Sept/Oct 1999 Humor/Satire

Life is Whose Cabaret?

by Craig Butler

While doing research for my recent book The New York Cabaret Scene: Milieu or Malaise? (Piddling-Little Books, 1995, available in finer remainder bins everywhere), I was surprised with the frequency with which one name kept popping up, that of Herbert O'Wittgenstein. Although I ultimately deleted him from the final version of my book (save for one mention in relation to the scandalous Hannah Marberry incident), I continue to be haunted by thoughts of him, and am presenting the findings from my research herewith.

Cabaret, of course, is a performer's medium, and not just in New York, but around the world (the one known exception is that of the former Soviet Union back when it was known as the current Soviet Union, also known at that time as the former Russia, but at any time and under any name an absolutely impossible place to get good clams casino. In keeping with the philosophy of its communist rulers, cabaret in the Soviet Union was a "people's medium." This originated with Stalin--or at least with someone who looked like Stalin, or at least someone whose mustache needed a good trim--when he issued a decree that cabaret could be used only for one of two reasons: as an opportunity for proletarians of indiscernible talent to display their enthusiastic lack of self-consciousness, or as an alternative punishment to sentencing in the work camps of Siberia (an alternative which, curiously enough, was never chosen by the condemned). In neither case was the singing of "Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye" allowed, although it was possible to obtain permission to whistle every other bar).

As a performer's medium, the stars, the known names, are naturally enough performers themselves, whether singers (such as Whitfield McMullins or Doll Baby Schlumpkin), comedians ("Tubso" Warren, "Flat Face" Flannigan), pianists (Marian Shortstein, Morgana), or even performers from such "unusual" (for cabaret) disciplines as dance (the staggeringly graceful Henny Lunchmeat), mime (the silently loquacious John King du Alimente), or mathematics (the suicidally boring Professor Q. Melville Madison). Perhaps the reason that Herbert O'Wittgenstein is so little known today--despite his profound influence on the art form of cabaret--is that he was not a performer but a director.

Certainly that is the opinion of no less a personage than the Incomparable Puccina, the Italian fireball who burst upon the New York cabaret scene in March of 1965 and blazed a pathway across the nightclub heavens before burning out in April of the same year (although her career lasted a scant four weeks, there is little doubt that it could have lasted considerably longer--perhaps as long as three months--had she ever actually shown up for any of the engagements for which she was booked. Nevertheless, despite the shortness of her career, her impact is undeniable, if impossible to define). This is what La Puccina, now living in the deserts of Eastern Kentucky and married to a necromancer with a small side line in orthopedic shoes, had to say about O'Wittgenstein:

"With Herberto, he is the one that made me the what I am today, and the what I was when I was, and the what I will always be when I be. I am the one what had been the hiring of him to create staging for the act what I was to be doing. He is the one what did do the what teaching of the language what like this he did, for me, to me, so that I, a poor bambina from Peoria, should have the mysterioso and the image what I did have developed, eh? Herberto, he is the teacher of the teaching of the most important thing of all, which what has that been that is very probossibly the single most important thing of all in cabaret, which is...

"The other line, she rings. I can call you back, eh?"

It is with regret that I agreed to this request, as it turned out that the other line which La Puccina thought she heard ringing turned out to be the sound of the rare but deadly Kentucky telephone snake. Although she survived the attack, she has since been able to communicate only by semaphore and only using words which contain fewer than one vowel. Thus we may never know exactly what the most important thing in all of cabaret was. But, is there any doubt that it was O'Wittgenstein who taught it?

Jonni Feldspar, the 1940's singing sensation who originated the art of Pig Scattin (scat singing in Pig Latin), revealed one of the innovations for which O'Wittgenstein must be credited. "It was 1940, and I was just about to begin an engagement at Chez Scully's, the downtown bistro which was the rage of Harlem. This would be my first big break, the booking which put me on the map, and I think a large part of the credit should go to Herbie. He's the one who insisted to the management that they provide a microphone for me to use (this was unheard of at the time. For years, performers had relied upon megaphones to be heard. Before megaphones, in the large clubs, the owners frequently hired several singers to sing the same number at the same time at various spots throughout the club. They made them split one salary).

