Creation & Evolution: A Brief History of Cabaret, Part I

by Hilary Feldman

Some years ago, when I began researching the history of cabaret, I was extremely taken by its evolution. Initially created by artists for artists, but ever-influenced by the outside world (the audiences, geo-political events, and changes in technology), cabaret has transformed itself over and over again. What is most striking, however, is how so many elements incorporated over time remain part of the cabaret we know today.

In the late 1800’s, a town outside of Paris called Montmartre was home to a bohemian mixture of poets, compos- ers, writers, painters, and musicians (think Greenwich Village 140 years ago). When Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) opened its doors in 1881, artists would gather there to chat, read, and perform their works. The proprieter started serving drinks to the artists who ‘earned’ them and to local oustiders who wanted to be part of the audience. Pro- grams were unstructured, functioning on surprise and spontaneity. Le Chat Noir artists lived as the people lived and depicted the lives of the people in their art, using their speech rhythms and forms. This raised popular culture into an art which, in turn, influence the literary mainstream. Le Chat Noir became the artistic center of Paris. The early emcee? The greeter at the door.

Other literary and artistic cabarets soon sprang up in and around Paris as well as in Barcelona, Berlin, and Munich. Germany provided a much less free-spirited atmosphere, as censorship was strict there, especially over the dramatic arts. This led to a generally more satirical environment.

A German by the name of Julius Bierbaum, impressed by the mode of French-sung lyric and seeing its potential for ‘bringing art to the people’, published a collection of singable poems entitled “Deutches Chansons,” stating that ‘applied lyric’ was his mission. It sold 200,000 copies in its first year. Many editions followed.

Munich was Germany’s artistic center at the time and had a bustling avant-garde that rebelled agains old forms. Partly in reaction to strict censorship laws, these artists created their own Secessionist movement. Cabarets grew out of this movement, calling themselves private clubs so they would not be harassed… but it was easy to get an invitation.

A Munich cabaret called Simplicissimus Kunstlerkneipe (The Simple) was the first to offer rules of behavior in the spirit of self-send-up. Performances were presented with a pointed desire to shock the establishment out of its convention and conformity. The Simple’s fame spread throughout Germany.

Cabaret and cabaret cafes continued to establish themselves as meeting places for artists, bohemians, and night-life loving bourgeoisie throughout the 1900’s and 1910’s. Small, intimate rooms with small stages were the norm. As WWI loomed, however, many European artists fled to America… and they brought their cabaret with them.

In NYC, several large cafes were already presenting singers, and they had become known as ‘cabarets’. The first European-style cabarets came into being around 1915, with the influx of immigrants fleeing WWI, but political and social satire were not part of their make-up, as there were no strict censorship laws in the U.S. to circumvent.

From 1920-1923, Prohibition effectively forced cabarets out of business, but Americans’ thirst for alcohol remained, and there was an immediate need for secretive, intimate places where people could consume booze. This kind of ambiance fairly demanded music, both for entertainment and to make the establishments look more legitimate. Like the cabarets in Germany, these Speakeasies called themselves private clubs and claimed they only served drinks to members but, as was the case in Germany, anyone could become a ‘member’ with a simple password.

After WWI, Berlin emerged as Germany’s first truly cosmopolitan center. With the relaxation of censorship, both moral and political, a new permissive air pervaded the city. For this brief time in history, Berlin embraced all comers
— expressionist artists, nudist dancers, transvestites, homosexuals, etc. The entertainment industry flourished in this environment, and cabarets had little in common with their literary/artistic predecessors. This “entertainment cabaret” gave rise to a group of serious left-wingers — intellectuals and artists — who chose to use small cabaret stages as the medium for exposing, satirizing, and evaluating the condition of German society. These artists transformed cabaret into an out-post of radical dissent. They also succeeded in bridging the ever-widening gap between elitist art and consumer entertainment.

When the 1930’s hit, artists again fled many European countries for London, Zurich and NYC. In pre-war years, Gershwin, Porter, and other world-travelling American musicians had been encouraging a few of Europe’s impresa- rios to open clubs in NYC. Now, some of those impresarios called NYC home.

Greenwich Village (like Montmartre, France), was home to a community of poets, writers, painters, and musicians who were broke but could flourish artistically among their peers. Clubs sprang up, usually tiny dives, but also some important larger clubs. These were mostly owned and operated by transplanted Europeans, who scouted for talent and catered to the bourgeoisie. As WWII became reality, more Europeans sought refuge in the U.S. Quite a few of them flocked to these clubs, happy to find a taste of home in their new land. In the years before America entered the war, cabaret rooms became fashionable in most large American cities.

The war also brought international flavors to many large clubs of the time, especially Latin American flavors. They were lavishly decorated in bright colors and lights, so much so that the clubs became an attraction unto themselves, no matter what the entertainment offerings. These spectacular clubs were places to eat, drink, dance, take in elaborate floor shows, and forget your wartime troubles.

Yet another type of room also opened during the 1940’s, the beginning of Broadway’s golden era. Piano clubs and lounges catered to the theatre folk who needed some secluded places to mingle with their own kind. These were dimly-lit, elegant lounges, where pianists could tickle the ivories for Manhattan’s poshest showbiz crowds. Cocktail piano — the art of playing that incorporated jazz elements but was still melodically driven — came into its own. Players used all their technical resources to underscore the tune and bring it to life, much like popular singers of the day did.

During the war, fewer people looked for escape in the small, quiet rooms. Drink and wistful music in the wee hours could only multiply wartime worries and sorrows. Intimate rooms remained, however, partly in reaction to the excess around them. They were simply decorated in dark blue, black, or grey to avoid detracting attention from the performers, and they attracted more and more intelligent customers. It was in these clubs singers found the perfect setting for exacting all the subtlety of a fine lyric. These rooms were small enough that even the subtlest gestures or facial expressions were noticed.

The golden era of the female singer had begun. The men were away, and a woman’s voice became the sound of loneliness and yearning. The image of a pretty girl in a nightclub, singing the innermost feelings of her audience, was a trademark of cabarets and movies. Male singers of the day, like Frank Sinatra, could not allow themselves to become as vulnerable on stage without looking like sissies. Even in an art form as liberal as cabaret, it was the songstress alone that had permission to break your heart.

−Hilary Ann Feldman

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