The closing of the Oak Room at The Algonquin Hotel, the oldest, most venerated cabaret supper club in New York, is a sin and a shame. Those of us who experienced both the venue’s glory days and its increasing mismanagement are shocked that death by amputation is the shortsighted choice of a hotel whose reputation was literally built on the history of its restaurant, cabaret and lobby. Were changes in personnel and recent policy passed over as options?!
Since the 1910s when New York was home to Delmonico’s, cabaret has been an integral part of the New York music scene. When prohibition shut it down, speakeasies sprang up like weeds stubbornly persevering through cracks in the sidewalk. With the lifting of sanctions, night clubs became the rage, followed by a proliferation of intimate boites. Tony’s hosted the great Mabel Mercer. Café Society was the first to integrate an audience at the insistence of the legendary Billie Holiday. As years passed, we gave birth to dozens of large and small rooms. In the 1960s, the popularity of rock seemed to once again ring a death knell. Cabaret took a hit, but reports of its death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, were greatly exaggerated.
The Bon Soir presented up and coming Barbra Streisand. Bobby Short made his debut at Café Carlyle in 1968, Rainbow and Stars opened in the Rainbow Room; There was The Duplex, Ted Hook’s Backstage, Reno Sweeney, The Ballroom… In 1981, Donald Smith, now Executive Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, reopened the Oak Room—a cabaret destination in the 1930s—at the historic Algonquin Hotel. Singer/pianist Steve Ross was its resident boulevardier. When Smith moved on, Barbara McGurn took over.
Over the years, the cream of cabaret performed in the oblong, oak paneled, room where the original literary Round Table once stood. An engagement at “the Gonk” meant young performers had finally arrived. Harry Connick Jr. was discovered there by Rob Reiner who asked him to co-write the score of When Harry Met Sally. Liza Minnelli introduced a young Michael Feinstein who went on to national recognition and the opening of Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in 1999. Audiences looked forward to annual appearances by such cabaret luminaries as Andrea Marcovicci, KT Sullivan, and Karen Akers. The beloved Sylvia Sims played her last engagement there. Careers were started and careers were revived.
This is a tough economy. Most artists are asked to shoulder the burden of producing and publicizing their own acts, yet young people continue to enter the arena with the same hopes as the young Barbra Streisand. Musical theater performers increasingly turn to cabaret as additional opportunity to showcase their talents. Opera singers have joined the ranks. Jazz musicians have always been part of the tribe. Rod Stewart and Tony Bennett recently helped introduce a new generation to cabaret’s evergreen material. The incomparable Bennett is singing duets with rockers, jazz and country singers who line up for the opportunity. Even Paul McCartney has publicly “discovered” the value of classic, simply rendered lyrics and arrangements.
All over New York, small cabaret rooms (as well as the esteemed Café Carlyle and Feinstein’s) continue to offer cabaret nightly yet The New York Times, as well as virtually every other primary newspaper and magazine with arts listings, all but ignore it. Columns titled “Pop,” “Jazz,” and “Classical” regularly feature shows and artists. Where is equal coverage of cabaret?! An occasional review is hardly reputable reporting. The omission is blatant.
In his article “The Song Is Over,” Stephen Holden of The New York Times writes the closing of the Oak Room “…sent a shiver through the closely knit world of pop and jazz musicians who perpetuate the American Songbook.” Though made up of contributors from a variety of musical categories some of whose intentions were to write for specific format (examples: musical theater and film), the art form is maintained by cabaret performers. Perhaps the media’s inability to comprehend the existence of a separate creative body is the issue here.
Holden goes on to say, “The finest cabaret acts, though comparable in quality to classical musical concerts and the best Broadway shows lack institutional support or a solid system for production.” First, I infer that the journalist feels classical music concerts and Broadway to be superior categories of expression, a misguided opinion apparently held as well by the editors at The Times. Second, one can hardly bemoan a lack of support while withholding it. Last, what in the world is meant by “a solid system for production” he feels might aid cabaret?
Until The New York Times et al recognize and routinely cover the cabaret scene, “hubs for artistic magic” (also from Holden’s article) like the Oak Room in which “performers develop and mature” will suffer and regrettably perhaps continue to diminish, depriving the public of exposure to one of the most intrinsically rich, historically respected, and entertaining art forms in America. The invaluable Mabel Mercer Foundation, a not for profit, can hardly be asked to shoulder the burden of disseminating information and opinion whose responsibility rests with local media. If any of you editors are reading this, you might conscientiously reconsider.
As to the hierarchy at The Algonquin Hotel (names and addresses below for use by the sympathetic and outraged), I would inquire, having jettisoned unique appeal and storied past without so much as a fare thee well, whether you’re prepared to become just another cookie cutter set of rooms in a ridiculously competitive market. The Oak Room had a niche in this city that will not be filled again. Meeting in the gracious lobby and then dining or attending cabaret was an event for locals and tourists alike, a unique draw that should have been built upon.
No one is asking you to be altruistic. If you made concerted efforts to breathe new life into what was left to languish without proper attention or care, the community would stand behind you, New York and its visitors will be grateful, and the Oak Room would have fresh appeal. (Your PR people took up residence with Rip Van Winkle years ago.) This is an opportunity. Imagining the hallowed space “turned into a special amenity for Marriott Reward Elite travelers,” (General Manager Gary Budge) one can only wish Matilda (the resident cat) exercises her claws. That is, assuming she isn’t put out as well.
Write, Fax and Call:
President and Chief Operating Officer for Marriott International
Willard J. Marriott
Chairman and CEO of Marriott International
Carl Berquist: CFO, Marriott International
Gary Budge: firstname.lastname@example.org
AND via regular mail:
Mr. Gary Budge, General Manager
The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street, NY, NY 10036
Photo collages by Theresa Giannetti, from top:
1. Center, the storied Oak Room, clockwise from top left corner:
Donald Smith, Michael Feinstein, Julie Wilson, Mark Nadler, KT Sullivan, Steve Ross, Karen Akers, Harry Connick Jr., Andrea Marcovicci, Barbara McGurn
2. From left, Sylvia Sims, Jack Jones, Barbara Carroll, Claire Martin and Richard Rodney Bennett, Heather MacRae
3. From left, Karen Oberlin, Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap, Tom Wopat, Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano, Mary Cleere Haran
4. Clockwise from top left, Johnny Rodgers, Eric Comstock, Hilary Kole and Christopher Gines, Wesla Whitfield, Christine Andreas, Bettye Lavette
5. Clockwise from left: Paula West, Jessica Molasky and John Pizzarelli, Maureen McGovern, Howard McGillin, Diana Krall, Daryl Sherman
6. Top, Emily Bergl, Jon Weber, bottom, Maude Maggart, Billy Stritch
7. Clockwise, from top left: Matilda, the resident cat; program for the musical, Talk of the Town; Helen Marcovicci and Andrea Marcovicci; Oak Room interior; Algonquin Hotel exterior, circa 1920.
Apologies to all the talented performers whose photos we couldn’t fit into this article.