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

by Hilary Feldman

The intimate night club truly took off at the end of WWII when thousands of men returned home to build new lives. After the initial celebration, a calm fell over the country. People wanted small and simple. They wanted to plant roots, get jobs, raise families. Audiences longed for cozier experiences, where it felt as though singers were singing directly to them. Grand supper clubs would survive for a few years yet, but solo acts soon outnumbered big floor- show extravaganzas.

By the 1950’s, initimate night clubs had come fully into their own. Ironically, one of the key factors in their ascent — television — was the very same medium that would bring them down a decade later.

In 1946, there were 7,000 television sets in the United States. By 1950, that number jumped to 4 million. By 1960, there were over 60 million. As TV exploded, so did the need for performers and writers, especially for the evening variety show. Programs like The Ed Sullivan Show showcased 8 – 10 guests each episode, and they plucked many of the newcomers from small cabaret club obscurity and placed them in front of a huge national audience. Thousands of young hopefuls packed their bags and headed for Manhattan, where cabaret and Broadway were at their pique.

This was a storybook time for the cabaret singer. Broadway gave them a wealth of material, as did a number of young composers who wanted their material performed. Many club owners were producing cabaret reviews, employing several singers at once.

Cabaret’s allure at that time was undeniable, especially for the gay community. People were telling them they were inferior, and they wanted to feel equal, or even superior. True to its traditional embrace of the unconventional, cabaret welcomed the gay community with open arms.

Larger clubs did enjoy some renewed success in the early 1950’s as venues for established stars who had outgrown the smaller clubs. As the 50’s wound down, however, more and more American families were choosing television.

Songwriting was changing, too. On Broadway, the book musical was here to stay. Shows were not being written merely to showcase songs anymore. Rather, songs were being written to serve storylines. Teenagers propelled rock and roll into a multimillion dollar industry. It was their music, and they began to create their own night spots. Record sales now outpaced the sale of sheet music. America was transforming from a society actively involved in its own entertainment to a society of passive listeners.

By the 1960’s young performers didn’t need cabaret rooms anymore. They’d play at the larger clubs once and then go on to TV. When those clubs wanted them back, they couldn’t afford the price. Artists were performing on mil- lions of TV screens for no cover and no minimum. Thus, only second or third rate acts ended up in the clubs. This made it increasingly difficult for clubs to attract younger audiences, and they were losing older audiences to the suburbs and the television.

Songwriters, too, were learning that they no longer had to plug away at the club circuit or work as nighclub emcees for nominal returns. Singers who once had been showcasing their material in clubs now started to make it as recording artists and TV stars, and the composers began reaping huge rewards.

In their last-ditch effort to survive, clubs started booking stand-up comics. Unlike their predecessors, comics of the 1960’s were college-educated and not content to limit their observations to idyllic family life. Like satirical cabaret in 1930’s Germany, they were out to nail hypocrisy. Satire had returned to cabaret, both in the form of the stand-up comic and in sketch comedy. By the end of the 1960’s, with noted rare excpetions (Barbra Streisand got her start in the cabarets in the 60’s), traditional American cabaret had all but disappeared.

The Stonewall riots of 1969 launched the gay liberation movement. Old barriers burst, and NYC became free, loose, and trashy. Black was now beautiful, and the sexual revolution was in full swing. In major cities, it was now almost hip to be gay, and this crowd, by necessity, create new places to go.

The Continental Baths opened in 1969. It was a nightclub, of sorts, with a large pool, hanging plants, pillars, towel-clad patrons, and a sizeable stage. In 1971, the owner hired Bette Midler to perform on weekends. Within 18 months, she and The Baths became nationally famous. Midler’s outrageousness was a perfect marriage for the decadence of the Baths. She embodied NYC in the 70’s with her outspokenness and nerve. No female performer in history could match her rapport with the gay community. Unlike Garland and Streisand, Midler was in their faces, making them feel she was every bit the underdog as they were. She created the character The Divine Miss M and used her to show others what it was like to be on the outside looking in. Bette Midler became a star.

Cabarets sprang up everywhere. They key to popularity in the ‘me generation’ of the 1970’s was reaching audiences at their own level, giving them something they could do themselves if they had the chance. Singing in an untrained ‘natural’ sound pleased listeners who didn’t want to be out-shown. The rock and roll world was teaching us that songwriters did better if they wrote the way people spoke.

More conservative audiences got to have their fun, too, in the early 70’s. Many stars of the 40’s and 50’s were making a comeback — Julie Wilson, Barbara Cook, Bobby Short, Mabel Mercer. Audiences who had lived in NYC during cabaret’s heyday could once again enjoy their elegant music. TV and Radio got into the nostalgia act as well by producing programming like “An Evening with Mabel Mercer”, “Bobby Short and Friends”, and “American Popular Song.”

With disco taking over by the mid-1970’s, the nostalgia party wound down and the cabaret craze began to wear thin. Disco clubs took over the city’s night life, along with much of its gay population. People wanted to go out, dance and exhibit themselves. They didn’t want to watch anyone else doing anything. They wanted to get up and do it.

As cabarets shrank, a trend emerged that remains today, that of the ‘vanity cabaret’… unknowns booking a night or two at a club in hopes that they could fill a room with family and friends. For all the individuality it fostered, the ‘me generation’ also lured a tremendous number of amateurs to cabaret. Many won praise for their honesty, even if they had no talent. More than ever, NYC was crawling with youngsters hungry for exposure and seeking to be discovered for TV, movies, and Broadway.

By the 1980’s, cabaret was in ashes. The AIDS epidemic hit and, from that time onward, a combination of rising costs, diminishing interest, and sinking performance standards made the future of cabaret shaky at best. Its core audience, never large in the first place, was vanishing either due to illness or loss of interest. Then a remarkable thing happened.

Two pop recording artists, completely independent of one another, decided to record music so nostalgic that reviv- ing it seemed edgy. Willie Nelson and Linda Rondstadt both released multiple albums of Great American Songbook standards, and they were enormously successful. Other pop stars followed suit.

These recordings, done with the utmost respect, made the old seem relevant again and showed that cabaret, the home for this music, might still be worth saving. Many former cabaret stars again found their way back to into the spotlight. As they did, vanity cabaret singers were pretty much forced to pay in order to perform. Guaranteed salary was a thing of the past. Singers had to pay for all production costs themselves and then work for just a portion of the door. Breaking even was the hope. Discovery was the fantasy.

A few ambitious artists — Ann Hampton Callaway, Michael Feinstein, Harry Connick Jr., Nancy LaMott — got started at this time and made it far. A mini-movement emerged, as these colleagues championed the kind of music that few people in their age bracket cared about.

However, the vanity booking policy that kept many cabarets open, along with the ongoing disconnect between much of cabaret and popular taste had, by the 1990’s destroyed most of cabaret’s credibility. Cover charges were rising, and many people were not willing to risk going to see a performer they didn’t already know. Larger rooms were hosting big stars but charging outrageous covers and minimums, putting cabaret out of reach to all but the wealthier clientele.

Today, cabaret enjoys a precarious survival. Some smaller clubs now highlight an array of theatre and cabaret com- posers like Stephen Schwartz, Jason Robert Brown, and Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich to introduce their work. Other clubs have adopted a combination format, with piano bar in the front room and a cabaret room in the back, to help keep business up. Efforts at educating the public about this art form, and increasing the audience for it, are ongoing, mostly through professional organizations like MAC and CCP.

−Hilary Ann Feldman

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