Cabaret History: Part III

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996-2004)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

The 1980s

Marcia LewisFuture Broadway favorite Marsha Lewis as her wacky character cabaret "Cookie."

One bastion of the past was The Hotel Carlyle's elegant Carlyle Room, an elegant lounge that still hired and publicized its performers. Former vaudevillian Bobby Short debuted there in 1968, and his stylish delivery of standards became a staple of New York nightlife for decades to come. Other hotels and restaurants opened cabaret rooms in the 1980s, including The Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel and Rainbow and Stars in the Rainbow Room. These cabarets hired local cabaret favorites like Andrea Marcovicci and Julie Wilson, as well as nationally recognized celebrities like Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett.

The Ballroom in Chelsea started as a restaurant but soon found a cabaret format drew larger crowds. Veteran singers Eartha Kitt, Martha Raye, Yma Sumac and Margaret Whiting packed the place. On the Upper East Side, Michael's Pub drew enthusiastic crowds with a mix of cabaret and jazz entertainment, while Freddy's showcased struggling Broadway hopefuls like Marcia Lewis. The legendary Mabel Mercer held court at The St. Regis Roof and Cleo's, her sensitive interpretations of great lyrics triumphing over a voice somewhat dampened by time.

Ad for 
    Ted Hook's BackstageAn advertisement for Ted Hook's cabaret Backstage, which became a magnet for Broadway luminaries.

In the theatre district, the restaurant/piano bar Backstage occasionally booked cabaret acts. Suave pianist Steve Ross and his encyclopedic knowledge of showtunes drew an all-star line-up of celebrities, and owner Ted Hook (former Hollywood dancer and secretary to Tallulah Bankhead) knew just how to fuss over them. Backstage became a regular hangout for Ethel Merman, Debbie Reynolds, Chita Rivera, Anne Miller and others. This author remembers seeing an excited crowd gathered in the street outside the front window one night when Liza Minnelli was belting a tune beside the baby grand piano. She took her bows to the cheering crowds both in and outside. The food at Backstage (passable at best) was not the issue – it was the glamour.

When the nightmare of AIDS descended in the 1980s, the "anything goes" attitude of the previous decade collapsed and most New Yorker's opted for quieter forms of nightlife. There were new options, including home video. These factors and a little mismanagement took their toll. Backstage and The Grand Finale faded, and many smaller rooms disappeared with astonishing speed.

Cabaret Redefined

Grove Street, ManhattanGrove Street in Greenwich Village was home to several cabarets and piano bars over the years.

However, those with a solid business sense prospered. The owners of The Duplex brought their laid back format to the theatre district with Don't Tell Mama, combining a lively piano bar front room with a cabaret backroom. 1988 brought the ultimate Greenwich Village hangout, Eighty Eights, where the crowd enjoyed piano bar and cabaret in an opulent art deco setting. Soon after, new owners moved The Duplex to larger quarters – its old space was taken up by Rose's Turn. These rooms attracted regular crowds in their piano bars while performers brought their own followings to the attached cabarets.

Today, the top uptown cabaret rooms only book big name acts, and most of the intimate downtown cabarets have closed. The sad fact is that almost no one makes major money in cabaret anymore. Even top talents hardly make a living commensurate with their talents and reputations. Many lesser-known performers in search of a showcase feel lucky if a cabaret run leaves them no more than a few thousand dollars in the hole.

So why does anyone still bother putting an act together? Because cabaret is one field where anyone with a few (well, relatively few) bucks and a dream can still take a stab at show business. Since the late 1980s, cabaret has been the starting place for several off-Broadway musicals, including Nunsense, Forever Plaid and Forbidden Broadway. These hits have inspired a plethora of cabaret musicals -- mostly dismal. Although the chances for breakout success are small, the expense and effort can be shared by a team of people.

Several showcase cabaret owners formed The Manhattan Association of Cabarets to distribute annual awards, but MAC has amounted to little more than a small-time mutual congratulation society. Few people pay any serious attention to the MAC awards, which eventually became the butt of several jokes on TV's Will and Grace. No one has yet found that winning this award did anything for their career. As one acquaintance of this author put it after winning multiple MAC awards, "At least if they gave me a subway token I could say that it got me somewhere."

At the start of the 21st Century, the cabaret scene is no longer generating new talent for the musical theatre. The number of rooms has declined, along with overall attendance. Those venues that remain have become as pricey as a Broadway show -- and sometimes cost even more. Small wonder that many prefer to spend their dollars elsewhere. But who knows? Cabaret may once again morph and provide a break-out point for new talent. Every year, new faces show up trying to buck the odds, keeping the dream alive. In all fairness, it's not much of a dream anymore.

Suggested Reading:

Some noteworthy books on cabaret history --

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