The Bon Soir
40 West Eighth Street, Greenwich Village
New York, New York
Barbra's Performance Dates:
Barbra at the Bon Soir (1960)
The Bon Soir, owned by Ernie Sgroi Sr., was a small night club in New York's Greenwich Village. Comedians and singers like Phyllis Diller, Kaye Ballard, and Ethel Waters performed there.
“Much of the Bon Soir's appeal came from its remote, forbidden feeling,” James Gavin wrote in Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. “A walk down thirty-one steps led to a square black room ...”
From “Stateside Gossip” by Warren Allen Smith:
The club was small. Lines often backed up for those wishing to stand at the bar. Waiters scrambled to serve food to those who had reservations at one of fewer than 25 small tables. At the bottom of the stairs, turn left to the restrooms or turn right to the fenced-off bar [ ... ]
A little sign atop each table told how much you would have to pay whether or not you ordered food or the several-drink minimum. It was wise to arrive early at either the first or second show of the evening, because the place’s capacity was limited. And dark, this den of sophistication was so dark you wondered if the walls were black or just in need of paint! The little light at the bar’s cash register revealed what denomination of paper money standees had pulled out of their pocket.
[ ... ] After an announcement about a “last call” for food service, the dimly lit room—entertaining mostly straight and extremely welldressed couples at their tables—abruptly switched to entirely black, then onto the stage arrived MC Jimmie Daniels, a handsome gay black singer-actor who operated the tony club … Daniels not only performed but also kept the show moving along, usually introducing a comic, then a singer, then a group, another comic, and so forth.
...Musical accompaniment usually was by the Three Flames, an all-black bass (Avril Pollard), piano (Roy Testamark), and guitar featuring Tiger Haynes (the Tin Man in the Broadway version of “The Wiz”)...
Below: A rare shot of the interior of the Bon Soir—lit brightly by the camera's flashbulb—from a 1963 postcard.
New York record and review producer Ed Bagley told author James Gavin: “One reason why performers liked the Bon Soir was that whether they were good, bad, or mediocre the bar was always supportive ... ”
A November 10, 1960 New York Times article about cabaret clubs further described the atmosphere of the Bon Soir:
The Bon Soir, incidentally, is so dark, not even the waiters can see. They all carry tiny flashlights up their sleeves so they can determine who needs a refill, creating the effect of a room a-twinkle with glow-worms.
Barbra's Audition & Creating The Act
Barbra won a talent contest at another Greenwich Village bar called The Lion. Ernie Sgroi, Jr. co-owned The Lion and recommended that Barbra audition for his father's club. In July or possibly August 1960, Streisand auditioned.
In an interview with Playboy magazine, Barbra recalled:
When I auditioned, I forgot that I had gum in my mouth, so I took it out and stuck it on the microphone and it got a big howl. Then I started to sing. They liked it, but they thought I was going to be a comedienne. When I went off the stage, Larry Storch, who was the headliner there, said to me, “Kid, you’re gonna be a star.” Like in the movies! And Tiger Haynes’ girlfriend, whose name was Bea, came over to me and said, “Kid, you got dollar signs written all over you.” I’ll never forget it. I was wearing my antique vest, my antique Twenties shoes with butterflies on them, and I just looked at her.
With Barbra's Bon Soir opening night scheduled for September 9, 1960, she began building a nightclub act that would suit the venue. Barbra and her friend Barry Dennen began collecting songs that she might want to perform there. “Singing professionally meant searching out new and unusual songs, but at the outset I couldn't afford sheet music. So I had my mother pretend she was Vaughn Monroe's secretary so we could get it for free,” Streisand wrote in 1991. [Monroe was a famous singer at the time, and Streisand's ruse was to make the music publishers think Monroe wanted to record their song!]
Another artist friend—Bob Schulenberg—kept a sketchbook from this time, and in the margin he scribbled songs Barbra considered:
- You're the Cure For What Ails Me (an Al Jolson film song)
- I Love to Sing-a (another Jolson song, 1936)
- Just Because We're Kids (from the movie "5000 Fingers of Dr. T" by Doctor Seuss)
- You're a Builder Upper (Gershwin-Harburg-Arlen)
- Can't You Do A Friend a Favor (a lovely Rodgers & Hart song)
- I've Got To Get Hot (DeSylva, Brown & Henderson)
It was at this time that Barbra was cast by Curt Conway as Hortense the French maid in the musical The Boy Friend. Streisand headed upstate to Cecilwood Playhouse for the run of the show: August 16—30, 1960. When she returned to Manhattan, she and Barry Dennen had only ten days to polish off the act.
For her opening night at the Bon Soir, Streisand appeared third on the bill, following a musical set by the Three Flames, and a comic act by Tony and Eddie. (Phyllis Diller closed the evening.)
Barbra's Set List: The Bon Soir 1960
- Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now
- A Sleepin’ Bee
- I Want to Be Bad *
- When Sunny Gets Blue
- Lover, Come Back To Me
- Nobody’s Heart Belongs to Me
- Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
Streisand eventually recorded all of these songs on her first and second albums (except for “I Want to Be Bad.”
