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While the contemporary American cabaret came into being in the 1970s, its
traditions reach back more than a hundred years. A quick look at that tradition
reveals a great deal about the social and cultural changes that marked the 20th
Century. Since our primary focus is on cabaret's connection to musical
theatre, film and television, we will concentrate on cabaret as it developed
in New York City -- becoming a crucial training ground for writers and
Roots in Europe
In France, the word "cabaret" initially referred
to any business serving liquor. However, the history of cabaret culture
began in 1881 with the opening of Le Chat Noir in the
Monmartre district of Paris. It was an informal saloon where poets, artists and
composers could share ideas and compositions. Performers got to test
audiences enjoyed a stimulating evening for the price of a few drinks, and
owners could count on a steady flow of regular customers a win-win-win
proposition. Le Chat Noir attracted such notables as Maupassant, Debussy and
Other cabarets soon sprang up all over Paris, and by 1900
similar establishments appeared in several French and German cities. As time
went by, many of these rooms featured scheduled entertainment, ranging in
size from a few musicians to full floorshows. Cabarets brought a new intimacy and
informal spirit to public performances. Audiences sat at cozy tables
consuming food and drink while performers worked right in their midst.
Inevitably, audience members became part of the show, interacting with performers
-- and even each other.
After World War I, cabaret enjoyed even greater popularity all
across Europe, but particularly in Germany, where the Weimar government essentially
ended all forms of censorship.
The overthrow of the kaiser, the
revolutionary tumult that resulted in the establishment of a
Social-Democratic republic, and the hardships of the inflation period were
the troubled waters in which cabaretists could fish with spectacular
success. Berlin became a maelstrom, sucking in the energies and
talents of the rest of Germany. . . What New York in the 1920s was to jazz
and speakeasies, Berlin was to cabaret.
-Laurence Senelick, Cabaret Performance, Volume II: Europe 1920-1940
(Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 25.
Bob Fosse's acclaimed film version of Cabaret (1972)
gives a stylized but essentially accurate view of what cabaret entertainment was
like in 1932 Berlin, with satiric sketches, torch songs, transvestitism
and more. These shows had an intellectual punch which, with a few drinks, helped
audiences push the harsh realities of life aside for a few hours. The classic German
film The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich
gives us a reputedly accurate sense of what Weimar-era cabaret
performances looked like. Within a few years of Hitler's rise to power in
1933, the Nazi's effectively suppressed all hints of cabaret subculture in
advertisement for Reisenweber's, boasting an engagement by singer Sophie
Tucker. This was one of the first noteworthy cabaret-style engagements in
New York City.
In the United States, cabaret had developed along more glamorous and less
intellectually ambitious lines. In New York during the 1910s, several
large cafes provided singers and came to be
known as "cabarets." Delmonico's, Reisenweber's, Palaise Royale and
Shanley's all became legendary night spots. Within a few years, dance floors
became a required part of the cabaret environment. When a 1913 ordinance
forced Manhattan's cabarets to close by 2:00 AM, members-only clubs sprang
up and stayed open for dancing till all hours -- the first "night
America's first Parisian-style cabaret
was Sans-Souci (1915), a 42nd Street establishment owned by the popular dance
team of Vernon and Irene Castle.
The earliest American cabarets were not exact copies of their European
ancestors. Political and social satire were nowhere in sight, but late hours
and sophisticated audiences meant all sorts of boundaries could be
stretched. New York's cabaret goers sought an alternative to other popular
forms of diversion.
Unlike vaudeville, which welcomed
women and children to a family atmosphere, the cabaret made few pretenses
about being for a family trade; rather, it would service the adult
fantasies and desires of adult men and women. . . Women and men could
stretch the night into hours of pleasure for themselves, away from home,
business, children, and other obstructions to their own mutual enjoyment.
- Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the
Transformation of American Culture 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1991), p. 114.
