Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"We called them saloons. Toilets. Dives."

No, it's not Henry Rollins recalling his touring days with Black Flag, but Dorothy Loudon describing New York's old cabaret rooms.

Could there be a more entertaining read than James Gavin's Intimate Nights—The Golden Age of New York Cabaret? The rogues gallery in the first couple of chapters alone is mind-boggling, and often laugh-out-loud funny. My favorites tend to be the now-forgotten ones, like Sheila Barrett, an impressionist wildly popular in the 1930s, and whose routines "included a scene from Hamlet as it would have been enacted by Bert Lahr and Lynn Fontanne; Mae West as Juliet; and Fanny Brice as Scarlett O'Hara opposite W.C. Fields as Rhett Butler." Or Ray "Rae" Bourbon, a female impersonator who peaked in the 1930s and 1940s before spinning into oblivion and meeting a sad, bizarre ending (let's just say it involves a pack of 15 dogs in a trailer and an alleged hit on a pet-shop owner).

Intimate Nights documents a period of New York nightlife that seemed to brass all kinds of people in a rare manner. The photo of "the Reno Sweeney family, 1974," in particular, makes my head spin: Marta Heflin, Baby Jane Dexter, Ellen Greene and Marilyn Sokol are side by side, but wait! There's also Patti Smith and Holly Woodlawn! An equivalent would be the way races and sexual orientations mixed through disco in the mid- to late 1970s.

In addition to a veritable goldmine of hilarious anecdotes and often touching portraits, Gavin also deals with the integration of homosexuality on stage and off, and the way it shaped both identity and show business; the early acceptance of black performers; and the intangible bond between song, performer and audience. The latter are perhaps more inextricably linked in cabaret than in any other pop genre, often to the point of discomfort for both audience and musician.

In this and many other ways, cabaret is as rebellious as rock & roll—and unlike rock, cabaret has no hope of ever commodifying its dissent; it is a minority taste. Some of it took place in Loudon's saloons, toilets and dives, far from the pop/consumerist mainstream. Some of it unfurled in swank venues, but it still mocked, in song and deed, the Good Housekeeping/K-Mart aesthetics, heterosexual missionary position and clean Christian habits endorsed by the majority of America. Then and now, it's hard to think of a American art form populated with a bigger bunch of geeks, freaks and perverts than cabaret—and I say that with utmost affection, of course.


Anonymous said...

If you're going on a classic cabaret binge, make sure to pick up the recent CD reissue featuring both of Tammy Grimes' albums from the golden age of NYC cabaret! Mind-blowing stuff.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Thanks for the tip. That CD will fit perfectly next to the new Mae West collection Jim Gavin recently reviewed for Time Out New York. Of course I just had to get it!