Front and center on Page One of the entertainment section, a photo of me sitting on a grand piano above Doris Duke’s wigged head. The caption: “Local Cabaret Singer performs at Doris Duke’s Birthday Party.”
The morning after, my phone started to ring. Two bit agents from Worchester to Woonsocket who’d ignored my phone calls for years suddenly wanted to “sign,” “book, and/or “coach” me.
“Been troyin’ to catch yup wid ya” said Bert of the Bert Benson Theatrical Agency. “How’s it going? Got your press kit awhile ago. Got some ideas for us.”
“Hey babe.” Some guy from Taunton. “I’ve been talking to my Boston people. You know the Starlight Room at the Ritz Hotel? Laine Kazan? She’s played there. I booked her there.”
It had taken me thirty years of entertaining in ill suited second-rate venues to realize that I didn’t want to perform in ill-suited second rate venues. It didn’t suit my temperament or I.Q.
Generally, singers are, for lack of a better word, dumb. Except for a very small percentage, people in the entertainment industry are vapid, narcissistic, vain, and moody, with lousy S.A.T. scores. Perpetual denial and the worthlessness of their pursuits make them mean-spirited. Two percent of show biz types make a living, the rest of us become assholes for a hundred bucks a night.
Fed up, I told Bert Benson that I wanted such and such amount of money for a gig.
“Nobody gets that price around here” said Bert. “The stars of the Newport Jazz
Festival don’t get that price.”
I repeated the price. I said it was non-negotiable.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re a nobody! You’d be lucky to get—“
I hung up.
It felt good, not wanting a gig and not feeling guilt for giving up. People asked where I was singing, and I would say, “Nowhere, I’ve failed.”
“Nobody fails unless they stop trying.” I was reminded.
“Fine. I’ve stopped trying.”
I had a couple of great weeks at home thumbing through grad school catalogues, not taking a shower, making diet quiche, watching Disney movies with my daughter. Then I got a call from the owner of an Italian restaurant on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Donna, with a heavy accent, had seen the newspaper photo. She offered me Friday nights for three months, good money, a contract, and was willing to advertise in the Globe. Soup to Nuts Dinner and drinks were included, which meant I could entice my best musicians. She wasn’t a booking agent and didn’t call me “Baby,” so I accepted.
My first Friday at the restaurant went on the books as the hottest night in Boston since 1898. At seven in the evening, it was 97 degrees with 100 percent humidity. Donna decided to set up a make-shift cabaret in a renovated basement that looked like a dentists waiting room with a bar. She covered a dozen little tables with red checkered cloths, lit candles and turned off the fluorescent lights.
“You see?’ she said. “I make magic!”
As my pianist, Ken and his friend the bass player stuffed themselves with pasta and fine red wine, Donna and I lugged a sandwich board with my name on it to the sidewalk.
“It is all about advertisement” she explained. “Look, people are already here.”
Although early, several people were waiting at the front entrance, sweating.
Donna, a fire hydrant in her bright red Chanel suit, waved her arms above her head. “Come into Ze Cabaret, my friends!”
Desperate for relief from the evening heat, the people filed into the foyer but hesitated when they felt hotter air hit their faces.
“No worries! I will turn up air conditioner! Come in, Come in” said Donna.
The air conditioning system had exhausted itself. Buttery tepid air smelling of garlic and Clorox spewed out as people funneled down the stairway and stuffed themselves into the café chairs at the tiny tables, hip to hip and knee to knee. More chairs were brought down by the one waitress and bartender. More people arrived. Many more. They sat on the stairs, on the floor, on laps, fanning themselves with napkins, unfastening buttons and ties, whining for drinks. Italian opera blared from the Muzak speakers. Donna, balancing precariously on her Italian leather spikes, toddled from table to table with trays of ice water. The crowd was miserable and it was time to get up and sing.
I opened with “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Sighs from the audience. Donna and the waitress rushed to refill the water glasses and took drink orders. The chef and prep cook hurried down from the kitchen with plates of steaming calamari and mini-pizzas.
“All is on the house!” screamed Donna. “Eat and drink!”
The bartender poured booze freely into lines of plastic glasses, barely keeping up with the hands grabbing them off the bar.
After a few ballads and several stiff drinks, people gave up. Drunk and punchy, swaying in the suffocating heat, they seemed to converge into a boiling sea of human soup. The dead air was tense with sensuality, a mix of cologne, crotches, booze and olive oil. No one got up to leave. With people using the exit stairs as bleachers, there was no subtle way out. It was too hot to move anyway.
Bra straps unfastened, shirts unbuttoned, skirts hiked to thighs, the room was a co-ed steam-bath. Gay and lesbian couples, aroused, grinned and held hands. The more staid Bostonians kept their heads down and their drinks to their noses.
Two handsome gay men at a front table sang along as I began Cole Porter’s ‘Too Darn Hot.’ I skipped to the ice machine and filled a bread basket. I dropped a cube down my front of my dress. Big response. Big cheers.
“Well, according to the weather report, every average man you know.
Likes to take his lovely dovey to court when the temperature is low.
But when the thermometer goes way up, and the weather is wickedly hot,
Mr. Pants and his romance, are not, because its, Too Darn Hot!”
I danced around the room dropping ice cubes down people’s backs. I swept at their hot necks with my cold fingers. Giggles of delight, a couple of chuckles. Temporarily cooled down, the audience realized how miserable they were. They were trapped in a sweltering, suffocating basement with a blocked entrance eating bad pizza and drinking triple strength alcoholic beverages. Why? They’d seen an ad in the Boston Globe, something about Doris Duke, jazz, Northern Italian food.
