The Oak Room Farewell

Visits to New York won’t be the same now that the Algonquin Hotel has closed the Oak Room. Since Ben Bodne sold the hotel in 1987, it has changed hands several times and is now operated by the Marriott chain as one of its high-end properties. With each change, another layer of the Algonquin’s mystique seems to evaporate. The Oak Room existed as an elegant dining and listening post for only 32 years of the hotel’s 110-year history, but from its opening night it was one of the most important New York showcases for singers. In announcing its demise last Thursday, general manager Gary Budge noted the room’s importance but said, ”…with declining guest counts, it seemed like the appropriate thing for us to do right now.” After a general renovation of the hotel, he said, the Oak Room would not reopen. For an appreciation of the room’s history and impact, see this Stephen Holden article in The New York Times.

The Oak Room never made a point of distinguishing between cabaret and jazz; in any case, that line is clear only when considering singers like Julie Wilson and Andrea Marcovicci, out-and-out cabaret stars. Among the performers featured there who could be described as jazz, cabaret or both were Sylvia Syms, Tierney Sutton, Wesla Whitfield, Barbara Carroll, Jack Jones, Sandy Stewart, Mary Cleere Haran, Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Feinstein and Daryl Sherman. Ms. Stewart sang at the Algonquin several times accompanied by her son Bill Charlap at the piano. Ms. Whitfield appeared with pianist Mike Greensill and bassist Michael Moore. Ms. Sherman became a latterday favorite in the Oak Room, sometimes working with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Here’s a part of their tribute to Johnny Mercer. The video is a bit fuzzy. The interpretation and verve are not.

I wonder if the Marriott folks might be persuaded to change their corporate mind about eliminating a cultural treasure. The improving economy could get those guest counts back up.

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Comments

  1. says

    Maybe if we (Rifftides readers) inundate The Algonquin’s GM, Gary Budge, with emails protesting the closing of this fabled cabaret, he’ll have a change of heart. But then again, what is birthed in time and space, dies in time and space. Wouldn’t hoit to try. Let’s give it a think, lovers of the Oak Room. Bugde’s email address can be found under “contact us” on the Algonquin website.

  2. Jim Brown says

    History continues to repeat itself, this time in the form of middle management insensitivity. Something like twenty years ago, a local acoustic consulting firm (a not very good one, for reasons that will be obvious), referred the catering manager of the Chicago Hilton to me, saying that they didn’t need an acoustic consultant, but did need a sound system design.

    In my first conversation with that manager, I learned that he wanted to convert a space just off the lobby of the hotel to a lounge that would feature rock and disco. it was then being used as a venue for solo pianists, and I’d often stopped by to hear the delightful Larry Novak, who had a long running steady gig there. Now, this space was completely open to the lobby, so turning it into a a rock/disco lounge would have blown away the lobby without a major rebuild to achieve the needed acoustic isolation. When I told the manager this, the project died, and the space continued as a piano lounge for a while (probably longer than the tenure of that new manager).