Dancing was a key attraction. The
easy public mixing of sexes, social classes (and races) on cabaret dance floors
led many preachers and journalists to condemn these establishments as centers of moral
Speakeasies: Cabaret Mobster-Style
America's cabarets were effectively forced out of
business when the Volstead Act made the sale of liquor
illegal in late 1918. But "the great experiment" of Prohibition
did not wipe out America's taste for alcoholic refreshment, and there was
an immediate demand for secretive,
intimate places where people could consume booze. This kind of ambiance
practically demanded music, so the stage was set for cabaret to conquer
America, albeit in an illegal format.
nightspots served liquor illegally during the Prohibition Era, but only a
few glamour spots like the legendary Cotton Club continued to thrive after
the ban on booze was lifted. Although it was located in Harlem and
featured all-black entertainment, blacks were not permitted in the
audience a fact this 1930s ad indicates by depicting the doorman as a
All across the USA, illegal bars known as
"speakeasies" proliferated in basements and
backrooms. In a vague bow to the law, owners called these establishments
"clubs" and claiming they only served drinks to card-carrying members. In
reality, anyone who looked like they could pay the price of some bootleg hooch
was admitted. If prospective customers simply knocked and told the doorman
the universally accepted "Joe sent me,"
they were in.
Most speakeasies were controlled by the gangsters who supplied the
booze. Live entertainment supposedly made things
look more legitimate, and owners found that women singing sad ballads did wonders for
drink sales. These "saloon singers" became a standard part of American
nightlife for decades to come, with future Show Boat star Helen Morgan
the first in an endless line of long-suffering ladies. In some larger clubs, you could also
cheer on floorshows. Future Warner Brothers star Ruby Keeler got her start as a speakeasy
chorine, working for the outrageous hostess Texas Guinan.
Women were not only present as performers, but as a key part of
Miss Morgan, Tex Guinan, Belle
Livingston were among the more notable women who dominated the
nightclubs and other rendezvous of revelry in the twenties. But the
pattern persisted all over the country -- speakeasies and
"intimate" spots featured women torch singers and piano
players. That is what the night-life public wanted.. And in the Lawless
Decade the nightlife public was no longer predominantly male. The women
wanted their fun too, their share of the whoopee -- a word that's almost
obsolete probably because the wild, hectic and abandoned sort of gaiety
it described is also almost obsolete now.
- Paul Sann, The Lawless Decade (New York: Bonanza Books,
1957), p. 190
By the mid-1920's, resentment of Prohibition laws was so
overwhelming that New Yorkers voted to suspend enforcement by local officials.
This left only a meager federal
force that could not hope to shut down more than a small fraction of the city's
speakeasies. Some states and cities clung tenaciously to Prohibition long
after the rest of the country had woken up.
Sinatra once said, "You're a show business nobody until you make the
Copa and do three shows nightly under its tremendous pastel roof." This
is a 1948 ad for one of his frequent appearances there.
When Prohibition ended in the 1933, American drinkers were
in the mood to celebrate. Although the Great Depression was at its worst,
large nightclubs became the order of the day. Places like The Copacabana,
The Diamond Horseshoe or The Cotillion Room featured such former
vaudeville headliners as Jimmy Durante or Sophie Tucker with
several supporting acts. Candlelight, tuxedoed servers and a formal dress code
added to the sense
of glamour. These elegant showplaces held hundreds of high paying customers at a
time, and were more like Las Vegas showrooms than classic cabarets. However,
the material and performance style were very much in the cabaret tradition
torch songs, innovative comedy etc.
Starting just before World War II, smaller rooms became
fashionable in most large American cities, providing intimate entertainment
and pricey cocktails. Because New York law required establishments serving liquor to
provide food, these rooms called themselves "supper clubs" even if there
was nothing more than a token sandwich kept in a refrigerator to earn the title.
Since many of these supper clubs looked downright seedy, they
depended on low lighting, cigarette smoke and strong
performers for ambiance. The tables were small, jamming fifty or more people into a
space meant for half that number. A singer was perched on a tiny stage with one or two
pianos, a single spotlight and (if lucky) a microphone. The unknown performers were
often stars in the making, and the music was mostly jazz and Broadway-style, with some
raunchier material reserved for late-night performances. In short, cabarets
became the perfect place to impress -- or seduce -- a date.
In the 1940s and 50s, New York was home
to several clubs that achieved legendary status
had Italian food and the legendary song stylings of Mabel Mercer.
Cafe Society was
the first club to welcome integrated audiences for performers like Billie
Roof had the outrageous lesbian headliner/owner Spivy.
The Blue Angel featured future stars
Pearl Bailey, Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt, and guitar-strumming Russian
folksinger Yul Brynner.
Many more familiar names found their first important showcase in
New York cabarets . . .
On to Part II