Feature: SALON Offers a Safe Space at Don't Tell Mama

By: Aug. 05, 2019
Feature: SALON Offers a Safe Space at Don't Tell Mama

I recently did some undercover reporting. It wasn't dangerous or glamorous, like Hunter S. Thompson or Nellie Bly, though it was both alluring and scary at times. I infiltrated the cabaret community to see what it's like being a nightclub singer - and I had a really good time, but I don't want to do it again. I don't know how cabaret performers do it. It's exhausting and it's expensive. You spend all your time promoting yourself, you pay musicians, press reps, photographers and dry cleaners, and every day you run the risk of waking up with a cold and no voice, and an obligation to sing. It's nerve-wracking. Still, these artists continue to produce art for a willing audience: they do it for love of the art and of the audience. It begs the question, though, when a cabaret performer doesn't have a show to do, how do they keep their skills up? How do they continue to grow without spending precious earned cash on an expensive master class?

They go to Salon.

Salon is a weekly open mic night created by Maestro Mark Janas in 2005 that is still running 14 years later. Born out of "Talk of the Town" and The Algonquin Hotel, Salon is a safe space for singers, musicians, writers and artists to spread their wings, try new things and hone their craft, free of judgement and critique, something all artists need, especially in a time when negative opinions run rampant on everyone's social media pages. In the last 14 years Salon has had more than one home and different producers but the open entertainment is currently cozily presented by Don't Tell Mama and produced by powerhouse performer Tanya Moberly, and with a crackerjack team of dedicated craftspeople, weekly, they accomplish their mission to provide a safe zone for the cabaret community to flourish. The way it works is this:

Artists arrive on Sunday nights at 7 pm and sign up to perform. At 7:30 Mr. Janas and Ms. Moberly welcome all, explain the rundown for the night and bring on a guest co-host to introduce each of the acts, as well as perform five numbers of their own. As an added bonus, at the end of the first half, virtuoso classical pianist Janas presents his "Classical Corner", in which he plays and deconstructs a famous piece of classical music. The fee for the evening is ten dollars. TEN DOLLARS! For three hours of singing and music, sometimes comedy or storytelling (there is a discount for students, and there is a $15 food/drink minimum), this is a big bang for your buck -- this is a great deal, made even greater if you should choose to perform because you're singing, and you're singing for peers who know your struggle and your joy. On nights I have attended I have seen some truly impressive acts from talents ranging from MAC award winners like Joan Jaffe, Bobbie Horowitz, and Josephine Sanges to Salon team members David Ballard, Joshua Bennett, Steve Bustamante, and Candice Oden, and there have been co-hosts (each week) like MAC award winners Tim Cahill, Goldie Dver and Meg Flather. Anyone and everyone is welcome to share and to shine, and it's a beautiful thing to see.

Except until recently, I had never heard of Salon.

I've been a member of the cabaret community for a while. In the '90s and early 2000s, I was a photographer, making photos of people like Nancy LaMott, Baby Jane Dexter, Dorian Woodruff, Richard Skipper, Anita Gillette, and Karen Mason. I've been a patron at all the clubs. And when I made the mid-life crisis decision to try singing in one of the clubs, I chose Don't Tell Mama, where I met Tanya Moberly, who asked me to co-host a night of The Salon. That's the first time I heard of the 10 time MAC award-winning series, a shame because it is worth knowing about, and worth talking about. I said yes, naturally, because I wanted the full cabaret performer experience before I hung up my microphone to, instead, write about the artform for BroadwayWorld, and what I found was a community. The members of the New York cabaret scene welcomed this dilettante onto their stages and into their arms, and while I was performing my co-hosting duties at Salon, missing the high notes and forgetting the words, the more seasoned pros laughed, cheered, and applauded. Off the stage afterward, these veterans thanked me and offered encouragement. For those scary crazy three hours that I play-acted like a nightclub performer, I felt safe and I felt welcome, the exact two things a nervous performer needs to feel when they hit the hot spot on stage and take that tentative step into a new number they haven't sung before. Ms. Moberly produces a heck of an entertainment every week, with a team of "Mamettes" to help the evening run smoothly, and "Blogettes" to recount the night on the Salon website (the bloggette on my night was the great Janice Hall), not to mention expert technicians behind the video camera and inside the light booth. It's quite a Herculean feat for Moberly, and it's no wonder she keeps winning all those awards, as does the show's host and creator, Mark Janas, and it's a good thing, too, because the gentleman is as charming as he is gifted, putting singers at their ease and providing perfection in accompaniment to their musical storytelling, to say nothing of his own offering in his "Classical Corner". The entire experience, as an audience member or as a willing participant, was one brimming with elegant humanity, and I am fortunate in that, finally, I know about Salon and can go any Sunday and watch these artists ply their craft. As the saying goes "You rest, you rust" and there isn't a lot of rust showing at The Salon.

