Scott Ailing and Jerry Scott performing last weekend at Danny's(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Scott Ailing and Jerry Scott performing last weekend at Danny's
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
We're all hurting. But one of the things we've learned since the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center is that we're not alone. The sense of community within cabaret has become not just a bond, but also a shield. In the days following last week's tragedy, we interviewed many members of what we've begun calling "The Cabaret Corps" for a two-part article, the first part of which appears below. It is our hope that we've captured a snapshot of our communal drama, fear, heroism, pluck, and resolve.

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Stories From Ground Zero

"There's stuff that we saw that we couldn't put on the air because it was too gruesome," says Gina Caruso, Production Manager of NY1. "Most other people can go to work and keep their minds off of this, but people in news can't escape the images. The first thing we do when we go home is cry." Caruso is also a respected cabaret performer. "The last thing on my mind is singing," she admits, "but I need to do this because I need the distraction. And by the time I do my shows in late October, people are going to need the distraction, too."

Erv Raible, a longtime club owner and cabaret icon, felt he had a job to do on September 11. After temporarily being evacuated from his West Village apartment, he made a crucial decision: "I walked down there to see how I could help. At one point, I was on a construction truck around Building #7. At about 5pm, I was looking right into the lobby of #7 and the floors were on fire. At 5:25, somebody yelled, 'There it goes!' The building split diagonally and it just slid right straight down within 15 seconds. A huge cloud of dust and debris came at us and we ran." Safe from that close call, Raible joined a search and rescue team. "They started teaching us how to do CPR, check for spinal cord injuries, how to stabilize a compound fracture, how to stop excessive bleeding."

Later, Raible was enlisted to help unload a bus full of bottled water and boxes of socks. During the night, he delivered coffee to police and firemen and finally collapsed back home at 3:30am. On Saturday, he returned to what he knows best: music. Raible joined with critic John Hoglund to begin putting together a major benefit to raise money for the families of the victims of the attack. (More on this and other benefits can be found at the end of this article.)

Cabaret singer Lynn DiMenna told us of victims she knew all too well. "Our closest friends lost their son on Flight 11," she says. "He was 25. He was on his way to LA. I sang 'God Bless America' at his funeral on Monday." On top of that, DiMenna knew five people who died in the towers. "I have two funerals to go to today and two tomorrow. This is draining beyond all description." The singer has a performance scheduled for October 28 in Stamford, Connecticut. "I'm going to turn it into a benefit," she tells us. "It's the only way I can muster any enthusiasm for it."

The attack on the World Trade Center hit very close to home--literally--for producer/director Ron Cohn and his wife. "I was doing my exercises when I heard the first explosion," Cohn recalls. "I looked out our window [three blocks from Building #7] and saw people running. We were getting dressed when the second plane hit." After the buildings fell, Cohn continues, "It was pitch black and all this debris was circling around the building. We just left with the clothes on our back and the cat and started to head north." Presently staying in a hotel, Cohn says: "I'm going to continue to live my life, no matter what. You have to be resilient. Certainly, the terrorists want to disrupt our normal lifestyle, so we shouldn't give them an inch." For all that he and his wife have been through, his thoughts still turn to cabaret. "If you go back to the Depression and World War II," he says, "the songs were what kept people going. Music and entertainment are going to be more important over the next months and years."

Ron Cohn isn't the only member of the cabaret community temporarily relocated from his home; singer Scott Coulter lives a block and a half from the WTC. "I was in the Path station under the trade center right about the time the first plane hit, heading to Hoboken," Coulter says with a sigh. "When I got out of the train, the WTC was on fire. I called my mother. Then I called my partner, Dave, to see if he had heard from a friend who worked in Tower One. Our friend got out, but we didn't know that right away." Coulter's CD was scheduled to be mastered last week; now, he says, "None of that stuff matters anymore. We have no place to live, but we're safe. And the outpouring of support from the cabaret community has been so great--people have opened their homes for us."

Cabaret star Jack Donahue wasn't at ground zero; but he feared he had lost his friend and musical director Steve Gaboury, who was missing for six days. "I finally heard from Steve on Monday," Donahue relates. "His neighborhood is a war zone, to quote him, and he and his wife fled the city after the second plane hit. He said he didn't trust the air and was going to stay in Pelham, New York for a while." Others weren't so lucky. Donahue wrote to us saying, "I am sad for my friend, whose boyfriend was on the 102nd floor. I am sad for my partner Rich who, the night before, had dinner with his friend Waleed in Boston only to find that Waleed had taken the flight out of Boston to L.A. that proved fatal. I am sad for all those people downtown without homes. I keep picturing the companions of the firefighters and policeman waiting for their loved ones to come home."

The sadness Donahue speaks of pervades the city. "I've been to St. Vincent's and the Lexington Avenue Armory," says cabaret artist Barbara Bleier, who is also a psychologist on NYU's postdoctoral faculty. "I've been meeting with families, helping to locate loved ones." Her advice to those of us unsure of what to do now is simple and direct: "Do what you do best. If you're a songwriter, write a song. It's almost defiance. The cabaret community can give benefit shows. People who lost their homes, their jobs, and their families need money. This isn't going to go away; there will be plenty of opportunities to help."

