© 2022 WRVO Public Media
Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Requiem For A Cabaret: The Oak Room Closes

The entrance to the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in New York City.
The entrance to the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street in New York City.

New York's historic Algonquin Hotel has been famous for a lot of things: the roundtable where some of the greatest American wits, from George S. Kaufman to Dorothy Parker, held forth in the 1920s and '30s; generations of cats — named either Hamlet or Matilda — who haunt the lobby; and, since 1980, the Oak Room, one of New York's most loved cabaret spaces.

When Marriott purchased the hotel and closed it for renovations early this year, they announced that the Oak Room would not be reopening — instead, it will be a lounge for preferred customers.

Singer Andrea Marcovicci was kind of a lifer at the Oak Room. For 25 years she performed there, surrounded by its burnished wood panels and ornate wall sconces.

"When you walk into the Algonquin, automatically the atmosphere is like walking back in time," says Marcovicci. "Therefore, when you walked into the Oak Room, people were already prepared for listening to the music you sing."

The Church Of American Popular Song

More than 3,000 New Yorkers have signed a petition circulated by songwriter Enid Futterman asking for the Oak Room to reopen. Cabaret historian James Gavin says it was a church of the pre-rock 'n' roll American popular song.

"The Oak Room, through the years, presented a lot of performers who are simply the best at what they do; who were unrivaled at weaving a cozy, intimate spell that really made you feel as though you were part of an old-time New York elite," says Futterman.

Among the singers who performed at the Oak Room over its three-decade history were Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall and Michael Feinstein. Singers liked performing in the Oak Room for a reason, says Barbara McGurn, who started as the cabaret's publicist and took over as manager in 2001.

"In the Oak Room, the performers are right on top of the audience," says McGurn. "It's the intimacy, and I think that's always been the case."

But that doesn't mean it was easy.

"Everybody thought it was the greatest room to get into, until you're actually in it!" says Marcovicci.

Marcovicci got together with her protege, Maude Maggart, to reminisce.

"And then you realize you have to perform like you're on a lazy Susan," says Marcovicci.

"That's right!" says Maggart. "Constantly turning, turning, turning until you feel insane!"

'The Subtlest Move Can Be The Grandest Gesture'

That's because the stage was in the center of a rectangular space, with only a few customers in front of the singer, so performers frequently had to turn left and right to connect with the audience. Still, Maggart says she found ways to adjust.

"The subtlest move can be the grandest gesture, you know, because the audience is so focused in on you and what you're saying, what you're sharing with them, what you're revealing about yourself and about them, too," says Maggart.

It wasn't just the room. It was the people who worked in it.

"Our waiters are legendary," says Marcovicci. "I adore them all, but it was just almost inevitable that our waiters would decide to pour an extra glass of water during the most ..."

"Lots of ice!" says Maggart.

"... with, yes, extra ice," says Marcovicci, laughing. "And almost inevitably during [sings] 'They asked me how I knew ...' "

"Click, click, click, click," Maggart mimics ices falling into the glass.

" '[Laughs, singing] my true love was true.' Click, click, click, click! Right?" says Marcovicci.

Intimacy Comes At A Price

Both Marcovicci and Maggart say they cherished the intimate relationships they developed with the audience. Every year they were witness to birthdays, anniversaries and marriage proposals.

After every show, Marcovicci says, "We sell our CDs in the lobby, we meet people in the lobby, and we genuinely have audience members that come right up to us, hug us after the show: 'May I hug you?' "

Still, such intimacy came at a price. Historian James Gavin points to the Oak Room's high cover charge and food and drink minimum. That meant it had a limited audience, and add to that the cost of staffing it.

"The economics of cabaret are simply ridiculous," says Gavin. "I think that these places break even, at best."

While Marcovicci is feeling sad at the moment, she says, "You started in the Oak Room, you will have learned what you needed to learn about cabaret for the rest of your life. So, that room may be no more, but anyone who played in the Oak Room has learned a lesson."

And, she adds, cabaret never dies, it just migrates. Indeed, right after news of the Oak Room's closing, there was an announcement of the opening of a new cabaret club in Manhattan. Called 54 Below, it opens next month with singer Patti LuPone.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.