Entertainment » Music

Kevin On Kabaret :: Remembering the Persian Room

by Kevin Scott Hall
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Apr 4, 2012

Last month, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a book launch party for "The Persian Room Presents: An Oral History of New York's Most Magical Night Spot" (Vantage Press). The party was held at the Plaza Hotel, where the famed Persian Room nightclub reigned supreme from 1934-75.

The room would have been almost forgotten if not for the curiosity of author Patty Farmer, who moved into the hotel in 2006 and began doing some sleuthing. "The Plaza celebrated its 100th birthday a few years ago and I was curious about what had happened here and started asking questions. It was difficult at first because people kept telling me there were no archives," Farmer told me. "Now I've become the historian of the Plaza."

Jewel of nightclubs

What interested her most, though, was the cabaret room, the jewel of nightclubs during its heyday. Farmer began looking for and interviewing those who had played the room. And boy, did they have tales to tell! "We’re getting calls from all over the country," Farmer said of the book. "I mean, the Persian Room was so diverse-Duke Ellington and Billie Holliday played there. People do love this history."

For the book, Farmer mainly provides historical data about each decade and then lets the performers tell their stories. The night of the party, several were in attendance: Carol Lawrence, Leslie Uggams, Tony Butala (original member of The Lettermen), Julie Wilson, Barbara Van Orden (a Vegas regular and opener for Sinatra), Tommy Tune, Cathryn Kenzel (who, at fifteen, was the youngest to ever play the room), and Marge Champion, 92 years young and spry as ever.

A bygone era

"It’s an era that we’ll never see again," Ms. Uggams told me. "It was a stepping stone for so many performers too. It’s so nice to have it remembered."

Kenzel, now a master voice teacher as well as performer, said, "It was a blessing at the time. It’s so much harder for newcomers now; I was so seasoned by the time I was eighteen!"

Butala talked of them recording every show and then going back to listen between nightly shows, to make improvements. "You never got to the point where you thought you had it made," he said.

Not all happy memories

While all agreed there was and never will be any other room to compare, not all the memories were happy. Julie Wilson told of the time a drunk, unruly guest dumped his plate of food on the front of her Parisian gown when she wouldn’t sing "Melancholy Baby." After running out of the room in tears, she composed herself and came back to finish the show. "I’ve had happy experiences too," Wilson said, eyes atwinkle. "It’s been a fun ride!"

"If there is one thing I took away from this, it was the incredible work ethic of this group of entertainers," Farmer said. "Their work spans decades and they are still working!" Full of resolve, she said, "I have other books I’m working on too. I never want to retire!"

If you are cabaret fans, you do not want to miss this history, told by those who were there. Order your copy of "The Persian Room Presents" today. You’ll be up all night. . . .

Funny lady

One of the most memorable moments at this year’s MAC Awards, held on March 29th at BB King’s, was when Alison Nusbaum, winner for Best Piano Bar Entertainer, took to the stage and did her unique version of "Don’t Cry for Me Argentina." It involved a hilarious sight gag that cannot be explained here, but suffice it to say that the beauty of piano bar performers is that they are not only the backbone of the cabaret industry but that they are not afraid to pin-prick some of the self-importance that can come into play in such awards ceremonies. "I’ll do anything for a laugh," Nusbaum told me.

Nusbaum arrived in New York eight years ago determined to realize her dream of doing musical theater. She fell into piano bars and cabaret quite by accident (as so many of us do). "I had been working as a waitress at Rita Mae’s," she related. "And I heard that Rita Mae’s was going to be bringing in a lot of people from Rose’s Turn after it closed. I only went to Rose’s Turn during its last week." When the experiment of Rita Mae’s piano bar failed after about six months, Ricky Ritzel introduced Nusbaum to Jim Luzar at Brandy’s, and Don’t Tell Mama followed soon after.

"I got overwhelmed by the lifestyle for about three years," Nusbaum said of her early days in piano bars. "And by that I mean drinking. I lost sight of the fact that I came here to do theater."

In the summer of 2010, Nusbaum entered the third annual Metrostar Challenge at the Metropolitan Room and placed in the top five. "The Metrostar Challenge made me realize that I missed being on a stage."

Nusbaum continued her story. "I started getting back into auditions about a year ago but I was being choosy about them. It’s really hard to get up at seven after getting out of work at three in the morning." After not much luck, she explained, "I love working in a piano bar, but it became a little disheartening screaming pop songs for tourists."

Nusbaum premieres her new show at Don’t Tell Mama on April 24th, 27th and 30th. Entitled "Ladies! A Raucous Homage to Mel Brooks’ Broads," the concept sounds like a winner. "I was afraid to do a show-I didn’t know if anyone would come-and I kept putting it off because I didn’t know what I wanted to do," Nusbaum said.

The idea came about spontaneously when Nusbaum was working a happy hour with Ritzel. "Ricky started playing the theme to "High Anxiety" on the piano," Nusbaum revealed. "And I told him that one of my favorite sight gags came from that movie. We talked and realized it would make a great entrance to a show." Nusbaum told me that the show was "loosely based" on the Brooks’ broads, and that they would be throwing in some other songs used in his movies, not just ones Brooks had written.

With Nusbaum, Ritzel and the great Jay Rogers directing, this looks like a can’t-miss cabaret experience for 2012. I’ll see you there . . .

And now, Kev’s Faves for April:

The Bistro Awards will be presented at Gotham Comedy Club on Monday, April 23rd, with an after-party at East of Eighth. These awards are chosen by cabaret critics and experts and, in my opinion, it’s the best awards show of the year. (Well, OK, I’m one of said critics on the board of the Bistros, but still!).

This year, the major honorees include Kaye Ballard, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Melissa Manchester and musician Warren Vache, as well as a dozen or so others in various categories. It’s gonna be great! Order your tickets ASAP at www.bistroawards.com . . .

As part of the Metropolitan Room’s new experiment to offer theatrical runs for certain shows, Barb Jungr returns with "The Man in the Long Black Coat," her tribute to the songs of Bob Dylan, April 10-28. I haven’t seen it yet, but it is guaranteed to be one of the most talked-about cabaret events of the years . . .

Natalie Douglas offers "Freedom Songs" at Birdland on the 16th, "celebrating the joyful union of music and civil rights activism." Could the show be anymore timely? . . .

Singer/songwriter Tom Vaughn returns for one more night at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on April 11. Vaughn is a true survivor in every sense of the word and his show, "Trail of Cheers," is bound to inspire . . .

Celebrating Barbra’s big bday

A week later Steven Brinberg celebrates "70, Girl, 70!" at the same club. Yes, that’s right: diva extraordinaire Barbra Streisand turns seventy this month and the most-acclaimed Streisand impersonator isn’t isn’t about to let the momentous occasion pass by . . .

And at the Duplex on the 28th, Harmonica Sunbeam hosts a bevy of performers in "We Love Whitney," a tribute show billed as "a special show for diehard Houston fans."

And that’s the news for April. Until next month . . . I’ll see you over cocktails

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).


Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook