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BWW Feature: Women's History Month: The Trailblazers

These women set the stage for all the women of cabaret, then and now.

BWW Feature: Women's History Month: The Trailblazers

March is the month when people celebrate women, specifically the history of women. Every year for thirty-one days people look at and acknowledge the women who have come before, and the accomplishments of their lives. During this month this year, Broadway World Cabaret has maintained a focus on the women currently working in the nightclub industry. You could dedicate each day of a single year to one woman working in clubs, cabarets, and concert halls and probably not talk about all of them. That's ok, though: that just means there are always new women, interesting, talented, wonderful entering the industry. That's a good thing because the contribution of the female artists to the art form has (and continues to) proven invaluable, educational, and always entertaining.

Even as Broadway World celebrates the women who are making music and making history for today's audiences, there is no way to let Women's History Month come and go without actually spending a few minutes talking about the women of the industry who did make history. Of course, no list is ever comprehensive, so please forgive us if your favorite isn't featured in this article. We are fairly confident you will enjoy this year's list of women who blazed trails in cabaret.

Pearl Bailey started her career singing in (per Wikipedia: the black) Philadelphia nightclubs before relocating to New York to do the same kind of work. Eventually, Bailey won the Tony Award and became a household name but was always hailed as one of the great nightclub entertainers. Because of television appearances on variety hours, everybody in America knew and loved Pearly Mae.

Kaye Ballard became a club circuit star at the young age of twenty, thanks to her clear-as-a-bell voice and incomparable skills at comedy, talents that she fused together to entertain sold-out houses. Always shy about her looks, Ballard steered (mostly) clear of ballads, believing the audiences would only respond to comedy - in the clubs. On the Broadway stage, Ballard was so accomplished an actress that the audiences fell at her feet from moments like her "Lazy Afternoon" - a famed ballad that she was the first to sing. Later in her career when she had a stronger sense of who she was than she did at twenty, Ballard's work in clubs became whatever she wanted it to be... and the people came.

Laurie Beechman was an actress on the Broadway stage possessing one of the most unique voices of all time. Her downtime from performing in plays led her into the cabaret rooms of Manhattan and she became one of the powerhouse performers who brought the crowds to the clubs. There is a Cabaret Theater named for her in Midtown Manhattan and people still talk about her as though she was just on the stage a moment ago.

Barbara Carroll was a staple of New York City nightlife. Dubbed "The First Lady of Jazz Piano" the singing pianist was a regular at Birdland but most famously Carroll spent a quarter of a century playing at Bemelmans Bar at the Cafe Carlyle. When she died an article in the New York Times referred to her as a Pioneering pianist, but to everyone who knew her, she was the coolest there ever was.

Mary Cleere Haran was a devoted cabaret singer, proud to be associated with the art form. Breaking from the more universal format of simply singing a set of songs, Ms. Haran created shows that more closely resembled one-woman plays for theatrical settings. During her heyday in the clubs, before an untimely death, Mary Cleere Haran was considered to be one of the best.

Rosemary Clooney held a special position in the music industry. One of the greatest singers of all time, Clooney dominated the recording industry, excelled on television, played solo acts and a famous group show with some girlfriends, and is featured in one of the most memorable nightclub scenes in one of the most adored films of all time. And those Coronet commercials...

Blossom Dearie had a unique voice, light and airy, and a determination that led her through all her life. Easily moving between New York, London, and Paris, Dearie developed a respected reputation singing in bands, starting vocal groups, playing piano, recording albums, singing for commercials, and frequenting the Supper Clubs of Manhattan. In the Seventies, Blossom Dearie became an even bigger part of history with her contributions to School House Rock, and during her later years, playing at Judy's, Blossom was occasionally known to have people taking pictures from the audience removed from the room. Holy Patti LuPone, Batman.

Baby Jane Dexter was a true original with a voice that shook the walls, whether she was singing or laughing. After beginning her career in the Seventies, Baby Jane took a long hiatus from the stage, returning only after being inspired by a final wish from friend Vito Russo, and that return to the stage gave audiences joy for three decades. Baby Jane was a champion at overcoming adversity with grit and a smile... and at speaking at entertaining, extemporaneous length.

Phyllis Diller tried her jokes out on the PTA moms until, at thirty-seven, she dipped her toe in the nightclub waters. A two-week engagement stretched on for eighty-seven weeks and Phyllis Diller was a star. One of the first female comics to become a household name, Diller had to make up her own style, act, and business model because there were no other female comics to look to for inspiration. By doing it all on her own, she became the role model for all the women who came after her, many of whom name her as their inspiration.

Tammy Grimes may have been a Broadway star but that came after she was a cabaret legend. With her wildly eccentric style and fascinatingly whimsical vocal abilities, she conquered the club circuit, right out of the gate, when her debut show at Downstairs at the Upstairs landed her in both Life and Time magazines. Even after achieving fame on Broadway, Tammy Grimes never stopped playing the clubs, to her dying day.

Carol Hall may have started as a musical theater actress and the composer of one of the most popular musicals of all-time but when she decided to go into cabaret, she found a new audience and a new voice. No cabaret act felt more intimate and personal than a Carol Hall show and as a result of those shows, more singers wanted to sing Carol Hall songs. Because those songs rocked.

Hildegarde once held the distinction of being the singer who had sung for more kings and more presidents than any other. She ruled the industry as The Queen of the Supper Club with elegance, style, and a wholesome quality that was very popular when she was at her peak. As the times changed, Hildegarde's signature styled stayed the same, as she remained in the game and the community right up to the end, and those wholesome jokes grew corny, and she knew it, and she winked when she said them, so you knew she knew it.

