Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Come to the cabaret

KT Sullivan is a wonder.

But first a bit of background:

In my high school days back in the late 1950s, I was out to anyone who actually knew me. I grew up in a wheat ranch town in south-eastern Washington State. Think Brokeback Mountain. And, yes, I "made it" with actual cowboys and sheep herders, but trust me, in no way were they Jake Gyllenhaal or Heath Ledger (I didn’t run into cowboys who looked like them till many years later at The Mineshaft). Not that the rustic life appealed to me all that much. I was more a Noel Coward wannabe. Keep your roaming buffalo, give me Manhattan straight up with a cherry.

Since I disdained the safety of the closet, for self-preservation I tended to avoid the kids I went to school with. Instead I socialized with adults from our local amateur theater, the Richland Players. If I wore a suit and tie I could easily pass for legal age even in a state with determined restrictions against underage drinking. So after a show with the Players, off we would go across river to the Top Hat Café, the only "night club" for miles. While my school fellows were up in the Horse Heaven Hills with a six-pack of beer, I would sit at a table sipping a bourbon and 7-Up (yes, I know), the very epitome of sagebrush and cactus sophistication. Or so I thought at the time. (accordion ensembles, an occasional female impersonator, and as I recall, a trained dog act.)

On a trip to NYC in 1958 I finally encountered the real thing when a cabbie dropped me off at the Living Room and I heard Kaye Ballard (later she and I had a running gag about Coos Bay, Oregon). Her accompanist took me down to the Village for my first encounter with a big city gay bar. (Mary’s on West 8th Street–Seattle at the time had a much better bar scene.) He also took me to hear Mabel Mercer sing the "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," a homosexual rite of passage back in the day. When I arrived for good in 1959 I was eager and ready for New York City night life. (And more than a trifle "piss-elegant") I had been here less a year when some actor types took me to an Irish Bar on Sixth Avenue (now the site of CBS) where we pushed past construction workers sloshing beer and munching corn beef (always rotating on a spit in the window) and stopped in front of what looked to be a blank wall.

They pushed, and part of the blank wall became a door into a back room appropriately called the BAQ Room. It was all Chinese red and bamboo framing wall to wall amber mirrors (rumor had it that Cecil Beaton had personally decorated the room). And in a corner, singing without amplification was Janice Mars, considered by many (myself included) to be "America's answer to Edith Piaf. " Rex Reed wrote of her, "If Sarah Bernhardt could sing, she would have been Janice Mars." A few of her pals (Marlon Brando, Judy Holiday, Tennessee Williams, etc.), had put up the money to open what was a de facto private club. I don't recall there was ever a sign. You had to know just where to push on the wall to get into the room.

The clientele was either rich and celebrated or young, unknown, and very poor. There were no B&T. Us "babes in the woods" drank for free thanks to the waiter, who would pad the bills of the unsuspecting VIPs with the cost of our drinks. We would get there early and take over the best tables and the celebs would have to sit with us. It was a popular hideaway for star couples coupling with the wrong person. The still married Rex Harrison perused Kay Kendall here, Bacall dated Robards, Richard Burton (pre-Taylor) snuck around with just about everyone else. Tennessee Williams was usually the only innocent person in the place.

The BAQ Room quickly became my home away from home. It was Janice who introduced me to brandy stingers (an addiction I had for many years). I even bunked for a year with Don Evans, her accompanist . Suddenly the room closed, I never quite knew why. A recording of Janice (with arrangements by Don) had been made but it remained an urban myth until just a few years ago when the master tapes were discovered in Marlon Brando's study. Her nephews (true heroes) released the session as a CD. (
http://cdbaby.com/cd/janicemars ) A trifle overarranged by my old roommate, it still gives you the chance to hear the first of my three all time favorite ladies of cabaret. The disc ends with Janice singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which she always did at last call. I was in the BAQ Room the night it closed forever. As Janice began the song for the final time, the air conditioner caught fire and filled the room with smoke. A fitting end. Janice ultimately disappeared to the seclusion of a trailer deep in the desert of New Mexico.

I spent the 1960s frequenting the almost endless list of NY cabaret clubs. Upstairs at the Downstairs (for quick, clever revues), The Blue Angel (to hear Bobby Short at the piano singing "The Motion Picture Ball"), The Bon Soir (for Jorie "I can’t cook" Remus–and to cruise the bar), The Showplace (to watch Ruth Buzzi invent the little old lady with a purse) and to the many clubs on Grove Street where Marie Blake reigned as the empress of the piano bar. My first night in the village I wandered in to Arthur’s and heard her; twenty years later when I briefly left NYC for family reasons, Lady Jane Lowry and I went to hear her my last night in the city.

