There’s a lot to celebrate during the Manhattan Association of Clubs and Cabarets’ (MAC) Annual Cabaret Month. The past year has seen unprecedented progress for clubs large and small, and cabaret as an art form is in better shape than at any time since the mid-1960s.
Many factors have contributed to the continuing boom in the field, and the boom itself has produced some interesting side results. After long years of drought and neglect, the genre has finally reached the flash point where success in and of itself breeds more success. It’s still not an easy business, but it’s no longer like pulling teeth to get attention from the press and public.
Despite the high rents in Manhattan and all the other negative economic factors involved in starting any new, small business, it’s been a banner year for new cabarets and established enterprises opening or re-opening cabaret rooms as an expansion of their regular business. The growth curve, once led by the explosive expansion of comedy clubs, now seems to be steady and right across the board.
There have been losses, most notably Nikell’s and Panache Encore. But both those spots closed for reasons having nothing to do with their own business. Panache closed because the restaurant which housed it went under, and Nikell’s because of a whopping rent increase at the end of a long lease.
Indeed, the drain of closings has slowed almost to a halt, particularly in the badly hit jazz field. Jazz clubs continued to suffer even as cabaret began to thrive, but the worst seems to be over. The situation has stabilized, and more new clubs opened in the jazz field in 1988 than closed in the preceding few years for a net gain.
Brand new clubs have cropped up all over town. Eighty Eight’s opened in April and became an immediate success. Rainbow & Stars Cabaret, the new flagship in the industry, received incredible publicity when it opened in early 1989, and has also been a smash hit. Rags To Riches joined Caroline’s at the Seaport as a venue for major names in comedy. Though comedy club openings have slowed a bit, Club 1407, Wonderland, the Village Gate and other spots have provided new performance space for aspiring and established comics.
The increase in performance space has been most notable in already established businesses. Maxim’s, Regine’s, Nell’s and the Doral Hotel have all started entertainment policies featuring cabaret performers. After a false start last year, the Slate came fully on line as the Chez Beauvais this year. Dannys’ Skylight Room in the Grand Sea Palace and Leslie’s Cabaret at the Ristorante Eleonora continue to do well. Cafe Gian Luca and the Zanzibar & Grill have given over space for jazz performers.
It’s hard to determine if there’s any direct connection between the boom and the improved legal climate in New York, but recent court decisions favoring unlicensed cabarets certainly made it easier for club owners to operate. Removing restrictions on the number and kind of instruments allowed on stage has permitted a qualitative improvement of the shows themselves, making cabaret even more appealing to the public. Owners no longer fear precipitious action by the Consumer Affairs Department, and are getting freer about publicizing their performers.
Signs Of Confidence
If there’s a trend developing, it would certainly seem to be in favor of flashier, more sophisticated clubs. All of the newer rooms are posh in comparison to the cabarets which sparked the boom, and the fact that entrepreneurs are spending money in such a fashion indicates that business people are confident in the future of cabaret.
That confidence also expressed itself in 1988 in a round of renovations and upgrades in well established clubs. The Oak Room at the Algonquin, Mostly Magic and the Ballroom had major face lifts–including vastly improved sound and light systems, Palsson’s is getting ready to reopen a totally refurbished room, the Plaza plans to reopen the Persian Room as the Rose Room and the St. Regis is also renovating. Serious money is being spent on cabaret.
That money manifests itself in other ways which help performers and also create an atmosphere which encourages customers to keep on coming. The technical capabilities of the rooms have improved radically, and while there’s still room for improvement (particularly in some of the supposedly better clubs), the sound and light systems in the main line cabarets are superb.
Money is also being directed into advertising and public relations. You see far more club ads in every paper today than you did even two years ago. Even some of the smaller clubs (or, more frequently the performers in the smaller clubs rather than the clubs themselves) advertise in the major papers, and almost every club advertises somewhere. There’s also a whole fleet of cabaret press agents and promoters these days. Ad money encourages the papers to maintain coverage, and press agents help oil the gears.
