by Alix Cohen
It all started with a 1962 Judy Garland television special. The diminutive star affected young Sidney Myer as no entertainer ever had. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. Proud and poignant, Garland seemed to vibrate from the screen, to sing directly to him. It was not only her vocal artistry. “I was drawn to mystique, to style. I made it my business to find it the way other kids checked out rock n’roll bands.” That year’s entire Christmas Club Fund, a quarter by quarter accumulation meant to purchase gifts, was spent instead on a copy of the 2 record set, Judy at Carnegie Hall.
Informed by variety and talk shows, Sidney began to acquire albums by pop and American Songbook practitioners. One can only imagine his current expansive Oh GOD! enthusiasm magnified by childhood. It was an era when appearances on Ed Sullivan or Jack Paar made someone’s career. There was a national nightclub circuit, but only three channels. Live entertainment was readily available and Sidney avidly pursued it starting in 5th or 6th grade.
Summer tent theater featured full touring musicals and solo artists. Comedians often opened for stars. It was to one of these Sidney insisted on being taken to see his obsession 2 years before she died. Clutching a large poster that said “We Love You Judy!” and a heavy stack of her records “I could sing everything backward and forward in Pig Latin,” the teenager was awed by a screaming, cheering crowd the likes of which he’d never experienced. Oh, My God, where WERE you?! he thought, referring to like-minded people. Garland, he remembers, was wearing the blue sequined pants suit she’d purloined from The Valley of the Dolls when she was fired. Susan Hayward’s, he assures me, was a copy.
At one point, as she walked down the aisle closest to the Myers, Sidney’s otherwise quiet, unassuming father reached out his hand to her. Garland took it, spun, and landed on his lap. Mr. Myer then introduced Sidney who could only stammer, Thank …you…Thank you. (Pause) “She had the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen. We shook hands and she kept looking at me. It was like meeting E.T.” The retelling is so detailed, so visceral, the air stills around us. After the show, an insistent Mrs. Myer managed to get an autograph on one of Sidney’s records when every other fan had been dispersed.
Sidney went to see Judy Garland on three more occasions. For one concert, he secured an ushering job and, barely able to contain himself, regaled incoming audience with extravagant praise of the previous night’s show. “Oh my goodness, she was sooo incredible! If she’s only half as good as she was last night…” This was the famous concert when Judy called in sick and Lorna (Luft) telephoned her mother pleading, “You have to come! There are all these veterans they wheeled in!” to which Garland responded, “If they wheeled them in, they can wheel them out!”
The Latin Casino, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was a short drive from the small Philadelphia suburb where Sidney and his brother were raised. Pivotal to his exposure, the 1500 seat dinner theater (no gambling) was a showcase of top performers from 1960-1978. Not only did it allow kids, but there were weekend matinees. Here, the Myer family indulged his passion.
Eddie Fisher, one of extremely few male vocalists Sidney calls out, “his voice had heart in it,” made an impression for reasons opposite to Garland. Dissipated by the time the boy saw him, Fisher drew only small groups one rainy matinee and, clearly disgruntled, made disparaging remarks between songs. Young Sidney instinctively knew this was wrong. “An audience is made up of individuals who made the effort to come to the show. You don’t penalize the people watching because there aren’t more of them. In fact, the smaller the audience, the more you should give because these people went the extra mile and showed UP. Fisher taught me a lesson,” he says emphatically.
“Nothing against men, but back in those years it seemed that every male singer was just one tuxedo after another. They all had the same haircut and hand gestures. I saw them live and I was bored. The ladies of the time had different looks, singular style, delivery and voice.” Beginning at about age 10, the only male artists Sidney recalls making a positive impression were Louis Armstrong, who had distinct brio and Jimmy Durante, “especially “This is All I Ask” or “September Song” and his shenanigans.” He admits to bursting into tears seeing Bing Crosby sing “Toura Loura Loura” (live) but never wanted to BE him.
Another new experience was provoked by a large photo of Marlene Dietrich in The New York Times that drew Sidney like a magnet. “I said, whoever looks like this I’ve gotta see.” It would be the first solo Broadway concert he attended. Dietrich languidly dragged her fur back and forth across the stage for what seemed like an eternity before performing. (Much like Gypsy Rose Lee.) “At that point in my life, whenever anyone started speaking a foreign language or recited Shakespeare, I drifted. When Dietrich sang in a world of languages, despite not understanding a word, I was riveted…My mother said, ‘I’m not cerrr-tin that face is completely hers.” Sidney’s humor in spades.
“What’s Wrong With Me?!”
