Corrections or additions?
This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 4, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Cabaret: Still Alive & Kicking at Odette’s
When Lansdale, Pennsylvania, native Andy Prescott brings
his autobiographical comedy with music, "At Liberty," to the
cabaret at Odette’s, audiences will be treated to the entertainer’s
own funny and poignant behind-the-scenes experiences as a veteran
piano bar player. The show is all about Prescott’s own struggle to
find his niche, which, he says, "was mainly about how not to make
a career at the local family business, Prescott Insurance." It
is also about how "Andy" (aptly the name of the character
in the play) achieves his unique dream of stardom in a difficult field
with the unlikely aid of a band of lesbians.
Bringing the play to his home state after a successful one-month run
at Don’t Tell Mama in New York, Prescott is familiar to Odette’s regulars
as the pianist who has tickled the ivories on Friday nights for the
past 12 years. "At Liberty" (with no apologies to Elaine Stritch,
currently making a big come-back splash with a show of the same name)
was inspired by Prescott’s longing to bring his own show to the cabaret.
It began two summers ago at the O’Neill Foundation Playwrights Conference.
There Prescott enlisted Broadway actress and comedienne Julie Halston
and actor/writer Barbara Suter to write the book, and for Broadway
arranger Jeffrey Klitz to compose the big-band jazz music score, recorded
and played by "three great guys, who unfortunately aren’t lesbians,"
Prescott says his one-man show begins with the basic
requirements of a good comedy: the end of a marriage, the need for
therapy, moving back home with one’s parents, and with letting Mom
take over her son’s career management. This means multiple engagements
at nursing homes and pancake dinners, all in Lansdale. While dating
girls whom Andy compares with his ex-wife, he continues his quest
for recognition as a piano bar entertainer and for life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness with "the Sapho Three."
Prescott remembers the reaction of his real-life ex-wife after she
saw the play last March: "I’m never going to see it again,"
were her exact words. Revised and expanded since its initial run,
Andy Prescott’s "At Liberty" can be seen every Wednesday night
this month, September 4 through September 25.
"Earning my living as a pianist, singer, actor, and cabaret performer
in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, is better than selling insurance,
which I’ve left to my two younger brothers," says Prescott, who
earned his bachelor’s degree in theater from Temple University. However,
there are times when he wonders. Particularly one night he was offered
$50 to stop playing because a man sitting at the piano bar wanted
to talk to his girlfriend. Doesn’t that say something about the business?
Is cabaret dead or alive, in a coma, or just in the process of re-inventing
itself? The general lament, as oft reported in the New York Times
and the entertainment trade magazine Variety, is that cabaret venues,
long noted for their intimacy and sophisticated entertainment, are
fast disappearing, along with their fans. Every time another cabaret
in New York closes, as has happened in quick succession — Tavern
on the Green, Rainbow and Stars, and Arci’s, to name a few — everyone
agonizes as to why these once-fabled venues are no longer profitable.
Is it their size, inability to book acts that draw, high-price artist
salaries, or the cost of real estate?
There are a few cabaret rooms left in New York, mostly posh, high-priced
venues, such as Feinstein’s at the Regency, the Cafe Carlyle, and
the Oak Room at the Algonquin, where the well-heeled welcome back
a handful of familiar and proven performers season after season.
What is the magic that keeps New Hope’s Odette’s going and gaining
in popularity? Maybe the cabaret scene isn’t dead, it’s just relocating
beyond the city.
While the golden years of cabaret existed between the 1940s and the
advent of rock and roll and virtually perished in the ’60s and ’70s,
Odette Myrtil, a French-born Broadway singing star of musicals, and
a character actor in a dozen movies, went against the tide. At the
age of 63, she literally crossed the Hudson, went through the woods,
and opened a restaurant on the banks of the Delaware in New Hope in
At Chez Odette (as it was then called) she continued to sing and attract
celebrities from the film and stage world who flocked to the elegant
country eatery and even did of bit of informal entertaining of their
own. An amalgam of literary and theatrical luminaries, among them
James Michener, St. John Terrell, Tom Poston, and Maggi McNellis Newhouse
dined at Odette’s and considered it the place to be and be seen. Odette
died in 1978. After passing through a couple of owners, Odette’s was
purchased by the Barbone family in 1985.