* some of the lyrics go: “If it's naughty to rouge your lips, Shake your shoulders and swing your hips, Let the lady confess, I want to be bad!”) [Words & Music by: B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson]
Some of Barbra's Initial Bon Soir Reviews 1960
New York Times (11/10/1960)
A startlingly young, stylish and vibrant-voice gamin named Barbra Streisand is one of the pleasures of a club called the Bon Soir ... where the evening's festivities get off to a calculatedly late start. The place doesn't begin to fill up until 11:30 ...
New York World-Telegram:
The Bon Soir has swung into the new nightclub season with the find of the year. She is Barbra Streisand, a Brooklynite whose voice and poise belie her scant eighteen years. Vocally, there's range and power; stylewise, there appears to be a natural gift for musical comedy, but she handles with aplomb the most meaningful ballads.
Dorothy Kilgallen's Voice of Broadway Column:
The pros are talking about a rising new star on the local scene—eighteen year old Barbra Streisand, currently at the Bon Soir. She's never had a singing lesson in her life, doesn't know how to walk, dress, or take a bow, but she projects well enough to bring the house down.
Bob Schulenberg (Barbra's artist friend) remembered in New York Social Diary:
“During the first Bon Soir gig, she pretty much lived at [Barry Dennen]’s. He was on West 9th, and the Bon Soir was around the corner on West 8th. He was living very smartly. His parents were paying for the apartment. It was a very nice studio. Barre* and she had an affair that ended badly, and it was one of her first big hits “Cry Me a River” that was about that relationship.
It was at Barre’s apartment that I would make up half of her face and she would make up the other half to match it, copy it. Where the line of her eye was extended, I would fill in with a false eyelash so that it looked like she had enormous eyes. They did that in the movies in the 30s. That’s how her famous (at the time) Cleopatra look got started because she couldn’t glue the eyelash on properly and just extended it with eye-liner.
She was so successful at the Bon Soir, the owner moved her up to his other club, the Blue Angel on East 52nd Street. By this time she had done several gigs at the Bon Soir.
* Note: Dennen spelled his first name this way in 1960
The comedienne Phyllis Diller told US Magazine about working with Barbra back in 1960:
We shared a dressing room at the Bon Soir club in Greenwich Village. It was the size of a pea pod and usually you could smell fear in there. But she wasn’t a bit nervous – at least not that I noticed. I admit, I was unimpressed when I first met her. She was so young. She said hello, and that was it. She told me her shoes were antique and they cost her 35 cents. But then she went out and did her numbers and when she hit about the third note, every hair on my body stood up. It was unbelievable. She opened with ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,’ and I thought, Oh, my God, what a fabulous choice. She also sang Harold Arlen’s ‘A Sleepin’ Bee,’ which really showed off that voice. It was scary. I knew she was going places. At the end of the week, I said to her, “I know it’s bold to say this but don’t you ever cut your nose.” I knew lousy, insensitive agents would come along and say, ‘Hey, baby, do this, do that.’ Now everyone takes credit for telling her not to get a nose job, but I had her first.
Barbra confessed, nearly 30 years later, “I didn’t know you were supposed to wear gowns in nightclubs, and so I sang in a wool dress or in antique clothes. Then Phyllis Diller said, ‘You can’t wear that stuff’ and took me shopping for a cocktail dress, and I actually put it on. I didn’t want to make her feel bad, but I could never wear it again. It wasn’t me.”
Barry Dennen recorded some of Barbra's early Bon Soir shows with a portable tape recorder he owned. Barry and Barbra listened to the tapes and reviewed the previous night’s performance in order to hone her act. Those tapes were played for Columbia Records President Goddard Lieberson when Barbra’s manager, Marty Erlichman, was pursuing a recording contract for her.
Dennen wrote in his book, “And tucked away in my bank vault, the tapes I made of her so long ago at the Bon Soir, the tapes that caused so many problems between us.” [See: The Barry Dennen tapes]
Terry Leong, another artist friend, said:
Barbra had just started to sing. She was poor and couldn't afford much. I brought her to the thrift shops uptown, on Ninth Avenue. She had a natural eye for style. In all there were six or seven original outfits I designed. She wore them at the Bon Soir. It was great fun. We were good friends.
Sketches Above: Terry Leong's outfits he designed for Streisand's early nightclub performances. He described them (left to right): (left) Feathered bed jacket in shades of purple from the 1920's, silk taffeta sheath; (middle) Cerise Silk Brocade—fitted bodice, full sleaves falling into a surplus back fastened by ruby and rhinestone brooch, silk ottoman skirt; (right)1900 bodice of jet and gunmetal sequins on black lace, black velvet skirt.
In 1960, Barbra’s initial two-week run at the Bon Soir was extended.
Below: Barbra's Bon Soir backup group, The Three Flames, recorded a live album there, too (1957 Mercury 20239; mono).
Below: Phyllis Diller—who headlined at the Bon Soir— recorded a live comedy album there, too. Note: Jimmy [ie] Daniels introduced her; the Three Flames accompanied her.
May 9 — June 6, 1961
Streisand returned to the Bon Soir for four weeks in May and June 1961. Ted Rozar was Streisand's manager at that time and arranged for Associated Booking Corporation (and agent Irvin Arthur) to handle her personal appearances.
