Editor’s note: In the summer of 2013, when ArtsATL’s Jeff Stafford sat down to chat with singer Mike Geier, he was preparing for a club performance with the Kingsized Jazz Trio and had just developed the alternate character of a clown named Puddles who had a cabaret act called Puddles Pity Party. By 2017, Puddles was being cheered in living rooms across America due to Geier’s performances in character for the reality series America’s Got Talent. Geier reached the quarter finals, which led to a headline-act residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Puddles Pity Party will perform in Atlanta for his annual Holiday Jubilee on November 29 at Center Stage Theater.
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How does one describe Mike Geier to newcomers to Atlanta or anyone with little awareness of the local music scene? He’s been referred to as an Atlanta institution and local legend numerous times, but those accolades don’t really convey the range and diversity of his talent.
Geier, who stands six feet, eight inches tall and made an immediate impact on the local music scene when he moved here in 1995 from Richmond, Virginia, is a modern renaissance man. Some, but not all, of his professional personas are singer, musician, actor, performance artist, voice-over talent, master of ceremonies, chef, bartender and businessman. The last attribute is particularly significant, because Kingsized Entertainment LLC, owned and operated by Geier and his wife, Shannon Newton, has enriched the Atlanta music scene. It has also enabled him to experiment with creative collaborations outside the city and reach new audiences in New York, Seattle and Europe.
Geier’s signature band, Kingsized, has evolved into a dynamo ensemble that performs killer interpretations of swing, rock and soul favorites. Around the same time he started Kingsized, Geier also launched Dames Aflame, a dazzling Parisian-style burlesque revue, which became a key component of the Kingsized shows. In 1996, he created Elvis Royale, a Las Vegas-inspired spectacle with him and the Kingsized band channeling the music of “the king of rock ‘n’ roll.” And as if those weren’t enough, Geier has created smaller musical spin-offs from Kingsized, such as Bogey and the Viceroy and the Kingsized Jazz Trio. He also formed Tongo Hiti, an eclectic Tiki bar band, and more recently has developed a cabaret clown act called Puddles Pity Party.
ArtsATL recently spoke with Geier at Kingsized Entertainment’s Studio K facilities in Avondale Estates.
ArtsATL: What was the first band you formed once you moved to Atlanta from Richmond?
Mike Geier: I formed Kingsized almost immediately. I emceed a burlesque show at the Catch City Club with Torchy Taboo and Go-Go Max [Bernardi], which became Dames Aflame. That’s where I met Shannon, my wife. She was in the audience. Some of the guys from that band were brought around for another burlesque show about a month later, including Scott Davis, a trombone player for a band called Donkey. Spike Fullerton was a guitar player and had a lot of retro stuff. We just hit it off. And we started the band and said, what are we gonna call it?
Amy Pike — this was before the Lost Continentals, when she had a band called Greasetrap — was always referring to me as “king-size poppa.” And Scott latched onto that: “king-size.” And I said, “Let’s call it ‘Kingsized,’” like it’s already happened, as opposed to its current state.
ArtsATL: That was an exciting time with lots of new bands forming in Atlanta’s music club scene.
Geier: My problem as a creative person — or it could be my strength — is I’m not always aware that I’m living in an exceptional time, so I don’t exploit it. I wish I was more like that. I wish I could see that this is happening. I’m immersed in the love of the craft. I’m just having a good time and trying to get better at what I do. That’s why I try to surround myself with people who go, “You know, knucklehead, don’t take anything for granted.”
ArtsATL: How has Kingsized changed since its original inception?
Geier: It started as a musical collective. I set it in motion, but I was always interested in having a band. We were trying to think of it as we’re all equal partners in this band. And through the process of doing it, you realize that starts to change over time. There were different levels of ambition. People just start drifting apart in that way, and not really in a sad way. I was in my 30s when Kingsized started, so some guys in the group were starting to think about a home life. I feel I’m a gypsy, so I can live the lifestyle.
