Rosie's Got Her Groove Back; The Great American Songbook is thriving in a variety of cozy venues, and Rosemary Clooney couldn't be more pleased.

Don Heckman. The Los Angeles Times, Mar 2, 1997

Rosemary Clooney has a cold. Her dark-toned, mellifluous voice sounds a few pitches lower than normal, and there's just the echo of a frog at the bottom of the well.

"I'm usually down a couple of notes from where I used to be when I was singing 'Come On-A My House,' " she says. "And right now, it's a few notes below that."

She also has a reconstructed knee. ("Just call me a woman of parts," she adds with a throaty chuckle.) And an early February abundance of the rain that never pours in Southern California has made her leg a lot stiffer than she would like.

But Clooney, 68, is in a good mood. Sitting in the glass-walled family room of the Beverly Hills mansion she has occupied since she married Jose Ferrer in 1953, she looks, acts and feels like a contented woman. The years of high visibility--she was one of the most important female vocal performers of the '50s, with a string of hits that ranged from novelty numbers to ballads--are now a distant memory. The dark period of prescription pill addiction and psychiatric recovery cited in her autobiography, "This for Remembering" (which was made into the 1982 CBS TV movie "Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story"), is long past. Her five children (all born between 1955 and 1960) are grown, some with offspring of their own.

Perhaps best of all, Clooney is now where she wants to be, singing the songs she has always wanted to sing.

"Oh, {then-producer} Mitch Miller gave me the chance, occasionally, to sing things like 'Tenderly' and 'The Nearness of You' back in the '50s at Columbia," she recalls. "But they always wanted to find more novelties like 'Come On-A My House' and 'Botch-A-Me' and 'This Old House' for me."

These days, Clooney has become a much-admired performer of Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Rodgers & Hart, a singer whose work--surprisingly, and unexpectedly--has come to typify the intimate storytelling of cabaret. She has done so via a series of highly praised appearances at Manhattan's Rainbow and Stars club in Rockefeller Center. (For a look at New York's cabaret scene, see Page 88.)

"Mellow as mature wine . . . she brings a naturalness, solidity and unpretentious personal honesty to whatever she sings," wrote the New York Times.

And Mike Nichols once described her even more succinctly: "She sings," he said, "like Spencer Tracy acts."

If Clooney does not completely fit the traditional cabaret image of a singer working in a small bistro before a modest but attentive audience, her focus nonetheless is the same.

"I always thought that I could only be intimate with an audience in a small room," she says. "Until I had a conversation with Sylvia Sims, who of course was a consummate cabaret singer. I told her, 'I wish I could feel the same way, connect the same way, at the Hollywood Bowl that I do at Rainbow and Stars.'

"And she said, 'You can. Anything that you can feel and do in a small room, you can do before the largest crowd. It's all in how you feel inside, and what you communicate.' And I've come to understand that she was right, that I can actually make those kinds of connections even when I'm singing in larger venues with larger ensembles."

In fact, Clooney, like Mel Torme in recent years, rarely has had the opportunity to make cabaret-like connections in anything other than large venues when she performs in Los Angeles, in part because of a general management belief that appearances in smaller rooms would interfere with regular bookings at large arenas such as the Hollywood Bowl. Yet before Torme's recent stroke, both could be heard frequently in New York City's Rainbow and Stars and Michael's Pub.

(On Saturday, Clooney appears with such cabaret-oriented artists as Karen Akers, Michael Feinstein and Maureen McGovern on KCET in "Ira Gershwin at 100: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall." On April 4 and 5, Clooney appears at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts with the Count Basie Orchestra.)

Clooney is one of the most visible performers in a slowly unfolding wave of Southland interest in cabaret and cabaret-related performers. Always important to Manhattan nightlife, it is becoming more important to Los Angeles music fans, as well. A relatively unknown Broadway singer such as Sharon McNight, for example, did a sold-out three-week run in December at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, a prime local cabaret arena. She was followed by an eclectic parade of other artists--the veteran pop singer Gogi Grant, jazz vocalist Shirley Horn and all-around singer Maureen McGovern--all of whom work with the intimate, storytelling qualities of cabaret.