The collective attitude of the audience shifted. They hadn’t signed on for this. They crossed their arms and legs and sat back in their seats. They were ready for a spectacle, a performance worthy of their suffering. As the ice cubes melted down their hot backs, down their legs, into shoes, they were not only hot but wet. Donna filled more bread baskets with ice.
I tried to keep the ice trick going awhile longer, thinking I could win the audience back. I dropped a piece of ice down the back of a large, thick man with a crew cut and skin tight polyester bowling shirt. He let out a grunting shriek of outrage, pushed himself away from his table, stood up and threw his beer bottle across the room. People screamed and ducked. He turned, kicked the table of two gay men holding hand and put his big face very close to the smaller of the two.
“What the fuck did you do to me, keep your fucking hands off me! You’ve been fucking with me all night!” He tried to shake the ice cube out of his shirt, ripping at it, scratching violently to be free of it. I touched the man’s shoulder and said, “Sir! Sir…I did it! I put the ice down your back! He grabbed the small man by the collar and lifted him off his seat, screaming,“You fuckers are taking over the fucking world. I’m gonna rip your fucking dicks off.” With that comment, the gay man’s partner fought his way through the people on the stairs and ran onto Commonwealth Avenue, screaming for the police. Donna, moaning, limping, followed him. She’d broken a heel. The little gay guy ducked under his table. The large man, confused, stood tall and very still for a moment. .He couldn’t figure out where the little man went.
Up the stairs, commotion, in the room, dead silence.
“Sit down, you idiot” yelled the fat man’s wife, but he continued to stand, wavering drunkenly. . “Where is that turd ball?” He collapsed on his tiny chair with a thud. Chest heaving, he realized he was the center of attention. His wife squeezed his beefy arm affectionately and wiped his shirt with her napkin. Pushing her beer in front of him, she said, nonplussed, “You silly dumb boob, drink up.” She was used to him. The friends at their table were, too. They asked the stunned waitress for more chicken wings.
The bass player had disappeared, but Ken continued to play as though he were an organist accompanying a slap stick silent movie. The large man, now red-faced and swelling from drinking beer in the heat, pushed away his wife’s arm. A couple of people made comments under their breath. “What an idiot.” “He should be thrown out.” I thought the man might become violent again, but he froze when he heard the sound of police sirens. There was a loud crash upstairs and some shouting. The people sitting on the stairs stood and made way for me.
“Guess you’d like to see what’s going on” a nervous man said.
“Don’t worry” said another. “I’ll keep an eye on Brutus”.
Several flashing red and blue lights pulsed through the front window. Donna sat on the rim of a potted tree, holding her broken shoe. A policeman patted her shoulder. Another policeman filled out a police report. The gay man, visably shaken, grabbed my arm.
“Where is he? is he alright? I shouldn’t have left him!”
“I think he’s under the table, I’ll go check.”
Another police car arrived, sirens blaring. Donna’s face, mascara smeared, was the color of her suit. “I have to talk to you.” she said. I nodded and went back downstairs.
No one had budged from their seats except the large man and his entourage. They’d disappeared, leaving two plates of untouched chicken wings and the check. Everyone else sat erect and alert; soldiers waiting for orders. The bass player hunched over his bass, disgusted. Ken was doing yoga stretches at the piano. All eyes were on me, demanding explanation.
“Is that man still under that table?” I asked.
“He’s okay, he’s in the bathroom.” someone said.
I sang what came to mind.
“People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.
There were murmurs of understanding. Some oh’s and ah’s.
“What’s it all about, Alfie?’ Is it just for the moment we live?”
I segwayed from song to song, senselessly.
“Make someone happy, make just one someone happy.”
People were tearing up, riveted, as they tried to make sense of the song mess.
A policeman appeared on the stairs. Hand on his gun, he leaned against the railing behind me, an appropriate back-drop for the finale. The gay man came to the railing and I pointed to the bathroom.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…”
I turned and raised my arms to the policeman.
“I am guilty, arrest me! Guilty of indifference, guilty of cynisicm, guilty of greed, guilty of ignorance, guilty of guilt! Take these hands and bind them with your cuffs!”
The policeman laughed and went upstairs.
“That saved a wretch like me….”
I walked through the audience…”With ice cubes, you were rebaptized tonight. You have another chance at salvation. I say, go now, go and sin no more!”
I was was lost but now I’m found
was blind but now I SEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and I do see, and I DO know, and—-“
Ken cut the song short, grabbed the microphone and said, “That’s the show for tonight, folks, thank you.”
There was a splattering of timid applause as people collected their extraneous clothing items from floor and chair. Suddenly a woman stood and shouted “Brava, Brava! I have not seen such cabaret except in Berlin! Brava!” She pulled other people to their feet instigating a standing ovation. People stood in line to shake my hand.
“That was real theater” said a young woman as she squeezed my hand. “It all looked so real.”
A bald man in tweeds asked “Is this your regular troupe of actors? Are you interested in the college circuit?
“I would love to bring our parents. Are you doing this show again next week?”
“Thank you for bringing me back to God.”
The bass player marched up, car keys in hand, his bass in its bag.
“You forgot the lyrics to some of the songs” he said. “And when you change tempo in the middle of a song, you got to let me know, I can’t real minds.”
“This was improvisational Cabaret.”
“I thought it was a straight ahead jazz gig. I only do straight ahead. Ken, you told me this was straight ahead.”
“I lied” said Ken.
Donna, limp and limping, tottered down the stairs, shaking the hands of departing guests.
“I cannot do it” she said. “I cannot do this. I have a restaurant. I have not big insurance.
I am very sorry.”
What part of the evening upset you?” I asked.