R.I.P. Irene Cara

No words could make someone my age feel so old or so heartbroken as: Irene Cara: Dead at 63. It was just announced, no cause has been released.

I’ve contemplated tributes to her here before, as we’ve had already had occasion to mention her here several times. Her start was very old school — she appeared as a kid on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. She was in the band on The Electric Company. And naturally she sang the theme to Fame, a show we loved so much as teenagers that we staged a tribute number to it in our high school show talent show (thinking of my old friends today, Marilyn Rivera and Laurie Sousa, both great singers). And the song that’s unavoidably in my head at the moment is the exhilarating and inspirational Flashdance theme — I vividly recall seeing that movie at the drive-in when it was first released.

Irene Cara Escualera (1959-2022) was from the Bronx, the daughter of a Puerto Rican sax player and his Cuban-American wife. As we said, she was already in the biz as a kid, in talent shows and beauty pageants. When still a child she was on Broadway three times, in Maggie Flynn (1968) with Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, as well as The Me Nobody Knows (1970) and Via Galactica (1972). She was already appearing in films and tv variety shows by the mid 70s. Her last Broadway show Got Tu Go Disco (1979) was short-lived, but then came a heady period around her 20th birthday lasting several years: the tv mini-series Roots: The Next Generation (1979), the TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980, a major TV event, mere months after the event), then Fame (1980 in which she played Coco and sang the theme as well as the memorable ballad “Out Here On My Own”). Her sitcom pilot Irene (1981) with Kaye BallardTeddy Wilson, Julia Duffy, and Keenen Ivory Wayans, was not picked up. But then she won awards for her performance in Maya Angelou’s Sister, Sister (1982), followed by the PBS production For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story (1983) and then she had a hit record with the Oscar and Grammy winning Flashdance theme “What a Feeling” (1983) which meant constant MTV and radio saturation. She was in the movies DC Cab (1983) with Mr. T and City Heat (1984) with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds.

She was prolifically productive over the ensuing years, releasing records, acting and performing on stage and screen, although it has been over a decade since her last known credit and much longer than that since she was attached to anything with a high profile. As reporting trickles in over the next few days I expect we will learn what these last few years consisted of, and what took her away at such a young age. I’m very sorry indeed to be the bearer of such sad tidings.