Good Press Coverage
Certainly the most significant contributing factor to the upsurge in public interest in cabaret has been the tremendous increase in press coverage. In 1983, when MAC was founded to promote cabaret, there were only five critics of import reporting on cabaret (excluding solely jazz critics). In 1989, there are (again excluding solely jazz) two critics at the New York Times (Stephen Holden and John Wilson), three at the New York Post (myself, Bill Ervolino and Pamela Bloom), three at the Daily News (Hank Gallo, Don Nelsen and Pat O’Haire), two at Variety (Joe Cohen and Martin Schaeffer), one at Newsday (Stuart Troupe), one at the Observer (Rex Reed), two at Back Stage (Bill Ervolino and myself) and a host of critics for smaller publications who will cover cabaret acts.
Though many of the critics named above cover a wide variety of events, some are exclusively cabaret or comedy critics (a completely new development–covering cabaret as a career is a recent specialty made possible by the boom itself). In addition to these direct reporters, there are scores of other writers and editors at every publication named above feeding into the system with feature stories, interviews, photos in columns, etc.
Television continues to lag behind, and local news coverage of cabaret is a city-wide disgrace. Being in New York is an advantage in every way except if you’re trying to publicize local events. Still, Joe Franklin has been a loyal friend and “Live At Five” and “People Are Talking” have been supportive. On cable, “Tomorrow’s Television Tonight” continues to feature cabaret, and “Cabaret Beat,” devoted entirely to the club scene, has become a popular show. Radio pays a great deal of attention to cabaret, and local DJ’s have begun to plug shows by playing records when performers are in town.
But the real surprise in 1988 was the amount of publicity garnered by the Manhattan cabaret boom in national magazines. Time, Newsweek, People, Omni and Elle have all taken notice of cabaret for the first time. And, while these features tended to concentrate largely on the high visibility clubs, smaller clubs like Jan Wallman’s, the Duplex and Don’t Tell Mama were all mentioned.
Record Industry Interest
The record industry has also rediscovered the club scene. Atlantic Records has released an incredible array of albums devoted to new and old cabaret stars. CBS, Elektra and Columbia have also had major releases in the field. Audiophile and DRG continuously release albums by cabaret performers. And, led by big sellers like Michael Feinstein and Cleo Laine, these records are doing well.
Of course, the bottom line is the audience increase. I would conservatively estimate that the solid core audience (those who see acts on a frequent basis) for cabaret has quadrupled over the past three years, the regular audience has tripled and the occasional audience has doubled. Walk-in business is becoming a dependable quantity in cabaret, and so is business brought in by feature stories and reviews.
The new audience seems split between older patrons returning to cabaret after years of feeling that there was nothing going on, and younger, new patrons who are discovering cabaret for the first time. It’s becoming an “in” thing to do, and being the “in” thing never hurts. Restaurants, once described as the “theatre of the 80s,” are losing ground as an entire entertainment package as the public begins seeking more complete evenings out. Entertainment seekers disillusioned with theatre and tired of discos are also turning to cabaret as an alternative form.
There’s also a direct correlation between the growth in the audience and the improvement in the quality of the performers appearing in town. The fact that there is an audience today has encouraged major stars to return to cabaret in New York. Patti Page (after a 30-year absence), Joan Rivers, the McGuire Sisters, Tony Bennett, Barbara Cook, Yma Sumac, Peggy Lee and a host of others have either reappeared or returned to regular performing in New York because 1) there are now rooms for them to play, and 2) there’s a potential audience.
By the same token, the drawing power of those names has unquestionably pulled people into the clubs either for the first time or for the first time in years. It may only be a small percentage of them who return to see other acts, but that represents growth nonetheless. They’ve also helped draw press and public attention to cabaret through the publicity power of their names.
