Producer Sherry Eaker Celebrates 30 Years Of The Bistro Awards
On Wednesday, March 4th, the Bistro Awards will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a gala show featuring this year's recipients and a parade of honorees from its first twenty-nine years.
From the beginning, Sherry Eaker has been at the helm, first as co-creator and co-producer with Bob Harrington, the famed "Bistro Bits" columnist at Back Stage from 1985 until his death in 1992. Ms. Eaker herself was the longtime editor of Back Stage, which was founded by her father, Ira Eaker, in 1960. She has continued as the sole producer since 1992.
EDGE interviewed Sherry Eaker to ask about the history of the Bistros and some of her favorite memories from the shows. [Ed. Note: Kevin Scott Hall, largely because of his work at Edge Media Network, was asked to be one of the critics on the Bistro Awards committee back in 2011.]
The first Bistros
EDGE: You co-founded the Bistro Awards with Bob Harrington thirty years ago. Whose idea was it to have awards?
Sherry Eaker: He started it. I had hired Bob to cover nightclub acts back in early 1985. I was getting more press releases about singers appearing in clubs and Back Stage was not giving clubs enough attention. I went away for the summer on vacation and when I returned I saw that my editor had given this gal comic a column to write about comedy. [Laughs]
So, out of spite I asked Bob to write a column for cabaret, and he said yes. The first 'Bistro Bits' column was in September 1985. My father would occasionally cover nightclub acts and his reviews would fall under a 'Bistro Bits' headline, so I decided to call Bob's column 'Bistro Bits.' At the end of December, Bob mentioned this idea about having awards. There were no awards given to cabaret or nightclub singers at the time. So he came up with a list of about 100 performers and they were listed in the paper.
EDGE: Do you remember the first time you had a live ceremony?
Sherry Eaker: Yes, it was 1990. Erv was a tremendous help, and we had the first awards ceremony at Eighty-Eights. Bob didn't realize how hard it was to create a show. Bradshaw Smith created a closed-circuit TV set-up. All the musicians were upstairs and the people watched downstairs on the closed-circuit TV. So we were at Eighty-Eights for two years. Then we went to the Ballroom on West 28th Street. And then we used the Supper Club, a beautiful space, until 2002. From 2002 until 2006, it was a private event, either in the Blue Room at the Supper Club, or at La Belle Epoque, and one year at Opia. In 2007, we decided to open it to the public again, and we've been at Gotham Comedy Club ever since.
About Bob Harrington
EDGE: I've run into so many performers who read Bob's Bistro Bits column religiously, myself included. He was a teacher as well as a critic. What was he like in person?
Sherry Eaker: He was one of my closest friends. Sometimes he was a little cocky about himself, but mainly because he was so knowledgeable and a terrific writer. He had a passion for the art form and cared a lot about people. He introduced me to cabaret and taught me about it. [Laughs] By day, he was a probation officer! I'm sure he was just as passionate about that, but I don't know how he did it all. He also wrote for Nightlife, a Long Island magazine, and he started writing for the New York Post. He was very honorable. He was nervous about telling me about the Post job!
EDGE: What highlights immediately come to mind when you think of thirty years of shows?
Sherry Eaker: First, how quickly the Bistro Bits column took off. When Bob found his path, he ran with it. He passed away in 1992. He used his column in Back Stage to announce to his readers that he had AIDS. That was pretty daring at the time. When he passed away that October, I always had it in my head that there was a book there. His columns weren't just reviews. He would take a theme and run with it. In one column, he reviewed Marilyn Maye, Rosemary Clooney, and Jill Corey, talking about the ways each person made the best possible use of a different room. So the readers would learn from the experts how to make the best use of the space. In 1999, I was working for an imprint, Back Stage Books. There were a couple of handbooks for actors out there, but nothing for cabaret. My editor asked if I had an idea for a book on my own. I created the 'Cabaret Artists Handbook' by Bob Harrington, with myself as editor.
Bistro's Vanna White
EDGE: Wow. And what about the shows?
Sherry Eaker: Every awards show we created was another highlight. The first year, I was known as the Vanna White of the show, a sidekick for Bob. I was so nervous about speaking that my vocal cords froze! I learned as I went along. Back then, it was all phone calls, no emails. One year, we honored Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, and George Shearing presented their award to them. We honored Bobby Short for Lifetime Achievement and Chita Rivera presented it to him. One year, we wanted to give an award to Charles Aznavour and we wanted Liza Minnelli to present it to him. Then we decided we wanted to give an award to Liza too. I didn't get a definite 'no' from either one, so I told each that the other would be getting an award! They both showed up, and Liza sang a Charles Aznavour song!