There is a famous poem by Shel Silverstein that starts "If you are a dreamer, come in..." that I think represents, perfectly, what The Salon has to offer - offer its audiences, offer its performers, offer an art form that some have said is dying, but isn't. The Salon stands ready to take in anyone who crosses its threshold at Don't Tell Mama and give them three hours away from the harsh realities of the world, three hours of creativity and humanity, three hours of smiles, laughs, tears and all the emotions in between.

And, if you work it right, a little danger and glamor.

In the days after my Salon experience, I caught up with Tanya and Mark for a quick interview on the series that will celebrate its 14th birthday on August 20th.

Mark, how does it feel, having created something like Salon and seeing it last all these years?

MJ: I'm amazed and honored. To know that something that started quite by accident could have filled such a need, helped so many performers in the quest for artistry, and become a vital part of the cabaret and Broadway communities is very moving for me. Though you may not go to the stables and pick out the horse you want to ride, when a fast one comes along, it's usually best to hop on. And what a wonderful ride it has been!

Tanya, what's the most rewarding thing about being a part of Salon?

TM: One is community. Salon is family. The other is not only having a place to 'work out' (I always refer to Salon as my 'gym') but also witnessing the continual growth of all of our artists.

Mark, did you ever think it would last this long?

MJ: I guess I'm a bit surprised now that I think of it, but I'm overjoyed by how long we've remained vital. I plan to stick with it as long as it helps others and serves the community.

Tanya, what's the most outrageous thing that's ever happened on stage at Salon?

TM: We've had some pretty spectacular and outrageous performances - Rev. Yolanda, Richard Skipper as Carol Channing, Vicki Von Tassel as Co-Host changing costumes with every single singer interview. For Salon's 13th anniversary, called Salon's Bar Mitzvah, I sang all of the parts of Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love. Adam Shapiro and Janice Hall Co-Host our Halloween Salon and always have amazing songs, costumes and surprises.

Mark, you travel a lot for work - do you have any kind of separation sadness when you have to miss an installment of Salon?

MJ: Sometimes while on tour with Len Cariou or Kathleen Turner, Sunday night rolls around, a night one often doesn't have a performance on the road, and I'll call and tell them I miss them and I'll be back soon. But I also know it's healthy for the Salon, as there are many, many fine pianists in this wonderful city, and for singers to be able to get up and on the spot adjust to and appreciate the individual styles of those many pianists is a crucial part of their acumen. It's exactly what they must do in most any theatrical audition these days, and Salon is great practice.

Tanya, Salon sees a lot of cabaret celebrities each week - who is your most frequent guest of note?

TM: It's pretty exciting to have people like Len Cariou and Kathleen Turner come to Salon to work out their material. We've also had Karen Mason, Norm Lewis, Sharon McNight, KT Sullivan, Sidney Myer, the late, great Julie Wilson .... Lots of other amazing talents.

Mark, what's your favorite piece of classical music to deconstruct for Classical Corner?

MJ: That's a bit like asking what my favorite Beethoven sonata is. The answer is always "Whichever one I'm listening to at the moment!" One of my teachers and mentors was Leonard Bernstein, and he was always teaching - every time he was on the podium, or was having an intimate conversation about music, he was teaching. You can't be around that and not get the bug. I love teaching. Just ask my Manhattan School of Music Opera students from the last 19 years.

Tanya, I'm a tourist visiting New York and looking to see some authentic Manhattan cabaret -- tell me why Salon is the choice I need to make.

TM: Salon is the best thing in town. Not only can anyone show up and sing a song, people are also welcome to just come and sit, and relax and enjoy an amazing show. The atmosphere is welcoming and nurturing, the talent is vast and varied, never mind great food and drink.

Salon is presented (select) Sunday nights at 7:30 (Sign up at 7 pm) at Don't Tell Mama, 343 West 46th Street, reservations www.donttellmamanyc.com or 212-757-0788 (after 4)

For specific schedule and all information on The Salon visit https://markjanasthesalon.com/

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