A Brief History of Cabaret in the USA

9th Sep 2019

A Brief History of Cabaret in the USA

While you may think of cabaret as being an American creation, its name tells us otherwise. Cabaret is a French word that originally referred to any business that sold alcohol. In fact, cabaret as we know it today probably started in Paris when a casual saloon known as Le Chat Noir opened its doors in 1881.

In this informal setting, musicians, composers, poets, and artists met to discuss ideas and share their creations. Performers enjoyed trying out new material, and audiences were entertained for just the cost of a couple of drinks. The arrangement worked well for the saloon owners too, who were guaranteed a steady flow of customers.

It wasn't long before other cabarets opened all over the city. By 1900, similar venues appeared in other French and German cities. Cabarets became popular so quickly that soon, performers found themselves scheduling their entertainment.

Cabaret had an informality that appealed to audiences of the day. They loved that they could sit at small tables enjoying their drinks and even a meal while the performers entertained them just a few feet from where they sat. Often, members of the audience were drawn into the show as they interacted with the performers on stage.

Cabaret in Europe

After the First World War, cabaret became even more popular in Germany as the Weimar government practically revoked any form of censorship. Berlin became the center of the cabaret scene, attracting audiences and performers from all over the world.

Show content varied, with anything from satiric sketches, transvestite acts, and torch songs, (slow, sentimental songs of unrequited love,) were enjoyed by hundreds of guests every night. Audiences wanted to set aside real life for an evening, and these shows, along with a few drinks, helped them do so.

But cabaret also had a touch of intellectualism, which appealed to the elite of the upper classes. By the time the Nazis rose to power in 1933, cabaret was in full swing. But it did not take long for the fascist regime to clamp down and within a few months, any sign of the cabaret scene had all but vanished.

Cabaret in the USA

In the America, cabaret was less intellectual and more glamour oriented. Around 1910, former New York restaurants like Reisenweber’s and Shanley’s in downtown manhattan joined in on the act and quickly achieved the status of legendary cabaret joints. Soon, dance floors became as much a part of these establishments as the suggestive costumes of the performers. Costume items could include cabaret vestscabaret leotards and much more.

In 1913 a law was passed that required Manhattan’s establishments to shut their doors at 2 am. In response, several 'members-only' venues were organized to outsmart the new rule and stay open however late they liked. These venues became the first of what we now know as “night clubs.”

Cabaret as Escape

The first Paris-style cabaret in the US was Sans-Souci on 42nd Street. Its trademarks were late opening hours and a more sophisticated clientele. The club pushed the boundaries of on-stage sexuality with live acts that catered for the more sensual desires of both men and women.

Sans-Souci offered audiences a chance to escape from the responsibilities of home, business, and family, at least for a while. Dancing became one of the main attractions enjoyed by an easy-going mix of gender, race, and class. As can be expected, the more conservative members of society like church ministers and religious groups condemned such places as immoral.

Cabaret and Prohibition

The passing of the Volstead Act in 1918 almost brought the cabaret scene to its knees. The legislation, known as Prohibition, banned the sale and consumption of alcohol across America. But as usually happens with such drastic legislative measures, cabaret fans kept calm and carried on.

Illegal 'Speakeasies,' sprang up all around the country. These discreet venues continued to sell alcohol, and they provided opportunities for social intimacy, which made them extremely popular. Of course, the music survived too. It was ironic that a law designed to curb the public's enthusiasm for 'a good time' inadvertently created an environment that was ideal for America’s cabarets to flourish.

The Rise of the Nightclub

With the end of Prohibition in 1933, many former speakeasies grew larger and more alluring. Hundreds of customers in formal attire could be accommodated at any one time. By popular demand, these candlelit clubs with cabaret tuxedoed waiters and glamorous artists staged performances in the cabaret tradition.

But just before the Second World War, audience's attitudes began to change. They preferred more intimate spaces again that had 'atmosphere,' and where they could drink expensive cocktails. New York laws meant that any venue that sold alcohol was also required to serve food. These places were called “supper clubs.”

The ambiance in these clubs was one of dim lighting, lots of cigarette smoke, and great performers. These often overcrowded clubs usually featured a solo singer on a tiny stage, a single spotlight, and, if they were lucky, a microphone. Acts consisted mostly of jazz or Broadway-style pieces, with the music becoming raunchier as the night grew longer.

Cabaret in New York

It was around this time that several of New York’s clubs became legends. They included Tony’s, famous for its authentic Italian food, and Café Society for its unsegregated audiences, and acts like the legendary Billie Holliday. Many great names that are so familiar today, such as Barbara Streisand, were first showcased in the cabarets of New York. In such a small space, performers had to be top of their game because audiences could see their every move.

Times were changing though, and the advent of rock and roll music turned everything on its head. Popular tastes changed profoundly, and the majority of smaller clubs simply couldn’t afford to pay for the big names. Many had to close their doors for good.

Gay Pride

In the late 60s, however, an awakening in the gay community called for its own style of entertainment, creating a market once again for intimate night clubs. One example of such a venue was The Tubs on Broadway. Bette Midler regularly put on sensational, albeit informal performances here, attracting both straight and gay couples.

The next few years saw a resurgence of small clubs opening in Manhattan. The 1970s movie 'Cabaret,' starring Liza Minnelli, led to these cozy nightspots being called cabarets. These casual, but elegant clubs generally had fewer than a hundred seats. Audiences could dress in tuxedos or jeans, and feel quite comfortable in either.

Cabaret Showcases

By the 80s, club owners had become greedy. They no longer wanted to pay for hiring performers. Acts were now 'showcased' and had to pay for their own musicians and marketing, earning not much more than a percentage of the club's cover charge. Many aspiring cabaret stars paid out thousands of dollars with little hope of ever really making it into the big time. This system proved disastrous, as it meant that only wealthy performers could afford to appear on stage.

The Death of Cabaret?

Another development that had a detrimental impact on cabaret back in the 80s was the specter of AIDS. The prevailing attitude was no longer “anything goes”. Home video took off and people opted for quieter forms of night-time entertainment. The trends forced lots of smaller, independent clubs to shut.

Where does all this leave cabaret today? Most of the uptown venues only host big names, while almost all of the downtown clubs have disappeared. The bottom line is that there’s no big money being made in cabaret today. Even hugely talented performers barely make enough to get by on.

The Show Must Go On

The US cabaret scene no longer produces new talent for musical theatre as it once did. The number of venues has dropped hugely, and the remaining clubs charge patrons almost as much as a show on Broadway. But there's always hope. Cabaret has revived itself many, many times in the past, and every year, hopeful new faces still tread onto a tiny stage, trying to beat the odds. Probably because people will always dream, and of course, the show must go on!