At the close of her show, the late Nancy LaMott always said, It's cabaret - there's always an encore!

Nancy LaMott



     A few centuries earlier, in his evergreen work, "Ode to Intimations On Immortality," the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth said, " ... Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; we will grieve not, rather find strength in what lies behind."

 Some might remember those musings from "Splendor In the Grass," the 1961 coming of age movie with a beauteous Natalie Wood and a hunky Warren Beatty, from which the title is borrowed. But centuries later, those words ring true. What can we do when something is lost? We move forward - and, with luck, learn a little from the past.

With the announced closing of The Actor's Playhouse on Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village as Manhattan rapidly turns into a maze of high-priced boutiques and over priced gin mills, one has to wonder what's next as the downtown wrecking ball seems to run rampant on a weekly basis. This 62-year old Off-Broadway staple has been home to the likes of productions as diverse as "Gutenberg! The Musical," "Howard Crabtree's Whoop-Dee-Doo!," "Torch Song Trilogy," "An Evening With Quentin Crisp," "Naked Boys Singing" and "Marry Me A Little" as well as a plethora of others. It has also presented the likes of Robert Di Niro and Lily Tomlin who played there along with so many others over the years. Theater operator Peter Breger said, "The rent is too high ... basically, we just couldn't make it." News.

On that same day, writer Philip Boroff noted in Bloomberg News that "Grey Gardens" was a $5 million flop. The hit show closed on Sunday, July 27, after a run of 33 previews and 307 performances on Broadway. He quoted money manager Edwin Schloss as saying, "If a serious musical like 'Grey Gardens' can't make it, I feel producing quality is an exercise in masochism." Not exactly profound - but there is truth in them there words. The show, based on a 1976 documentary ("The Beale's of Grey Gardens,") about two eccentric cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy living in a rancid mansion with 57 cats, received an extraordinary amount of publicity, excellent reviews and won Tony awards for the two stars: Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson for their tour de force performances. Soon it will be made into a movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

Question: If a multi-million dollar production that receives enormous publicity, plays to sell-out audiences after receiving almost every accolade in the theater world can suffer such a financial loss, how can little old cabaret, which is literally invisible to the mainstream press, be expected to survive in these schizo times?

And: Does Cabaret have a fighting chance? Well, there is consolation that the cost of your average cabaret act is less than that of a titanic Broadway bound vehicle. Duh! Everyone has an opinion or a complaint and most are valid if not on target. For instance, cabaret performers, if they want to survive, are going to have to work harder for recognition and to top themselves. Most need to think out of the box. Some say bookers also need to do a better job in presenting higher level acts that will raise the profile of their respective rooms with the press. Seemingly, cabaret, along with the recording industry, is a victim of the times. In my opinion, it's time for the clubs to go back to the future when cabaret was at its zenith and take more responsibility if this delicate art form known as cabaret is to have a future.

FriedmanLewis07The legendary club opened in 1972 with Melissa Manchester - a former Harlette (booked once they couldn't get Bette Midler back, as her star took off) that spawned everyone from the aforementioned Allen to an illustrious laundry list of familiar and near-familiar names covering that decade's social evolution including: Diane Keaton, The Manhattan Transfer, Anita Gillette, Andrea Marcovicci, Luther Vandross, Tom Waits, Cab Calloway, Nell Carter, Anita O'Day, Andre De Shields, Alaina Reed, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Stephane Grappelli Janis Ian, Paul Jabara, Karen Akers, Marc Shaiman, Marilyn Sokol, Captain and Tenille, Phoebe Snow, Bruce Vilanch, Odetta, Jane Olivor, Patti Smith, Meatloaf, Butterfly McQueen and even (forgive this) ... Edith Beale of "Grey Gardens" fame, who did a forgettable one-niter! And that's only tipping this hot iceberg that was a melting pot of future stars. Hoards of celebrities like Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy and Liza Minnelli mixed with gays and straights effortlessly as well as just plain folks who thought they were famous. It was a dream factory.

In his well researched book "Intimate Nights," author James Gavin quotes Greg Dawson, another night club impresario from that era, as saying, "Lewis was quite simply the man that caused cabaret in New York City to return." Vogue Magazine touted Reno's as " ... the hub of intimate night-town entertainment ... the kind of spot [Manhattan] hasn't had in years." Maybe Peter Allen put it best, " ... it was that uptown kinda met downtown." Was there a secret formula? What was the allure?

StreisandBarbra07Clubs like Reno Sweeney allowed patrons to live their fantasy of the day. It was a time when many heretofore social taboos were lifted and the bourgeoisie mingled with the upper classes and left over bohemians from the sixties. Interestingly, perhaps Gavin said it best when he noted, "Reno's sent out the alluring message that almost anyone could be a star, and the more outrageous you were, the better your chances."

