By Andrew Martin
I would like to begin this, my first in what hopes to be a long line of articles about cabaret's renaissance during the 1980s and early 1990s, with a sincere and heartfelt "thank you" to my publisher herein, Scott Barbarino, and my editor, Penny Landau, for providing me with the opportunity to lend both my journalistic
capacities and what I hope might be considered a keen memory for nightlife history over the last twenty years, to NiteLifeExchange. And to Rob Lester, for providing an extra editorial eye on my work. I must confess that my invitation to join here as a writer was quite unexpected and blissfully so; I had merely launched a series of memorial pages on Facebook for certain individuals who were an integral part of the cabaret and piano bar scenes throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and this led to my being offered the position. Needless to say, I relish the opportunity to have been given a new platform in which I might lend what humble expertise I have on the subject of cabaret's rebirth twenty-five years ago, and both the individuals and organizations that made it such a gilded time and place in which to grow as an artist for so many, including myself.
In the magical days of 1983, cabaret experienced a major rebirth. It had begun in the 1970s with the advent of such clubs as Reno Sweeney, Brothers And Sisters, Ted Hook's OnStage, The Cookery, Les Mouches, Mickey's, Marty's, Freddy's Supper Club, and so very many others. But it was when the team of Erv Raible and the late Rob Hoskins assumed the helm of such clubs as Don't Tell Mama, The Duplex and Brandy's, that cabaret truly came into its own, once and again, as a viable presence in the entertainment spectrum. Raible, along with the late Curt Davis of the New York Post, PR maven Penny Landau, the late Marty Schaeffer (Variety), the late Stan Martin of WQEW Radio, Jan Wallman ("Godmother of Cabaret") and the late Greg Dawson (proprietor of The Ballroom), took it upon themselves to create the Manhattan Association of Cabarets (MAC, later renamed the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs, and founded in the wake of the demise of NACA), which soon had a quickly-growing membership dedicated not only to preserving the greatest traditions of cabaret as enjoyed decades earlier, at such locations as the Persian Room and Café Versailles, but also to creating an atmosphere where those artists too young to remember such venues, would have spaces in which to grow, and to be nurtured creatively. And the late Bob Harrington served as a special and most merciful benefactor with his weekly "Bistro Bits" column in the performing arts trade newspaper Back Stage.
A unifying factor on the cabaret circuit during this time, and a woman whose memory is unequivocally cherished now and for time immemorial, was the unfailingly devoted Janet Sumner (1913-2001). It can be wholeheartedly said that she was not only a true original, but that there will never be another creature on earth to possibly resemble the bundle of energy, intelligence, compassion and fun that was she. One could scarcely ever attend a show, or an evening in a piano bar, and not somehow see her sitting there, keeping all present entertained merely by gracing them with a smile, a story of that day's adventures or a laugh, whether a light chuckle or a hearty roar.
Janet Sumner was born in the heart of societal Boston, a direct descendant of the late great abolitionist Charles Sumner, whose statue still stands proudly at Harvard University. In fact, when once asked why she had such tolerance for people regardless of color, religion or sexual orientation, she said, in her thick Bostonian accent, "Oh, intolerance wasn't accepted in our family. You know who I come from, after all." This was usually followed by one of her customary chuckles.
After a childhood and young adulthood as a true "Back Bay Boston Belle," she studied for a brief time at Smith College but soon "drifted south" to New York, where she enrolled in a secretarial course at the then-prestigious Katharine Gibbs School. "In those days," she'd say, "we had to all wear hats and gloves to class. And we had to learn both Gregg shorthand and Pitman shorthand, and we couldn't graduate unless we typed ninety words per minute and did both Gregg and Pitman at one hundred twenty per. Oh, did those teachers ride us. But I loved every minute of it."
She lived initially at the Allerton Hotel for young women upon her arrival in Gotham, and assumed a secretarial position at Hallmark (where she'd also worked briefly at their Boston branch before relocating) and quickly rose through the ranks, ever-proud of the fact that she never once missed a day of work due to any circumstance whatsoever. But in her spare time (which wasn't very spare), she began working with the Washington Square Outdoor Art Association, first in a secretarial capacity and ultimately becoming President and Executive Director of the organization, and in the process procured what would be her apartment for almost the next fifty years, at 33 Fifth Avenue (near the corner of 10th Street).
At the same time, Janet Sumner adored nightlife and the social scene. She joined both the National Arts Club and the Salmagundi Club among many, many others (her personal favorites were the Pen and Brush and The Pilot's Society) besides the Beaux Arts Society, but also cherished nightly excursions to live music venues throughout the city. By the mid-1970s, she was a regular fixture on the cabaret scene and piano bars, and could regularly be found sipping her Martini ("with five olives and just a splash of vermouth, dear, not a cascade") at such boîtes as the Duplex, the Five Oaks, the original Broadway Baby on 80th and Amsterdam, and Don't Tell Mama. And when asked how she was feeling, one would always hear the same response: "Well, I can't complain."
She would move out of 33 Fifth to allow her cherished niece Peggy Moulton and her great-niece to live there, and took up residence on Gramercy Park in the National Arts Club when President Aldon James offered her apartment 6B. She worked for a time as the Club's Secretary and later as Secretary at the Amateur Comedy Club on Sniffen Court, a position she would hold for the rest of her life.
Her demise, on October 30th of 2001, was quite sudden, and not completely surprising due to her age and also a bad accident she'd suffered sometime earlier, where she had a small stroke and had broken her neck. But it was a shock nonetheless; she'd attended the Halloween Ball at the National Arts Club (in costume), went back to her apartment and simply slipped away. Yet, to those of us who knew her, this was JANET, who was thoroughly indestructible and would be around forever. The news of her passing spread like wildfire across the nightlife scene, and it was a very sad night indeed, when we all learned the news.
When thinking of her, however, one must keep the happy memories alive. The memories of a woman whose favorite vacation spot was in Montauk and loved to go to dinner at Gosman's Dock there...the memories of a woman who would follow Mark Nadler to the ends of the earth if he was doing a show somewhere...the memories of a woman who was always, but always, so unequivocally supportive of every artist, whether visual or in performance, for whom she truly cared.
And, more than anything else, a woman who would be thoroughly humbled to know what a clear impact she made on the world, simply by being there, sipping her Martini and applauding wildly.
May Janet Sumner, rest in peace, this night and every night.
(Photos courtesy of Kevin McMullan at http://www.kevinmcmullan.com and Eric Larivee)
Welcome Andrew. Having known Janet, I'm sure she would be very pleased. My favorite moment with her was at a back table at The Duplex cabaret when it was still at 55 Grove Street, attending a performance by as we used to know him Michael "Bon Vie" Austin. It was during the big Hawaiian number (don't ya just miss those) when Mr. Austin, as Princess Papouli grass skirt and all, was tossing ripe papayas into the audience, when in his exuberance he lobbed one all the way to the back of the room . It hit the table that Janet and I were sitting at and went "Splat!" all over us. She roared that night! What a great sense of humor she had and what a great supporter of cabaret she was.