Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Tradition of Cabaret at The New Victory Theater

When the Republic Theater was built in 1900 by Oscar Hammerstein I (grandfather to the famous lyricist behind musicals like The Sound of Music), it's doubtful that he had any idea what would take place within the theater's walls in its 113 years and counting. From burlesque to motion pictures, a variety of shows have been presented on the stage of the theater we now call The New Victory, but with Still Awake Still!, a "cabaret madcap for kids" headed our way, we began to wonder specifically about the history of cabaret at our theater.

Traditionally, cabaret can encompass song, dance, comedy and more, but what distinguishes it as a unique art form is that it usually takes place within a bar or restaurant setting. Rather than being seated in traditional theater rows, cabaret guests sit at tables where they can order food and drinks. The night is generally hosted by an emcee who introduces each act.

While our theater has always maintained its seating set-up, what you may not know is that once upon a time, there was actually a rooftop garden on top of the theater where food was served, and shows were held! Some fun features of the rooftop garden were the city's first singing waiters, as well as a "Swiss farm" with a vegetable garden and live barnyard animals, including a dairy cow that provided milk for children visitors. The New York Dramatic Mirror described the "Paradise Gardens," as they were called, as having "a spacious platform that has tables and chairs set about." Sounds like a cabaret to me! (Read more about the gardens here.)

A variety of vaudeville acts performed on the rooftop, but one very notable performer was Harry Houdini! He appeared on the roof a few times and would perform his famous act of being wrapped in a straight jacket, locked in a box and lowered into a pool, to emerge moments later unscathed.

The term "cabaret" has grown to sometimes imply burlesque performers, something that certainly happened within our theater's walls, before it became The New Victory as we know it today. While this type of performance encompasses much of the theater's history, and therefore numerous burlesque acts, one of the more notable "resident artists" was Gypsy Rose Lee, who began performing at what was then called Minsky's Theater at age seventeen in 1931. The performer and dancer rose to become the most noted burlesque performer in the genre's history and continued to perform her act at our theater even after burlesque was banned in NYC in 1937. Musical Theater fans might recognize her name as the inspiration behind beloved Broadway musical, Gypsy!

That's just a taste of the New Vic's vast history and an idea of what sort of "cabaret" performances took place at our theater. We're looking forward to adding to this tradition as we welcome Still Awake Still! on January 18. The show interprets cabaret style, featuring the crooning voice of Miss Ivory Tinklefinger, her misbehaving grand piano, and the hilarious comedic duo that joins her on stage. Perhaps we'll be transported back to the days of Abbot and Costello (regular performers at our theater and backstage pinochle partners to Gypsy Rose Lee!) and we'll hope you'll be there to join us!

1 comment:

  1. Billy Minsky, one of the owners of your theater back in the 1930's, didn't like Gypsy Rose Lee's mother. He banned her from the backstage area of the theater! Oh, to have been a fly on the wall on the day that happened...!