The same misguided, yet true, philosophy still exists today. To stand out from the crowd, you have to create something different - something an audience hasn't seen before. Something to bring them back. Something to talk about when they leave. But where is that today? Can posters save cabaret from extinction in 2007? Where is the wonder that was once Reno Sweeney? Well, here's a hint: it started with a dream by this perky five foot two inch Munchkin from Dayton, Ohio who came to New York to become a rabbi - until he saw Barbra Streisand at another legendary club called Bon Soir in the early sixties. He started his own club and a lot of dreams came true. That was then.

Today, in 2007, cabaret has suffered some losses and made a few mistakes. It isn't the first time. And, most of all, there are some great clubs out there for neophytes and veterans. It will pick itself up and dust itself off - as it has in the past. Reno Sweeney ended its run in 1977. There are no Lewis Friedman's on the horizon right now. The world is a lot different now than it was in the days of those hideous floral prints and clumsy shoes. Nightlife as a generation once knew it is but a distant memory. Mistakes were made - and so was magic. But ... the fat lady hasn't sung yet.

As Barbra Streisand has said, "There are no mistakes, just lessons to be learned."

Rita Mae's Opening Night

In the last After Dark column I wrote about a lot of gloomy news around town with the recent closing of Rose's Turn at that historic address: 55 Grove Street. I also noted the closings of Danny's and Helen's piano bars/cabarets - all within 6 months of one another. Well, one door closes - and another one opens.

Turns out there's some big plans in the works for the Reprise Room at Dillon's (see After dark Around Town) and Rita Mae's Piano Bar & Restaurant was launched last Friday with most of the staff from Rose's Turn in residence all within the same 2-week period. It's a start. Turns out Rita Mae's is a cozier version of Rose's Turn in appearance and flavor. But the whole "village thing" is there complete with brick walls, a simple, tasty menu, a piano player, an open-mike and one of the friendliest, most talented wait staff's in town. You'll feel totally welcome here and judging by the crowds and sense of camaraderie in the air on opening night, Rita Mae's is on its way to becoming the hottest new piano bar in the village with a million dollars worth of free entertainment.

Opening night was an ongoing fun fest with the terrific staff led by uber-popular bartender Joe Ardizzone. There was Ricky Ritzel tearing up the new piano playing a lot of hot jazz ("You're the Top" (Porter) replete with his own risque lyrics (" ... you're King Kong's penis ...") and sassy show tunes. Bubbly Kimlee Hicks was working the floor. Hicks brought the house down with several show stoppers including a rafter-raising "Song For You" by Leon Russell. She also brought the place to a hush with a heartfelt "More Than You Know" (Berlin.)

Referring to his legions of female fans, larger than life and openly gay Joe Ardizzone said, "How am I ever gonna meet a guy with all you females all over me?" He also said it was the start of something big at Rita Mae's, "Isn't this great? We're all here in this great new piano bar in Greenwich Village!" The crowd cheered. Then, he showed off his colorful full-voiced tenor on a campy "Frank Mills" from "Hair" ("... he has gold chains and crosses and on his back, a tattoo of "Mom" - and the Hell's Angel's too!") This was followed by a strong, well phrased "I Concentrate On You" (Porter.) Here, he showed excellent vocal control and clearly promises to be a serious triple threat once he makes his long awaited cabaret debut (hint - hint.) Ritzel hit the keys with some Dixie style musings and everyone was happy. Later, he offered a classic rarity that was a crowd pleaser, "It's Like Reaching For the Moon" once recorded by Tony Bennett.

Happy Hour piano bar favorite Rainie Cole got up and made everyone happy belting out a wonderful "Always" (Berlin.) She paused and the words hit home as she summed up a lot of people's inner thoughts on the phrase, " ... days may not be fair - but that's when I'll be there - always."

A lot of former customers and employees popped in and out throughout the rainy night. Even former Rose's Turn boss, Henry Pham popped in and got a huge round of applause as did former Helen's manager Gaylin English (who can now be found up at The Coliseum near the Time-Warner complex on Columbus Circle.) Don't Tell Mama's favorite handsome waiter Mark Bailey was also on hand as was village favorite Michael Dionne who will also be working here. The atmosphere is welcoming and fun. The perfect village bistro to forget your troubles and get happy. Owner Debbie Fierro gushed, "It's better than we ever expected!" She also hinted that, if things continue this way, they just might expand and utilize the entire facility which includes a much larger upstairs space with a long bar and a lot more floor space. For now, Rita Mae's is off and running with a bullet. And, it's just what the West Village needs right now.


This article was originally published in Stu Hamstra's Cabaret Hotline Online on August 6, 2007  (