What makes the current cabaret format at Odette’s noteworthy, aside
from its success, is that it was founded 15 years ago by Bob Egan,
a Bucks County native. In 1985, Egan’s long-time friend Rocky Barbone
told him, "I bought this place and I want you to do something
with the entertainment." Within two years, Egan had a 65-seat
cabaret going in "the theater room."
"It was always called `the theater room’ even when Odette was
here, but there was never any theater in it," says Egan. At that
point Egan and popular singer Courtenay Day were developing a cabaret
act. "Why don’t we put our show on where I work," suggested
Egan. Together they founded the cabaret format and, as Egan says,
"the rest is history."
Speaking of history, Egan said he was looking through the score of
the 1931 Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach musical "The Cat and the
Fiddle" right before our phone interview. This is the show that
Myrtil presumably inspired and in which she also appeared. "I
never knew Odette," admits Egan at the start of our conversation.
"I was only 21 when she died and I hadn’t begun going to cabarets.
But I was a friend of her (late) son Roger Adams, a noted Broadway
rehearsal pianist and dance music arranger."
Egan, a winner of the "Best of Philly" award for the "Best
Piano Bar," has not only been active as the producer at Odette’s
cabaret, but also is a popular pianist at the now-famed piano bar
that he began in 1985. "I really roughed it getting the cabaret
started," recalls Egan. "We had one piano and had to push
it from the theater room to the piano bar after each show. Now we
have two, and after 17 years, I’m still at the piano bar every Saturday
A resident of New Hope, Egan is also the operator of
his own agency, Bob Egan Entertainment, one of the area’s largest
entertainment networks. Through his agency he has booked engagements
at Odette’s of such performing artists as "the incomparable"
Hildegarde, Barbara Feldon, Rosalyn Kind, Lainie Kazan, and Sam Harris.
Egan, however, credits an appearance by the legendary Margaret Whiting
for giving Odette’s the special attraction it needed early on.
"In the beginning it was like pulling teeth to get audiences in
here. The performers had to beg family and friends to come. Of course,
they still do that on occasion," says Egan with a laugh, "but
over the years we have developed a good and loyal following."
We concur that unless you go to Philadelphia, there isn’t anywhere
else in the area that you can find a cabaret. Egan is proud of the
fact that Odette’s has been a nurturing and proving ground for many
budding cabaret artists, many of whom are local and perform in Odette’s
"Yes, Prescott was one of those fresh young talents that the audience
went crazy over," says Egan. "It was 12 years ago that Andy
auditioned for me. I needed someone to fill in a Friday night slot
at the piano bar. Andy quickly became one of the family."
More seasoned entertainers who have starred in Broadway shows, such
as Karen Akers ("Nine," "Grand Hotel"), Ann Hampton
Callaway ("Swing"), her sister Liz Callaway ("Cats"),
and Karen Mason ("Mamma Mia," "Sunset Boulevard")
can be counted on to return to Odette’s on a regular basis. On a more
poignant note, Egan talks about the appearance of Larry Kert and Carol
Lawrence (the original stars of "West Side Story"), who broke
in their act at Odette’s one-week prior to an engagement at Rainbow
and Stars. Egan remembers sadly that he videotaped their opening night
but that "Larry was already coughing and tired a lot." Kert
died about three months after the Rainbow and Stars engagement.
During a recent engagement of renowned singer Julie Wilson, a mention
was made of a USA Today article, published last December, that recognized
Odette’s as one of the 10 best cabarets in the U.S. Without a pause,
Wilson responded: "Of course, there are only 10 cabarets left
in the U.S.!"
— Simon Saltzman
32, New Hope, 215-862-3000. Odette’s long-time pianist presents his
autobiographical comedy, "At Liberty." $15. Wednesday,
September 4, 11, 18, and 25, at 8 p.m.
8, 7:30 p.m.
American Songbook." Friday and Saturday, September 13 and 14,
by Streisand, Carole King, Donna Sommers, and Cleo Laine. Thursday,
September 19, 8 p.m.
20 and 21, 8 p.m.
New Hope, 215-862-3000. Friday to Sunday, September 27 to 29.
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