Whenever a cabaret club closes, there is a special sadness in this rarified musical world. When two high profile clubs close their doors within a short time, alarm bells go off. With the shuttering several weeks ago of the FireBird Café and, just last week, Arci's Place--two elegant, much admired performing spaces--a dark cloud has descended over the cabaret community. It may be Cabaret Month on the calendar, but some folks are surely thinking that this is hardly a time to celebrate. Or is it?
Davis Gaines, who was scheduled to perform at Arci's Place in May, has an optimistic view of the situation, noting owner Arci's own John Miller's announcement that the club will re-open in the summer in a new and larger space in the theater district. "I'm disappointed that my gig was canceled," says Gaines, "but I'm looking forward to the bigger and better room that's been promised." He observed that, in an odd coincidence, the Cinegrill in Los Angeles is also closed (for renovations). "It's happening everywhere," he says with a wry laugh. "I know it looks bad that these rooms aren't available, but they're both remodeling and improving--and that's actually a good thing for cabaret."
More resigned than depressed, Audrey Lavine also takes a long view of the cabaret landscape. "I played the Ballroom, Ted Hook's, Freddy's," she says. "They're all gone and other clubs came along to take their places. The same will happen now. While it might seem dismal--I was supposed to go into the FireBird in March--you have to be resourceful and constantly keep your eyes open for a place to perform." Nonetheless, Lavine laments, "The thing that's so frustrating is that the FireBird had the perfect location. If they had turned the room into an after-theater place, it could have been a great club. What a lost opportunity!" (Following her own advice about regrouping, Lavine can now be seen on Sunday afternoons at Judy*s.)
Another optimistic performer is Tom Andersen. "I've been here for 10 years and I've seen many a club close," he says, "yet I've seen many a club open. There are just too many people who love the art form, so I firmly believe that there will be more places opening in the future. I'm going to miss the FireBird but I'm really looking forward to seeing all the folks at the new Arci's."
Amanda Green, on the other hand, no doubt captures the concerns of many in cabaret when she says, "There are fewer and fewer rooms to perform in and to see others perform. I'm still trying to understand what it says about the state of cabaret in general. Is it that the economic formula just doesn't work and, like non-profit theater, needs subsidizing? Even at moderately priced clubs such as the FireBird and Arci's, patrons pay $50 or more per person. The owners have to contend with silly Manhattan rents. Performers make bupkes or slightly less. What's wrong with this picture? Why is cabaret so often financially punishing to all concerned? These closings raise a lot of questions."
David Gurland concurs with Green. "In the grand scheme of things it is a blow to all of us that there are fewer places to perform," he says, "yet we cannot succumb to this as if we were animals facing extinction. Though I don't know specific details, my initial reaction is that both rooms were their own worst enemies; even at that level, they were just too expensive. But I think we will prevail as we always do and keep finding other performance spaces that might be a little more non-traditional. I don't think this means cabaret is dead--it's just morphing."
Nancy McGraw knows a few things about cabaret clubs, having been an owner and operator (of Steve McGraw's, The Triad, etc.) for years with her husband Steve. "I dream of a cabaret space maintained and subsidized on a not-for-profit plan," she says, "modeled on the success of New York theater companies such as Manhattan Theatre Club, the Roundabout, and Second Stage. Then a cabaret could survive the brutal costs of real estate and Con Ed in this town."
There is no question that cabaret exists within a delicate financial framework. The closing of two major clubs can seem like a body blow, but it's clear from the comments of these and other people in the community that there is confidence for the future of the art form. Somehow, some way, these gallant entertainers will find a way to make their voices heard.