Remembering The Oak Room – The Crown Jewel of Cabaret

By MARILYN LESTER****On its website, The Algonquin Hotel rightly acknowledges itself as “one of the most historic and famous hotels in New York City.” Its history is rich, stretching back to 1902. It was the home of the illustrious and celebrated literary Round Table, aka “The Vicious Circle,” and is still home to the famous “house cat,” Matilda, who presides daily in the hotel’s lobby as well as at the Annual Celebration & Cat Fashion Show. But sadly, the Algonquin’s glory days are largely over, and in 2012 the legendary Oak Room cabaret faded into the hotel’s fabled past, robbing New York of yet another popular and prized entertainment venue.

The Algonquin Hotel opened with an intent to curry culture. Its location on West 44th Street was chosen for its proximity to the Hippodrome, the theatre on Sixth Avenue, as well as the Metropolitan Opera, and other entertainment venues for vaudeville and legitimate theatre. The first owners of the hotel were Albert T. and Ann Stetson Foster of Buffalo, NY, whose involvement was short-lived. Algonquin manager Frank Case took over the lease in 1907, eventually buying the hotel in 1927. Under Case’s leadership, the Algonquin Hotel accrued more connections to the arts than any other hotel in the history of New York City. Case attracted writers, editors, actors, artists, singers, musicians and other cultural and show business luminaries, fostering the establishment of the Round Table in the Pergola Room in 1919. In 1939 the Round Table moved to the Rose Room and the Pergola Room became the Oak Room Supper Club, with European chanteuse Greta Keller headlining. Almost immediately the cabaret became a premier hot spot, only to be shuttered during World War II, bringing the Oak Room Supper Club’s potential for early greatness and distinction to an abrupt end.

In 1946, the now legendary, culturally enterprising Ben and Mary Bodne bought the hotel – but still the Oak Room remained dark. It wasn’t until 1980, after five years of pitching the idea, that Donald Smith, a publicist and promoter (and later founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation) persuaded the Bodnes and their son-in-law, hotel manager Andrew Anspach, to reconsider. With Steve Ross at an upright piano under a single spotlight, the Oak Room finally made its debut and was an immediate success. Arthur Pomposello, who served as the maitre d’ and also as the Entertainment Director at the Algonquin Hotel for most of the Oak Room’s life, remembers Smith. The two had met years earlier while working day jobs at the B. Altman Department Store. Smith’s inclination, he remembers, was to employ those he was promoting. But when Pomposello started booking entertainment, Smith took umbrage. “I may have stepped on his feet, but you can’t stick just with people you know,” Pomposello says. “It’s not good business.”

Arthur Pomposello (above) may know where the bodies are buried. Click here to read all about it. 

The Oak Room was perfect for cabaret – small and intimate and cozy. With its dark oak paneling the room could have passed for a library or music room in an English country estate. Since the stage was at the center of one of the two long walls, achieving audience rapport could be a challenge. Pomposello notes that playing to the entire room involved plenty of swiveling and turning, yet it was a situation well met by those proven and talented enough to grace its stage. With the success of  the room’s reopening, a grand piano was soon installed, signaling the start of successful appearances by A-listers such as Michael Feinstein, Harry Connick, Jr., Jamie Cullum and Diana Krall. Many entertainers were propelled to fame by their appearances at the Algonquin, and a new home was made for a clutch of cabaret stars, such as Julie Wilson, Andrea Marcovicci, Barbara Carroll, Karen Akers, and KT Sullivan, to name a few.

Whereas KT Sullivan wasn’t a newcomer when she made her Oak Room debut, that venue played a large part in the development of her career. Her many appearances there helped build her reputation as one of the world’s leading cabaret artists – and her eventual leadership of the Mabel Mercer Foundation (on the death of Donald Smith) and of the annual Cabaret Convention concerts sponsored by the Foundation. Careers were made there, too, thanks to Pomposello’s vision and canny knack for spotting talent. Through a three-decade run, the Oak Room glistened and glimmered in high style and distinction. Its one dark moment was the demise of 74-year-old Sylvia Syms, who died in 1992 during a performance, collapsing at the feet of composer Cy Coleman. “It was the worst night in the room’s history,” Pomposello remembers. “Just terrible.”

At the end of the Bodne era in 1987, ownership of the Algonquin Hotel passed through several hands, all of whom kept the Oak Room going. Succeeding the Bodnes, the Aoki Corporation purchased the hotel, selling it in 1997 to a partnership between Olympus Real Estate Corporation and Camberley Hotels. Eventually, management style evolved and Pomposello was being undercut as a booker. “In my eighteen years there,” he says, proudly,” The Oak Room never lost money.” A particular incident still irks him. Management insisted on booking one young man who was not up to Pomposello’s standards for the room. “He had a lot of potential,” Pomposello notes, “but he wasn’t ready yet – not sophisticated enough.” Feeling disrespected, Pomposello stepped down from his position at the hotel in March 2002, surprising many with this seemingly abrupt action.

In June 2002, Miller Global Properties bought the hotel, partnering with Marriott International in 2010. Miller Global sold its stake to Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers in 2011, a sale which signaled the beginning of the end for the Oak Room. In January 2012 the Oak Room and Blue Bar were closed for renovation, and on February 2, 2012 it was announced that the Oak Room would not reopen. Part of it was taken to enlarge the hotel’s Blue Bar, while the rest was slated to be “repurposed” as a breakfast space for Marriott Reward Elite travelers. It was a move that didn’t surprise the long-gone Pomposello. “The Bodnes truly understood cabaret,” he says fondly. “The others simply did not.”

The end of the Oak Room was greeted with much sadness and chagrin. On Monday, October 1, 2012 jazz journalist, writer and historian, Will Friedwald, with TV personality Bill Boggs, produced Remembering the Oak Room: A Musical Tribute by Its Headliners at New York’s Friars Club. The 90-minute program featured performers associated with the Oak  Room (such as Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Akers, Barbara Carroll, KT Sullivan, Steve  Ross, and others) with Pomposello a chief participant. The tribute was a heartfelt response to the closing of the room, an evening when both mourning and celebration could be freely expressed – for another nightlife institution had fallen. The Oak Room was now a memory along with other hallowed venues of entertainment – Rainbow and Stars, the Copacabana, the Latin Quarter, the Stork Club, El Morocco, the Embers, and hotel rooms such as the Plaza’s Persian Room, the Waldorf-Astoria’s Hideaway and Empire Rooms, the Stanhope’s Rembrandt Room, the Biltmore’s Palm Court and Feinstein’s at the  Loews Regency. Yet, among them, it’s the Oak Room that’s the crown jewel of cabaret, shining radiantly as the best and the brightest of them all.

photo of Arthur Pomposello: Victor Giganti