Interior designer, Scott Salvator landed the tricky job of re-doing one of New York’s most beloved night spots, the Café Carlyle, and acquitted himself admirably in pulling off the feat of ‘bringing it into 2007 whilst maintaining 1955’, which was when it was added to the Carlyle Hotel was an intimate cabaret venue featuring legendary performers like Bobby Short and, of course, Eartha Kitt. He whipped the job around in less than three months, plugging in much-needed new technology and tweaking the rest of the design just enough to refresh rather than drastically re-vamp this cozy, clubby little room—in another life he could, perhaps, consider becoming a plastic surgeon.
The proximity of the guests in here to the people performing is quite incredible. It must be the most intimate performing space in the city.
Let me tell you something, the other day they had some people come in from Texas, some grande dame. They had the whole table, she had all the kids and the grandkids and everybody … they had champagne, the whole thing and I was here with my mother. And literally, you are on the [performer’s] lap … if you don’t have manners … the show started and I hear the 15-year old saying [over Eartha Kitt singing] ‘I need an extra fork’ and I just turned around (I had one) and I said ‘Here’.
That is something I’m curious to ask you. How were you going to keep this intimacy? If you made it cold, it wouldbe a disaster.
Well it has that ‘American in Paris’ look. And the original Marcel murals Vertes were here. The first issue was that there was smoking here in 1955, so we had to take a lot of the dirt out of the murals. It was just a different time.
There is something undeniably glamorous about the idea of a cozy, smoky jazz club.
And there is a retro glamour to Eartha Kitt at the Café Carlyle.
I’m telling you it is booked solid! The audience for Eartha Kitt is getting younger and younger. Woody Allen plays here on Monday nights, and Judy Collins …The question is ‘are you going to get Alicia Keys?’ … or Norah Jones would be wonderful.
So what did you keep and what did you throw out?
We kept the Vertes murals and restored them. Then there was the issue of technology. I said you have to change stuff because you have the technology. The settees we redid. (The banquettes used to be pink). I said ‘The configuration works—we can tweak it a little. Everything else needs to be updated because of technology. And the way that we need to do that is remove the ceiling’ … I explained to them what they had to do to bring this into 2007 and maintain 1955 … and I left the mirror off the side [of the column facing the stage] so that the performers don’t have to look at themselves. You don’t want to see your tonsils.
What a good idea!
Yeah, right. If you’re have to configure your face in a certain way to hit a note and you’re not looking your best, you really don’t want to see that.
Did you ask any of the performers what they would like to see different.
I did talk to Judy Collins. She just said that she loves it here. They all love it.
Were there any nasty surprises?
No, not really. But what was interesting was that under that column, when we took off the [exterior], all the phone numbers were there from the original construction, it had all the exchanges like ‘TU 9’ for Tuxedo and ‘Electric Joe’ with a number. There used to be a pay phone under that mirror [points] because the wires are still there.
It is very French, it’s sort of like the 19th century Montmartre or something … I think coming into a place like this makes people feel more glamorous, it transports people in their imaginations, to another time.
Well, it’s a great evening. You know it’s not pre-recorded, it’s not marketed, it’s not some boy band, it’s not Britney Spears. I have to say there have been a lot of young people here.
What kind of young people?
Oh, you know hip, downtown types. I came in one night and stood at the bar for the last three numbers of Eartha and this whole banquette was filled with people with spiked hair, very downtown. They weren’t you know, suburban. They were New Yorkers.
It’s so funny how New Yorkers can always spot a fellow New Yorker.
What’s Eartha Kitt like?
I mean first of all, besides being iconic, she comes from a generation that works. I think that’s what you really get from her. I read her bio before I met her, because I read everyone’s bio [all the people who play the Carlyle] just because I wanted to know more, kind of know who they were. And she had left home at 16 and she wound up being a muse for Orson Wells. And you know, she was kind of the exotic, the Angelina Jolie of her day. It was a long way between that and national fame, and she did get the Batman thing, which kind of put her on the national stage. That brought her to the White House where she asked President Johnson why there were so many blacks in Vietnam and then she was blacklisted and wound up going to Paris.
But what was she like with you?
She’s a real person. She looks at you and asks you questions. There isn’t this whole diva thing going on.
It seems like you managed to tread the fine line—rejuvenating a space without reinventing it.
You know, they originally had planned to put a nightclub in the basement and eliminate this, and the Carlyle’s General Manager, James McBride, said ‘No, we need to keep this.’ It is an institution and people love it.
— Lesley Hauge and Sian Ballen