3rd night of the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Cabaret Convention at Rose Hall celebrated the ‘The Golden Age of Cabaret’ hosted by author James Gavin and dedicated to the memory of the late Barbara Carroll.
By: Linda Amiel Burns
In 2006 James Gavin wrote the book “Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of NY Cabaret,” a loving tribute to what has been called a “fragile and endangered” art form. On October 18, 2017, James hosted the 3rd evening of the Cabaret Convention, celebrating the history of cabaret and paying tribute to the great performers and clubs of the past. For those of us who were around then, it was good to hear about The Grand Finale, Freddy’s, Danny’s Skylight Room, Ted Hook’s Back Stage (and On Stage) and so many more. The Trio for the evening was: John Martino on keyboards, Jon Burr on bass and Dave Silliman on drums.
Cabaret veterans Ricky Ritzel and Spider Saloff opened with “This Joint Is Jumpin” and Spider performed Cole Porter’s “Tale of the Oyster” as a tribute to Julie Wilson, the late beloved legend of the cabaret world. Maude Maggart’s voice has the sound of the great singers of the past, and her “Why Was I Born” evoked the renowned Helen Morgan. She also sang a Mabel Mercer classic “Once in a Blue Moon.” Representing the cherished pianist/singers of the past was the terrific Ronny Whyte who talked about the one and only Bobby Short and sang “Hooray For Love/Sand In My Shoes/ Slummin’ On Park Avenue” in his honor. He also sang a song I never heard before, “New York Coloring Book” from a revue with the same title presented by the late Jan Wallman that he starred in.
Barbara Brussel evoked the spirit of Felicia Sanders with a beautiful medley of “This Nearly Was Mine/Once Upon a Time” and a haunting “Strangers Once Again” that was sung at Danny’s Skylight Room. Charles Cochran has been working as a pianist/singer in NYC nightclubs since 1957 and it was a joy to hear him play “Miss Johnson Phoned Again Today” sung originally by Jerri Southern, and then Dave Frischberg’s “Do You Miss New York.” James talked about Lena Horne’s start in cabaret and introduced Natalie Douglas (with Mark Hartman on piano) to sing “I Love to Love” and an unforgettable rendition of “Stormy Weather.”
Molly Pope performed Fran Landesman’s “Ballad of the Sad Young Men” introduced in cabaret and later became a gay anthem. She sang a moving rendition of June Christy’s 1953 hit “Something Cool.” Donald Smith, the founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, never allowed “drag queens” or “female impersonators” in the any of the conventions, so it was refreshing to hear Charles Busch talk about those who became famous in cabaret such as Charles Pierce, Jim Bailey and many others. Charles (with Tom Judson on piano) has been performing lately as himself, but the “women” that he has portrayed and payed tribute to have been sensational. He sang a rousing “Those Were The Days” and the audience couldn’t help but join in at the end. A real change of pace was the comedy of Bruce Villanch who has written material for the Tonys, Grammys and Emmys as well as the for many stars, entering with the line, “I am Amy Shumer.” He recalled the early days at Reno Sweeney’s in the Village where many stars got their start. Ethel Merman told him that they named the club for her….. as that was the name of her character in Anything Goes.
The versatile singer/pianist/composer Nellie McKay started in small clubs and has had a big career ever since. She sang two of her own compositions “The Dog Song” and “Listen Here.” Knowing that James Gavin likes “edgy” performers, I was not surprise to see Carol Lipnik (with Matt Kanelos on piano) on the bill. She may not be everyone’s cup of tea but The NY Times called her an “ethereal vocal phenomenon.” She performed a dramatic “Lifeline” echoing herself, and an unusual version of “Moon River.” Laura Kenyon starred in the 1983 Broadway show Nine and sang “Pretty, Pretty.” Chairs and tables were placed on the stage to create a cabaret setting for the second act, and the charming French singer Lilianne Montevecchi (who just turned 85) was brought on stage and sat down. Laura sang “Paris You’re My Big Affair” to her as Lilianne sang some of the song with her.
In my opinion, the star of the night was Sidney Myer known as “the most beloved man in cabaret.” Sidney has been booking Don’t Tell Mama for many years and performing occasionally. However, for the first time in nearly three decades he performed his solo act at the Beechman to great acclaim. He opened with Murray Grand’s hysterical “I’d Rather Cha Cha Than Eat” and sang it to perfection, continually moving to the Latin Beat as Tracy Stark accompanied him at the piano. Then as a tribute to Blossom Dearie, he ordered us, in the nicest possible way, to “Peel Me a Grape.” No other singer but Sidney gets all the brilliant rhymes and meanings out of that song. As all the performers sat on the stage, each one got up to sing a shortened version of a song from the past. Jame’s final thoughts was that cabaret will continue to thrive as people will always have the need to express their individuality and perform live. One of the icons of cabaret was the late John Wallowitch and I was privileged to call him my friend, even spoke at his funeral. One of his most enduring and heartfelt songs was “This Moment” and to close the evening, Sidney Myer quietly sang this powerful song without any adornments. He simply stood center stage, and let the song do its job expressing what life is all about, about time passing and appreciating what we have. The last line is “I can only guarantee this moment” and as Sidney finished the song, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place!
The history of NY cabaret is long and varied, but the evening provided us with memories of the past, a history that helps us understand and embrace the future of live entertainment.
Photography: MaryAnn Lopinto