“Cabaret is by nature a fragile and personal kind of entertainment. With virtually no media support system, it endures, as do the vibrant brigade of performers who night after night, keep alive songs that might otherwise be neglected, forgotten, or lost”
Press Release from The Mabel Mercer Foundation Autumn 1989.
Cabaret’s most ardent swain, mother hen, and P.T. Barnum-like promoter, Donald Smith, passed away this year leaving generations of performers and audiences richer for his friendship or influence. Having been Mabel Mercer’s publicist and protector when she died, in 1985, he established The Mabel Mercer Foundation “dedicated to insure the memory of its incomparable namesake and to promote the fragile art of cabaret performance 365 days of the year…” For 27 of those years, Smith acted as Executive Director of the organization which got by, in miraculous fashion, on the kindness and interest of benefactors and with the help of volunteers. He was indefatigable, a consummate juggler, and infectiously enthusiastic.
Smith hand-picked actress and vocalist KT Sullivan as Artistic Director, a position she recently assumed. They’d known one another a long time. “Donald introduced himself after my Bart Howard show at Jan Wallman’s in’89. (Her accompanist Buddy Barnes also played for Mabel.) Shortly after, he invited me to sing at what was billed as The First Ever Cabaret Convention. I was thrilled to be asked.” (Sullivan has performed at all 22 New York conventions). The event included 3 lengthy concerts and industry panel discussions. 72 of the brightest lights in cabaret are listed in that first program. “He thought it would be so much fun that people would want to stay forever.” Tickets were $5.
At that point, no one knew what a Cabaret Convention was. Sullivan remembers lots of empty seats. “The second year, it was a hot ticket, everybody scrambling to participate. Still, Donald was always happy when someone had to turn him down in favor of work.” Selected artists flew in from all over the country, trying to set up appearances to coordinate with convention dates. “You met people. Community developed. Things happened.” Smith and Sullivan became friends, regularly sharing gossip and laughter, two of his favorite things.
The event grew to seven nights, some lasting six hours. Tickets cost a $10 bang for your buck. Fans would pack food, attend multiple performances, and mark programs with appreciated discoveries. The foundation produced centennial celebrations of Noel Coward and Cole Porter at Carnegie Hall and evenings at The National Arts Club in New York as well as conventions in 5 other U.S. cities, London, and aboard cruise lines. In 2005, the New York convention moved to Rose Theater of Jazz at Lincoln Center offering “A New West Side Story.” Prices necessarily rose; most artists were well known. A shift occurred. Eventually, seven evenings were cut to three. Donald Smith’s health failed. The Algonquin Hotel announced renovation and closing of its iconic Oak Room which Smith had reopened and booked for years and which was dear to his heart. And now Feinstein’s is shutting its doors.
“In 1955, you could go to the Blue Note, the Bon Soir…stand at the bar and for the price of a couple of drinks- $1.25 in those days-even the poorest fan could experience the best of the city’s nightlife.” Donald Smith
Charles Bullock went to see Mabel Mercer as an undergrad and was “caught in the spell of her; I kept going back and back.” He met Donald Smith when the latter was setting up the foundation and has, with his wife, attended decades of cabaret and cabaret conventions. “When Donald was ill over these few years, I suggested the board of advisors was inadequate, that the foundation should really have a Board of Trustees who would both personally support it and find additional ways to raise money. He was smart enough to realize that KT was the person to take this on.” True to his word and vision, Bullock is now Chairman of a spanking new Board of Trustees.
Hitting the ground running, Artistic Director, KT Sullivan, has lots of ideas. This year’s Cabaret Convention at Rose Theater on October 17, 18, and 19 is dedicated to the inestimable Mr. Smith, featuring many of the performers who knew and loved him, but next year’s will look more like the early days. Sullivan plans to find less expensive venues, to increase the number of concerts, to include less well known performers, and to go back to the practice of offering vocalist’s CDs. (tickets at: www.jalc.com)
The future holds additional events around the city and the reinstitution of conventions in other cities where more local performers will be invited. Managing Director, Rick Meadows, would love to see the event return to Chicago and San Francisco. “We really had great audiences there and people are hungry for it. It all depends upon whether the goose lays a golden egg.” Hear that out there? 212 980 3026 for questions about making a tax deductable donation.
