Life is still a cabaret for Erv Raible

Erv Raible is the artistic director of the annual Cabaret Conference at Yale, and his passion has reached a new stage...

When Erv Raible watched Anais St. John perform at Le Chat Noir, a club in New Orleans, one Saturday night in November, he felt certain he was witnessing a cabaret star in the making.

St. John, a tall, lithe beauty and a passionate performer, shut her eyes and, with a deep, throaty voice reminiscent of the great African-American jazz and blues singers Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, transported Raible to a past era. With one ballad, she made him feel like his guts were being ripped out.

This-the discovery and nurturing of a singular musical artist-is why Raible has made cabaret his life for almost 30 years.

Since he moved to New York City from Cincinnati in 1978, Raible has been on a mission to find, train and promote new talent in the rarefied art of performing in front of small audiences at intimate clubs. With an eye for gifted performers, Raible helped usher in a cabaret renaissance in Manhattan through the four clubs he owned between 1978 and 2001.

Today, despite having sold all his clubs, Raible continues to champion cabaret. He is the driving force behind the annual Cabaret Conference at Yale University, and he watches about 150 acts each year. He is sought after to train and guide performers, direct shows and advise cabaret rooms and networks throughout the United States.

“The effect he’s had on cabaret, whether he realizes it or not, is on a national level,” said Michael Miyazaki, a member of the DC Cabaret Network, in Washington, where Raible serves as chairman of the advisory board.

Sherry Eaker, editor of “The Cabaret Artist’s Handbook” and editor at large of Back Stage, the entertainment-industry trade magazine, agreed. “Erv really set the standards for cabaret rooms,” and he “continues to help keep the trends going,” she said.

Raible, 62, is every inch the impresario. He keeps his salt-and-pepper hair freshly buzzed, favors mustard-colored suits and wears a large emerald ring. His base is an apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, which he now shares with a roommate and a dog. The guest bedroom has been dubbed the Diva Room because of the many singers who have stayed there. The running joke among Raible’s many friends is that anyone who sleeps in the room will go on to be nominated for a Tony Award.

Sharon McNight, who now performs in Los Angeles, was one of Raible’s “diva” roommates in the early 1980s. She was nominated for a Tony as Best Leading Actress in a Musical for her performance in the Broadway show “Starmites” in 1989. “He helps people struggling because he sees a spark of talent in their persona,” McNight said of Raible, “and he gives them a crying chance.”

Sally Mayes, who was nominated for a Tony in 1994 for “She Loves Me” was another occupant of the Diva Room. “He’s responsible for a lot in my world,” she said. “I consider Erv to be a blessing for the cabaret world. He loves his performers furiously.”

Cabaret emerged from the bohemian Montmartre district of Paris in the 19th century, when performing artists and poets met to put on shows for each other. The form became popular in the United States around 1900, at first in New York as an alternative to Broadway theater. It has always been a venue where artists could experiment with new and perhaps riskier material.

In the 1950s, smoky cabaret clubs flourished as a place for singers and comics to share their most intimate and personal stories. Clubs became an integral part of the gay scene in the late 1960s, launching the careers of stars like Bette Midler.

Raible claims he never intended for this art form to become so central to his life. He traces his interest back to 1968 when he met his lover and partner, Rob Hoskins, at the Golden Lions piano bar in Cincinnati. Both were elementary school teachers and neither dreamed that one day they would be running clubs in the cabaret capital of the United States. First they tried life as innkeepers in upstate New York but returned to Cincinnati after only a year. When they decided to move to Manhattan, their plan was to open a French restaurant. Instead, within six months of their arrival in New York City, they bought the Duplex Cabaret Club and Piano Bar.

“We always hung out at piano bars,” Raible said. “We knew what sold and what didn’t. We knew what people wanted.”

The couple bought two other clubs together before Hoskins died of AIDS in 1984. After that, Raible went on to become co-owner of Eighty-Eight’s, a club where numerous cabaret stars were discovered and where Liza Minnelli was a regular guest in the audience and as a performer between 1988 and 1999. But the AIDS epidemic took its toll on the cabaret scene in the 1990s. By 2001, with landlords jacking up rents to astronomical heights, Raible decided to sell his last club, Eighty-Eight’s, despite an offer from Minnelli to help him hold on to it.

“It’s been a very interesting ride,” Raible said softly. Hoskins, his partner, was only in New York with him for six years, he said. “Next July, I will have been here for 30 years.”

For Raible, the focus of his cabaret rooms was always the show. Today his main vehicle for finding and grooming new talent is the Cabaret Conference, which he helped create and where he serves as executive artistic director.

The annual summer conference and seminar was developed in 2002 in conjunction with the Yale School of Drama and the Yale Repertory Theatre. To select a group of 36 performers, who receive intensive training in the art of cabaret from a set of master instructors, Raible attends scores of auditions across the United States, as well as in Toronto and London, every year.

“It’s rare for someone who’s not a performer to be so generous,” Wendy Lane Bailey, executive assistant for the Cabaret Conference, said of Raible. “He loves presenting artists to the public and helping artists.”

In 1986, Raible co-founded the Manhattan Association of Cabaret and Clubs, a nonprofit trade organization designed to raise public awareness of the field. The association’s board members include the comedian Joan Rivers and his old friend Minnelli.

With the Yale conference keeping him busy, Raible still finds time to direct new shows and serve on the advisory boards of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists, Chicago Cabaret Professionals, Cabaret West (in Los Angeles), and the West Michigan Cabaret Association.

Through his connections, Raible has arranged for Anais St. John to “get her feet wet” in New York in January, when she will appear at the Duplex, one of Raible’s old clubs. “It’s great,” he said. “I go out all over the country doing these auditions and seeing amazing people no one knows about,” and then he brings them into the spotlight.