From Kindergarten to 6th, Sidney attended a “delightful” Quaker/Friends institution. Ready to make sacrifices so her son would have more opportunity, his mother had him interviewed at a local prep middle school. He recoiled at the uniforms and large, fenced-in buildings, but aware a cousin had suffered from Anti-Semitism at the local public school and been transferred, agreed to go when a slot opened up. (In fact, the Myer’s neighbors on three sides were Catholic and didn’t speak to them.)
The next six years were a nightmare. Criteria for acceptance was academic excellence, sports superiority, and overall masculinity. Sidney ‘failed’ at all three. Latin and calculus were beyond him. A physical fitness “trial” included running 5 times around the gym. Sidney kept falling behind. By the time the others had finished the 5th circle, he’d completed 4. The sadistic gym teacher made him take a last loop alone while the rest of the boys screamed, laughed, and pointed. As to the third basis of inclusion, “I had no awareness of a boy being something other than a boy. I didn’t know what gay was. There were no examples, no one you could look at and say, that’s me…My mother must’ve thought the masculine setting would be helpful. I kept thinking what’s wrong with me?!”
When a Halloween poster competition was held in all the prestigious schools, Sidney achieved what he thinks of as his only accomplishment during those fateful years. Judges came from The Philadelphia College of Art, Moore College of Art, and Maine Line Center of the Arts. Winning work was displayed in local shops. Sidney, who was then drawing and painting, made a collage. “I remember looking at the windows, one after the other- Honorable Mention, Third Prize, Second Prize, and there was mine with First Prize! It was a shock.” Next General Assembly, the school’s art teacher announced that he had won top honors “and $50, quite a bit then. I went on stage to accept it. Everyone was laughing and jeering. It was an absolute nightmare. (Pause, deep sigh.) That was the end of visually artistic endeavors.
A third telling incident involves Sidney’s coming across an article about Judy Garland in Time Magazine (approved by his prep school.) He sent the piece, Séance At the Palace, to one of his teachers in order to validate appreciation of the performer. It reads, in part: “…Curiously, a disproportionate part of her nightly claque seems to be homosexual. The boys in the tight trousers roll their eyes, tear at their hair and practically levitate from their seats, particularly when Judy sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”… Manhattan’s Dr. Leah Schaefer claims that homosexuals gravitate toward superstars because “these are people they can idolize and idealize without getting too close to…” Sidney doesn’t recall making the obvious connection, but the bigoted teacher obviously did, sending it back red-penciled.
In retrospect, my subject realizes though he would’ve been beaten up in public school, he might also have found boys and girls like himself, with his interests. At the time, the adolescent was concerned that his parents had their hands full with his undiagnosed, autistic brother. He felt “…confused, guilty, ashamed. I remember seeing him chased by other kids in the school yard and thinking something’s very wrong. (Pause) I’m quick in a slow way,” Sidney comments quoting Mae West. He never complained about school and remembers walking off the stage with a diploma swearing he’d never go back with the same vehemence as Scarlett O’Hara’s “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.”
Sheik Sidney and His Hallucinating Harem
Senior year, Mrs. Myer took her son to a councilor for help with determining a college. Luckily the man was sympathetic both to the boy’s character and dreams. Sidney ended up at Emerson College, back then “a little collection of townhouses…I thought, this is my last chance. If I don’t make it here, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Opting for practicality, his major was Communications, not Theater. “I was just happy to be around it.”
“Oh my God, it was faaabulous! All about the arts…My voice, the way I talked, the very things that got me ridiculed 6 months before, got me celebrated at Emerson. I wound up being Vice President of my class and Chairman of the Jr. Vaudeville Show!” His arms rise, palms open, as if of their own volition. The young student’s stage debut was as Sheik Sidney and His Hallucinating Harem. He sang “I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning and Raise a Little Hell Tonight.”
Each year there was a big senior production. “Because of my devastating appearance as Sheik Sidney…” he was asked to play a teacher who separates the Sharks and Jets at the school dance in West Side Story. ‘When the music stops,’ he was told, ‘you walk out, blow your whistle and speak.’ Sidney was excited. The moment came, “I blow and nothing happens.” The company takes it again. Nothing. “I had a Vietnam flashback to early days of public humiliation.” Suddenly, Kevin Cotter, one of the leads, suggested Sidney might be covering the air hole preventing sound. He showed the embarrassed actor where to move his thumb. They became lifelong friends.
Cotter paved the way for Sidney’s first experience in Summer Stock at the college’s own Deartrees Theatre in Maine by pointing out a box office job- no pay, but they put you up and you get to see the shows. “It was so exCIting! I was beside myself!” When an actor dropped out of The Odd Couple, the aspiring performer found himself onstage at Oscar Madison’s poker table. People howled. “I got reviews!” Roles in three of the four shows followed.