In the first week in February, San Francisco hosted the second annual Cabaret Convention, in which major cabaret names from the East and West coasts gathered for a week of around-town events. The convention was preceded in Los Angeles by a one-day event--"Cabaret Cavalcade"--at the Jazz Bakery.

Cabaret is frequently compared--inaccurately--with nightclub performing and jazz singing, but it is quite different from both. Nightclub performances are primarily about the performer as star; jazz singing is primarily about the performer confronting the music. Cabaret is about the performer telling the story directly to the listeners.

"Cabaret is the closest art form to removing the wall between the performer and the audience," says J.D. Kessler, manager of the Cinegrill, and a cabaret performer in his own right. "In the theater, you remove the fourth wall, but the audience is still separate. In cabaret, the audience is no longer the voyeur. They become a part of the show in the sense that the performer interacts directly with them."

The unique, interactive intimacy of the cabaret style was vividly illustrated on Maureen McGovern's opening night at the Cinegrill in mid-February. Singing a song with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, McGovern suddenly forgot a line. Spotting Alan Bergman in the audience, she appealed for the correct words. But Bergman, to a gale of laughter from the crowd, replied that he didn't remember the lyrics either. "We wrote them an awfully long time ago," he said with a bemused grin.

In its original form, cabaret was usually identified with a small venue, often featuring politically oriented music, dance and comedy. But images of Brechtian characterizations in Weimar Germany of the '20s, with their compelling political and social images, are also a part of its archetypal representations. In the '30s and '40s, small cabarets, especially in Manhattan, added music and song to programs that also included satirical comedy and small stage set pieces.

Recently, the term has come to have a wide range of meanings. One of the more distressing is the common practice on the World Wide Web of using cabaret as a synonym for sexually oriented, even pornographic Web sites.

Another kind of cabaret, and one that some observers feel represents a uniquely West Coast variation on the form, is lounge cabaret. It refers to venues in which the music is one aspect of a complete evening of entertainment and socializing in a kind of revivalist return to the mixed drinks, dress-up, nightclubbing of earlier generations.

"Places like the Viper Room and the Derby are offering what I like to call a total-experience cabaret," says veteran manager Alan Eichler, who has worked with such performers as Julie Wilson, Eartha Kitt, Joni James and Hadda Brooks. "Most of the performers are not well known, but audiences like to go to those rooms because they can have a complete evening of entertainment and socializing, and not simply a theater-like performance."

Eichler is right about the trendy aspects of total-experience cabaret, but--despite its current popularity--it is an entertainment defined by the environment rather than by the music.

Cabaret's classic definition, however, relates directly to the communicative aspects of its performance, and its intimate, musical storytelling, most often via material from the Berlin-Kern-Porter-Gershwin-Rodgers & Hart era of Great American Song, but occasionally via newly written, emotionally rich songs from writers such as Craig Carnelia, Babbie Green and others.

It requires performers who are less star-oriented than message-oriented--veteran performers such as Clooney, Wilson, Kitt, Bobby Short and the late Mabel Mercer and Sylvia Sims, and such younger artists as Amanda McBroom, Michael Feinstein, Weslia Whitfield, Philip Officer, Karen Mason, Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Akers, K.T. Sullivan, Karen Morrow and Nancy Dussault. Singers such as these, with the capacity to open themselves up to a close, interactive relationship with listeners, are the vital energy that keeps cabaret alive.

Clooney's fascination with the Great American Songs that are the foundation of classic cabaret has been a lifelong preoccupation. Her home is loaded with memories, mostly of her large family, but also of her associations with, among others, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Nelson Riddle. In her spacious living room, one table holds an image of her with Ella Fitzgerald; another features an elegant, signed publicity shot of Marlene Dietrich.

And there are other, more unexpected musical associations.

"This particular space," she says, describing a large, airy family room, "has an incredible past. It was right where we're sitting that Russ Columbo accidentally killed himself."

In September 1934, Columbo--at the time a popular young crooner who was Bing Crosby's principal pop music competitor and the author of songs such as "Prisoner of Love"--was shot dead when an antique dueling pistol was accidentally discharged.