Another new, significant trend can be seen in the length of runs being offered to known and even relatively unknown performers. Five years ago, there was rarely a thought of giving a performer an open-ended run in the hope that an audience would develop for them. Today, it’s becoming a prevalent situation in some of the leading small clubs.
It’s a mixed blessing. Top acts are tying up the key nights in what used to be easy access clubs, and getting a booking is getting harder for untried newcomers. The number of purely showcase rooms has declined simply because most of them have developed a strong stable of superb performers who can draw on a regular basis. But the quality of the performances has increased tremendously. Vanity act bookings (once a major economic necessity for any club trying to stay in business) have been banished to the off nights, and in some cases, banished outright.
Though that’s clearly an improvement for the field itself (and a further inducement to repeat customers who used to worry about wandering in on the wrong night), it has made it harder for talent to develop naturally in the city. Even comedy club open mike situations are tightening up because of the surplus of experienced, trained comics in the city.
The counterbalancing advantages to the experienced performers, however, are enormous. Such cabaret stars as Nancy Timpanaro, Lois Sage, Judy Kreston and Barbara Lea, who have virtually unlimited weekend runs at Eighty Eight’s and Jan Wallman’s respectively, have benefited both in terms of honing their performances and in increasing their audiences.
It also used to be that a new act that did well petered out because of audience exhaustion and the inability to get regular bookings. Club owners–having been burned frequently by great acts that, through no fault of their own, simply ran out of audience–were reluctant to approve extended engagements. Now owners are taking that chance and it’s paying off for them and for the acts.
Still, the incredible diversity of performance styles continues to be cabaret’s most marked characteristic and, I suspect, its major appeal to the public. Computerization has taken place for a lot of the music, but it is not without its pitfalls. There are, of course, always going to be hard drive failures and room for data recovery companies like this one. But as performers use backup hard drives and other key protections against hard drive crashes, the need for such services is lessened greatly. Indeed, there’s room for everything in cabaret, including the development of new styles. The synthesis of jazz and cabaret-style singing, for instance, has created a whole new type of jazz performance that’s far more accessible to the general public than mainstream jazz.
Charting MACNYC’s Accomplishments
At least part of the credit must go to the Manhattan Association of clubs and Cabarets, which has with great difficulty begun uniting the field. Though it was organized around a mere handful of clubs when it started, it now represents a healthy cross-section of the field and member clubs include almost all the major venues in town outside the jazz arena. The comedy clubs have come on board in force, as have ritzy rooms such as Maxim’s and the Oak Room.
MAC has also provided a greater sense of identity for and communication between the various components of the business. MAC-run seminars create an opportunity for valuable networking in addition to their inherent educational purpose. MAC provides recognition and validation for cabaret performers, and has done much to eradicate the notion that cabaret is a hobby instead of a career.
A key function of the organization is the MAC Awards, the only awards recognizing cabaret, comedy and jazz performers in New York based on both peer and critical evaluation. The system isn’t perfect–no system of awards is–but it’s a major improvement over no recognition at all. And it’s also garnered valuable publicity for cabaret and for the winners.
Using It As A Springboard To Fame
Some nore must also be taken of the increased mobility of cabaret performers to other venues. Kathy & Mo, Wallem & Tolan, Michael Feinstein and other cabaret acts have moved almost intact on and Off Broadway. Such upward mobility attests to the fact that casting directors, producers and talent agents are once again finding out that cabaret offers them a fertile field of discovery.
More and more producers, in the face of high rents and decreased inexpensive rehearsal space, are using cabaret to showcase and try out theatrically-oriented ventures. Nunsense and Forbidden Broadway have been huge successes, and neither would have been possible had they had to go the usual route. That kind of success doesn’t go unnoticed.
The things can only get better from here. As the size of the audience continues to increase, so does the effect of word of mouth and press coverage. Eventually, the cycle may go bust again. But we haven’t even begun to approach the crest of the wave and the end is nowhere in sight.