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Clubs Urge Locals to Come Hear the Music Play

October 15, 2010

An otherwise inconspicuous air duct at the back of the Fairmont Hotel’s ornate Venetian Room harbors an important piece of local cultural history. There, the names of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Tina Turner and other great vocal artists who performed in the club were etched — reportedly by a hotel technician — onto the surface of the ventilation conduit.

Now, those names are a reminder of the Venetian Room’s glory days. It was there, in 1962, that Tony Bennett first performed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

On Sunday, the 350-seat supper club is scheduled to reopen as a cabaret after mainly being used as a site for weddings since it closed in 1989. The producer, Bay Area Cabaret, hopes to rekindle the club’s old magic.

“There are people like me that haunted the Venetian Room like ghosts and longed for those days of elegance to return,” said Marilyn Levinson, the founder and executive producer of Bay Area Cabaret. “While we cannot bring the cigarette girls, nightly performances and dancing back, we can recreate the atmosphere.”

The return of the Venetian Room as a space for small-scale, “martini-in-hand” live performances by big-name artists — the Sunday gala features Marvin Hamlisch and Maria Friedman, the Olivier Award-winning British performer — represents the latest development in the Bay Area’s quiet yet burgeoning cabaret scene.

Fueled by a devoted local audience, diversified programming and the efforts of determined presenters, cabaret in the Bay Area is shedding its image as a niche performance format synonymous with crooners singing standards from the Great American Songbook in front of a few nostalgic septuagenarians and a dozing bartender.

The Rrazz Room at the Hotel Nikko has helmed the local push to redefine cabaret.

The 186-seat space, which opened in 2008, provides it’s a snug atmosphere and table service. But the year-round programming rotates among top cabaret names, like Andrea Marcovicci and Bobby Caldwell, and stand-up comedians, drag queens and pop singers. Established local cabaret artists like Russ Lorenson and Connie Champagne perform there, as do up-and-coming talent that might otherwise mostly be booked into gay bars and black-box theaters. On Oct. 29, Katya Smirnoff-Skyy, a drag performer, will delve into the Beatles’ songbook.

“I don’t necessarily call us a cabaret, though we have cabaret acts,” said Robert Kotonly, the Rrazz Room’s co-owner and programmer. “We go from Lil’ Kim to Dame Cleo Laine to Sandra Bernhard.”

Chad Jones, a San Francisco-based arts blogger who follows cabaret closely on his blog, said: “The alternative cabaret scene always operated independently of the more conventional scene. But now we’re starting to see the fringe element dipping into the mainstream.”

The economic challenges of maintaining the programming for year-round live music in a small space partly explains the diversification strategy of presenters like the Rrazz Room. “The face of cabaret has changed, and the Rrazz Room has moved with it to stay in the game,” Mr. Kotonly said.

The demise in 2008 of San Francisco’s previous cabaret nightclub, the Empire Plush Room at the York Hotel (which Mr. Kotonly co-owned before opening the Rrazz Room), as well as the Octavia Lounge, one of the city’s few remaining piano bars, devastated the local cabaret community.

“The Octavia Lounge was the perfect place to debut your first show,” said Carly Ozard, the up-and-coming San Francisco cabaret artist who developed her skills at piano bars like the Octavia Lounge and Martuni’s and is bringing her Freddie Mercury tribute to the Rrazz Room on Oct. 22 and 23. “Rrazz is the big time, and Martuni’s is a place to try out a song. But with the loss of the Octavia Lounge, there’s little middle ground.”

Though a new space dedicated to emerging cabaret artists has not yet appeared, other presenters are latching onto the format. The small-scale monthly event by San Francisco Performances at the Hotel Rex features Leah Crocetto, an operatic soprano, performing cabaret repertoire on Wednesday. 42nd Street Moon, a producer of classic American musicals, presents Rebecca Luker, the Broadway performer, singing Jerome Kern numbers at the Alcazar Theater on Oct. 28. For the next six Saturdays, the Exit Theater hosts Susie Butler, a jazz singer, performing Sarah Vaughan songs. Meanwhile, regular cabaret nights and the annual Cabaret Showcase Showdown at Martuni’s continue to fuel the art form.

The flowering of the Bay Area cabaret scene ultimately suggests an enduring hunger for the close-knit exchanges with performers that the format is optimally positioned to provide.

“Cabaret takes away the fourth wall that big venues tend to put up between the performer and the audience,” said Frank Dain, the editor in chief of Cabaret Scenes, an industry magazine.

Donald Smith, the executive director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, a cabaret service organization based in New York, added, “If the artist knows what they’re doing, it feels like they’re singing specially to you.”



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