"Management resisted, of course. They always do. And it's true that it didn't go over so well at first, as Herbie forgot to insist that they also provide a cord or speakers for the microphone. But just the fact that I was freed from the megaphone made all the difference. For one thing, audience members were much less inclined to request cheers for their home teams in the middle of a ballad. For another, with my hands totally free, I learned how to gesture, how to draw the audience in with my hand movements. That's how I met my husband, the dermatologist, who came to my dressing room and told me I was a marvelous singer with a dynamic presence and the worst case of dishpan hands he had ever seen. But that was a common problem with cabaret performers in those days. If you didn't bring in enough of an audience, you had to make up the difference by staying behind and washing the dirty glasses.

"It was rough and unfair, but it got me my husband, so maybe today's performers shouldn't be so quick to criticize."

Thus we know that O'Wittgenstein was a visionary, but what do we know of the man? I asked Putz Bradley, the alleged comic who briefly shared an apartment (actually, a furnished armoire) with O'Wittgenstein, for his recollections of the man.

"Well, first there was his troubled ethnic background. His father, you see, was German-Irish, whereas his mother was Irish-German. They were never able to overcome the obvious gulf between their different cultures and fought constantly. His father, John Wilhelm, once threw his mother, Mary Helga, off the top of a four-story building during an argument over whether bratwurst should be considered a sausage or a concealed weapon. His mother took her revenge by becoming pregnant with Herbert. Although Herbert was clearly John Wilhelm's child--you've seen Mary Helga's picture, who else would've touched her?--she liked to taunt him with insinuations that perhaps another man was the child's real father. 'Doesn't he look like the kaiser?" she would say meaningfully, or "I certainly hope the Pope does the right thing by him in his will.' As a result, John Wilhelm was never particularly close to Herbert, whom he usually referred to as 'that piece of offal that the garbage men refuse to pick up.'

"Another thing, O'Wittgenstein was left handed, although in certain areas he was ambidextrious. For example, he used his right hand when doing crossword puzzles with a quill pen or when folding blini. All of this caused him a great deal of confusion in remembering directions, so that instead of saying 'Putz, move stage left for the rhubarb gag,' he'd say, 'Move as if you were reaching for a chicken leg.' Instead of 'Head stage right after the third guffaw,' it might be, 'Set off for home as if the room were full of fennel.' It took a bit getting used to, but you soon learned to appreciate the beauty and poetry of it."

But back to his accomplishments, which were considerable in the rather circumscribed world of cabaret. Veteran ventriloquist Michael Gonoritz credits O'Wittgenstein with the first use of a spotlight in a cabaret act, remembering that "before Herb, most acts were lit by candlelight - if you were a top draw, that is. Beginners usually had to stand on stage and keep striking matches if they wanted to be seen. And you had to supply your own matches. Before the spotlight, Herb experimented with lighting by fireflies, which was promising but the ASPCA made him stop before he perfected it. I thought he was on to something big with the fireflies, and I urged him to put up a fight, but in those days it was suicide to take on the ASPCA."

"More important than the mere spotlight, which anyone could introduce," song stylist Melvin Reynolds says, "is what Mr. O--I always called him 'Mr. O'--did once lighting was the norm. Do you realize that Mr. O is the man who introduced the idea of lights dimming softly for the ballads? In fact, before him, the lights usually got as bright as possible during the ballads, the reasoning being that words are more important in ballads, and it was believed that people can hear better when they can see better.

"I remember very clearly the first time Mr. O pulled the 'dimming the lights' trick. I had just sat down on the stool, my feet were planted firmly on the rungs, my legs apart, the introduction to 'Someone to Watch Over Me' is playing, and all of a sudden I notice the stage getting dimmer and dimmer, creating a--you should pardon the expression--mood. Pow! What a breakthrough that was!