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How the Major Rooms Have Responded

Several of New York's most prestigious cabaret rooms are connected to hotels. With tourism sharply off, those hotels are hurting, which affects cabaret directly. The season-opening show at Feinstein's at the Regency has been canceled. "We wanted to give people time to heal and grieve," says Tiffany Andrews, speaking on behalf of the club. "It was a joint decision between Michael Feinstein, Cleo Laine, and the Hotel. We figured that, by October 2, the public would be ready, so we're opening then with Susan Lucci. We're going to move Cleo to another date sometime in 2002." Andrews notes that, during Lucci's run, "Feinstein's will be donating a table at every performance for the rescue workers, if they want to be entertained. We're in the process of working out how to funnel those reservations." And just to make it clear that the club is fully committed to cabaret in these troubled times, it has just announced the addition to its schedule of Jimmy Webb and Paul Williams, with special guest Liz Callaway, November 7-24. "We're not slowing down," Andrews says proudly. "We're doing what the mayor asked: Getting back to business."

It will take the Café Carlyle a little longer to open its doors. Julie Zirbel of the Carlyle Hotel reports that Cybill Shepherd has canceled her engagement, and the cabaret will stay dark until singer/pianist Bobby Short returns to the room on October 16. The Julie Wilson Room at The Hideaway, though not connected to a hotel, has two major obstacles to overcome: Not only is it a brand new room that does not yet have a loyal following, it is also unlucky in its location. The room's electricity was rerouted last week, and the club's proximity to the Empire State Building didn't help. "Ninety percent of the people who had reservations for Lainie Kazan canceled," spokesman Bryan Utman notes. "People were afraid. The Empire State had a bomb scare and it was evacuated. Our club was closed all week and lost $60,000," he says. There have been changes and rescheduling due to the crisis: West Coast-based Amanda McBroom canceled her shows in November, but Lainie Kazan stepped up to take two weeks of that three week run. Tom Wopat will perform as scheduled on September 24. KT Sullivan and Larry Woodard are presently playing the Julie Wilson Room.

Other clubs decided to try to keep the lights on and the microphones hot in the days following the crisis. "We want to keep the room open," says Jim Pallone of the FireBird Café. "Economically, everybody is hurting right now, but we want to provide someplace for people to forget for a couple of hours." John Miller, the owner of Arci's Place, points out that "Some people go to church in times of calamity, and some people want to go out. Our customers have been so thankful that we've remained open."

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Cabaret's First Line of Defense: The Piano Bar

The pulse of cabaret can be found in its piano bars. It's in these unstructured nights of suds and song you can hear the heartbeat of the city, in good times and bad. "I was working the piano bar at Judy*s on Friday," says Jonathan Tomaselli. "I wasn't in the mood, but somebody asked me to sing. So I got up there and sang a couple of songs that I thought were appropriate. I did 'The Glory of Love' at a real slow tempo, and then I did 'You'll Never Walk Alone.' Toward the end of the second song, I saw someone near me crying. When I got back behind the bar, he said, 'That's exactly what I needed tonight.'"

Jerry Scott went to work at Danny's on Thursday, doing what he does best: playing the piano. "It was a very somber evening," he recalls. "People were still in shock. Friday night was a little bit better as far as morale was concerned." Among other songs, the crowd sang "God Bless America." "We started the healing process," says Scott. "And Saturday night was even better because people started to come in to sing--like Scott Ailing, who performed 'You'll Never Walk Alone.' I think that as soon as possible, without weeping on the stage, entertainers should begin performing. We can be responsible for making people see that there is some happiness available. It's not wrong to help lift the huge burden that everyone's been bearing."

Says pianist Bobby Peaco, "I'm not even supposed to be here. On the day of the attack I was supposed to go on vacation to Italy." Vacation postponed, he spent the week immersed in the unfolding drama on television, and then "got a shift back on Sunday at Rose's Turn. It ended up being a really positive thing; up until then, I was feeling very useless. What was I going to do? Play piano at ground zero? But I think what we do is going to be really important in the months to come. History shows that there's always entertainment, no matter how bad things get."

Don't Tell Mama's irrepressible piano bar entertainer George Sanders says, "I'm going to fly as much as possible to make sure that people know it's okay to fly." As for his outrageous musical comedy routines, he says, "I don't think I'm going to change anything. I'm supporting the U.S.A. I'm business as usual."

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Benefits in Abundance

Cabaret benefits will be coming fast and furious, in all shapes and sizes. Entertainer/director Lennie Watts reports that "Lori Fisher is doing her show at Don't Tell Mama and making it a benefit for Firemen's Relief. I think a lot people are going to do that." Right he is: Scott Barbarino, Leslie Anderson, and Luke Sandford will be donating all tips they receive at Rose's Turn (55 Grove Street) on September 24 to The American Red Cross.

On a larger scale, The Storefront presents ARISE, a benefit for the World Trade Center Relief Fund, also on September 24 at 8pm at the Metro Baptist Church, 410 West 40th Street. Tickets will be available at the door, and the suggested donation is $20. Scheduled to appear (so far): James Beaman, John Bucchino, Natalie Douglas, David Friedman, Amanda Green, David Gurland, Michael Holland, Robin Lyon, Karen Mack, David Sabella, Stephen Schwartz, and others. For more information, contact Phil Geoffrey Bond at phil@storefronttheatre.com

And, on an even larger scale, John Hoglund & Erv Raible present HeartSong: The Heroes' Concert at the Bottom Line (15 West 4th Street) on Monday, October 8 (two shows, at 7:30 and 10:30). This benefit for the families of fire, police and emergency services workers killed during rescue efforts at the World Trade Center will feature include performances by Christine Andreas, Bea Arthur, Charles Busch, Ann Hampton Callaway, Liz Callaway, B.J. Crosby, and Lea DeLaria.