Schulenberg’s Page: Meeting Minnie the Moocher and The Divine Miss M

Featured image
Cab Calloway performing "It Ain't Necessarily So," with Barry Manilow on piano at the Continental Baths, January 22, 1972.

January, 1972: After the holidays and just before leaving California for New York I was invited to dinner at the Westwood Hills home of Cy and Eleanor (Rodder) Phillips. Eleanor’s mother Pauline was my mother’s close friend in Fresno and I’d seen her just a week earlier.

A few days before Eleanor had shown me some fabric that she wanted to use in her den which had paneling in a soft dove grey color. The fabric was a light grey green and I told her quite frankly that I thought it would make the den look boring and would not do much for the room. I suggested that we go way downtown to where I knew of a large warehouse-sized fabric store with amazingly low prices. We found a chintz with a deeper grey background and a soft white trellis pattern embellished with multi-colored pink cabbage roses with deep green leaves! It was gorgeous and I explained to Eleanor that since her house was what in LA is called California Georgian, the chintz was entirely appropriate!

After shopping, Eleanor, at dinner, explaining to her husband Cy what she was going to do with 40 yards of chintz!

Fortunately, she had loved it but was afraid of its bold imagery. I had brought along a copy of the UK magazine, The World of Interiors, thinking in advance that she might need a little bit of visual reenforcement. In the magazine was a photo of an English country house with a room draped and upholstered in a vibrant chintz!

She loved it — and loved the idea of an English country house look! She ended up buying 40 yards of it for all the furniture and drapes. It was such an inexpensive price per yard that all 40 yards cost less than the original fabric she would have needed to only reupholster a sofa!

Years later, when I’d moved back to Los Angeles the den was still wearing the beautiful chintz and still, after a decade, looked fresh!

Two days later I left to go back home to Manhattan.

At LAX waiting for their flight.

Underdressed passengers on my flight to New York.

I’m always surprised when flying from Los Angeles to New York in January to see passengers arriving onto the plane without a jacket or coat and some even only in a short-sleeved shirt or even only a tee shirt and flip flops! Are they aware that the winter climate of New York is quite a lot cooler than that of Southern California? When we arrive it’s always too chaotic to see what their reaction is — especially when it’s snowing!

So I was back in Manhattan. I neglected to mention that during my travels I was accompanied by my faithful life partner and traveling companion Tybalt, my three-year-old Persian cat!

Tybalt in my bedroom in my mother’s house in Fresno.

He was such a good traveler and so well behaved that he always flew in the plane’s cabin with me. He slept calmly in his wicker carrier and on this trip the stewardess asked if she could see him. So I took him out of the carrier and sat him on my lap where he promptly went back to sleep purring his usual loud purr. The stewardess was charmed and since she was going to take a quick break asked if she could take him downstairs to show another crew person who had a pet cat.

So back into the carrier went Tybalt and off they went.

After several minutes the stewardess reappeared and asked if I’d come downstairs with her. Tybalt had appeared so serene, she explained, that she thought he was tranquilized and remove him from his carrier. However, once he was out of the carrier she realized he wasn’t “tranquilized” and she couldn’t get him back into the carrier!

So I got to see where the crew was able to hang out when not working, and Tybalt had a bit of in-flight entertainment of his own!

Joanne Beretta.

A few days later, my friend, Joanne Beretta was going to perform at Downstairs at the Upstairs. I invited Sharon Powers and Richard Amsel to come with me to hear and see her.

While I was still a graduate student at UCLA I kept hearing about a young woman who was singing in the cabaret/clubs in San Francisco. In those days LA didn’t have any clubs of note where a previously unknown performer could perfect performing skills and be noticed, talked about, and ultimately become known — or even become famous!

San Francisco had boîtes like The Hungry I and others that were becoming nationally known, whereas Los Angeles, even with all the talent funneling into the entertainment industry, had no small intimate rooms for performances! Possibly everyone was so tired at the end of the day’s filming that the last thing they wanted was to perform in a small club — even if there were one.

And no studio executive would have a reason to go some distance from home to a hitherto unknown club.

Even if there were one!

San Francisco was so much smaller, not spread out and more urban in spirit.

Joanne at The Duplex in NYC.

So the news of this charismatic young singer had even made word of mouth to Los Angeles and even UCLA — to me!

When I moved to Manhattan and met Barbra Streisand a few hours after initially arriving and then every night helping her get ready and accompanying her to The Bon Soir, I’d become familiar with cabaret performances and even performers. I’d become friendly with Joanne Beretta just because I was a fan!

One night, during one of her unique shows, I realized that she was the magical young singer I’d heard about years before! And it was all true. She could break your heart with a subtle ballad and leave you laughing with the following comedy song! I particularly remember an irreverently innocent impersonation of a very young Shirley Temple singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”

So here we were, Sharon Powers, Richard Amsel and I at Downstairs at the Upstairs. Richard was beginning his working relationship with Bette Midler and would soon paint the cover of her debut album, The Divine Miss M.

Richard Amsel’s cover art for The Divine Miss M.

Afterwards we went to the Brasserie and Barry Manilow joined us. At that time he was Bette’s music arranger and accompanist.

The next day I met my friend Mara and we walked her dog Glinka, the Siberian Husky.

It was announced and advertised that the legendary Cab Calloway was going to be appearing at the Continental Baths, the cavernous gay bathhouse in the Ansonia on the West Side. It had become the top nightclub cabaret in town after Bette Midler’s unprecedented run which had put it on the map — and into the pages of all of the mainstream publications!

But Cab Calloway performing in a gay bathhouse?

Since The Baths was still an active gay sex club, it was becoming very apparent that sexual norms were changing with the times!

Dawn Hampton.

Dawn Hampton was the opening act for Calloway. She was legendary in her own right having had almost as long and successful a career as he’d had.

As a toddler she had performed with a band her father had put together with her 8 siblings. He named it ”Deacon Hampton and the Cotton Pickers” and they played the carnival circuit — including the South!

She was a very experienced club and theater performer and had even coached Bette Midler earlier in Bette’s career.

So here she was, opening for Cab Calloway accompanied by Barry Manilow, who apparently had become the house pianist and music director of the place.

To my surprise I found myself seated between Arlene Frances and Helen Gurley Brown! The whole experience was pretty unusual.

Then it was  time for Cab Calloway!

His career started in 1927 and even during the Depression years he was earning $50,000 a year, which today would be just short of $1,000,000!

With his hit song “Minnie the Moocher,” he became the first African American to sell a million single records! He became known as “The Hi-De-Ho Man” and a Betty Boop film was made in 1932 called Minnie the Moocher!

His group and that of Duke Ellington made more movies during that time than any other jazz groups of the period.

I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on in his mind although he’d certainly seen and undoubtedly experienced a lot since 1927.

But still …!

Calloway performed his most famous song and persuaded the whole audience to join in just as he’d been doing for over 40 years!

As the show ended there was a surprise from the audience: quite a few men and women whipped off their clothes and jumped into the huge swimming pool that was just to the right of the performance area!

I joined my friends who were there and we went for a more prosaic late supper at The Bavarian Inn on East 86th Street in Yorkville!

We’d experienced something akin to an evening’s entertainment during the 1930s’ German Weimar Republic, so why not finish with a Teutonic supper?

Recent Posts