"Incidentally, it turns out that the reason he did it at first wasn't for mood, it was because my fly had come undone, and I wasn't wearing any underwear--never do, old family tradition--so it was really done to keep the vice squad off of us. But, hey, that's sometimes how important discoveries are made, you know."

O'Wittgenstein is also the originator of inter-song movement, according to Carny Blaine, pianist to the stars. "That no-talent whore, Jamie Waitbreath, was murdering, and I mean murdering, 'The Man I Love,' Blaine explained in his characteristic rasp. "Jesus, was she awful. She had a D-sharp that could peel paint. Literally. The Green Lampshade - you remember that club? Tallest urinals in the history of the world - they once had to close down for a week to repaint after one of her shows. What'd they expect, she was doing her tribute to that crumb Bob Merrill, and you know the erotic attachment he had to D-sharps.

"What the hell were we talking about anyway? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, Old man O'Wittgenstein. There's a name I haven't heard in years, knock wood. So, right, Jamie was rehearsing 'The Man I Love' the way they always did a number in those days: stomp over to the mic, fix your focus on one poor unsuspecting sot in the audience, stare at that one guy like a hawk the whole time you're singing the song. You get thirsty during the piddling piano solo--not like I ever got more than 16 bars to myself at one time--you keep your head still, your eyes focused on that one guy, and just reach your hand out and hope you come in contact with the glass instead of knocking it over, all onto the keyboard of my $1.99 Steinway knock-off with the broken peddles.

"So we had this one rehearsal. O'Wittgenstein (Stupid name. I told him he should've changed it to Whit Harrison, but no one ever listens to the piano player) has a hangover, which is par for the course, but this one is a beaut, he's got this killer hangover, and every time he looks up, he sees Jamie staring straight out at him. Jamie had a face like a frying pan, and she's doing the LONG version of "Man I Love," all the time keeping her eye (she only had one, d'ya know that? The other one was really a marble) fixed right on O'Wittgenstein, that screech of hers shooting nails right into his groin, finally he just lets out this scream, jumps all the way out of his seat and onto the stage, and hauls off and knocks her a good one, pow!, right in the kisser.

"Later, after we had located her marble--well, a marble, anyway--and put it back in, Jamie's getting ready to give him what for, he goes, 'Jamie, darling, I've never enjoyed your rendition so much in my life! Keep that focus change in!'

"Jamie, always a fool for flattery--always a fool, period--she falls for it, she goes, 'Oh, did you like it? Did you really?' And he's going on and on, 'Yes, it was lovely, it was revelatory, blah, blah, blah, as a matter of fact, let's add some more focus changes.' 'Where do you want them?' she's asking, and he says, 'I'm not sure yet. I'll tell you what, let's start the number again from the top, and every time I've had enough, that is, every time I think there should be a change, I'll hit you again.'

"So that's how that got started. You've never seen so many focus changes in one song. Worked beautifully, too. One of the side benefits was that by opening night, Jamie was so bruised she could hardly sing.

"Got the best reviews of her career."

Perhaps O'Wittgenstein's most lasting contribution to the art form was his creation of the medley (a medley, for those not involved in cabaret, is a selection of two, three, four or even more songs which are put together, one right after the other, yes, these songs are actually CONNECTED one to the other, they are something rather akin to a run-on sentence). Legendary club owner Max Staluppi tells the story thusly:

"I had booked Tommy Harper to open my new club, Max's 38th Floor Dive. Tommy, who was one helluva heartthrob at that time, had just left Gene Cohen's band after being his boy singer for seven years. He didn't wanna be known as just a boy singer anymore. He wanted to be known as a boy singer and mentalist. I told him he wasn't smart enough to be a mentalist, but he WAS smart enough to accept my offer to open my club as a boy singer and nothing but, and if he WASN'T smart enough, I had some friends who said the fish in the East River were hungry for a nice hunk of mentalist wrapped in concrete. Jeez, the things you had to do just to get someone to play for you in those days. Some of these guys even wanted to get paid. I don't know what they were trying to prove.

