The French word cabaret is derived from camberet, meaning “small room.” About five years ago, small rooms calling themselves cabarets began to pop up in New York City and eventually grew into a circuit consisting of such clubs as Reno Sweeney's, the Grand Finale, Tramp's, the Ballroom and Brothers and Sisters. But in the last year or so the cabaret scene has expanded to include an ever-increasing number of nightspots in major cities all across the country and has indeed become the entertainment industry's newest phenomenon.
After the dearth of supper-club activity in the '60s and early '70s, it's difficult to explain this sudden reawakening of interest in cabaret. But given the considerable and confident investment being made in the-field by urban entrepreneurs, it seems to be a matter of dollars and cents -- people have more money to spend on entertainment than they did a few years ago. Or perhaps more specifically, the audience for cabaret (no statistics available, but theoretically it encompasses anyone between Kiss fans and the Lawrence Welk set) has gotten larger as the youth culture of the '60s has grown up, graduated from college and joined the work force. Whereas a few years ago tight purse-strings might have limited nightcrawling to movie-going or disco-tromping, now more people can afford to splurge occasionally on an evening of cabaret. That and the fact that some of the most exciting stars on the horizon are currently occupying cabaret spotlights, seem to account for this new nationwide trend toward -- or, more correctly, return to --small-scale, live entertainment.
The history of cabaret begins in Paris in 1881, with the establishment of the Chat Noir and its resident literary society, and continues through the turn-of-the-century political cabarets in Germany and the iconoclastic Dada playgrounds that scandalized Zurich, Berlin and Paris around 1920, all the way up through the social satire of Americans like Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May in the '50s. But the very political (or at least satirical) sensibility inherent in the European tradition plays only a miniscule role in what we call cabaret today. The most immediate precedent for the current cabaret scene is the post-World War II era, when the major clubs operating in New York included the Bon Soir, Cafe Society and the Blue Angel, all spawning grounds for new talent like Kaye Ballard, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, the Weavers and Barbra Streisand.
"The first work I did in New York was at the Blue Angel," remembers Barbara Cook. "It was a place for new people. Every Thursday they would have open auditions, and they would listen to anyone. They had a front room with a bar, and a couple named Edie and Rac, who played fabulous twin pianos, would do sets all night. Then in the back room there was a little stage, and you'd go on and do maybe 25 minutes. If someone caught on, they'd be invited back."
"Mabel Mercer was also playing small places then," recalls Village Voice columnist Arthur Bell, "boites like the Pin-Up Room, Intermezzo, Celeste's. The audiences there were either mixed or gay. It's always been that sort of ill-defined, super-sophisticated New York audience, or people who came from out of town who thought they would get it feel of what the real New York was like by listening to Mabel Mercer sing her songs of unrequited love on a stool with a baby spot shining on her face. There were no superstars back then, no big record companies promoting the records, and that was the beauty of the whole
boite scene. It was all kind of snobbish, very intime. We didn't want the people outside of 'our circle' to know about it."
But when the postwar baby boom generation came of age in the early '60s, its ferociously rebellious counterculture, with rock 'n' roll as its nucleus, squeezed the smart supper club set out of existence. As the Vietnam War escalated, politics and music became increasingly intermingled; youth politics manifested in mass gatherings, either rallies or rock festivals. Meanwhile, like mistreated mothers in melodramas, the rouged chanteuses clutching their black gowns and Gershwin songbooks must have wandered through the side streets of the '60s feeling terribly out-of-time and out-of-place -- unti1 they finally found shelter and sympathy at the Continental Baths.
"The baths were frantic," Arthur Bell recounts, "and the frantic performers -- like Melba Moore! Boy, she would scream; it was orgiastic, the stuff she was doing there. Ellen Greene one night sang a medley of 140 songs. She was still singing the next morning -- they couldn't get her off. And Steve Ostrow, who owned the place, was a frustrated opera singer; he would come on and do gems from
The Student Prince and everyone would leave. Some of it was pretty ghastly, but it was always an event. Don't forget that at the baths, the entertainment was like whipped cream on top of the sundae. It was kind of a break from the orgy room."
