by Carla Gordon for Cabaret Scenes
Whether your passion for cabaret is that of a fan or performer (or both), if your environs represent Greater Chicagoland, doubtless you have spent numerous evenings at Davenport’s Piano Bar and Cabaret on Milwaukee Avenue. While too many Chicagoland music venues (Halsted’s Gentry, and Speakeasy as examples) withered, Davenport’s not only survives—it’s thriving. A lively interview with Donna Kirchman, who, along with Sue Berry, owns Davenport’s, offers insights as to why this club remains the heart of Chicago’s cabaret community.
“Owning the building helps,” chuckles Kirchman. Clearly, not having to face a landlord enables Davenport’s to weather the occasional slow month.
Davenport’s ranks among the most artist-friendly cabaret spaces in the country. Singers can manage their pre-show jitters in the club’s green room complete with a private loo. The listening room is laid out ideally for the intimacy of cabaret. Its stage is positioned for the audience space to be wide and shallow. In too many cabaret rooms, the stage is at one end of a long room, challenging the artist to create an intimate feel with audience members at the far end. Davenport’s listening room features enough soft surfaces to enable piano and vocalists to balance without a harsh sound. “Karen Mason played an important role in designing Davenport’s,” Kirchman explains. “We asked her what cabaret artists and audience members want most. We followed Karen’s recommendations and they have worked out well.” Another feature of the listening room is its display wall. Performers with shows saluting particular singers or songwriters often display relevant memorabilia on the wall. Audience members delight in seeing a genuine Fanny Brice autograph, listening to an Ethel Merman recording, or reading a few paragraphs on The Gershwins before a cabaret show begins.
In addition to its listening room, Davenport’s features its “front room,” the Chaise Lounge. Having recently celebrated the 500th performance of the Nitz-Howe Experience, Daryl Nitz and George Howe fill the Lounge with a late-night weekend crowd. The Experience dishes out everything from classic rock to puppetry as Nitz and Howe strut their stuff. Nitz works the diverse crowd which ranges from twenty-something bachelorette parties to well-coiffed suburban matrons. They howl at Nitz’ over- the-top musical impersonations (an overblown Mandy Patinkin sinking to his knees is my new favorite) and his “Hot Nuts” sing along.
“Daryl and George have made meaningful contributions to the success of Davenport’s,” says Kirchman. “Davenport’s employees are truly an extended family.” Much of Davenport’s waitstaff is called up to the microphone during the Nitz-Howe Experience adding to the fun in the Lounge. According to Kirchman, “(club manager) Deb Steward and her staff really keep the place humming.” If your waiter or waitress is called up to sing, chances are that another member of the club’s waitstaff will cheerfully step in to see whether you need a refill.
Howe also hosts a Monday night open mike. George is a grand host who enhances singers at all levels. He makes great music with the old timers and helps the wannabees sound their best. George’s Monday nights attract a great crowd, but Howe keeps it moving nicely so all get the chance to strut their cabaret stuff.
Kirchman shares how Chicago Cabaret Professionals (CCP) also contributes to Davenport’s success. CCP sponsors showcases throughout the year including its spring series (this year saluting musical decades from the Forties to the Eighties on five Sundays in March) and annual Holiday Cabaret benefiting two well–chosen charities. (Davenport’s donated its proceeds from the 2007 CCP Holiday Cabaret to the Teen Living and Save the Children foundations.) “Over the past few years, CCP showcases have been growing in attendance and quality,” shares Kirchman. CCP has become proactive in its marketing and helps grow the universe of Chicago-based cabaret fans. Its ’07 Holiday Cabaret was a SRO event. With Davenport’s cooperation, CCP also sponsors newcomers’ showcases.
“Above all,” reports Kirchman, “Davenport’s owes its success to the remarkable pool of talented cabaret artists who perform in our club. Through our website and our window poster displays, we do what we can to help singers draw audiences. But when it comes to marketing, the artists do the heavy lifting.
“As Davenport’s looks forward to celebrating it’s tenth anniversary this November, we thank all our performers for sharing the joy of bringing the wonderful art of Cabaret to fans from Chicago and beyond!”