The Oak Room is Closing

- February 3, 2012

”Famed cabaret in the Algonquin Hotel ends its 32-year run…”

A small piece in the New York Times from this morning caught my eye late tonight – just before midnight, actually.  “End of a Cabaret Era: The Oak Room Is Closed for Good,” it read. In it, the author, Stephen Holden, described the end of this legendary cabaret in a rather perfunctory, and I feel, dismissive way. 

Here is his obituary in its entirety:

“After a 32-year run, the Oak Room, the fabled supper club and cabaret at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in Manhattan, will no longer operate when the hotel reopens in May after an extensive renovation, the Algonquin’s general manager, Gary J. Budge, announced on Thursday. He cited declining audiences in spite of “top-notch performers.”

In its three decades, the Oak Room was the venue of choice for artists like Andrea Marcovicci, who celebrated her 25th season at the club  at the end of last year, as well as Karen Akers, KT Sullivan, Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap, Steve Ross and Barbara Carroll, who established a successful Sunday jazz brunch series. The club also gave important exposure to younger performers like Maude Maggart and Emily Bergl.”

That’s it…that’s it? After all those years, just 13 lines, 127 words, 636 characters. The old dame deserved better.

Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, at least spoke more reverentially about this event and about The Oak Room itself and its history. Teachout, who was also the librettist for Paul Moravec's opera “The Letter,” which premiered here in Santa Fe in the summer of 2009, wrote of The Oak Room’s closing in his blog, About Last Night.  In the blog, he refers to an earlier piece he wrote about The Oak Room. It is a wonderful read, even though he makes the classic mistake of referring to Grand Central as “Station” when it is really “Terminal.” I’ll forgive him that minor gaff – at least this time. You can read Teachout’s lovely send-off piece here.

On the scale of important things in one’s life or the arc of life in a bustling community like Manhattan, The Oak Room’s demise might not seem like much – a tiny ripple in the onward surge of daily life. But for a New Yorker, even a long-ago- ex-Patriot, it is a big deal. I last visited The Oak Room about four years ago to hear a young singer, Tony DeSare, hold forth with the likes of legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli as one of his sidemen. Actually, DeSare is a singer/songwriter/pianist/arranger like so many other cabaret performers (I’m listening to him right now). DeSare was 28 at the time and I have shoes older than him, but he was already a mature cabaret performer. One wonders why a young musician might be drawn to such a narrowly-focused career choice when even one of the Meccas of the style closes. But, there is always the Carlyle and, look at Michael Bublé.

For me, the choice was easy. I was a young drummer, more likely to be playing three-chord Rock n’ Roll a block away at the Peppermint Lounge on 45th Street on Chubby Checker’s dark night or hanging out at the Five Spot Cafe, down on the Bowery, listening to Monk. Note: In this context, cafe does not have an accented é, despite what my word processing program wants. Joints like the Five Spot didn’t deserve that distinction, despite the extraordinary talents that labored there six nights a week. But, as a young musician, I just knew there was more for me in music and I gravitated to gigs at cabarets like One Fifth Avenue, The Living Room on Second Avenue or Downstairs at the Upstairs over on 56th, between Fifth and Sixth (New Yorkers never refer to Sixth Avenue by the pretentious name, Avenue of the Americas).

The internal chord progression of my own musical career became more and more complex as I moved on through jazz and into classical music, which was to be the core of my career for the next 40 years, relegating cabaret to the after-hours corner of my life. Yet, I am still a fan.

We are blessed here in Santa Fe to have a flourishing presence of this unique performance style in the person of David Geist, who holds forth at the Geist Cabaret on the second floor of Pranzo Italian Grill, thanks to owner Michael O'Reilly. Long live cabaret and thanks Pranzo!!!

David is usually at the piano in his namesake room on Friday, Saturday and Sundays from 6 to 9 p.m., but be sure to check the schedule at Pranzo's website, as David sometimes has guest artists visiting.

Of course any discussion of the Algonquin, brings to memory the Algonquin Round Table. A rich subject in and of itself, I’ll speak of it more, later.