There was the year we had Mitzi Gaynor, telling jokes on stage that would make a sailor blush. That same year, we had Elaine Stritch. There was such a backstory of dealing with her, and when I got home after the awards, there were two phone calls from the Carlyle Hotel, where she lived. I was scared to listen to them until the next morning! It turns out, she was telling me how much she loved the show and what a great time she had, and she wanted my address so she could send me a dozen homemade English muffins from her husband's company. Behr's, I think it was. She was good to her word!
It's always a process. Forming the committee, having members come and go. Formulating who we're going to present to each year.
EDGE: For the Bistro Awards, we know the winners beforehand, which takes away some of the suspense. How do you keep the excitement up compared to other shows?
Sherry Eaker: We have certain rules. We don't present a performer in the same category twice. We want to recognize different people because there is so much talent out there. There is no 'Best.' Performers are recognized for their outstanding work from the previous year.
We are showing performances from people that we think did exceptional work that year. Let us prove to you why. And we honor the newcomers as well as the veterans, so it's great to see them together in the same room. We have a group of critics who review regularly and see a lot of shows, so I think that means something to the person receiving the award.
No Lifetime Achievement Award?
EDGE: Tell us about the Ira Eaker Award Special Achievement Award, named after your father. Why did you choose to honor him in this way?
Sherry Eaker: My Dad was the co-founder and co-publisher of Back Stage. He had worked for another trade publication before that, and he had no intention of creating another trade magazine. He wanted to go into talent management. But there was demand in the community for another show business trade magazine. So within six months, Back Stage was founded. When he passed away in 2002, it seemed natural to use his name to recognize someone promising.
EDGE: Oh wow. So it's only been around for thirteen years?
Sherry Eaker: That's right. The first recipient was Peter Cincotti.
EDGE: Well, he's certainly made the most of it.
Sherry Eaker: Yes! And we gave it to this year's honoree, Gabrielle Stravelli one year, and Nathan Chang last year.
EDGE: You chose not to present a Lifetime Achievement Award this year. What special surprise do you have in store?
Sherry Eaker: We wanted to celebrate the 30th anniversary, and I felt that if we presented a Lifetime Achievement Award, it might take away from some of the history of the awards. I have lined up past winners to present and perform: Dee Dee Bridgewater, Karen Mason, Rita Gardner, Lee Roy Reams, Jeff Harnar, John Fugelsang, Aaron Lee Battle, Darius de Haas, Marilyn Maye, Mary Testa. And the list is growing! And, of course, they are alongside our 2015 honorees.
EDGE: What's the hardest part of producing the event?
Sherry Eaker: The marketing. So many other events going on and the marketing process has changed radically since we began. Radically. Also, 'awards show' makes the potential buyer think of simply a ceremony, but the Bistro Awards are not that at all.
EDGE: Would you like to see the Bistro Awards continue like the Oscars and the Tonys, after you've decided to call it quits?
Sherry Eaker: Of course I would! They're not mine. We need to find consistent financial support to continue to do what we do. But you do it because you like doing it. It's a thrill to hear from someone that you've reached out to, hoping that they will participate. Just the other day, I got three yesses from people who wanted to be part of it.
EDGE: Ending on a fun note, on Awards day, there is often a murmur of excitement in the crowd from people wondering what you are going to wear. Where do you get your fashion sense?
Sherry Eaker: [Laughs] My lips are sealed! The best thing about shopping is that it's just when I'm not looking for a dress that it seems to call out to me, 'Sherry, over here!' I guess you'll just have to wait and see what I'm going to wear!
Please visitthe Bistro Awards website to find out more about the Awards and to purchase tickets for the 30th Annual Bistro Awards on March 4th.
The 2015 Bistro Award recipients
Carol Fredette - Ongoing Jazz Artistry
Lillias White - Major Engagement/54 Below
Kristoffer Lowe - Ira Eaker Special Achievement Award
Celia Berk - Vocalist
Eric Comstock - Singer-Instrumentalist
Joshua Dixon - Debut
Shana Farr - Concept Show/"In the Still of the Night"
Stearns Matthews - Recording/"Spark"
Marissa Mulder - Vocalist
Gabrielle Stravelli - Jazz Vocalist
Jon Weber - Musical Historian and Entertainer/"From Joplin to Jarrett: 115 Years of Piano Jazz"