(Below: Two of ABC's headshots for Barbra Streisand. The drawing, left, was done by Barbra's friend Bob Schulenberg.)
Returning to the Bon Soir, Barbra earned $175 a week (minus 10% to be sent to Associated Booking Corp.) for the month-long gig.
May 22 — June 3, 1962
Oct. 23 — Nov. 18, 1962
Barbra's first manager, Ted Rozar, was soon replaced by Marty Erlichman. Erlichman, who became Barbra’s longtime manager, first saw her perform at the Bon Soir.
He told Vanity Fair magazine, “I had gone down to the Bon Soir to check out an old friend of mine, the comedian Phil Leeds ... Phil had been blacklisted by all that McCarthy stuff in the fifties and had just been reissued his cabaret card. I went to check out his material, but out walked this eighteen-year-old singer as his opening act. She sang five songs and I had chills through all of them.” A decades-long artist-management team was formed between Marty and Barbra at the Bon Soir nightclub.
Marty Erlichman booked Barbra back at The Bon Soir during the run of her first Broadway show. She was the headliner now, and was billed as “Barbra (I Can Get it For You Wholesale) Streisand.”
Comedian Dick Gautier was on the same bill as Streisand at the Bon Soir and told writer Kliph Nesteroff: “It was a very hip room. It was wonderful. They treated you well. I worked it with Barbra Streisand. We doubled. As soon as our other curtain came down we both rushed to the Bon Soir, whether it was subway or cab or whatever. That was great. She was terrific and it was very exciting because she was the new, hot thing. Everyone came to see her. All the people from all the Broadway shows. They didn't come to see me, they came to see her and I had the benefit of being able to perform for them.
“I remember Helen Hayes came in and all these big shot actors from Broadway. Word had gotten around. There was an actor named Phil Leeds, a very funny guy. Phil said, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ He said, ‘Come on down to the Bon Soir. You have got to see this girl, the greatest singer in the world, but she's going nowhere because she is as ugly as your foot.’ So I went to see her, and who knew I would be working with her. I loved working with her. She was just sensational.”
Barbra, a big hit in Wholesale, would taxi from the Shubert Theater on West 44th Street to The Bon Soir on West 8th Street. Columbia Records felt that a live recording would be the best (and least expensive!) way to capture the energy and talent of their new recording star. All that was needed was a remote recording crew and equipment. Columbia sent out an invitation to a live recording of Barbra’s Bon Soir shows. On November 5, 6, and 7th, 1962 Barbra recorded what Columbia Records intended to be her first album in front of a live audience at the Bon Soir. Barbra was accompanied by Avril Pollard on bass, Peter Daniels, piano, a drummer, and Tiger Haynes on guitar.
DAILY NEWS Review, 1962
“Girl Going Places” by Charles McHarry
Barbara [sic] Streisand, the standout comedienne of Broadway's 'I Can Get It For You Wholesale,' made her club debut at the Bon Soir the other evening and before her act was half finished, it was obvious to guests in the packed cellar that Barbra will be picking her spots from now on. The big East Side rooms will be clamoring for her and I suspect the Las Vegas hotels will seek her considerable talent, much of which is that of a jazz singer. What Barbara [sic] seems to have her heart set on, however, is another Broadway musical, the forthcoming "My Man," based on the story of the late Fanny Brice. Since this show, like "Wholesale," is a David Merrick property, it seems likely she will get her wish. "My Man" will have a book by Isobel Lennert, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill...
Streisand's 1962 Bon Soir contract paid her $1,250 per week. A typed remark on the contract says: “Artist to receive 100% sole star billing. The Bon Soir is to pay for Miss Streisand's accompanist, Peter Daniels. It is understood that Miss Streisand will not appear at the Bon Soir prior to 11:45 PM nightly.”
VARIETY Review, May 30, 1962
Having won smash personal reviews in the Broadway tuner ‘I Can Get It For You Wholesale’, 20-year-old Barbra Streisand returns to Gotham's intime nitery circuit with the assurance of a performer who knows that the road ahead is strictly upward. There's nothing arrogant or smart-alecky in her demeanor because of this assurance, it's just that she knows what she's about and makes the tablers aware that there's something special happening on stage. It's all done in a winning way, with an infectious jive giggle, a grimace, a wispy mood or a straightforward belt. At 20 she may be considered a show biz natural, but even if it's calculated for maximum impact, it works and that's what counts. Doubling from legit into a midtown stint isn't easy, but Miss Streisand doesn't skimp on her efforts. She does a well-planned 30-minute turn with repertoire range from winsome to wild. Her pace changes are neatly executed which gives her tuneturn a flow that keeps it interesting and enjoyable all the way. Especially good are an excerpt from Leonard Bernstein's “Songs for Children’, Harold Arlen's “I Had Myself a True Love’, a big belter like “Lover Where Can You Be’, and a humorous item salvaged from the past season's off Broadway musical entry “Another Evening With Harry Stoones’ called “I'm in Love with Harold Menkert’ *.
[* note: “Value’]
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