Finding Cabaret Venues–Some Ideas

As I mentioned in an earlier post here, I’ve been reading Mabel Mercer’s biographies, and I have been thinking about the types of rooms where Mabel played.  I am hoping to get some ideas, by looking at what worked in the past, that might help us today in finding a great cabaret venue.  I wrote a post here a while ago about the characteristics of a saloon singer, but it also talked a bit about what a saloon is, which is an important idea for this post as well.  I’ve jotted down some notes taken from the Mabel Mercer video from her performance at Cleo’s in New York City, as well as anecdotes provided in Midnight at Mabel’s:  The Mabel Mercer Story by Margaret Cheney, and Mabel Mercer:  A Life by James Haskins, concerning the types of venues where Mabel performed, what they felt like when you walked in, what they looked like, the types of people who worked at the venues, and the people who populated the audience at various times.

These are some phrases that help to describe what a good cabaret venue is like:

As a description of Tony’s, a club where Mabel played:

  • an intimate rendezvous
  • catering to the smarter set
  • 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
  • murals on the walls
  • the hat-check girl knew most patrons by name
  • bartender could serve any kind of drink
  • a piano and piano player at the back of the club, performing during dinner
  • the club owner as host–kind of a character
  • a very dignified place
  • the music style played in the room:  romantic, touched the soul
  • patrons whose well-being–psychic and financial–depends on being seen in the right place
  • There is a comfortable “I have been here before” feeling that makes every patron realize how lucky she or he is
  • a small club with a tiny stage
  • 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
  • if there is 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
  • According to Cheney, the audience at Tony’s was ” . . . favored by journalists, theatrical folk, students, princes and chic homosexuals . . . . other singers and musicians.”
  • Mabel performed by sitting in a chair up by the piano onstage.

The place where cabaret performance happens, when you are in the presence of Mabel Mercer, seemed 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 a few days ago.  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.)

Bricktop’s, named after Mabel Mercer’s friend and business partner who owned several famous clubs, most notably in Paris, which went by her nickname of Bricktop, was described anecdotally:

  • Bricktop handled the business end of the club, and Mabel was the host.  Both women sang, but Mabel developed a loyal following for her singing talent. 
  • Patrons at these early clubs in Paris were the rich–included royalty from around the world, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and many others.
  • 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.”
  • It was at Bricktop’s that Mabel developed her signature style of personal, intimate performance.  Part of the problem she faced was that she did not have a powerful voice, and so could not be heard to the back of large rooms.  She at times used a megaphone so she could be heard, but eventually she started going into the audience, sitting at their tables with them, and singing a few songs for them, then moving on to the next table and repeating the process. 
  • Mabel greeted the patrons at the door of the club, welcoming them in.
  • Cheney writes that “The new Bricktop’s was conceived and executed in high style. . . . . The room’s spectacular glass dance floor was illuminated from below.  It was framed by patent leather curtains and other dramatic touches, the dominant colors of the tables and banquettes being red and black.  As elite guests moved around the floor they could admire their own long shadows, courtesy of lighting by the designer Hoyningen-Huene, and survey each other’s gowns, created by the leading dressmakers of Paris and London. . . . Mabel’s charm and genuineness in this smart setting melted even the most jaded millionaires, whose jokes she laughed at unless they were off-color . . . . She sometimes sipped champagne with the guests but was careful not to play favorites.”

In The Cabaret Artist’s Handbook, Bob Harrington mentions about getting started in cabaret venues:

  • Contact comedy clubs and see if they ever have cabaret artists in to perform.
  • Performers themselves form the baseline audience for cabaret.  The artists, their friends and supporters.  Eventually, the public will jump on the bandwagon.
  • Some successful cabaret performers started out with one- to two-night bookings.  When regulars started coming to the clubs, there was a shift to extended bookings for performers who began to develop followings based on talent rather than personal acquaintance.
  • Some other places where cabaret artists can find venues to perform are at private parties, on cruise lines and at colleges.
  • The venue should help to support what Harrington thought cabaret was, in essence, a heightened form of personal communication in a world where too many messages come by Fax machine.  Cabaret connects audience and performer in a mutual embrace meaningful to those able to open themselves up to the experience.  Good cabaret feels real.  A good cabaret show is an hour of unadulterated attention to the audience.  It allows for intense rapport with the audience and an individuality of expression.

From the video Mabel Mercer:  A Singer’s Singer, concerning saloons, or cabaret venues:

  •  ”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.”

 What I take from this is that a good cabaret venue is a place where intimacy and personal performance can occur.  Any place that is too big or caters to too noisy of a crowd would not be the best venue, for example.  However, a good cabaret venue is a place where the audience comes to participate by being ready to be moved by the music and thus entertained.  The right room depends upon the audience and the mood that the performers set as well as the physical space.  Some of the places may not be the most posh, but when the performers grace it with dignity, style and humor, it can transform a venue into something much more than just the four walls of a room.

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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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