"The bullet--it was a ball, actually--ricocheted off three walls before it hit him in the forehead," Clooney says. "That was long before we bought the house, of course, but there's no denying that the room has always had a special feeling to it. When the kids were young, they wouldn't come down here at night unless I was standing at the head of the stairs. And even then, they'd walk into the room, switch on all the lights, and say, 'Excuse me, Mr. Columbo, I'm just coming in for a minute to get something,' then dash out as quickly as they could."

Clooney's house and her neighborhood have other less fateful but no less influential associations with the Great American Songs via long-term connections with a remarkable number of important composers and lyricists.

"The Gershwin brothers rented this house in the late '30s," she says. "George stayed in the upstairs bedroom and worked on some of his film music in the living room. Ira Gershwin liked it so much that he tried to buy it after that, but it wasn't available. So he bought the house next door, and he was my neighbor for decades."

Over the years, in fact, the area around the house, according to Clooney, has been a kind of magnet for songwriters. "Larry Hart once lived on the corner," she says. "And Sigmund Romberg {who was portrayed in the 1954 biopic "Deep in My Heart" by Clooney's then-husband Ferrer} once lived down the street, as did Jerome Kern.

"And it wasn't just the songwriters that have made this place and this area so special," she says. "Shortly after we moved in we started having small dinner parties on Monday nights. When Nat and Maria Cole came over, Nat could never wait to have a cigarette, so he'd go in the living room by himself, sit at the piano, have his cigarette and play. The joy of just sitting there, not talking, and listening to his music coming in from the other room was just extraordinary."

Clooney has seen nightclubs and cabaret-style rooms come and go in the Southland.

"There was nothing like the Mocambo," she recalls. "It wasn't cabaret, it was a nightclub, but it was a great nightclub."

But L.A.'s larger-than-life focus upon the action and drama of the big screen has not made it a town, historically, which has enjoyed night life on a small scale. Even in the pre-World War I years, the vogue was for large, playfully dramatic restaurant-nightclubs.

The Ship Cafe in Venice-by-the-Sea (as it was then called) was a large, imitation Spanish galleon with public and private rooms that attracted the likes of Rudolf Valentino and Buster Keaton. Nat Goodwin's Cafe, built on a private pier in Ocean Park, billed itself as a "high-class cabaret" and was frequented by Charlie Chaplin. In Santa Monica, the Sunset Inn held dancing contests and carnival nights attended by Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd and Colleen Moore.

In the '20s, the action moved to Culver City. In his fascinating description of Hollywood nightlife, "Out With the Stars," Jim Heimann describes Washington Boulevard during Prohibition as "a fertile succession of dance halls, cabarets and speak-easies. . . ."

In the '30s and early '40s, the Trocadero, the Cocoanut Grove and Ciro's were places at which to be seen, celebrity hangouts in which the presence of stars like Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford made them the favorite hunting grounds for the paparazzi of the period.

But until fairly recently, smaller rooms tended to be jazz rooms; places such as the Studio One Backlot, the Rose Tattoo and the Gardenia were the exception rather than the rule.

Los Angeles cabaret today is divided between the classic American songbook performances at places such as the Cinegrill and the Gardenia, and the trendy, total-experience lounge cabaret locales such as the Viper Room, LunaPark and the Derby.

Neither are especially lucrative for performers. Nor do cabaret artists--who rarely turn up on major record labels, but who can often be found on boutique companies such as DRG and Varese-Sarabande--sell in quantities that place them on the record charts. Major classic cabaret acts such as Julie Wilson and Eartha Kitt do well at rooms such as the Cinegrill and San Francisco's Plush Room, but lesser-known artists must fill in the career gaps with work in musical theater, television and films.

"The important thing," Kessler says, "is that working in cabaret keeps people in front of their public. And, for performers who are successful in other film and TV, it gives them the chance to interact with real people. Why does Cybill Shepherd do an occasional cabaret turn? She certainly doesn't need the money. But she loves the art form."

Clooney is the first to agree.

"It's taken me a very long time to get to the point where I can sing the material I'm now singing, in the way I want to sing it," she says. "But I've finally gotten there, and I think I can honestly say that I've done just about everything I've wanted to do. Now I just want to do it some more."

Click Above to Return to
Home Page