Singing and dancing through a vanishing era

By Frederick Quinn

<1> Camelot Off Broadway – St. Mary’s Cabaret Remembered

It was like Camelot, and each Monday night the aging singers and dancers from St. Mary’s Cabaret did their lively imitations of Al Jolson or Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. Between forty to seventy theater people gathered weekly for an evening of song, dance, and socialization in the former convent of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 West 46th Street, off Broadway and Times Square, then disappeared into their single rooms in the fading tenement houses nearby.

The Rev. Scott Helferty, a skilled pianist and former seminarian at St. Mary’s, led almost eighty such evenings for two years in the early 1970s. “Roseland Dance City, a few blocks away, was closed on Monday nights, so St. Mary’s was a natural word of mouth attraction for a gathering of theatrical people now in their sixties and seventies. On other nights, many spent long hours in places like the Horn & Hardart Automat, nursing a cup of coffee or a piece of pie, the sort of self-contained night people Edward Hopper painted. “These were people in Broadway when it was at its peak in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, on the fringes as chorus and dance troupe members. Some had regular, some had intermittent employment. They were pretty much disconnected from families, so the Times Square/Broadway area was their home,” Helferty recalled. Retired now in Salt Lake City, the musician-priest was most recently interim vicar in Provo, Utah, served parishes in Chicago, Illinois, Portland, Oregon, and New Bedford, Massachusetts after graduating from General Theological Seminary in 1973.

<2> Monday Night at St, Mary’s Cabaret

St. Mary’s Cabaret came at the end of an era when there were over a hundred live theaters in midtown Manhattan and tickets cost .85 cents. All that quickly changed with the coming of television, yet the St. Mary’s entertainers kept hoping for the big break that would find them rediscovered, remembering a few colleagues who had been called out of retirement for roles in Broadway shows.

“The Broadway—Times Square area was in a severe state of decline. A third of the Broadway theaters and most of the great movie houses had closed. Porn shops and cheap stores proliferated. The great building spree around Times Square had not begun and along the side streets there were numerous former tourist and resident hotels that were now welfare hotels, where people lived at a subsistence level in the era just before homelessness became widespread,” Helferty remembered.

The musicians performing on a given Monday night handed the pianist faded dog-eared browned scores with tattered edges, music from musicals he had never heard of. “I was a pretty good sight reader, and they were easy to work with,” Helferty recalled. There were Irma and Irving, who did Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire dance routines. Irma had a long glittery dress cut up the side so she could dance in it, Irving had his well-preserved top hat and bow tie. “They were really good, they probably could have taught at Arthur Murray Dance studios,” he remembered. Another aging dancer arrived with scratchy 78 rpm records and performed meticulously choreographed Isadora Duncan routines, complete with purple leotard, veils and feathered boa. Clarice, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer, had been a dime a dance girl at Roseland. A picture of her standing in her hotel hallway in a striking dance costume once appeared in la Vie des Arts, a Canadian arts magazine. Harry Kadeson, a Grade B movie singing cowboy, showed up weekly in his Gene Autry outfit, carrying a scrapbook filled with memories.

Guests brought finger food deserts. Participants were mostly self-identified Jewish and there was no proselytizing, but Helferty did invite Monday nighters who might be so inclined to witness a solemn pontifical high mass one night when Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey visited St. Mary’s. “I thought it was just very enchanting,” Irma said afterwards. When one is living on the precipice all the time it takes its toll.”

<3> Ministry to the Overwhelmed

How did he see this as ministry? “For a boy from Boise it was a whole new world,” Helferty replied. “We were all overwhelmed. The places where they were living were being torn down. They were literally living on nothing. The neighborhood was our meeting point and we were both feeling overwhelmed. My relationship with them was just to hear their stories. They certainly had a lot to tell. Some had had their moments, a fairly good part in a musical. They were very proud of that. None were famous or celebrities. The main fact is that they survived in an impersonal, cruel urban environment. The Monday night food may have been what they had to eat that day. Also, St. Mary’s was a safe place. Despite their well-kept, fading costumes and cheerful outlook, many of the guests had faces that showed the strains of life. “When one is living on the precipice all the time it takes its toll,” Helferty noted.

“It was fascinating, heart-breaking, endearing, and heart-warming. I think about these people more now than I thought about them at the time,” he concluded. Each Monday night cabaret ended with an upbeat song like “Sidewalks of New York.” “East Side, West Side, all around the town,” Harry sang with his cowboy twang, and Irma and Irving tapped along with the music. The others harmonized easily, sometimes a dining room full of elderly former entertainers closing the Monday night program, with Scott Helferty pounding out the tune on an upright piano.

The Rev. Dr. Frederick Quinn has written extensively on law, history, and religion. A former chaplain at Washington National Cathedral, his most recent book is The Sum of All Heresies, The Image of Islam in Western Thought, published by Oxford University Press.

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