Eighty Eights, the Greenwich Village cabaret spot where show tunes have been celebrated and performers have tested new material for the past decade, will shut its doors May 31, due to a combination of economic factors, said founding partner Erv Raible.
It's not too late for an outside investor to come in and continue running the place as a piano bar-cabaret, but hope for that White Knight was looking dim May 28, Raible told Playbill On-Line.
Sunday evening, May 30, is expected to be a party atmosphere of fans and performers, Raible said. "God only knows who might come traipsing through here," he said. May 31 will be a regular night, and then the doors will close.
Sunday, which is open to the public, "is a party, it's not a wake," Raible cautioned. He agrees with singer-songwriter Carol Hall's reminder to him that many performers got their cabaret start at Eight Eights and they needed to come back and "celebrate the space and have closure with it."
On a good night in the past decade, Eighty Eights, at 228 10th St. near Bleecker, was a classic New York piano bar downstairs, with singing waiters and bartenders and their pals jumping in to sing everything from Rodgers and Hart to Lerner and Loewe to the Beatles and David Friedman, with the house pianist-singer. On weekends, married couples, gay partners, Broadway and film stars such as Liza Minnelli, drag queens, regulars and tourists would show up at contemporary, casual, deco-style joint.
Meanwhile, the upstairs cabaret room hosted Broadway and cabaret talent from around the world.
Sally Mayes, Maree Johnson, Philip Officer, Sharon McNight, Judy Kuhn, Julie Halston, David Campbell, Karen Mason, the late Nancy Lamott, Anne Runolfsson and others have all entertained audiences upstairs at Eighty Eights.
The closing of the upstairs cabaret theatre has left singer and acts scrambling for other venues around Manhattan. Judy's, on Eight Avenue in Chelsea, saw more booking requests, according to a source there.
In 21 years of managing New York City cabaret spots, Raible told Playbill On-Line this was the most painful experience in his history. He said it was not clear what he would do next.
"[The closing is due to] a combination of ridiculous factors," he said, adding that the place was breaking even and there was not necessarily a slump in business.
Doors opened there in April 1988, ushering in 11 years of music, from show tunes to pop, some of it improvised by the performing waitstaff.
Several possible new partners met with management, but a deal not be ironed out.
"Eighty Eights has been a vital force in cabaret, and great people have gotten their starts there," said Michael Estwanik, president of the Manhattan Association of Cabaret and Club (MAC). "I've enjoyed hundreds of evenings there. I have to think that it's going to reopen, somehow. I don't share some of the sentiment out there that this is the death knell for cabaret in New York City. There are wonderful new things happening all the time. When Rainbow and Stars closed [in late 1998], the Firebird opened, for example."
* "It was a great, beautiful, comfortable, warm space," actress-singer Karen Mason told Playbill On-Line. She and her late pianist-arranger Brian Lasser played the space in the early 1990s. "Brian and I always felt we had a place to work down in the Village."
Mason added, "It's sad because it's got great lights and sound.They wanted it to be a beautiful space that showed off the performers, but even when people were sitting off to the side they didn't feel excluded."
Mason, who was appearing in Jerome Robbins' Broadway during the time she played a Christmas show at Eighty-Eights, said, "They always made it a home for new singers. Where are new people going to go?"
Actor-singer Jimmy Smagula, a New York University Tisch School musical theatre graduate, read about the closing on Playbill On-Line and expressed his regret.
He and his student pals were Eighty Eights regulars on Wednesdays in 1995-96, and would sometimes try out audition material there, singing with the house pianist.
"We would go there an bring out music and just go and sing our stuff," Smagula said. "It was really beneficial to us...having a place to go to sing for your peers before you do it in front of teacher or before a panel of teachers was beneficial."
Smagula regarded the place as somewhat magical, with tested players such as Terri White (Barnum) working there. Smagula remembers a time when Minnelli and her entourage came in at 1:30 a.m., a group of 14, having a great time.
"That's the kind of place it was," said Smagula, who graduated NYU and went on to national tours and regional musical theatre roles at the Paper Mill Playhouse and elsewhere. "You just never knew who was going to be there," he said.
For information about Eighty-Eights, call (212) 924-0088.
-- By Kenneth Jones