The finicky pasha of the New York cabaret scene, Donald Smith, died last week at 79, only a month after it was announced that the posh Oak Room that Smith helped reopen 30 years ago was closing — the handiwork of the Marriott chain that owns the Algonquin Hotel, where the wood-paneled Oak Room was the jewel in New York’s cabaret crown.
That must have been the last crumpled straw in Smith’s lifelong struggle to keep cabarets open, a near lost cause. Smith fought tooth and nail to keep clubs alive in an era when room after room in Manhattan closed despite his best efforts — former mainstays like The Ballroom, Michael’s Pub, Rainbow and Stars, and now the Oak Room, all shuttered over the past 20 years. Only the Café Carlyle, Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, and the Metropolitan Room remain the town’s major cabarets.
Smith, most of his life a roly-poly cherub with curly white hair, was the effete feisty godfather who ruled over a fragile fiefdom. Cabaret singers were forced to court him and kowtow to remain in his good graces if they wished to become known in New York City. Smith was a difficult guy who could be either charming or ruthless to get what he wanted from recalcitrant club owners, managers, or performers; he was New York’s other tyrannical Donald, the piper singers paid if they expected to get a booking in a hot club.
I got to know Smith when I covered cabarets in the 1980s and ’90s and attended several of his “cabaret conventions” at Town Hall on W. 43rd Street, where they were held for years. It was one of the entertainment world’s best bargains: $10 for a three- to four-hour evening of singers, each of whom was allowed only two songs, maybe three if they were a big enough name. The lobby was littered with singers’ flyers, CDs, and dreams.
You could hear 20 singers in a single evening, some mediocre or worse but many sensational and on the cusp of stardom, everyone from Broadway’s Barbara Cook and Rebecca Luker to newcomers thrilled at the chance to be heard by the cabaret cognoscenti.
Singers flocked to New York from everywhere and gladly paid a fee to be included. It took Smith a decade but he finally got the public and the press to take the event seriously. The conventions branched out to other cities and each year Smith hosted a cabaret cruise. Now the fall event is held at a massive hall at the Time-Warner Jazz Center and is much more pricey, a lot bigger deal but a lot less fun than during its funky Town Hall days.
Because I knew Smith, and he craved any coverage he could get, I had his ear and was able to tip him off to new voices I felt deserved a chance to be heard in New York City. Singers like Michael Feinstein, Wesla Whitfield, Mary Cleere Haran and Andrea Marcovicci made their debuts in Manhattan thanks in large part to Donald Smith (never “Don”), with a small nudge from me. Feinstein went directly from the old Plush Room in San Francisco to the Oak Room and Whitfield got a booking at Michael’s Pub and some good press; Smith wooed the few critics in New York who covered cabarets — Stephen Holden at the Times and Wayman Wong at the Daily News, among very few others.
Smith was a former book publicist from Massachusetts with a decided New England sound (“We’re having a potty after the show”), who became a kingmaker when his passion for cabaret turned him into a nightclub promoter and then a kind of benevolent dictator/promoter, sort of the Don King of cabaret.
He founded something called the Mabel Mercer Foundation (named for an all but forgotten cabaret doyenne of the ’40s and ’50s), which was mainly the Donald Smith Foundation, a way to keep himself solvent while he worked on behalf of singers who often hired him as their publicist. He had lots of skirmishes with performers, club managers, and publicists. Singers were forever falling out with him, then falling back in.
Smith could never understand why cabaret was so ignored by the mainstream media, and much of his life was spent trying to persuade an indifferent press and uncaring public to give cabaret a serious listen. He worked tirelessly to keep cabarets from being seen as an elite cult pastime, but he never really succeeded, partly because Smith himself was a terminal snob with rarefied tastes, an acerbic guy who totally inhabited the fantasy world of Cole Porter (or “Cole Pawtah,” as he pronounced it in his thick Brahmin accent).
It took Smith five years to get the Algonquin to reopen its musty, unused Oak Room that had been dark for years. He first brought in a buoyant pianist and singer, Steve Ross, a sort of Fred Astaire of the keyboard, the living embodiment of the Donald Smith ethos — jaunty songs, sardonic lyrics, wistful ballads, and a droll attitude. It all harkened back to a New York state of mind of the 1930s, merrily revived in small cabaret rooms, those romantic dimly lighted corners of New York where Donald Smith’s sentimental spirit still resides, humming “Manhattan.”