Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Nightclub Scene

Last night we saw Tony Bennet bring the house down at the St. George Theater with a cabaret-style performance of his classic songs. Both Tony (at age 83) and the songs were as contemporary today as they were 60 years ago when he first started singing them. We last saw Tony in the sixties at a venue I don't recall, but listening to him sing reminded me of a time when songs had melodies you could hum, and lyrics were so good that you remembered them decades after they were popular. It also reminded me of the days when night clubs ruled the New York entertainment scene. These clubs ranged from elegant to divey, but they provided the stages where many top name entertainers strutted their stuff.

Unlike today when people go out looking like bums (a guy in front of us last night wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with the proud slogan: "Vinny's Pest Control"), people who frequented the night spots of the fifties and sixties dressed to the nines. Ladies always wore dresses or even gowns, and men wore suits and ties, or tuxes at the better places. They wouldn't let you in if you weren't dressed properly, and kept spare jackets and neckties for patrons who needed them. The better clubs pulled in top talent and were hard to get into. Shows featuring the likes of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, Buddy Hackett and other marquee names sold out. The environment was fun and the hard liquor flowed freely. Requests for a Cabernet or Merlot would be greeted with puzzled looks. Scantily dressed girls selling cigars and cigarettes circulated around the smoky room.

Upper Manhattan was home to the classier establishments like the Copacabana, El Morocco, Birdland, The Latin Quarter and the Stork Club. A hit appearance at one of these venues could launch a young performer's career like a rocket. Critics and powerful newspaper columnists like Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan frequented these rooms and could make or break you with a column the next day. Those lucky enough to score a table at one of the premier clubs could expect to see celebrities who showed up to see other celebrities perform. On a really good night, you might see some byplay between performers on stage and those in the audience, and occasionally an impromptu duet.

The edgier clubs were down in Greenwich Village. These were not as elegant as the uptown spots, but easier to get into. They afforded opportunities to catch someone whose career was on the way up, and at prices you could still afford. Jazz clubs were big in the Village...places like the Blue Note, the Village Vanguard, the Bitter End, the Village Gate and the Hungry Eye featured performers like Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. Many comics who are now legendary got their start in the Village...Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart and Woody Allen. Celebrities from uptown would often come "slumming" downtown to let their hair down. Despite the "Hippie" overtones, it was a fun and exciting place.

New York's outer boroughs and Long Island too, though no match for Manhattan, boasted their share of quality clubs that began to attract name entertainers. The Town and Country Club on Flatbush Avenue was one of the best. It was a big place (3,000 seats) compared to Manhattan clubs, with a big parking lot, a major plus for dates. They easily filled the joint when the big attractions were on the bill, and they were also a favorite venue for prom dates. Pimply faced guys in rented white tuxes, and beautiful young girls in gowns with towering beehive hairdos could be seen streaming in on warm June evenings. Other big-time Brooklyn clubs were the Elegante on Ocean Parkway and the 802 Club on 64th Street in Bay Ridge. In Long Island there was a great club with the unlikely name of San Su San where I saw a young Jerry Vale, and the Lakeside Manor in Douglaston.

It's sad that these great places are now gone. A change in American musical tastes and the advent of television were mainly responsible for driving most big name nightclub entertainers to places like Las Vegas where cabaret-style entertainment still thrives. Watching Tony Bennet last night was like peeling away the years. If I closed my eyes, I was twenty-five again, resplendent in a grey sharkskin suit, a lit Marlboro in my hand and a Jack Daniels on the rocks in front of me, and Tony was belting out "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" from the stage of a smoke-filled nightclub. I love my life and my family as things are today, but when I'm feeling a little old and creaky, its nice to think back and know that I had my share of hot times. I have to go take a nap now.


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The Whiner said...

Sounds like a great show! There was a supper club in Oakland where I used to live and they had big band music and dinner there. It was a very cool place. i would love a chance to go to a place like The fabled Tropicana where Ricky Ricardo used to work. And I can't believe someone would wear a TEE SHIRT to a concert...ugh!

Jim Pantaleno said...

Not JUST a t-shirt but one that says: Vinny's Pest Control". I wanted to tell him to go back to the trailer park but your mother restrained me.