Sunday, July 10, 2011

What good is sitting alone in your room?

Last night was both a celebration and a wake for the soon to be shuttered Cabaret Le Chat Noir. The brainchild of Barbara Motley and husband Biff, Le Chat Noir opened its doors 12 years ago at 715 St. Charles Avenue in a building that had been previously abandoned for 18 years. Two years prior the Motleys had been enjoying the sights and sounds of New York when they happened upon a sign advertising a cabaret show for later that night. They were not aware of what cabaret was, but the star of that show was none other than Andrea Marcovicci - "the Queen of Cabaret." Marcovicci's performance opened the Motleys' eyes and ears. Barbara became obsessed with providing a similar workspace for cabaret performers in New Orleans and she started calling on cabaret owners and performers finding out what it would take for her to open such a venture. She did her homework well. From the time she opened her doors to the public in June of 1999, Le Chat Noir became one of the most important venues for local small theatre works in addition to providing a launching point for cabaret careers for a number of local performers and a well-known hot spot on the national cabaret circuit. For many years the cabaret sponsored a contest for new one-act plays that were submitted and judged. The winners had their works exposed to the public as part of a "festival" sponsored by Le Chat Noir. In addition the Bar Noir was considered one of the quaintest and most interesting watering holes in a city famed for lounges. It was Barbara Motley's initial hope that cabaret would be the primary offering for the club, but it became apparent that local tastes ran more towards theatrical works and she and her gal Friday, Su Gonzcy, worked to balance the number of cabaret dates offered against a plethora of well-attended short plays and musicals by talented locals. The plays brought customers in droves and once they learned of the charm of the venue and of the quality of performances being offered, the cabaret side of the business began to do much better. Only three years after opening, Le Chat Noir boasted dates with one of the brightest of cabaret stars, Karen Akers. It was Akers' appearance at the then unheralded Le Chat Noir that got notice to booking agents and other cabaret performers that this was a very special venue and a management team that was professional, courteous and gracious. Through the intervening years Akers returned four more times in 2004, 2005, 2007 and just six weeks ago for her final appearance. Other nationally and internationally regarded performers included Amanda McBroom, Anna Bergman, Billy Stritch, Bryan Batt, Donna McKechnie, Jason Graae, Jason Robert Brown, Karen Mason, Klea Blackhurst, Liz Callaway, Rich Look, Steve Ross, Todd Murray and Tommy Tune. But aside from attracting stars of such great magnitude, one of the most important influences the cabaret had was on the local cabaret scene. Prior to Le Chat Noir's appearance there wasn't even a scene to discuss. After a few years of operation, Barbara Motley found out about the Yale Cabaret Conference, held each summer for enterprising cabaret performers. Through her efforts several up and coming cabaret performers applied for the very selective process, were eventually accepted to the program and found themselves headed for New Haven, Connecticut for intensive course work taught by some of the leading cabaret performers. As a result they were instructed in the art of cabaret and trained as to how to perform, act, sing and select material appropriate for their own repertoires. A cottage cabaret industry was thus born and encouraged by Le Chat Noir. Even after weathering the storm called Katrina and the citywide evacuation and flooding, Le Chat Noir continued to garner great press and important reviews across the country. It was among the first of spots to reopen its doors in the wake of the tragedy and helped focus efforts on the parts of many of the members of the theatre community to reorganize. The wall of photographs of performers at Le Chat Noir filled up through the years with 8x10 portraits of the national stars alongside local stars. Pictures of deceased performers such as singer-actress and cabaret performer Cynthia Owen and actors Roy Dumont and Paula Prelutsky, all of whom had performed at Le Chat Noir in various roles, still grace the southwest wall of the club, a tribute to their lasting legacy and their contributions towards making Le Chat Noir the remarkable gathering place it was for some of New Orleans' most talented writers, singers, actors and composers. Last night's final show was titled "In Here Cabaret is Family" and starred seven ladies, all of whom could credit their burgeoning cabaret careers to this incredible performing space. Amy Alvarez, who just finished a successful cabaret tour to Baltimore and New York and her pianist and musical director Jefferson Turner, both graduates of the Yale Cabaret Conference, directed the show along with veteran jazz performer Banu Gibson. Although Gibson had already established her career prior to the institution's rise, some of her biggest career shows were held at Le Chat Noir, most notably sold-out performances for her Fred Astaire and George and Ira Gershwin programs. Also on the program were Anais St. John, a former cocktail waitress at the club and Lisa Picone, both graduates of the Yale Conference, in addition to Dorian Rush and Leslie Castay. St. John and Picone both had retrospective shows on their career idols: St. John's well-received show was on Eartha Kitt, while Picone's Peggy Lee tribute won her last year's Big Easy Award for Cabaret. Rush won the 2009 Big Easy Award for Best Cabaret performance for her role as Janis Joplin in "Livin' Janis." Castay, a former New York singing actress for the past two decades, returned to her New Orleans home a few years back and continued her successful career with a one-woman cabaret show titled "unscripted..." at the club twice this year. At the end of the night all the ladies came out on stage and sang the one song that one would expect to close the house, the title song from Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret." It was a special night that ended with everyone spilling out into Bar Noir and hoisting quite a number of cocktails until the break of dawn. The reason for the closure of the cabaret is that the Motleys want to shed the weighty responsibility of maintaining the mortgage on the building. In order to find a buyer it was necessary to cease operations - at least temporarily - until a sale could be finalized. The possibility that the club may rise again at its present site or at another location remains until the possible sale of the building is finalized, but for now the club is closed and negotiations are in full swing. The public will have to console itself with the past 12 years of history, knowing that another club like Le Chat Noir may never come again. Clients celebrated and mourned the passing of this performing space that was so much more than just a venue. It was very much like a family. It's loss will be hard to replace, but most people are hopeful that it will rise again like the fabled legend of the phoenix. So, as the song fittingly says and the ladies sang it last night, "Life is a cabaret, old chum. And we love this cabaret!"

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