is in the clouds compared to the others, as the bass vocalist in the group his vocal register is in the basement. A cappella means, just in case you’re not familiar with the term, voice unaccompanied by musical instruments. That describes The Cat’s Pajamas, a high energy conglomeration of five young men who sing marvelously. Their act, however, is more than song alone. There is dance and humor too. It might even be a little reminiscent of vaudeville in places, although vaudeville was a bit before my time. Song, dance, costuming, comedy… all of this, the idea, the planning, the building, all of the Cat’s Pajamas has had its life breathed into it by Brian Skinner. It’s his child.
It doesn’t take a genius to tell that a lot has gone into putting this show together. The vocal arrangements are well done and well executed. The dance, while perhaps less sophisticated than the vocals, for the most part works quite well. Branson isn’t Broadway or Las Vegas, but the level of polish and professionalism in this show approaches that which you might find in venues at those locations.
This is the group’s 6th year. Before coming to Branson they performed in a number of places and they were a popular act on cruise ships. Surviving in Branson when up against shows that have been in town for many years with big advertising budgets can be attributed in part to a of of hard work, says Skinner. “The first two years were crazy in terms of the amount of sweat and time and energy getting the word out.” One way the group promoted itself was to make brief appearances in breakfast rooms around town performing a song or two in hopes that people would then buy tickets to their show. Skinner pointed out that Branson has about 5 million visitors every year, most just spending a few days in town. That means breakfast rooms would have to be visited frequently. “We were out there six days a week visiting every hotel in town.” It’s not difficult to imagine how much work that could be. Skinner explained that as a bass this was easy for him but that tenors’ voices don’t warm up until midday making such morning appearances difficult for them. Whoda thunk it?
Skinner had been to Branson before bringing Cat’s Pajamas here. While performing in a 50s show back in 2003 he had made some connections. Reaching out to one of them opened the door to a nine day stint sitting in for a group that was going on vacation. At the end of those nine days Cat’s Pajamas had several offers from local venues to perform in Branson.
I wanted to know how Brian got started down the path that led to where he is now. He explained that it was back in middle school when his English teacher suggested that he get involved in theater. He took this more as a directive than a suggestion. “I was scared to death to perform before anybody let alone memorize lines but I liked that nervous feeling.” He kept doing 15 minute skits throughout high school despite his nervousness. This was Skinner’s launch pad into the performing arts. “While other kids were out playing football I was choreographing to different rap songs and lip syncing, teaching myself different dance steps in my bedroom.” He didn’t begin singing until he landed the lead role in Godspell in high school after having taught himself the role by listening to the album over and over and over again for months on end.
Skinner was also involved in band in high school, first playing trombone and then playing bass guitar for the show choir. “When one of the other kids in the show choir had to miss a day in order to go to football practice I stood in for him so the show blocking wouldn’t get messed up.” This was a pivotal moment for him. “I discovered that song and dance was way more fun than standing in back playing bass guitar. The following year I auditioned and was accepted into show choir.” He also sang in some barbershop quartets in high school.
Upon entering college at the University of Wisconsin Skinner had accumulated valuable experience in acting, dance, band and singing. In his sophomore year he was accepted into the vocal group known as the Wisconsin Singers, a high level show choir that had help from professional musical arrangers and choreographers. After two years with the Wisconsin Singers he began singing college a cappella. Along the way he realized that the public’s appreciation of a cappella spanned all demographics, all generations. “I had so much fun in college and realized that no matter who we sung for, no matter what demographic, what age, people seemed to love a cappella. I realized some day it would be fun having a job doing this.” Now he does.
Skinner’s college degree was in psychology and communicative disorders but rather than going for a graduate degree in that field he pursued his passion in entertaining by landing a job at Six Flags Great America theme park where “I became a singing, dancing Mountie singing songs like I’m Too Sexy For My Horse… working for minimum wage.” Upon the recommendation of the producer of that show Skinner went to Branson which he had never heard of before. That same producer as to be in charge of a certain show Skinner went to Branson to audition for but as it turned out he was not there during the audition and Skinner didn’t get the job. Undeterred, he passed out a demo CD that he’d made previously to several theaters in the area and he landed a job singing bass, in that 50s show I mentioned above. On that CD he sang all five parts.
From there Skinner landed a gig in BC3, a singing, dancing a cappella group in which he toured the country for two years performing largely at colleges, high schools and county fairs. This also served as a learning experience in terms of how to do marketing for a vocal group, a skill he would later call upon for Cat’s Pajamas.
Along the way Skinner learned to incorporate percussion into his bass lines, mimicking the sounds of drums and other instruments. Now, in addition to traditional singing, he acts as both a percussion section and bass using just his voice. This lends a whole new dimension to traditional a cappella which he uses to give the music of Cat’s Pajamas a driving, funky beat. With Skinner in the group you actually think you’re hearing drums and bass.
When BC3 disbanded Skinner knew he wanted to continue singing and dancing but that he also knew he wanted to be in charge and this is when he gave birth to The Cat’s Pajamas. Since the group was unheard of Skinner says it was a quite a struggle getting gigs at first. One of the things that helped move things along was when American Idol’s Randy Jackson held an Oreo cookie jingle competition in which The Cats Pajamas placed in the top 10 leading to some recognition, and “a year’s supply of free Oreo’s” Skinner says laughingly. Besides all the cookies, an offer to perform on Celebrity Cruise Lines came along and the group had their first real gig, one which lasted six months. After that Norwegian Cruise Lines picked them up and the group worked with them for three years as featured performers.
Leaving the high seas behind for terra firma The Cat’s Pajamas now calls Branson home. They’ve performed at several venues in Branson over recent years with gigs in other areas such as Atlantic City in between those in Branson. They are approaching the end of the season at the Music City Centre where they finish on Dec. 6, 2014.
When I asked Skinner what he’d like me to include in this post he said the group does a music-in-schools tour every year in the upper midwest. A goal for 2015-2016 is to perform in more cities at performing arts centers (and I presume other venues). Email Brian Skinner if you’d like to book the group.
Listen to The Cat’s Pajamas. These are all great recordings but I think Stand By Me may be my favorite.
The Cat’s Pajamas on iTunes
The Cat’s Pajamas on Twitter
The Cat’s Pajamas on FaceBook
The Cat’s Pajamas Home Page
I say see Cat’s Pajamas perform if you can, and be ready to be well entertained.
Thank you Brian. Thank you for your dedication to your craft, for your tireless efforts in arranging, choreographing, staging, rehearsing, promoting, etc.; for giving work to other entertainers, for building the Cat’s Pajamas; for entertaining the public, and for sharing your story with me and my readers.