In place of the wishing well in the famous Rodgers and Hart song, this small hotel housed in a colonial mansion on Bayard Lane in Princeton has a contemporary bar with soft lighting. But if one wishes to hear — or even sing — a special song, the man at the piano at the Peacock Inn is the one to see.
On most Thursday nights since January, pianist Bob Egan has been granting musical wishes requested by the song lovers of all ages that he draws on a regular basis.
A Bucks County native and performer, Egan is best known as the creator of the celebrated cabaret established in the 1980s at Odette’s Restaurant in New Hope.
So great was the reputation of The Cabaret at Odette’s reputation that in 2002 internationally known supper club performer and New York City icon Michael Feinstein announced in a USA Today article that the restaurant on the Delaware was one of America’s top cabaret spots.
The beauty of that mention, Egan says while packing up his electronic piano after a recent Princeton engagement at the Peacock, is that Feinstein never visited the New Hope location. Instead, he relied on the first-hand testimony from the musical artists who started flocking to Odette’s in the late ’80s, long before the venue became a victim of flooding.
Bucks County-based music reviewer and reporter Curt Yeske, who has been following musical theater and night life around the New Hope area since the 1950s, has only praise for Odette’s. “You would never know what great talent would show up, take over, and make a great night you never anticipated. You knew you really heard something worth your time,” he says.
According to Yeske, the success of the venue is directly connected to Egan. “There’s nobody that does it better than Bob. He knows the music. He knows the musicians. And he knows how to get the best out of any singer,” the writer says.
While that may be true, Egan in turn credits music legend Margaret Whiting for putting Odette’s on the entertainment map.
A veteran of the big band era, ’50s era television, night clubs, and stage, Whiting was part of the new cabaret movement in late ’80s in New York City. When a mutual friend suggested that Whiting consider developing her new show at Egan’s New Hope venue, the show biz powerhouse readily agreed, loved the experience, and helped shape the night spot’s history.
“When she appeared, it suddenly added clout, and people felt that the cabaret was serious. Media that we had been trying to interest were suddenly very interested,” Egan says. “When she went back to New York she told others to go there to work out a new act. The phone was ringing and people were contacting me. It was terrific. She is ‘the mother’ of that room.”
Egan has scores of memories about the numerous performers who appeared at Odette’s, but there are a few standouts. Take Broadway stars Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert. When the two wanted to create a new cabaret show for the Rainbow and Stars night club in New York City, they asked Egan if they could develop the show in New Hope. “They hadn’t performed together for 30 years since the original performances as Maria and Tony, in ‘West Side Story,’” said Egan who sadly recalls that while the show that brought praise from the New York Times when it opened in New York was also Kert’s swansong. The performer died shortly after the opening.
Then there’s Maureen McGovern. “I think she is one of the best voices on the planet. She was one of the performers on my wish list. I was blown away when she finally appeared there. She was fabulous. The best part about it is that she would say when can I come back? She loved coming there. To have her there was great, but to have her ask to come back was wonderful,” says Egan.
Yeske connects all this to something magical about Egan, pointing out that despite his humble background the musician has “a sense of sophistication, like Bobby Short.” Yeske adds, “Bob did not grow up during the golden age of Broadway, but he knows all those tunes and the American Song Book.”
Egan, who studied at Bucks County Community College and the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts, is bemused when he recalls that his Frankford Arsenal-employed father and stay-at-home mother originally tried to discourage him from his sudden desire to be a pianist. After all, a piano was just too expensive for his family.
Eventually, his parents consented to try lessons. When the instructor marveled that the boy was more advanced than those with pianos at home, the parents gave in and gave Egan a path to follow. That path connected him to the world of entertainment, without him ever having to leave home.
But in 2006 the floods came, closing Odette’s and leaving the building with a still uncertain future.
“It was like losing a friend,” Egan says. “The cabaret exceeded anything that I expected when it began.”
But seeming to live the phrase “the beat goes on,” Egan explains that just before the flood he received an invitation to take his show on the road to Asbury Park and open a space there. “So when Odette’s closed I just put my energy there,” he says.
But not all his energy.
In addition to the musician’s regular nights in Asbury Park and Princeton, there are nights at Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City, Bowman’s Tavern in New Hope, and the Showcase at the Stockton Inn. Additionally, Bob Egan Entertainment provides musicians and cabaret shows for restaurants, business, and private events. Among the musicians his company represents are the Laura Hull Jazz Ensemble, pianist John Bianculli, and vocalist Jane Arthur.
And while some of this may seem like a starting over after the flood, the entertainer continues to build on the Odette’s audience that still exists in various communities, including Princeton.
In fact, Egan says, when a friend asked him to play at the Nassau Club five years ago, he was prepared to feel like a stranger. Instead, he was reunited with a large audience who knew his name and missed the cabaret that he had brought to life.
After he became a Princeton regular, word got out into the community and fans who did not belong to the Nassau Club wanted to hear him. So Egan added the nearly regular Thursday nights at the Peacock Inn. He’s in Asbury Park the first Thursday of the month.
If performing and playing nearly every night and running a successful entertainment business are not enough, Egan spends his down time learning new music and getting new ideas to engage audiences of different ages and eras. “I keep current and want people to know that it is not just for the old,” he says. Songs by Lady Gaga and other contemporary writers now join standards and the hit lists from the last several decades.
But everything for the man whose life has been a cabaret seems to focus on something fundamental, something that Yeske pinpointed: a wish to get the best from his singers, both occasional and professional. “I have a big love for singers. I’m always trying to help them to find the right material, right key, right arrangement, to help them look their best. And that’s what the open mic is. It’s not to be confused with karaoke. A piano bar is better because there is a lot more freedom,” Egan explains.
When asked is an ingredient for his success, Egan readily answers, “treat performers well.”
“And,” he adds, “my work should never seem like work; it should be like a party.” Or a cabaret.
And on this Thursday night at the Peacock Inn, Bob Egan says good night to the bar patrons and puts the party on hold. That is until seven nights later, when he’ll return to the small hotel and grant musical wishes.
Bob Egan Entertainment. www.bobeganentertainment.com
Bob Egan at the Keyboard, Peacock Inn, 20 Bayard Lane, Princeton. Thursdays, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. www.peacockinn.com.
Variety Night Showcase, Stockton Inn, 1 Main Street, Stockton. Wednesday, August 22, 7:30 p.m. $10 admission, $10 food and drink minimum. 609-397-1250 or www.stocktoninn.com.
Piano Bar and Open Mic, Bowman’s Tavern, 1600 River Road, New Hope. Fridays, 8 p.m. to midnight. www.bowmanstavernrestaurant.com