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From trauma, to healing, to a poignant KC Fringe Festival tribute

Susanna Lee, performing as Lucky DeLuxe, delivers some sarcastic wit during her KC Fringe Festival show, “Oh Susanna,” at the Westport Coffeehouse. Lee, a 10-year veteran of the festival, is doing something different this year: a tribute to her late father, KC radio celeb Jay Cooper.
Susanna Lee, performing as Lucky DeLuxe, delivers some sarcastic wit during her KC Fringe Festival show, “Oh Susanna,” at the Westport Coffeehouse. Lee, a 10-year veteran of the festival, is doing something different this year: a tribute to her late father, KC radio celeb Jay Cooper. Special to The Star

Susanna Lee has discovered over the past two years that sometimes the worst moments in life inspire something deeper and more rewarding.

Lee performs as Lucky DeLuxe, a comedian, storyteller and burlesque performer. She’s a 10-year-veteran of the KC Fringe Festival, and two years ago, her life changed drastically.

Not long after she returned home to Los Angeles from KC, where she had performed at the 2014 festival, an intruder assaulted her as she slept in her apartment.

“That was awful and a terrible thing,” she said, “but it was also what made my relationship with my father become a really amazing thing, better than it had been my entire life.”

Her father is Jay Cooper, who became a Kansas City celebrity in the mid-1970s when he and Dick Wilson co-starred in “The Dick and Jay Show” on radio station KYYS (KY-102). Cooper was fired from the station in 1984, after 10 years on the show, which was honored in March when Cooper and Wilson were inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame.

The show “changed the landscape of radio in general,” Lee said. “He and Dick were among the first, if not the first, morning radio duo or team, which sort of gave birth to what would eventually become the early morning ‘zoo’ shows.”

In April, Cooper died after a brief illness, and, in his honor, Lee has created a tribute to her father that is part of “Oh Susanna,” her Westport Coffeehouse show at this year’s KC Fringe Festival. It includes comedic reflections about her Los Angeles lifestyle, but she also discusses the break-in, her father’s life and death and the eulogy she read at his funeral.

“It’s very outside my comfort zone,” Lee said last week before the inaugural performance. “It’s going to be really difficult to deliver, but, you know, that’s how we exorcise our demons.”

An uncommon life

Like many fathers and daughters, Lee and Cooper did not always see eye-to-eye.

“He was very stubborn, very headstrong and always right, and so was I,” she said. “The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. There was a lot of father-daughter love, but there were a lot of arguments, which happens when two people who always think they’re right disagree.”

Growing up as the daughter of Jay Cooper wasn’t an ordinary, suburban life.

“I was treated special,” she said. “My friends’ parents all knew who my dad was. I remember we had an unlisted phone number. I sort of thought that was the marker of being a local celebrity.”

Her father never pushed her to be an entertainer, Lee said, but he inspired her to be one.

“I saw how much people loved him for making them laugh,” she said, “for being funny and entertaining them, for being a relief and distraction from the mundane, or worse, every day, and it made me think there couldn’t be anything better than being that person.”

Their relationship changed for the better after the break-in, bringing them much closer.

“He stepped up to the plate and was very much my dad, very much a caretaker, very paternal,” she said. “He talked to me every day, sometimes multiple times a day. He offered anything he could think of to fix the situation.

“Any hard feelings that had been harbored over the years were completely resolved by what he did after that incident. I didn’t talk to him every day from that point on until he died, but he was there any time I needed him.”

Validation at last

Lee attended the hall of fame ceremony at Liberty Hall in Lawrence on March 5. Her father had been hurt and resentful for years over his firing from KY, she said: “I think what he really felt like what he deserved was recognition for all he’d done.”

Heart-bypass surgery a few years ago changed his disposition, though.

“He really worked on himself, physically and emotionally,” she said. “He transformed from the angry dad I knew as a kid to very open, much less reactive. I think he let go of a lot of the resentment.”

That acknowledgment he craved came at the hall of fame ceremony.

“I don’t remember ever seeing him happier than I did that weekend,” she said. “He never stopped smiling. You could tell he was thoroughly delighted and really happy that he got the recognition he did, which was so deeply deserved.”

It was the last time she was in his company. She was able to get to his bedside before he died on April 6 of complications from aggressive respiratory distress syndrome, but he was on a ventilator and under a medically induced coma.

His death prompted “an outpouring of love and support that was really heartwarming,” she said. It also prompted her to pay tribute to him by creating a show that has changed her as a performer. Even in death, he inspired her to create and entertain in new ways.

“The audiences have been very appreciative,” Lee said after Sunday’s performance. “I’m very grateful to be doing something a little different and still have it accepted. It turns out having the space to be truly vulnerable onstage and evolve as an artist is intensely rewarding.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

This week

Susanna Lee performs two more shows this week as part of the annual Fringe Fest: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and 11 p.m. Saturday. All shows are at the Westport Coffeehouse Theater, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave. For ticket information, visit KCFringe.org.

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