Night #3 of the Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention – the Once and Future Age of Cabaret

By MARILYN LESTER*** When Wednesday night Cabaret Convention host James Gavin wrote Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret (originally printed in 1991 and reissued in an updated, expanded version in 2006), he chronicled a social history of New York City nightlife. Specifically, Gavin wrote about cabaret mainly in the 1950s and ’60s, with some reference into the 1970s and ’80s. His presentation at the Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention bore the title of the book and through narrative and song, sought to recreate some of the performances of that Golden Age. There were performers who were part of that age described by Gavin, notably Ronny Whyte, Barbara Brussell, Charles Cochran, Laura Kenyon and Liliane Montevecchi. Others were charged by Gavin to stand in for the entertainers of the time who are now long gone. Among this troupe were Natalie Douglas, Sidney Myer, Charles Busch and Maude Maggart.

Gavin makes a case for a Golden Age of cabaret, but then again, it seems there’s a Golden Age for just about every genre of entertainment, from Hollywood to television to jazz to you name it. It’s true that in the era discussed there were many more clubs and outlets for entertainment in New York, but is that the sole criterion for a Golden Age? Is our culture truly in decline? What the term connotes is nostalgia. And upon that phenomenon psychologists have much to say. It’s a study – and apparently there is a neurological basis for our individual and collective need for nostalgia. The dictionary defines nostalgia as a feeling of pleasure and sometimes slight sadness thinking of events of the past. It’s further defined as a sentimental longing with wistful affection, typically for a time or place or period with happy associations.

Curiously, in times not that distant, nostalgia was looked upon as a serious mental disorder! We’ve come a long way from that “diagnosis,” but there is still derision of this activity. Scorn is aroused in some who judge nostalgia as a pining for imagined greatness by those who can’t accept the present –  who long for something lost, never had to start with or even never existed or will never come again. We think of Charles Busch closing out Act One of the evening with that anthem of nostalgia, “Those Were the Days” with its lyric, “we thought they’d never end.” The point of view reflects what’s been lost as the singer bravely confronts the burden of growing old.

But there is something far greater in nostalgia than this maudlin point of view. Nostalgia is now thought to be a very necessary and positive activity. Researchers have come to regard it as a natural, common and strengthening emotion. As a means of time-traveling beyond the confines of time and space, nostalgia can be an antidote for feelings of disconnectedness or meaninglessness. It can provide roots and a sense of continuity of life. In one experiment, researchers played hit songs from the past to subjects and had them read favorite lyrics. Afterward, these people were more likely to report the exercise made them happy, stating they felt loved and felt that life was worth living. So, more than a “grass is greener” feeling that it’s always better somewhere else, sometime else, having a Golden Age can connect us in a positive way.

Cabaret in the United States really took hold in the speakeasies of prohibition, growing up in the jazz age and marching strongly forward until World War II knocked the socks off the world. The post-War era was ripe for growth, expansion and prosperity. Cabaret was ready to ascend again and, like other forms of entertainment, it did. The genre flagged in the 1960s, and bounced back in the 1970s. But cabaret was not alone in facing challenges. There were those who decried the future of the film industry, for example, when television entered people’s living rooms. The fact is that things come and go, there are ups and downs to life, and we are all subject to cycles be they in nature or man-made. Generations come and generations go. The march is relentless. The question may be: How will future generations regard our present era of cabaret? Are we in a Golden Age and don’t even know it? Will future chroniclers rhapsodize over the great and legendary Sidney Myer, for example, whom Gavin rightly introduced as the most beloved man in cabaret, hands down?

The fact is that, even with diminished venues in which to perform, the men and women who inhabit the world of cabaret today are the equals of those who went before. Add to that the amazing work of modern songwriters who are adding to the American Songbook beyond the classics of Ellington, Porter, Berlin, the Gershwins and others of a bygone, pre-War era. Keeping this music alive is the stalwart cabaret community. In introducing James Gavin, Mabel Mercer Foundation Artistic Director KT Sullivan again made reference to founder Donald Smith’s concept of cabaret as a “fragile art.” If this is true, cabaret is a fragile art with a backbone of steel – with many more Golden Ages in its future.