Born and raised in the Karelia section of eastern Finland, a resort area of lovely beaches now belonging to Russia, Juliette Koka's dark hair and high cheek-bones are typical of that part of Finland. Her entertainment roots include a circus, dancers, singers, actors. Her Finnish father was a dancer, as was her Hungarian-born mother, who speaks French and played the French music that so entranced young Juliette.
"I grew up on Piaf's music."
Although she never saw Piaf in person, somehow the spirit and unique passion of Piaf captivated Koka, and today she is known in Europe and the United States as a leading proponent of the dramatic cosmopolitan elan that was Edith Piaf.
Yes, she and her brother and sister were raised in Finland, but Juliette remembers her family traveling and performing throughout Europe.
"Like (in this country) you go from here to Dallas, in Europe, you go to Germany or France, working clubs all over the place. I always had to work very hard. But I love it."
As a result, Juliette learned about other cultures and became fluent in many languages, including Finnish, English, French, German, Italian, and Hungarian. The cultures of Europe influenced her. She learned ethic dances and songs, and early in her career in Finland, she became known for her popular program of Hungarian folk music. She jokes,
"Half of Finland thinks I am a gypsy. I have a lot of temperament."
She also developed her theatrical skills studying at the School of Dramatic Art in Helsinki.
"I started out as a dancer. I was always an interpretive dancer, my dances all had stories. Then I became a singer who dances. Now I move very carefully...I'm not the greatest singer in the world, I'm not the greatest dancer, I'm not the greatest actress, but whatever my deficiencies...it works for me."
Explaining her graceful hand gestures, she acknowledges that she uses a lot of movement in her hands, but feels her hands are not attractive.
"When I was a little girl, I used to sit on my hands. But for some reason, when I sing, I can use my hands. I'm grateful for that. You can't teach (how to use) hands."
In the late 1940's, Koka came to the United States to visit her mother's sister, also a dancer. While here, she was offered a year's contract in a nightclub called Tokai. The visit became permanent when she met her husband, fell in love, and got married three months later. She laughs,
"I forgot to go home."
Not really, for Juliette travels home to Helsinki frequently, where she performs and visits her mother, sister, and brother. She still lives with her husband in New Jersey, but after she married and had two sons, Juliette decided to stay home to raise her children. Although she feels she hadn't suffered while her parents traveled during her own childhood, Juliette's husband is not in show-business and she didn't have the support network in this country to help her if she went on the road.
"I won't say I didn't miss (performing)... If anybody asked me, I sang. I studied voice, dancing, and I was teaching slimnastics at different extension schools. So I never lost that being in front of people. And I learned you have to prepare for going back." -Elizabeth Ahlfors
"Not only is her singing just right, so is every gesture." - Paul Kresh, The Jewish Week.
"I notice that when I sing certain words, certain movements happen. I just let it happen. "
In the mid-1970's, Juliette was invited to appear on a local cable television show in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She sang, "Those Were The Days" and "Under Paris Skies," which was one of Piaf's songs. After the show, a woman approached Koka and asked if she would be interested in seeing a script the woman had written; it was a one-woman show about Edith Piaf. At first Juliette was not interested, but promised she'd look at it when she returned from her planned trip to Europe. "After I read the script, and I told her maybe I could do it in cabaret."
Juliette worked on the script, and when she felt it was ready to be performed, Juliette suggested renting a space and doing the show in front of an audience.
"We sold the show out. There were two producers in the audience who said they'd take it to Broadway. I said, 'Thank you, very much'...You know, show business talk."
But this time, the talk paid off. The producers put together the play using five actors, with Juliette Koka singing. Piaf, A Remembrance, opened at the 48th Street Playhouse on a snowy Valentine's Day in 1977. Although the show had a short run on Broadway, Koka won the 33rd Annual Theatre Award for Outstanding Performance.
Ironically, at that point, Juliette still had not seen Piaf perform.
"When I did see Piaf first on a public television show, it was after my own Broadway show."
The spirit and music of Piaf infused the follow-up show, Juliette Koka Sings Piaf.
"Piaf was self-educated and a very poetic lyric writer. She was upbeat and funny, but she drank, and she had a very tragic life. I think I know her better than I know myself."
Juliette Koka's grasp of Edith Piaf's charisma was appreciated several years later, when she was invited to perform at the 40th anniversary of the United Nations and there she was awarded a UN medal for her contributions to cultural activities.
Another strong Koka program is her Kurt Weill show, which she ends with a unique rendition of "Mack The Knife," a song she first refused to perform, feeling it had been done too much. Her musical director finally persuaded her to do it as an encore, and she is still surprised at how well it was received.
"I try to get as much from the lyrics and character as I can...I kind of do it son-of-a-gun."
She is very definite about finding the right songs to include. The emotions of the music must be those Koka can identify with, for she does not sing in a language she does not understand well. For example, she would like to sing Spanish music but feels she is not strong enough in the language to communicate the nuances of the lyrics.
"I'm an actress who sings. To me a song is a play, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every word in the song is important."
When Juliette Koka gears her shows for American audiences, she wants them to understand the emotions behind the songs. She tours often, doing benefits and commercials, like the one for Maxwell House Coffee. Besides her Piaf and Weill shows, Koka has appeared in plays like Prisoner of Second Avenue, Bittersweet, and Jacques Brel...Alive & Well with entertainers Charleton Heston, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and Larry Storch. Mentioning her admiration for Zoe Caldwell and Colleen Dewhurst, she wishes she could appear in more dramas but feels her Finnish accent is limiting ("I would love to be in Sweet Bird of Youth, but she's from the South, so what can you do?" ). She laughs.
As in one show, Ladies & Gentlemen; Jerome Kern! Koka loved performing American standards. She has taken them to cabarets in Finland, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and in New York City, to venues like The Players Club and Freddy's.
"I pick some standards that not many singers perform, but also 'evergreens'. Sometimes I use just a piano; with Piaf, I need an accordion. Othertimes, as many as ten pieces."
Internationally, Koka has appeared in various starring roles in Helsinki's, Moulin Rouge Theatre, and has performed her one-woman shows on cruise ships such as S.S. Statterdam, the S.S. Rotterdam, and the Queen Elizabeth 2.
"When I work on a ship, it's marvelous, everybody's playing!"
Juliette Koka loves most music, the European sounds of Michel LeGrand, the drama of Julie Wilson, the romanticism of Chopin. But when she needs a lift, she listens to opera.
"In my next life, I'll be Lili Pons. But what can I tell you. You have to be happy with what you've got, right?"
It takes what the Finns call, "sisu".
"Determination, that's 'sisu'. I have a lot of sisu. You have to have it in this business. I don't have sharp elbows, but I have a lot of sisu."