So the dynamic changed. It started turning into the Big Mike show. We went from that to people wanting us to play their private parties. People wanted us to play corporate events, and I always said initially, “That’s great, but we’re gonna do our thing.” Over a period of time, I said, “This is pretty good money. It’s not 3 o’clock in the morning. I could still go play a club gig; I could go play two gigs in one night.”
It’s that balance of being honest in the creativity and also giving people what they want. Weddings, corporate and private parties really require a captain of the ship. It requires somebody who can say, “Be here at this time.” All of a sudden, I was the guy in charge.
ArtsATL: Do you enjoy the management part of the business?
Geier: No, but when it was brand new, it was kind of fun. And it gave me a sense of purpose to tell people what to do. [Laughs] I think I have an entrepreneurial gene that allows me to be “all in” at the beginning. And then once it becomes stable, I need to move on. It’s the kind of “Road Warrior” mentality I have. It doesn’t allow me to stay in one spot. So I need to recognize that and have people around me who excel at that.
Shannon was working at an administrative job and was doing these things already, organizing, delegating responsibilities . . . and she just started doing them. And the big thing that creates all of those tasks is the creative. So Shannon’s involved in the creative aspects of it, down to nitty-gritty things like the mannerisms of the Puddles character. You know, when you’re with somebody all the time, everything is part of it — to the point where I don’t even like the idea of a vacation.
ArtsATL: Let’s talk about the humor in your shows, which share similarities with Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman and Mel Brooks, particularly that duet between you and the Yeti in the Kingsized holiday show.
Geier: It’s totally what it is. There’s Young Frankenstein. But there are so many Mel Brooks things, that even if it didn’t look like Mel Brooks, Mel Brooks is behind it.
The one thing that I found very interesting is I didn’t realize the effect that Andy Kaufman had on me. He had an absurd concept of what comedy was. And I’ve always had that. You know, if everyone thinks it won’t be funny, it might just be the perfect thing, and they just need to catch up to what I think is funny. I’ve always been afraid of looking foolish, but I don’t let that stop me. I’m always learning what my boundaries are with an audience and what things work and what things don’t work. Sometimes I’ll keep trying something that doesn’t work until it submits to my will and it finally starts to work.
ArtsATL: What are the origins of Puddles Pity Party?
Geier: We had this band called Greasepaint that had this clown character called Puddles, and Shannon had developed this character called MonkeyZuma, and they’re sort of partners in crime in these weirdo art-music things. And I was doing Puddles in the Dames Aflame show as an operatic moment. We were also using the character of MonkeyZuma in the Dames Aflame show. So in the course of doing these funky local gigs, we became pretty tight with Cartoon Network and Adult Swim guys, writing some songs for them and being involved in some of their things: Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Squidbillies. We did a show with Cartoon Network called Sunday Pants, where we wrote music. I was a character in this live-action portion of it.
ArtsATL: How did Puddles end up appearing with the Aqua Teen Hunger Force Live show in New Orleans?
Geier: I call them up and say, “Hey, we’re coming down to New Orleans to see you guys.” Dana Snyder, the voice of Master Shake, had been in our Dames Aflame show, and we were buddies with Dave Willis, Jay Edwards, the editor over there, Matt Maiellaro. Those guys created Space Ghost Coast to Coast. So Dana Snyder said, “Hey, what do you think about being in our show?” And I said, “What do you want me to do?” Dave Willis in the background said, “How ’bout that creepy clown?” So I said “great,” hang up the phone and look at Shannon: “What the hell am I going to do with that Aqua Teen Hunger Force Live show?”
So we start riffing. We can do the song we do in the Dames Aflame show, “Lonely Guy,” which is a song by Dexter Romweber of Flat Duo Jets. It’s a real ’50s-sounding, Orbisonic song. I can play that on guitar. What else can I do? I’ve got this other song by Glyn Styler, a guy from New Orleans. He had a show called The Unhappy Hour, and he just plays these downer songs. He’s from the Scott Walker-Lee Hazlewood weirdo drama music scene that I love.
