The entry to the Carlyle Hotel, photo courtesy of same
While I plan on checking out the city’s more refined venues, when it comes to seeking out entertainment I am, at heart, more a fan of the American Songbook than of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Don’t misunderstand me: I adore classical music (or, as some say, “serious music”), and my radio dial is always tuned to the classical stations in both the city and the country. But when it comes to attending a live performance my tastes run to the more quotidian – I would much rather attend an evening of Dawn Upshaw singing popular standards than of her performing classical song cycles (which I have, by the way, and memorably so).
When I moved to New York after college I fell in with a rather louche set that would frequently wind up an evening at some of the city’s seedier piano bars, drunkenly shouting along to songs, much to the exasperation of the put-upon songster/piano players and other patrons. When such evenings became less than appealing to me (almost immediately) I pulled back, not just from the piano bars, but also from that crowd, since most of them appeared to be on a bullet train to a stint in rehab, and I didn’t want to join them there. But I quickly learned that what I liked about performances in such intimate spaces was entirely out of my budget when transferred to the city’s more upscale rooms, such as the Algonquin’s Oak Room or the Café Carlyle. The cost of dinner and a show at one of these uptown hotels was punishing on my junior banker’s income, and, besides, the patrons in such places were generally at least as old as my parents, if not my grandparents. It was all rather too grownup for my age or wallet. Fortunately I soon found other, more affordable and age-appropriate pursuits . . . but that’s a subject for another post.
This album got a lot of play in my house growing up
Anyway, fast-forward to this past October when Boy and I found ourselves at the Café Carlyle, where we met up with friends for dinner and a show featuring the very talented husband-and-wife team of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey. I had not been to the Café Carlyle for several decades, when I was last taken there to see the legendary Bobby Short, but I decided to book a table there when I learned that the Pizzarelli/Molaskeys would be settled in for a run of performances ahead of the holidays. I am a big fan of their radio show, “Radio Deluxe,” broadcast on public radio stations, supposedly from their living room “high atop Lexington Avenue on the fashionable Upper East Side.” In the show they play an eclectic mix of recordings of American standards (and not-so-standards), interspersed with clever patter, and feature interesting guests drawn from the world of music and entertainment. The couple is immensely talented and amusing (they describe themselves as “the von Trapps on martinis”), and I make a point of listening to “Radio Deluxe” whenever I am at Darlington on Saturday afternoons.
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey perform at the Cafe Carlyle
photo by Julieta Cervantes of the New York Times
When I learned they would be appearing in a run at the Café Carlyle I immediately decided to book a table, and roped several like-minded friends into joining us. We all had a lovely time that evening, and the Pizzarelli/Molaskeys put on a swinging, highly entertaining show. While an evening at the Café Carlyle doesn’t come cheaply (the Carlyle is, after all, one of the most expensive hotels in the world), the all-in cost per person for dinner, drinks, and the cover to see the show came in at less than the per-ticket price Boy and I subsequently paid to see A Little Night Music. There is absolutely no contest in my mind as to which was the better value.
Recently I learned that the very talented Christine Ebersole, star of Broadway, television, motion pictures, and the long-playing LP, was scheduled for a run at the Café Carlyle this February, so I immediately grabbed the phone and booked a table. Several years ago we were enchanted by Ms. Ebersole’s performance in the Broadway musical Grey Gardens, where she brought down the house (and won her second Tony) with her mesmerizing performance as both Big and Little Edie Beale. The New York Times gave her show at the Café a glowing review, describing her as “a goddess formed…in screwball heaven.”
We arrived at the Café Carlyle this past Thursday looking forward to another wonderful evening in its comfortable, swank room, and were welcomed by its gracious manager, Tony Skrelja, who led us to a table just a few feet from the stage. One of the pleasures of the Café, aside from its intimacy (it seats only 70 for dinner), is walls decorated with lovely murals of pretty girls, musicians, and harlequins painted in high Gigi-style (with more than a smattering of Picasso) in the late 1940s by the French artist Andre Vertes. The murals have recently been restored and cleaned and are attractively up-lighted so that the room has a flattering glow. The small lamp-shade-covered candles on each table help, too. Everyone looks marvelous under these conditions!
Photo courtsey of the Carlyle Hotel
One of the sideways pleasure of going someplace like the Café Carlyle is seeing who else is there. That night, our counterparts ran the gamut from elderly couples, who barely spoke to one other, to young couples with stars in their eyes; there were several tables of giddy bachelors having a lovely time, and there was a smattering of show-people of a “certain age” (Regis and Joy Philbin were at one table and Leslie Uggams and her husband at another). Plus there were the various types one sees in expensive hotels the world over: designer-label-smothered Russians; conservatively dressed Asians; and expensively-attired, shady looking people of indeterminate origin. The Café has a dress code (men must wear jackets), and everyone was dressed up for a swell night out.
Detail of the Vertes murals, image courtesy of the Carlyle Hotel
Ms. Ebersole’s performance that evening was a delight. She is a lovely woman of delicate beauty. She wore a retro—and elegant—taffeta and velvet cocktail dress, and her luxuriant blonde mane was pulled up, revealing sparkling diamond chandelier earrings. She is a skilled vocal chameleon with a phenomenal range and pitch-perfect voice. She trilled, she wailed, she growled, she moaned, she was happy, she was sad – in short, she was glorious! She was backed by a marvelous quartet led by John Oddo, that supported her with finesse. In between songs she shared amusing anecdotes, all delivered with a charming self-deprecating sense of humor, about life in show business and at home in suburban Maplewood, New Jersey, where she lives with three rambunctious teenagers and a loving husband. The room adored her and demanded she hit the stage for an encore, and she was more than happy to oblige. After the show I introduced myself to Ms. Ebersole and told her how much I enjoyed her performance. She couldn’t have been nicer.
A view towards the bar, featuring the recent addition of Bobby Short to the murals
Photo courtesy of the Carlyle Hotel
So here I am, all these years later, back again at the Café Carlyle. And yes, I am old enough to be the father of that boy who was scared away, way back when. But I can tell you, it’s a lot of fun to go there now and comfortably fit in with the place and the crowd. Now that I think of it, I've had such a grand time my last two visits at the Café Carlyle that I just might become something of a regular there – that is, if I haven’t started to become one already . . .
Christine Ebersole will be appearing nightly at the Café Carlyle through February 20th. More can be found out about her on her website: http://www.christineebersole.com/
More can be found out about John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at their websites: http://www.johnpizzarelli.com/, and http://www.jessicamolaskey.com/
The Café Carlyle
The Carlyle Hotel
Madison Avenue at 76th Street
New York, New York
Please note: Reggie has received nothing from the Cafe Carlyle in return for this review. He is sharing it with his readers solely out of the kindness of his heart, and expects nothing in return for it, except his readers' pleasure.