New York, New York
After graduation, Cotter, “my fairy godfather,” found him housing in Harlem with fellow actors and his first voice teacher. “In retrospect, I think I was totally smitten and he was too. I was just so happy for a friendship. I’d gone 17 years without. It was never anything else for us.” He emits a little sigh.
Sidney recalls himself then as the equivalent of Marlo Thomas in That Girl– young, extremely eager, a bit naïve. He worked at minor office jobs, enthusiastically wore a jacket and tie and got his own apartment. When Cotter called suggesting his friend join him waiting tables at The Magic Pan, a high end restaurant chain serving the current foodie trend- crepes, he refused. “That’s a service job.” (His disdain is self-mockingly theatrical.)
With a desk on Madison Avenue at The United Rubber Shippers: If It Stretches, We Handle It
(slogan by Sidney), “I thought I was finally somebody. People were nice to me…Then, Kevin said the place was filled with actors and so much fun. That’s all it took.” Sidney started as a host and graduated to the wait staff. Once again, those things for which he’d been ridiculed served him well. “Everyone came, from Sylvester Stallone to Helen Hayes; Cher hung out with Gene Simmons from Kiss.”
Clubs beckoned. The young performer appeared at Reno Sweeney – his performance included a Mae West number called “Now I’m A Lady” transposed to “Now I’m a Gent,” Brothers and Sisters, The Bushes, Grand Finale…” Shows never had a theme. “I was the theme… Cabaret is the only art form you can, as they say in that burger place, have it your way. I didn’t want to be limited…The world told me I’m not a leading man and I never thought of myself as a singer, but I know my strengths. The one thing I could always take credit for was good taste in songs and I could enterTAIN people.
“There was a young waitress from the south studying at The Neighborhood Playhouse from some facokta place in Arkansas. She was charming.” They went to see each other perform, Mary in an improv group, Sidney in cabaret. “One day, I’m reading The Post– which I USED to do-he casts his eyes down in faux regret. It says Jack Nicholson is in town to cast his latest movie. …” The actress, a virtual unknown, had the opportunity to audition. Two days later, she told Sidney they wanted to fly her to Hollywood for a screen test, but she didn’t have a suitcase! “I said, ‘ Oh My God Kevin, she’s GOING…and she doesn’t have a SUITcase!’ (Kevin had one.) Next thing I know, I she calls me from Warren Beatty’s LIVING room… ‘Our Mary’ (Steenburgen) got the part and won an Oscar!”
Around the same time, Sidney performed a parody of Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” in which he referred to Mary’s award at a staff Christmas party. The General Manager understood the built-in PR, looked twice at collective talent, and decided to turn a floor of the building into a nightclub. They would call it Panache. The set up was like dinner theater: appetizer and main course, entertainment, dessert and coffee, entertainment. “All these cynical waiters who were actors thought it was professional suicide. Of course, I had no career to lose. I thought, this isn’t humiliating! What good is it if only your refrigerator hears you sing?!” Eyebrows rise like parachutes.
Sidney was the only one with nightclub experience and became the de facto expert. Soon, never planning to be a manager, he replaced a booker who had predisposition to drinking. Four or five years passed. He was waiting tables at one location, performing and booking at another. Sidney Myer at Home at Panache got great notices:
“Sidney Myer, an engagingly mischievous dispenser of musical repartee… has Groucho Marx eyebrows, Peter Allen’s post-vaudevillian song-and-dance attitude, and the nickname “Mr. Panache”…” Stephen Holden, The New York Times
“…in a class by himself. He has great comic timing with lyrics and can charm with a whimsical attitude that brings hilarity to interpretations.” William Wolf, Wolf Entertainment Guide
The extremely popular club moved twice. Panache #2 was abruptly shuttered when restaurant management embezzled funds. Panache #3, Encore, was padlocked for real estate back taxes. Sidney was there at the time. “We had a sold out show that night! I got right on the phone and booked every act scheduled for Panache somewhere else.” For the next month, the compassionate booker stood in the dark by the front door in case anyone needed to be redirected. “Everything was impounded. I went down with the ship.” He looks shell shocked even describing events.
Between #2 and #3, Sidney hired himself out cleaning apartments. He’s never been good at leisure and hasn’t taken a vacation since 2000. “It’s separation anxiety.” There were job offers from clubs, but nothing fit. He would do anything meantime to get out of the house and earn some money. One of the clients whose home he cleaned took an interest in Sidney. She turned out to be Dr. Leah Schaefer quoted in the Time Magazine article about Garland! At her suggestion, he started therapy. At first, “I didn’t know why I was there in comparison to people with visibly huge issues. Then I realized the indelible marks left by school.” He’d been suffering terrible stage fright. The dread of being jeered at clung, despite enthusiastic applause.