Before the advent of gay liberation and Reno Sweeney's, the baths cultivated a special relationship based on a mutual recognition of their outcast status between the gay male patrons and unknown, unpsychedelic performers like Greene, Moore, Alaina Reed, Marc Allen Trujillo, Liz Torres and especially Bette Midler. When the Johnny Carson Show began to present Midler performing samples of the outre camp humor and glamorously tacky '30s and '40s styles that accounted for her steamroom success, the subsequent media curiosity garnered a lot of publicity for the baths, which began to book more well-known acts like Gladys Knight and the Pips, opera star Eleanor Steber and jazz giant Sarah Vaughan. But by the time the baths had become a certified phenomenon, its creative force had already moved on.
The seed that the Continental Baths had planted -- the idea of showcasing little-known singers in an intimate setting overlaid with campy nostalgia -- blossomed full with the opening in October 1977 of Lewis Friedman’s Reno Sweeney’s. Reno’s went for an atmosphere as far removed as possible from the youth-oriented, T-shirt-clad rock culture, and it quickly became the model for the dozens of clubs that constitute the cabaret circuit. The key word was elegance. Or nostalgia. Or sophistication. Call it escapism -- or relief.
"Get out your white suit, your tap shoes and tails,
Let's go backward when forward fails...
Don't throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day,
Dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again!"
-- Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager
Reno Sweeney's, with its Art-Deco-rated Paradise Room, its potted palms and its indirect lighting, became a haven for a growing audience of sophisticates who had either outgrown or never felt comfortable with rock 'n' roll's grubby populism. "It was a whole psychological backlash," observes Marc Allen Trujillo. "In 1972 people were just getting away from the light shows and stuff; they were going the opposite direction looking for glamour, looking for '30s and' 40s flash."
The group that provided the strongest initial support for cabaret, and which in many ways was responsible for shaping its sensibility, was the gay male audience. (Not for nothing is this network of clubs sometimes referred to as the "K-Y Circuit.")
An essential connection between cabaret and gay audiences is its quality of exclusivity. Intimacy requires smaller seating capacities and higher prices, and without the responsibilities of family life or whatever, gay people generally have more time and money to spend on entertainment than adult heterosexuals.
Intimacy also encourages a sense of adventure in both performer and audience. Since there's not a lot of money to be made singing in cabarets, most performers are relatively unknown, and people who pay the steep prices must therefore be willing to take a chance in the hope of seeing something new and interesting. Likewise, the performer feels free to try
out-of-the- ordinary things without worrying about pleasing hundreds or thousands of paying customers. This sense of discovery is probably most important in attracting the gay audience. In fact, it is probably the central principle in the gay aesthetic sensibility. Because of our subcultural status in society, we tend to look for -- or create -- entertainment that appeals to specialized tastes (e.g., camp) or that is generally obscure or undiscovered. And as the generalized audience for cabaret grows, it continues to adopt a good deal of the gay sensibility.
It is not accidental, given the gay influence, that in almost all respects cabaret is everything rock 'n' roll is not. Most importantly, rock is per se a mass-audience genre by virtue of its large arenas, the relatively low cost of concert tickets and records, its accessible rhythms and lyrics, and its star-breeding commercial competition, all of which thwart any sense of discovery.
But as coexisting and thriving phenomena, rock and cabaret are alike in that their strongest appeal and artistic merits are also the sources of their greatest flaws. Just as the full-bodied, sensual experience and popular rapport rock offers can also disengage the mind and trade on countercultural clichés, cabaret's appeal to an intimate, elite vanguard can also degenerate into "I'm so chic" self-congratulation.
Yet just as the best rock 'n' roll makes superior use of its unique resources, the best cabaret fulfills the potential of its exclusive advantages. When Barbara Cook stands in the doorway and begins to sing her opening number, "Sing a Song with Me," unmiked and unaccompanied, she achieves an effect -- immediate, spontaneous, nontransferable to any other time, place, performer or audience -- that no other form of live entertainment can produce. Elly Stone does a spellbinding version of "These Foolish Things" that brings to mind the line from Noel Coward's
Private Lives: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." Cathy Chamberlain's stunningly dramatic rag 'n' roll reading of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" (which conjures up the image of Joan Blondell's "Forgotten Man" in
Golddiggers of 1933) is a tribute to cabaret's encouragement of bold experimentation. And when Julie Budd belts out "New York, New York," she proves that there are few things more exhilarating than witnessing at close range an extraordinary
singer wrapping her voice around a terrific pop song.
These magic moments are brought to you by cabaret.
Yes, cabaret is definitely back.
I just want to know -- what did we ever do without it?
The Advocate, October 5, 1977