Marsha Matthews Carlton, iconic star of Houston’s stage and LGBTQ nightclub scene, died on July 4 after an extended hospice stay. Few performers in this city’s history have matched her musical, artistic, and philanthropic influence, which spanned over four decades.
Carlton is survived by two daughters, four grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. A recent interview with family members provided a trove of information about the Texas musical treasure.
Growing up on Idaho Street in LaPorte, her musical talent was apparent from an early age. She could play several instruments and, unbeknownst to most, was a talented oboist. She performed in every musical production at LaPorte High School, where she was also an accomplished twirler and drum majorette.
Carlton worked with several well-known Houston actors and theater companies, including Theatre Under The Stars and Bayou City Concert Musicals. She starred in performances of Gypsy, Hello Dolly, Follies, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Chaplin, and a touring production of 42nd Street.
Carlton’s most enduring Houston gig was her multi-decade tenure as the beloved karaoke host at JR’s Bar & Grill in Montrose. And through her collaborations with gay artists Randall Jobe and Tye Blue, the LGBTQ community came to know and love Carlton as a strong ally.
“In 2001, I started going to JR’s,” remembers Houstonian Tye Blue, who now works as a Los Angeles-based producer. “At that time, I was just a kid, and Marsha (who had been working there since the ’80s) was already a legend on Houston’s musical scene. I was not yet out to my family, so seeing this older straight white lady hosting gay karaoke was revelatory. Even though the concept of seeing someone who looked like my grandmother in a gay bar was confusing, I knew she was special.
“Marsha emphasized the need to treat everyone with respect,” Blue continues. “She understood that when people went out to a bar (especially at that time), they were looking for community, for fun, and possibly for love. Her humor was amazing, but she never did anything at anyone else’s expense. Instead, she worked to build something special. Marsha was incredibly gracious in letting me inhabit the artistic space she had created. Now that she’s gone, I realize what she did for me. I hope that her biological family knows how much her gay family loved her.”
Collaborator Randall Jobe knew and worked with Carlton longer than anyone other than her longtime accompanist, Clay Howell. “In the early ’80s, I was part of the production team at Risky Business Cabaret,” Jobe recalls. “We were holding auditions, and this housewife walked in, began to sing, and her voice just blew us away. We immediately put Marsha into our shows, and she became a fixture at the club. By the time the club closed, she had developed a strong gay following. She then began to work with [legends such as] Jerry Atwood and Clay Howell, co-starring in productions opposite stars like Juliet Prowse and Anthony Newly at TUTS and other theaters.”
“Marsha’s voice was legendary,” Jobe notes. “She could skillfully interpret any song, and often moved people to tears. On top of that, her comedic timing was amazing. We formed a trio and were known for our off-color songs and jokes. We got a gig at a country club, only to realize midway through that our audience was a group of evangelical Christians! They were unimpressed with our humor, and we were not invited back.”
Family and friends also remember Carlton as multitalented. In addition to the instruments she played, she was first runner-up in the Miss Texas pageant and, unbeknownst to many, was a consummate skater, swimmer, diver, and baton twirler.
“I hosted a birthday party that Marsha attended,” Jobe says. “We moved the party outside so that Marsha could do her signature twirling move—tossing a baton 20 feet in the air, doing a twirl, and executing a flawless catch.”
Carlton’s daughters, Nickol Gallivan and Shannon Vincent, remember growing up in an ’80s-era household with their mom, which was anything but ordinary. Carlton had been married to four men, at a time when divorce was still not openly discussed. Vincent recalls: “I remember at school, people were always expressing ‘concern’ for our well-being. For us, it was just a normal thing. Mom never made it a big deal, so we didn’t either. Besides, it makes for very interesting conversation between us, as we weren’t full brothers and sisters.”
Carlton’s family remembers her many accolades with pride. As daughter Nickol recalls, “Mom was crowned Miss Roller Skating Queen, Miss Mermaid (of the Houston Boat Show), and Miss Pasadena, which enabled her to go to the Miss Texas pageant. She taught twirling, gymnastics, and swimming, and was a certified lifeguard. People wondered how this buxom woman could swim so well. In response, Mom used to say ‘I’ve got buoyancy’ as she easily pulled lesser swimmers out of the water.
“Mom was unique in that she, as a single mother, was able to raise a large family, have a professional career as a mild-mannered accountant by day, and at the same time follow her dream to become a performer who at night had people’s faces buried in her ample chest.”
Music permeated their lives as Carlton constantly danced around the house, often performing splits in the living room. The children “grew up” at Risky Business Cabaret on Albany Street in Montrose, often doing their homework while sitting at the bar (and sometimes sleeping in the hallways) while their mother rehearsed. Many of Carlton’s fellow actors looked after her kids, feeding them and making sure that they were safe.
“We had exposure to the gay community early in our lives. All of those guys took wonderful care of us,” Vincent says. “One night we were waiting in line at Numbers nightclub, and a large drag queen began to tease us. I said,
‘Do you know my mom? She’s Marsha Carlton.’ We were instantly famous.”
As Carlton became Houston’s “Queen of Karaoke,” the family simply followed along. Granddaughter Christian Woodring recalls some late nights: “I remember her performances at JR’s very well. It was fun staying out until 2 a.m. when I had to be at school the next day. I wanted to be with ‘Mimi’ in her environment with all of those friends. I loved it!”
“She would always encourage people to ‘get up there and sing like you’re Liza Minnelli,’” Gallivan says. She would tell them, ‘You only live once, let’s have fun. Don’t worry, you’ll be supported—we are doing this together.” This reflected Carlton at her core. “My mom was a dreamer—always contemplating the next adventure or endeavor,” Gallivan says. “This helped her to realize her own aspirations and, just as importantly, motivate others to know that they could accomplish anything.
“Many times during karaoke, a new singer would nervously sing off-key. Without hesitation, Mom would gently lend her voice to theirs, unobtrusively supporting them in the nicest possible way. This was the metaphor for her entire existence, one spent supporting others, caring for others, loving others, and including others. She was kind to everyone, and possessed the unique ability to make anyone feel as though they were the best singer in the world.”
Carlton’s friends and family all remember her unfailing support of Houston’s queer community. Her voice was heard at Miss Camp America, Diana Foundation events, EPAH, and at numerous fundraisers. “It was never about her,” Gallivan says. “It was always about the organization that was raising money. Mom would participate in shows regardless of her own physical limitations or scheduling problems. She always came through, in stellar fashion.”
Although it was never apparent to her fans, Carlton endured several health challenges during the last three decades of her life. Jobe remembers Marsha as a fighter. “She was entirely optimistic about confronting and conquering her health situation. She never let anything stop her. There were a few times when she would say, ‘I’m not feeling well, I’m going to the emergency room when we finish.’ We would then have to drag her away from the show.”
After one Thursday-night karaoke show, Marsha reportedly drove 40 minutes to a hospital in Clear Lake, only to discover that she had had a heart attack during the evening’s performance. She personified the phrase
“The show must go on.”
This article appears in the August 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.