Billie Holiday is a singer of such legend that there is little to say about Lady Day that isn't already known. More known as a jazz singer than a cabaret performer, Holiday started out in the nightclubs of Harlem, where producer John Hammond heard her and made her a recording star. In her life, Holiday played everything from dive bars to Carnegie Hall but her personal struggles cost her much. The subject of plays, movies, and books, Billie Holiday is hailed as one of the greats, if not the greatest.

Alberta Hunter started out singing in bordellos and dive bars but through sheer determination, she made her way to the top. The journey from those bordellos to the cafes and ballrooms is when she built up a following through her improvisational skills, but once she found success, she found that Europeans treated her with dignity and respect, which she really appreciated. A star of the clubs and the recording industry, Hunter retired and went into nursing for a few decades before returning to the stage in the Seventies, discovering that audiences still wanted to hear her sing, which she did for the rest of her life.

Eartha Kitt didn't quite get it right her first few times up to bat on the cabaret stage, can you believe that? Not completely sure what her aesthetic was going to be, she found herself in a setting that didn't mesh with what she had to offer. Then Miss Kitt moved to a more upscale joint, finessed what she was doing in the show, and she was a nightclub singer for the rest of her life, always returning to the small rooms from musical theater, film, and television. Maybe that's why "I'm Still Here" and "So Here's To Life" sounded so good in her hands... she knew what those songs meant.

Nancy LaMott has developed a legendary status since her death, which she would have done if she had lived. She was on a track to be one of the greats and everyone knew it. Twenty years later, everyone still knows it. She IS one of the greats - she just played a limited engagement.

Peggy Lee paved the way for the women of the industry. As a singer and songwriter, she made all the rules by which she lived and worked, fighting for equality in a male-dominated world, becoming a role model for every woman who wanted to stand on her own two feet in the same way. Miss Peggy Lee was the model of what a woman could do as recording artist and nightclub performer. She even took on a rather litigious mouse in a court... and won.

Dorothy Loudon wanted to sing seriously but noted cabaret "Svengali" Julius Monk saw something different in her and the impresario groomed her as a comic singer and a star was born. Loudon brought an individuality to her acts that would carry on into her theatrical life as she filled a niche made more famous by YouTubers searching "Dorothy Loudon Vodka" and her now-famous performance of "Losing My Mind."

Moms Mabley started in the nightclubs of Harlem before moving into the Chitlin' Circuit - a vaudeville route for black entertainers and audiences. She rapidly gained fame with an outrageous character that gave her leave to say almost anything in her comedy acts. Eventually landing on stage at Carnegie Hall and on television, Loretta Mary Aiken was one of the first openly gay comics, coming out at the age of twenty-seven. In 2013 the documentary Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley was released on HBO and a new generation of fans was born.

Marin Mazzie brought her Broadway star power to the concert stages and the cabaret stages, making Feinstein's/54 Below her intimate artistic home. Whether performing solo or with her best duet partner, husband Jason Danieley, Marin defined romance in music - but she didn't stop there. Whatever the genre of music, the comedy or tragedy of the story, or the rhythm of the beat, Marin Mazzie was one of the brightest lights ever to shine in a room, whether designed to seat fifty or five thousand. Marin Mazzie lived out loud.

Mabel Mercer went from being in the chorus of a London musical to being the toast of Paris, in just two short years. With her inimitable style of interpreting songs (and enviable elocution), Mabel Mercer took her European acclaim to America during the second world war, becoming a star of the Supper Clubs and concert halls, with fans as famous as she was always supporting her craft. The recording industry did right by Ms. Mercer in the Sixties and Seventies, keeping her artistry relevant for a public that stayed interested in her. One year before her death she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To this day she is known as The Godmother of Cabaret.

Portia Nelson sang in nightclubs on both coasts in the Forties and Fifties alongside other performers who would achieve wider fame than she, but the ever-tenacious Nelson continued to work as a writer and songwriter, picking up acting gigs playing small parts in famous movies, In later years, Nelson reclaimed her roots in New York cabaret as a benevolent matriarchal figure, supporting younger artists, providing them with songs to sing, and occasionally singing for her own enjoyment. A cancer survivor, Portia Nelson always stood for endurance... with strength, dignity, and grace... inspiring everyone who knew her to the same.

Kay Thompson brought her spellbinding skills as a Hollywood music arranger to New York in one of the biggest Supper Club acts of all time, Kay Thompson and The Williams Brothers. The madcap and marvelous Thompson had skills, onstage and off, that captivated everyone. With her writing and creation of the show, she took nightclub acts to a new level, and with her dizzying onstage performance, she set a standard to which performers still aspire today. After all, how many singers attempt the Kay Thompson Jingle Bells arrangement at Christmastime? All of them, because it's essential.

Margaret Whiting stepped far out of the shadow of her famous father and carved out a career all her own. Ms. Whiting took her artistry to every area of the music industry - recording, radio, television, clubs, and the musical theater stage, even teaching the craft of cabaret as the Artistic Director of the Cabaret and Performance Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Nancy LaMott once said that Margaret Whiting was a cabaret singer's best friend. She was right.

Julie Wilson stood and still stands next to Mabel Mercer as the two most influential women in the art of cabaret. While Mercer was known as The Godmother of Cabaret, Wilson was called The Queen of Cabaret. The appellations were accurate and these women will be revered, thus, until the industry exists only of people who never saw them perform live. No artist before or since had Julie Wilson's way with the art of storytelling in song. Also, nobody was as effective as being a beacon of light to one community - Julie Wilson went to everyone's show, had her photo taken with anyone who asked, remained gracious and kind, and a member of the community until it was no longer possible. She is still a member of the community.


This article was aided greatly by using James Gavin's excellent book INTIMATE NIGHTS - THE GOLDEN AGE OF NEW YORK CABARET for research.


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