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,"

says Prescott.

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

1961.

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

and Monday."

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

"showcase series."

"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

Andy Prescott, Odette’s, South River Road, Route

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.

Wynne Alexander. Broadway songs. Sunday, September

8, 7:30 p.m.

Jaymie Meyer, "Standard Measures: Gems from the Great

American Songbook." Friday and Saturday, September 13 and 14,

8 p.m.

Fall Previews revue show. Sunday, September 15, 7 p.m.

Kitty Mayo, with Jeff Dershin, piano, performing songs

by Streisand, Carole King, Donna Sommers, and Cleo Laine. Thursday,

September 19, 8 p.m.

Sue Matsuki, jazz vocalist. Friday and Saturday, September

20 and 21, 8 p.m.

Jack Foreacre. Sunday, September 22, 7:30 pm .

Karen Akers, Odette’s, South River Road, Route 32,

New Hope, 215-862-3000. Friday to Sunday, September 27 to 29.


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