It was at The Showplace, in 1961, where I met my next favorite lady of cabaret, Joanne Beretta, and one of my all time closest friends, her accompanist, the song writer John Wallowitch. (what can I say, I love a piano). I have had a serious crush on Joanne Beretta all these many years. Look into her blue eyes and it is instant servitude for life. She can make you roar with laughter and break your heart a moment later. She stopped performing in the early 1970s, but has recently returned to the circuit (http://joanneberetta.com/ ). She may well be the single most honest signer I have ever heard. Every song she sings instantly becomes my number one all time favorite. Until she sings the next one. Basically shy and diffident when it comes to patrician politics, she generally finds something to say. Plans are under way for a new show this season. The where and when will be listed here.

As to John Wallowitch, it is far beyond my abilities (and the resources of this blog) to do anything but barely scratch the surface (Wikipedia has an excellent article). I have had few better friends. He was loyal and generous and sweet and funny (and–I am also told– a Doctor Jeckel and Mr. Hyde–but I never met the monster). John trained to be classical pianist at Juilliard, you should have heard his Ravel. It was his elegant style at the piano that first drew me to him. No one was more supportive of my career than John. He was a huge fan of my plays. Whenever he spotted me in an audience he would introduce me as a major American playwright much to the puzzlement of most of the people in the room who of course had not the vaguest idea who I was.

In the last few years of his life, I took great pride that TOSOS (my theater company) presented New York Minutes, Mark Finley’s perfectly conceived revue of John’s songs. It opened to much acclaim and raves for a wonderful cast. John truly adored it (and even accompanied it one night on the piano). We brought the show back for a second run. When John walked into the Duplex it was clear the end was in sight. Plans are underway for the TOSOS Billy Blackwell/John Wallowitch Musical Theatre Project (Rick Hinkson, director) to revive New York Minutes next season as a memorial to John. With all the controversy surrounding "gay marriage," you should check out a DVD that tenderly documents the longtime relationship John had with Bertram Ross, star dancer for Martha Graham. (Wallowitch & Ross: This Moment - available on Netflix
) No ceremony could add anything, their commitment to each other, to quote Robert Frost, "is the bond hydrogen makes with oxygen in a cup of spring water."

For my birthday John would give me Boss cologne for men. The last few months he was too weak to get out to buy it. Every time I saw him he would apologize profusely and I would tell him "not to worry." In mid June of 2007, Ann Ruckert (another hero) organized a session in her apartment to let him record what would be his last CD (A Miracle on 71st Street
www.amazon.com ) . As I was dressing I reached for my "substitute" cologne (Old Spice) and laughed. I suspected somehow John had managed to get me my birthday present. Indeed, as I walked in, John met me at the door with a wicked smile and a bottle of Boss. This island is somehow a lot less without him. Certainly large chunks of class and style is missing. To me he is still over there on the East Side, sitting at his piano in the"Manhattan Blue" twilight, composing his second thousand songs. You know you have achieved some sort of immorality when Elaine Stritch crashes your memorial service.

Which brings us to the last but by no means least of my three favorite ladies of cabaret. The elegant KT Sullivan. But before I go there, I should explain what I have recently discovered about myself. Cabaret seems to have dictated not only my emotional awareness but the very moral compass of my life. Everyone needs a Bible, mine, it turns out, is the "Great American Song Book." (You go to your church, I’ll go to mine) Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, John Wallowitch, Oscar Hammerstein II, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Irene Franklin, Stephen Sondheim (you fill in the rest), their lyrics gave me not only an essential point of view, they helped me develop my whole survival strategy. They are my chapter and verse.

Last Friday night, Rick Hinkson took me to the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel to hear KT Sullivan. She is currently performing All the Things You Are, her survey of the songs of Jerome Kern, and the ghosts of the Round Table could not be happier. In fact they are sloshing ectoplasmic gin all over the place in gleeful celebration. Her phrasing is perfect, her taste flawless, her courage amazing. When did you last hear a soprano knock it out of the park with "Ol’ Man River?" She is the most recent in a long list of great Gotham dames dating all the back to Lillian Russell. Someone should be showering her with diamonds! At the top of her set, KT sang "Land Where the Good Songs Go," as I left the Algonquin I wondered if a cab would know the directions to get me there.

She is accompanied by the amazing Tedd Firth (her Musical Director) on the piano, and equally awesome saxophonist, Andy Ferber, and bass player, Steve Doyle. Oak Room is a bit pricey, but you might consider selling your significant other or if you don’t have one, maybe your mother. It would be worth it. [KT Sullivan, All the Things You Are, Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, September 23 to October 11. Tuesday-Thursday 8:30 pm; Friday & Saturday 8:30 pm & 11:00 pm. Reservations 212 419-9331.]

For by far the best history of cabaret I recommend James Gavin’s Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret (
www.amazon.com )

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