By MARILYN LESTER****He’s dapper, distinguished and easily could have walked out of a Hollywood film – think the sophistication and eloquence of Burt Lancaster or Robert Preston or George Raft (who might well have known where the bodies were buried) or Rudolph Valentino. For eighteen years Arthur Pomposello was the maitre d’ and entertainment director of the fabled Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel. In his tenure he got to know the intimate workings of the hotel, as well as many of its back-of-house machinations and secrets. As the “face” of the Oak Room he cut a fine figure, and it was a job that suited him to the proverbial “t.” Elegant in a tux, articulate and savvy, Pomposello also had an extraordinarily keen eye for spotting talent and knowing how it would “sell” in the swank room. “I knew clubs,” he reports. “My father was a jazz guitarist, plus I had a background in food and beverage service. I knew what would work in that room.”
Pomposello was already working as a bartender in the Blue Bar when the Oak Room was reopened in 1980 (after decades of being shuttered as a cabaret space). The idea to reopen the Oak Room was Donald Smith’s (publicist, producer and eventual founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation). Smith received the go-ahead from Algonquin owners Ben and Mary Bodne, and Andrew Anspach, Bodne son-in-law and manager of the hotel. In due course Pomposello pitched the idea of himself as an overseer of the Oak Room to Anspach and the Bodnes, who had a special affection for him, and vice versa. He was given the opportunity to make a talent booking, and immediately sought out Susannah McCorkle. The singer was a sensation, thus assuring him of his place at the forefront of Oak Room operations. Like McCorkle, others whose careers began or were decidedly kick-started at the Oak Room under Pomposello’s watch reads like a who’s who of talent: KT Sullivan, Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, John Pizzarelli, Eric Comstock, Tovah Feldshuh, Nancy LaMott, Mary Cleere Haran, Stacey Kent, and Wesla Whitfield, to name some. Pomposello’s ascendancy at the Oak Room was not without its tensions, however, usually revolving around territorial issues with Donald Smith – particularly when their views on talent clashed. Smith was dedicated to classic cabaret, but Pomposello sought to expand stylistically. One of Pomposello’s first goals, for example, was to bring in the sophisticated jazz-pop diva Sylvia Syms, a move opposed by Smith. Pomposello prevailed and Syms was a hit. “Despite the differences, we still remained friends,” he says.
In addition to finding new talent, Pomposello had a knack for thinking out of the box. He knew Broadway star Rita Moreno would shine on its stage, and so he booked her into the Oak Room. Moreno had never before done cabaret and her appearance – with a very decided Latin flair – served to launch her into a remarkable cabaret career. Other stars who ventured into cabaret for the first time under Pomposello’s guidance include Maureen McGovern, Cybill Shepherd, Jimmy Webb and even songwriter Alan Bergman. In addition, two of the best reviews for Oak Room came under Pomposello’s watch: Our Sinatra, which went on to become a widely-toured hit show, and Hooray for Hollywood. Not every potential performer worked out though. Kitty Carlisle Hart and Van Johnson were “almost- but-not-quites.” Still, a colleague remarked to him once, “Arthur, you are making history at the Oak Room.”
But Pomposello wasn’t just savvy about talent. He knew how to gauge and handle the logistics and workings of the room itself. His staff was well trained. With his acute attention to detail, the room worked like clockwork. “When Jackie Kennedy or John junior would come in, I knew where to seat them and how to ensure their privacy,” he says. When he spotted the tap-dancing superstars Fayard and Harold Nicholas in the lobby with their wives he invited them to be his guests at the cabaret. They accepted and caused a prolonged standing ovation to erupt when they walked in. “It was magical,” he beams. Pomposello’s reputation for success caught the attention of others far and wide who recognized the Oak Room as the best cabaret in the country. Hotelier Steve Wynn asked him to help open a cabaret room in the Bellagio in Las Vegas. “Unfortunately,” Pomposello remembers, “management didn’t take my advice, and the room failed, as I knew it would.” He’s also been asked to consult on a cabaret room for the latest incarnation of the Plaza Hotel, an ongoing project.
For most of Pomposello’s tenure at the Algonquin he worked under management appointed by legendary hotel owners, Ben and Mary Bodne. Pomposello has very fond memories of the Bodnes, their daughters Renee Colby and Barbara Anspach, and the Bodne grandchildren (including author and musical theatre writer Michael Colby). “The Bodnes were a lovely family,” he remembers. They were also a very typical family. “Like most families,” he smiles, “they had arguments from time to time in the living room. Only their living room happened to be the hotel lobby.” On such occasions, Pomposello, thinking on his feet, would inform hotel guests that these were actors hired to put on a reality theater piece. But, in 1997, aging and no longer up to running a hotel, the Bodnes sold the Algonquin. Pomposello stayed on through a series of owners and managers, but it wasn’t the same. He left in 2002. Then, after living through the prolonged illness and eventual death of his beloved wife, Alicia, Pomposello went to the Iridium in 2008 for several years. “I’m glad I did,” he says. “I got to know a lot more about jazz.” Then, with a wink and a wry afterthought about his time at the Algonquin, he adds, “but I still know where those bodies are buried.”
Solo portraits of Mr. Pomposello by Victor Giganti