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Big Mama's House

Local cabaret act Big Mama Gayle welcomes the new year in her inimitable style, loving life and living large

When the year comes to an end, we all have our traditions: a kiss with a loved one, watching the ball drop in Times Square on TV, clearing away Christmas clutter, making resolutions or simply reflecting on the year that was.

In Forest Grove, one tradition has a little more class, a little more sass and a whole lot more va-va-voom.

On New Year's Eve, Forest Grove's Big Mama Gayle and her Sugar Daddies return to the stage of the Grand Lodge for multiple sets showcasing the talent and outlandishly over-the-top chutzpah that has made the group a favorite.

The group, which alternates between New Year shows at the Lodge and McMinnville's Hotel Oregon, takes the stage of the historic venue's Compass Room. The show is for hotel guests who have purchased rooms only.

Elsewhere on the grounds, free performances by Will West and the Friendly Strangers and John Bunzow and Bobby Cole are open to the public.

Led by ringmaster Gayle Hayden, a special-needs educator at Joseph Gale Elementary School, Big Mama Gayle and her Sugar Daddies specializes in music and comedy, the kind of variety show that seems to have fallen by the wayside. With bass-thumping and horns blaring, the group covers everything from rock to swinging jazz, classics, soul, funk, cabaret and beyond in its vaudevillian-style revue.

Leading the charge is Hayden's larger-than-life persona, Big Mama, who is known for her spry dance moves and endless costume changes, which range from elegant eveningwear to neon pink boas. Around her, go-go dancers boogie to the music as Hayden and her band deliver nostalgic bursts of music that are typically enjoyed by the whole family.

Yet on New Year's Eve, it's more of an adult affair than the group's storied Halloween shows, which are prone to feature everything from spooky tunes to a belly dancer in a gorilla suit.

'On Halloween, everyone is in costumes, and it's a spookier night. For New Year's Eve, we're still rock and roll and crazy and everything, but people are dressed very nicely and spending the night,' says Hayden. 'For a lot of couples there are no kids, so it's a more grown-up audience. It's so special.'

The singer says the show promises to usher out 2011 and welcome 2012 in style, with a long, multi-set show going well into the evening.

'You can't get to the New Year and sing 'Auld Lang Syne' and then quit,' says Hayden. 'That would be bad business. 'OK, guys, see ya later. Happy New Year.' Everyone kisses and now you're gone.'

Hayden has spent years honing her unique persona, beginning in the 1960s, when she performed on Broadway in the infamous hit play 'Hair,' a response to the conflicting nature of the decade where the Summer of Love and the Vietnam War shaped the mindset of a generation.

Hayden also performed in the all-female rock outfit The Freudian Slips, and appeared in several magazines, including 'Life' and 'Playboy.'

After years in show business, Hayden says she was drawn to something quieter, and after she became a mother she sought to slow things down.

But the showbiz bug remained. So Hayden kept her wild, over-the-top side alive in the form of Big Mama Gayle.

At age 62, the years have had a slight impact on Hayden. Last year, she was sidelined with a back injury that kept her out of the spotlight for several months. But now she's back and more vibrant than ever, using her status of glam grandmother as a springboard for her trademark, self-directed humor.

'You know you're getting old when everyone holds their breath when you bust a move,' she says, chuckling. 'Whenever we do 'Proud Mary' and I shake my booty a bunch, I ask if there's a cute fireman in the crowd with a defibrillator.'

With a loyal following of fans, with whom she is always eager to mingle, and a steady place to showcase her love of all things fabulous, Hayden says she isn't simply a small-town entertainer with a larger-than-life personality. She's having the time of her life.

For a woman who has spent her life on some of the world's biggest stages, that's quite a feat.

'I'm having more fun now - and I just got my first Social Security check this month - than I did when I was on Broadway in my early 20s,' she says. 'I'm with friends and family, and I enjoy the local (notoriety). This year I got to ride a float as Mrs. Claus. I never would have been doing that back then.

'It's a good time in my life. As long as I can still bust a move without a defibrillator, I'm OK.'