By Peter Haas
Throughout New York’s supper-club world of the 1930s, 40, 50s and 60s, one pianist was recognized and beloved as an original, imaginative artist, whose variations on the popular standards of the day had no parallel. He played in supper clubs and over radio stations across the country; was Mabel Mercer’s original accompanist when she first performed in America, and became best known playing for crowds nightly over many years in Park Avenue’s smart Drake Room, where such headliners as Margaret Whiting and Frank Sinatra dropped by to hear him.
He was Cy Walter – born in 1915, and honored this September on the centennial of his birth with a three-hour, star-studded, smartly paced evening at The Cutting Room, on September 27th, celebrating his talents and his songs.
The performers represented a “who’s who” of today’s cabaret world. Such stars as KT Sullivan, Stacy Sullivan, Jeff Harnar, Steve Ross, Ronny Whyte, Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Marissa Mulder, Jennifer Sheehan and Doug Bowles performed numbers for which Walter wrote the music or created both the music and lyrics. Pianist Alex Hassan played popular standards such as “Body and Soul” and “Isn’t It Romantic” in arrangements that Cy had created, while pianist Jed Distler offered Cy’s keyboard piece, “Mrs. Malaprop,” and Tedd Firth (the evening’s musical director) performed Walter’s “Music for Twilight” and “Jenny’s Waltz.”
The Cy Walter Celebratory Orchestra, a 12-piece group, filled the stage to accompany eight of the songs, including a dance, “The Astaire,” composed by Cy for the famed film dancer and performed this night – making the small stage space seem larger with their sweeping steps — by Heather Gehring and Lou Brockman.
The show was beamed to a large overhead screen in the back of the packed-house club, an assist to patrons seated there and at the bar. Commemorating the evening was a handsome sixteen-page Playbill-like souvenir program, designed by Frank Dain and containing the show’s credits and song list. Included, too, was a comprehensive words-and-photos recap of Cy Walter’s life. It was written by Cy’s son, Mark Walter, who has spent many years keeping his father’s music and memory alive – and who produced and MC’d ths commemorative evening,
Among the photos in the booklet: Cy in a three-piano performance with Richard Rodgers and Stan Freeman, and Cy at the Drake Room piano, with Maurice Chevalier among his attentive audience. (Personal note: This reviewer’s uncle, Walter Redell, was manager of the Drake Hotel for many years, and created The Drake Room expressly to feature Cy.)
Mark has also spearheaded the creation of a new two-volume CD set, released by Harbinger Records and containing rare performances of Cy and his music. Included are numbers featuring Cy Walter with Astaire, Hoagy Carmichael, Mabel Mercer, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra and others.
“Celebration” well describes the spirit of the evening and its lively performances.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto