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Eighty Eight's: The Party's Over- Now What?

In an extraordinary outpouring of love and support, the cabaret community turned out in droves to celebrate Eighty Eight's, which officially closed last Sunday. The crowds spilled into the street, blocking traffic (just as they did on opening night!). This was one of the city's most important cabaret venues, and will be greatly missed. Sadly, after nurturing rising talents and presenting top acts for almost 12 years, the club closed for economic reasons. (For details, see the news pages in our May 7 issue.)

As Margaret Whiting put it, "Erv Raible did an amazing job booking some of the most talented people. And so many went on to such great acclaim."

For those of us lucky enough to have enjoyed many magical nights filled with a bounty of new, rising, and established talent, the closing of this vital cabaret and piano bar is especially sad. That this mecca for talent will not be part of the nightlife scene is unimaginable.

Award-winning singer-songwriter Tom Ander-sen, whose acclaimed shows and exposure at Eighty Eight's led to major bookings, said Eighty Eight's "will live on in our hearts because Erv Raible created an unforgettable place for our music and memories." Similar thoughts were echoed by many in attendance, as cabaret artists and supporters came to say goodbye to an old friend. Powerhouse singer Baby Jane Dexter jump-started her career at Eighty Eight's after a long hiatus from performing, and became known for very successful extended runs. She declared, "If the cabaret community is a family, the main dish has been removed from the family's dinner table."

This lamented closing is a stunning blow to the cabaret community. Not since the days of Reno Sweeney has a nightclub enjoyed such consistent popularity or produced such an abundance of talent. Eighty Eight's also provided the right touch of old-time nightlife elegance mixed with a slightly risqu Village flavor.

In spite of the fact that co-owner and cabaret manager Erv Raible likened the closing to "a death in the family," this party was more like an Irish wake than a funeral. The night turned into a gala celebration of song, tears, and laughter. The zealous crowd had to be there. Nobody wanted to leave. It was hard to say goodbye. "This is a wonderful club," stated Liza Minnelli. "The talent here is amazing. I've always loved it here-and hope I'll be coming back soon."

Over the years, the upstairs cabaret has hosted a dazzling array of artists. Many of them went on to Broadway shows-including Sally Mayes and Sharon McNight, who both earned Tony nominations. The list boasts many performers who started there, and/or later returned after achieving great success elsewhere, including David Campbell, Claiborne Cary, Charles Cermele, Julie Halston, Jeff Harnar, Angela LaGreca, the late Nancy LaMott, Heather Mac Rae, Karen Mason, Tom Postilio, Billy Stritch, Bill Wright, and Sarah Zahn. There were revues like "Closer Than Ever," Martin Charnin's "Loose Lips"-both versions-Erv Raible's "Here's to Our Friends," "Erik and the Snowmaidens," and Mary Rodgers' "Hey Love."

Heather Mac Rae's Bistro- and MAC Award-winning show, "Songs for My Father," was the last performance. The packed room was filled to capacity with a great crowd that even included 92-year-old Fay Wray.

Downstairs was mobbed way beyond capacity. Lina Koutrakos and Bobby Peaco entertained the room as many special guests got up to the mike, paying homage to Erv Raible, Karen Miller, and Rochelle Seldin.

Finally, Erv gave a touching speech gratefully thanking the staff, the press, and the customers, closing with, "Tonight I feel like the most loved person in the world." The ovation he received was deafening. With Raible's uncanny talent, public relations expertise, and definitive knowledge of booking and managing a club, I suspect he'll be opening a new window soon. This is the man who previously owned The Duplex, Brandy's, and Don't Tell Mama. He also co-founded MAC and served as its president for 13 years.

I want to acknowledge Erv's longtime partners, Karen Miller and Rochelle Seldin, too, who ran the piano bar at Eighty Eight's. And the most loved waitress-hostess in the city, Maggie Cullen. Many good wishes go to these great people.

So, let's talk about the state of cabaret today. Over the past few years, several prominent rooms have closed-among them, The Ballroom in Chelsea (replaced by Catch A Rising Star, which also closed recently), the New Village Gate, Upstairs at Greene Street, J's Jazz Club, and of course, Rainbow & Stars. Additionally, Maxim's and the Chestnut Room at Tavern on the Green suspended their cabaret shows. New York's only "cabaret" radio station, WQEW, was sold to Disney with its target audience becoming preteens who faint over Hanson. What does this mean to cabaret today? Does all this signal the end of an era? Will cabaret ever be the same as many have come to know it?

There are no easy answers. I am optimistic because I am acutely aware of some amazing new talent out there on the brink of discovery. However, in all honesty, cabaret is in a crisis: Too many room closings. Too many performers gone from the scene.

Changes are on the way: Rising talents like Lisa Asher, Bobby Belfry, Patrick DeGennaro, David Gurland, Steve Kowalcyzk, Jenifer Kruskamp, Karen Mack, and Lennie Watts play cabaret venues and offer pop/rock-style shows with loud bands that are anything but intimate.

Ultimately, I believe there are choices ahead. Some may feel that cabaret has become comatose. But it is not dead. The reason cabaret sustained itself for so long is that, by its very nature, it provides performers with a milieu that is unique in the entertainment industry.

If cabaret is in the midst of an evolution, it may find its legs in other kinds of venues-possibly theatrical. (Recently Vicki Sue Robinson went from Eighty Eight's into The Kaufman Theater. Fez is a new-style theatrical cabaret space with a restaurant. Joe's Pub is a cabaret connected to a theatrical space.) One thing is obvious: Cabaret will find a way to exist-however it must.

I believe there is an audience out there who loves good music and appreciates great entertainment. I cite Andrea Marcovicci's following as the definitive example. She consistently sells out lengthy engagements, and the number of her admirers keeps growing. Betty Buckley, Rosemary Clooney, Michael Feinstein, Mary Cleere Haran, and Bobby Short are similarly popular.

Perhaps Rosemary Clooney had the right idea. The night after Frank Sinatra died (May 15, 1998), she said at Rainbow & Stars, "This is the first time in my life that I've ever taken the stage when Frank Sinatra was not a part of this world." She then paraphrased Mark Twain's famous quote, saying, "The news of the king's death is greatly exaggerated-and I refuse to believe it." Then she sang James Taylor's "The Secret of Life." Like Sinatra, cabaret has long "enjoyed the passage of time."

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