“I was always out in New York City, but with family…I felt I would disappoint them. There was a stigma.” Happily, both the Myers saw him perform numerous times. His father, however, never got to experience Sidney on a big stage. After her stroke, Mrs. Myers continued to attend, now in a wheelchair. At the Philadelphia Convention, her aide asked what Sidney would be like on stage. “My mother responded, ‘he can’t be described, you have to see for yourself.’ I didn’t come out to her till after my father died. I didn’t want her to blame herself.” She told Sidney they had just wanted him to be happy.
“I know it makes me sound like the oldest Civil War Widow, but to this day, I couldn’t imagine holding hands with someone on the street. This life wasn’t even a fantasy to me, it was unimaginable. “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” is not true for all of us.”
Don’t Tell Mama and…
Sidney became a television personality describing weekly highlights around town on a show called Cabaret Beat. The job morphed into interviewing talent. Publicists sought out the program and the accidental journalist would find himself at Rainbow and Stars or The Algonquin. He was now well known as both an entertainer and a personality- redundant in this case.
Don’t Tell Mama had been a hot spot in the 1980s, a saloon, everyone smoking and drinking. “It was a whole different vibe.” New owners approached the now wary Sidney. He arrived a week after it reopened. The club’s awning was torn and its former proprietor had taken virtually all the liquor. Regular Panache performers were long gone.
Sidney knuckled down booking not only Mama’s, but shortly thereafter, Rose’s Turn as well. He especially liked to give nascent performers the opportunity to try their sea legs. ‘Still does. Additionally, composers and lyricists such as Craig Carnelia, Steven Lutvak, Jonathan Larsen, Marci Heisler, Zina Goldrich, and Andrew Lippa were given early exposure with Sidney’s support. “Places like this are a public service. Where else are people supposed to develop and GROW.”
One young vocalist was a pretty blonde who sang jazz and blues. Only after a caller berated Sidney for not knowing whether her father would be there opening night did he realize Lissie was Paul Newman’s daughter. Why have we never heard of her? Evidently talented, she nonetheless traded the spotlight for a cabin in the woods. Literally.
When Donald Smith, creator of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, invited him to perform at the third annual Cabaret Convention, Sidney was shocked. To him, it represented a tradition to which he definitely didn’t adhere. Smith screened performers for everything from material to what they wore. Sidney was the sole exception. He sang what he wanted and wore what he wanted. ‘Still does. “He probably thought, Sidney Myer, where do I START!” (Those of you who attended last year may remember his pajamas, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the previous night’s excessive overtime.) No one came close to delivering his unique kind of wry humor and deft tenderness. No one does today.
Despite being otherwise told for years he was too “specialized” to play outside New York, Sidney was always included on the roster for out-of-town Conventions. “Donald is the only one who saw my POTENtial. Suddenly I was IN Palm Springs, IN San Francisco, IN Chicago, IN Philadelphia! Two songs and a little talk got me a week’s stay in London- in a suite!”
He also made time for acting in commercials for RCA Victor and The New York Lottery as well as appearing in several Off Broadway plays. “I never auditioned. They knew me.” An understudy in Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral, Sidney wound up playing 4 roles in 70 performances. In April 2015, he was asked by the composer and lyricist of a new musical to create a role for The New York Musical Theater Festival. Response was terrific. Sidney’s reward, however, came not with praise, but rather participation in a show which affected him deeply. “I walked into lampposts two days after that,” he says beaming.
Sidney Meyer is a nurturer, an evangelist, an iconoclastic artist. “He belongs on ANY short list of “true believers,” loves talent, and finds effervescent joy in presenting it.” (Eric Comstock) As an entertainer, he has equal ability to evoke laughter or tears and, I might add, quite a measure of mystique. At the helm of a club, he’s committed, generous, fair, and always remains in the background. As a man, he quite probably has the biggest heart in the business. One might easily call Sidney The Meryl Streep of Cabaret. Not only does no one have anything negative to say about Sidney, people gush.
A few months ago, KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation, called to ask Sidney whether he’d do a couple of fundraising performances and allow the organization to make a video they might sell to raise money. (Sullivan says he’s too dimensional for a mere CD) “And I thought, this group through Mr. Smith was the first to see my possibilities beyond the streets of Manhattan and to acknowledge me. This is a way to give back to them.” He’s donating his time. As Sidney’s last full show was in 1992, you can imagine the anticipation.
Soon, he’ll no longer be able to say “Unlike other performers, I do NOT have a ‘CD’ in the lobby. And you’re WELcome!”
Tickets to the show: http://www.westbankcafe.com/laurie-beechman-theatre
Second date added for Monday, Oct. 17 at 7 pm (October 16, 4 & 7 pm shows SOLD OUT)