Ask A Cabaret Question Wednesday At McElrath Cabaret–How Do You Create A Saloon Atmosphere In Your Cabaret Show Venue? Join the Conversation!

This is Matt Howe from the Yale Cabaret Convention from 2010.  I totally agree with his opening patter, but he does a fantastic job of changing my mind about that through his acting of the lyrics of this well-known pop song.  This is an example of simple and honest being best.  Howe has upcoming performances of his new show, “I’m Hip,” in Maryland and Washington, DC.  Enjoy!


Wednesday is the day of the week when we at McElrath Cabaret will post a cabaret question for the consideration of our readers.


The questions will have something to do with cabaret, in all its many aspects. The question may take the form of a poll, to which we encourage you to respond, or it may be a question posed to the cabaret community, to which you can leave your response in the comments section at the bottom of the page.


We encourage you to send us any cabaret question that you have that you would like us to pose to the group! You can leave a question in the comments section below, or you can email it to us at kjandathenacabaret [at] Just fill in the [at] with the @ symbol—we need to foil the spam bots, don’cha know.


Today’s question is this:  How do you create a “Saloon” atmosphere in your cabaret show venue?


In reading about and listening to interviews with some of the great American cabaret entertainers, such as Bobby Short, Sylvia Sims, Julie Wilson, Mabel Mercer and so many others, they often speak of being “saloon singers.”  If we, as cabaret entertainers of today, want to try to emulate the best of the past with the best from the present, it makes sense to think about what a saloon was, and how we can create that type of atmosphere in our performances today.

From an early post, here is a quote about what a saloon is:

Frankly, there is a difference between saloons and to know what constitutes a good saloon singer you have to know what a saloon is.  A saloon is very different from a place where you go to have cocktails or even a nightclub.  A saloon has an overtone of familiarity.  It’s like a comfortable chair, you know.  There is a coziness about it.  In a saloon you feel a friendliness with people that makes them feel that they are a part of you.  You become very close with your audience in saloons.

Some of the creation of this special type of atmosphere is up to the club owner, but a part of it comes from the people performing and the audience response.


Some more information about what a saloon atmosphere felt like (this earlier post contains my references for the notes below) when you were a part of it.  I’ve placed in bold some of the words below that have been used to describe a saloon when a great cabaret entertainer is there:

  • an intimate rendezvous
  • a place that attracts struggling actors, artists and writers because there is no cover or minimum, but who remain loyal when they become well-to-do
  • a piano and piano player at the back of the club, performing during dinner
  • a very dignified place
  • the music style played in the room:  romantic, touched the soul
  • There is a comfortable “I have been here before” feeling that makes every patron realize how lucky she or he is
  • sing the songs that the club patrons want to hear, and sing them in a way that causes them to believe we are singing those songs just for them
  • Before 11pm–tables set up all over the room and dinner is served (because this was in New York, and so Broadway shows start at 8 and run until 10:30 or so, so you could see a show and then head over to a club afterward)
  • The cabaret show begins at 11pm, after the dinner crowd leaves.
  • the audience shouldn’t talk while the performers sing
  • the number of songs performed depends on our mood and how many people are there
  • (speaking of Mabel Mercer) if there was only one person in the audience, Mabel would go sit with them and sing 4-6 songs, stop for awhile, and when new patrons came in, she would sing again.
  • There was cabaret performance from 11pm until 4 am, off and on
  • When Mabel Mercer performed, the atmosphere in the room was described as feeling like:
    • a chapel
    • there was an aura of calm and protection
    • magic
    • people came to absorb the atmosphere of calm, peace and security (This would have been quite important because she did a lot of singing during the time of both World Wars, and developed a big following of GIs who heard her perform in Europe, and then looked for her when she came to America to perform.)

    When Mabel talked about venues that she liked, she said (I’m paraphrasing here):

    • “I prefer to stay in one place.  It’s the only way people know where to find you.” (As opposed to moving from club to club, which at times she had to do as well in order to find enough work.)
    • A room that holds 50 is about right
    • A room not spread out, so the audience can be as close to us as possible.  (As an aside, I noticed this aspect put into full effect during the Judy, Frank and Dean video I reviewed.  At the end of the performance, Judy was in a theatre-in-the-round setup, and even though the audience looked to be quite large, nevertheless she was as close as she could be to them all physically, because she was in the middle of the crowd.)
    • from Cheney:  “Nightly, lives were changed by her music.  The pure bliss of the experience transformed the privileged listeners.  Her music proclaimed that tenderness, humor and beauty were not just luxuries, but everyday essentials for life’s great struggle.” (my bold)
    • Mabel greeted the patrons at the door of the club, welcoming them in.



So how do you create a saloon atmostphere in your cabaret show venue? What steps do you take in the process?  I truly look forward to your joining the conversation with your comments, and any help or suggestions you have on this topic! We value each of our readers very much, and hope to entertain you and give you a place to come and learn more about cabaret.


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ps–The Cabaret Soiree Link Party is still going strong–you can visit anytime to click on the links and see what others have posted, or you can share your own recent cabaret blog or now website link from now through Thursday.  Link is below.


Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:

Mondays:  Cabaret Soiree Cabaret Blog Link Party

Tuesdays:  Cabaret Tip Tuesday

Wednesdays:  Ask A Cabaret Question

Thursdays:  Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer

Fridays:  Cabaret Through Time


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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
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