Starting in October, the foundation will offer free convention tickets to students of four of the city’s high schools, one of them a performing arts institution. “Young people take to The American Songbook when they’re exposed to it; they like songs with stories.” Sullivan envisions an outreach program to city schools exposing young people to the history, craft and entertainment of cabaret. Charles Bullock speaks of a possible industry-critiqued vocal contest which might offer the winner opportunity to perform at a convention. Experienced as a Tisch Family consultant, Candace Leeds has volunteered to handle grant application.
Exciting isn’t it?
There’s a new generation of cabaret singers who mix American Songbook with more recent material stretching its definition. Musical Theater actors have joined the ranks at least partly because “cabaret is the best place for a theatrically trained performer to step out of a role.” (Stephen Holden) Rick Meadows feels shows have become “more personal, not so much built around a composer or lyricist,” but rather the artist’s own journey or point of view. Michael Feinstein is looking for a new venue. 54Below is up and running.
The Mabel Mercer Foundation, much like its namesake and its founder, continues forward- head high, spirits hopeful, energies and talents in harness after a particularly rough year. Visiting the office warren where KT Sullivan, Rick Meadows and Jason Martin slave away, having a conversation with the enthusiastic Charles Bullock or the evergreen, ever toiling Alyce Finell, it’s impossible not to want to help.
“Ask most people and they’ll tell you cabaret is a movie starring Liza Minnelli.”
To Benefit the Foundation and Be Entertained
The 23rd New York Cabaret Convention
Jazz at Lincoln Center
October 17, 6 p.m. – Gala Opening Night – hosted by KT Sullivan
Including presentation of The Noel Coward Award and The Julie Wilson Award
October 18, 6 p.m. – Salute to Cole Porter – hosted by Andrea Marcovicci & Jeff Harnar
October 19, 6 p.m. – Thanks for the Memory – Hosted by Klea Blackhurst
Hidden Treasures: The Songs of Larry Kerchner
November 5 at 7 p.m.
Featuring Stacy Sullivan, Hilary Kole, Eric Comstock & Barbara Fasano, La Tanya Hall, Karen Oberlin, Sidney Meyer, Jeff Harnar and others will benefit the Mabel Mercer Foundation and Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Initiative.
York Theater at St. Peter’s
Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Tickets $50; Premium Seating $75.00
Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Initiative
The Mabel Mercer Foundation
November 29 at 6 p.m.
Benefiting the Mabel Mercer Foundation presented by The Players Foundation
16 Gramercy Park South
$25 suggested donation at the door
Mabel Mercer Foundation reservation limited to 50 people.
Please call 212-980-3026 to RSVP
Presenting four singers and one guest star first come-first served, open seating, cash bar
KT Sullivan hosts & performs with…
Kevin Spiritas, Raissa Katona Bennett, Catherine Wright, Cleve Douglass
Cabaret at Sea
March 27 to April 3, 2013
Sail with KT Sullivan, Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano aboard Silversea’s newest luxury ship The Silver Spirit. In addition to performances and panel discussions, there will be ample opportunity to meet and dine with performers as well as like-minded aficionados.
Spacious suites with butler service provide ultra comfortable and attractive accommodation.
A. Embarks from Bridgetown, Barbados to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Two luxurious days at sea and ports of call including St. Lucia, Dominica, St. Barts, and Nassau.
B. OR round trip from Ft. Lauderdale to Barbados with ports of call including Turks & Caicos, Dominican Republic, Tortola, Antigua and Bequia.
Price includes roundtrip economy air fare and transfers, open seating gourmet dining, 24 hour room service, complimentary beverages, gratuities; onboard spending credit of $500.
Information and reservations firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Donald Smith, KT Sullivan – photos by Richard Termine
2. Donald Smith, Mabel Mercer, Donald Smith and Steve Ross
3. Convention Programs – the first, Rose Theater, this year
4. KT Sullivan in the office – photo by Russ Weatherford