What else can I do? I had just recorded an album over with Marty Kearns at 800 East that has a great Leiber and Stoller song on it called “I Who Have Nothing.” Maybe I can ask him if he can remove the vocals from it and I can go with my own karaoke track, because I wasn’t really comfortable playing it on guitar by myself. So we’re cobbling together a little 15-minute three-song set.
ArtsATL: What was the initial audience reaction at the House of Blues in New Orleans?
Geier: I walk out onstage. No introduction, and I picked up the guitar and I did this bit — Mark Twain did it, a lot of people have done it; it’s a silent bit. You walk out. You’re standing there and don’t do anything for as long as you can. And I did it probably for two minutes of silence. And then I got my guitar out and I started playing this song [sings] “You Killed My Love.” It’s this big over-the-top song.
At the end of “Lonely Guy,” I walked out into the audience. I’m throwing chairs to the side, making people get out of their seats as I’m climbing over, and I get to this guy, and I’m singing and I’ve got this one big note — it’s a Pavarotti kind of note. I hit that note and go in and give him this big Daffy Duck-Bugs Bunny [kiss]. And that’s the big end, and I just walk away. It was probably the most honest performance thing I had ever done. And the crowd went bananas. I had never had that reaction. We had done the Elvis show, and we get the big reaction. But Elvis is getting the applause. I’m just channeling that thing that they already recognize.
ArtsATL: Did you tour with Aqua Teen Hunger Force Live?
Geier: They asked us to do the Northern part of the tour. I’m terribly afraid of flying, so subconsciously I was trying to make an excuse not to go so I wouldn’t have to get on a plane. So I’m griping and complaining, and Shannon thinks that it would be really cool to do it, just don’t think about what the payoff is. And I come around.
We could do only Philly and New York. So we went to the Trocadero [Theatre], and Philadelphia is notorious for a rough crowd, even among the nerdy set. The nerds carry rolls of quarters in socks in case you give them any lip. That’s why I’m going in thinking, “They’re gonna hate this thing.” We’re at the intermission of the show. I have since added “My Heart Will Go On,” the Celine Dion song from Titanic, which has a big heavy-metal, Metallica ending to it. And we do that and just kill them. I’m on cloud nine about this. And I’m looking at Shannon like, “You should have punched me in the throat for disagreeing to do this.”
ArtsATL: This led to Puddles going on tour with Eels in the U.S. and Europe?
Geier: We wound up investing in the adventure. I don’t want to say it was a vacation, because it really wasn’t for me. We made connections that are yet to be felt. And I’m hooked now. It’s changed the way I sing. I can hold a note twice as long in a big room, because there’s so much air in there. A small room where there are a lot of people and a lot of fabric soaks up all the sound, so I have to push twice as hard. We’re trying to look for outlets here for Puddles to perform that isn’t just walking into the EARL and singing songs, which is great, but I want to find more weird kinds of things.
This whole story is like the scene in World War Z when the zombies are like ants climbing up the hill. All these events are like the ants. Individually they’re not connected in any way, except I feel like we are pulling these opportunities toward us. The more creative we are, the more gravity we’ve created, the more things are coming at us.
ArtsATL: Among Atlanta music venues, do you have a preference?
Geier: It has to be Variety Playhouse. They redid their sound system there, and I can stand on that stage and can just sing without music. Man, it sounds great. It’s a nice, big open hall. And I have to say my other favorite is singing on the street: the Macy’s atrium in the old Macy’s downtown. It’s not a venue, but it’s one of my favorite places to sing.
ArtsATL: What about the Clermont Lounge?
Geier: Oh, the Clermont. We played as Greasepaint there one night. It was a wild performance in a surreal setting. Our Monkey Girls were making popcorn and cotton candy onstage.
Before the show, one of the Clermont dancers asked Shannon if she would like to see her kitten. Yeah, I know. She escorts her down a hallway past the restrooms to a room divided into smaller rooms by drapes. In her makeshift quarters was a cot and a lamp. Tied to the leg of this cot with a short length of jute twine was a tiny orange tabby kitten. Gets you right in the ticker, don’t it?