"So I get Harper all lined up and I put out more dough on advertising and publicity than a sane man should. Posters, billboards, radio announcements, and all sorts of special promotions. Lemme give you a f'rinstance. See, at that time, some of my boys were involved in a--well, nowadays they would call it a gang war, but in those days we called it a friendly spat. I instructed them, every time they mowed anybody down in a public place, they were to yell to anyone around, 'And that's just a sample of what the rest of youse'll get if you don't hop down to Max's 38th Floor Dive and see Tommy Harper, starting September 4.' Plus, I had a special deal, we'd contact the widows of the guys what got knocked off and tell them we'd waive half the cover charge if they came to see the show. And some of them broads STILL didn't come. Talk about holding a grudge!

"Anyway, it's a couple of days before opening, and I've gotten word from some of my associates who have been guarding the rehearsals that things ain't as peachy keen as I might want them to be. Seems Harper's been getting a little nervous, what with this being his big solo debut, all of the attention focused on him, and with our having removed his lovely betrothed to a remote mountain hideaway to ensure he plays ball with us. Lemme be straight with you, Harper took things way too serious. We TOLD him the worst we would do would be break her legs. What's the big deal? You really love someone, what d'ya care if they can walk?

"Anyway, Harper's nervous, and he reacts to this nervous stuff by drinking. Who doesn't, right? But what happens, see, is that every time Harper finishes a song, during the time when the audience would be applauding, he downs a few shots. By the end of the third number, he's three, maybe even four sheets to the wind, and really stinking up the joint--missing the rhythm, forgetting lyrics, murdering phrases he had treated with a real delicate touch just days before, you know what I mean?

"We tried taking the booze away from him, but wouldn't you know, all of a sudden he locates his manhood, says he doesn't care what we do to him, he gets his booze or he walks. So I take his director, this guy you asked me about, I take him aside and I say, 'I do not in any way wish to interfere with the presentation of your particular artistic vision, but if Tommy Harper is not in tip top shape when we open Friday night, I will have your liver with my bacon and eggs on Saturday morning.' Which was a bluff, of course. I hate liver, I would have given it to my dog, Nanners.

"So, this director fella, he does the smart thing. He figures, if there ain't no end of a number, there ain't no applause, and there ain't no chance for Harper to get no drink. So he strings all these songs together into one long - what did you call it? - medley, yeah, medley. Of course, he don't tell Harper he's going to do this, just the piano player.

"You shoulda seen the look on Harper's face on Friday night at what he thought was the end of the first number, heading for the piano to pick up his drink, and not being able to get it because it was already time for him to start singing again. And the same thing happening after the second number, the third number, and by this time, Harper's starting to understand, he ain't gettin' no booze. His eyes get big and round, his lower lip starts jerking. You can see the pain, the unbearable agony he had, the shakes, that look of a man practically ready to fall on his knees and sell his soul for one drop of liquor. I hadn't had a laugh like that since the Spinnelli boys found out they wouldn't have to bother buying a Mother's Day present ever again."

Although O'Wittgenstein worked steadily from the forties into the sixties, the combination of the decline of traditional cabaret venues and the rise of rock music forced him into retirement in 1969. Unable to find the kind of work at which he excelled, he spent the last ten years of his life working in quality control for a major appliance manufacturer, where his ability to tell a hot plate from a really-just-warm plate was valued, but not overly much.

Clearly, O'Wittgenstein is THE unsung hero of the cabaret world. I remain firm in my conviction that, were it not for his near-total obscurity, he would be a household name today, at least in those households which make cabaret a way of life. As Carny Blaine so eloquently put it, "The guy was a horse's behind to work with, but then so is everyone in cabaret, and if you lay down with the dogs, you gotta expect a few fleas. At least he was the kind of guy that could take a pack of fleas and turn them into a circus."

Well said, Carny, well said, and a sentiment I shall remember every time I attend a cabaret and have that all-too-familiar urge to scratch.


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