Established in Hollywood in 1981 by Tom Rolla, erstwhile Broadway “gypsy,” dance coach, and chef, The Gardenia (named to honor his beloved Italian grandmother and the signature flowers she wore when he accompanied her to the opera as a youth,) has since become the “granddaddy” of supper clubs, now the oldest continuously-running such venue in the United States.
Living-room-like, with table-service-seating for only a little over 60 patrons, the space is purposefully intimate, and the staff is studiously respectful to performers, who have come to appreciate the space as the quintessential “listening room,” where patrons pay rapt attention to each performance, and extraneous distractions are conscientiously minimized. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the space tends to attract musical artists for whom lyric and melody are paramount, who as a consequence naturally gravitate toward the Great American Songbook of the 20th Century, and who come to the club to perfect the art of storytelling through music.
Over the years, The Gardenia has been host to many performers-of-note. Initially, primarily through Rolla’s theatrical connections, these tended to include Broadway pals, such as Pamela Myers (Company,) Teri Ralston (Company, A Little Night Music,) Donna McKechnie (A Chorus Line,) Sammy Williams (A Chorus Line, Applause!,) Lee Roy Reems (Applause!, 42nd Street, Beauty and the Beast,) Bonnie Franklin (Applause!,) Jane A. Johnston (Company,) George D. Wallace (Company, Pajama Game, new Girl in Town,) Jonelle Allen (Two Gentlemen of Verona, George M!,) Karen Akers (Nine!,) Laura Kenyon (Nine!,) Camille Saviola (Nine!,) Carole Cook (42nd Street,) Ken Page (Ain’t Misbehavin’, CATS,) Mary Bond Davis (Jelly’s Last Jam, Hairspray,) Valarie Pettiford (Fosse,) Alyson Reed (Dancin’, A Chorus Line—the movie,) Neile Adams (Kismet, Pajama Game,) Susan Watson (Bye Bye Birdie, the original “Luisa” in The Fantasticks,) and Vivian Blaine (Guys and Dolls,) to name a few. ‘40’s movie stars Carol Bruce and Virginia O’Brien also graced the Gardenia stage, as did Margaret Whiting and Julie Wilson. However, many have forgotten that The Gardenia was where Michael Feinstein made the leap from piano-bar-entertainer to headliner; and Amanda McBroom, already notable for having written “The Rose,” joked that The Gardenia took her “out of Spandex.” Many have also forgotten that even Billy Stritch “passed through” as a participant in the vocal trio “String of Pearls.”
The effective delivery of a musical lyric “en cabaret” calls upon skills not only in vocal production, but also upon skills in acting, so it is not surprising that The Gardenia has attracted those whose acclaim has been won primarily in the acting profession but, who, in addition to possessing superlative singing voices, have also recognized the additional power that music imparts to the emotional impact of a “story.” Tyne Daly, Marilu Henner, Cybill Shepherd, Dixie Carter, Linda Purl, Janis Paige, Linda Lavin, Emily Bergl, Alan Rachins, Sally Kellerman, and Mariette Hartley come to mind as among those who successfully utilized The Gardenia to showcase themselves as formidable vocalists in addition to having already viably and commercially established themselves in the acting community; and Nancy Dussault, although her roots were in Broadway, (The Sound of Music, Do Re Mi, Bajour,) subsequently became a household name with TV work, (Too Close for Comfort,) then presented several knockout solo performances at The Gardenia.
Ronny Graham, Billy Barnes, and Marshall Barer brought their considerable creative and comedic musical skills to The Gardenia; and Morgana King brought her “jazz chops,” as did Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg. Paula Kelly, previously known as a spectacular dancer and actress, wowed the jazz community, including the revered jazz critic Leonard Feather, with her debut as a jazz vocalist at The Gardenia, where she booked recurring gigs “for years.”
Bruce Vilanch, previously a news writer in Chicago, then writer for the Academy Awards broadcasts, created an act for the Gardenia (part stand-up, part raconteur tour de force, and part vehicle to play the brilliant gadfly that he is,) that propelled him to TV personality and celebrity status, ultimately also resulting in Broadway stardom as “Edna Turnblad” in Hairspray.
In 1984, Suzette Charles, runner-up to Vanessa Williams, 1984’s Miss America, booked her act into the club, but then had to cancel her booking when she was suddenly called to take over the duties of Miss America for the remainder of that year’s “reign.” Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America 1959, has also performed at The Gardenia multiple times.
Kismet struck, however, in the Spring of 1985. Andrea Marcovicci debuted an act at The Gardenia with a male partner. Rolla, who had nearly singlehandedly revived the withered Los Angeles supper club scene from its heyday in the ‘50’s, was intrigued. He “took a meeting with” Andrea. At that meeting, Rolla suggested “ditching the guy,” and presciently advised Andrea that singing torch might suit her. Andrea, initially cool both to Tom—and to The Gardenia in particular because of its layout—suddenly had her own interest piqued, and responded, trailing off— “You know, my mother was a torch singer…” then confessed that the idea had been percolating in her own head….
Thus was born a collaboration that without exaggeration changed the face of American cabaret for the next 40 years and beyond.
When she strode “into the back” of the club, her ears still ringing from the thundering applause that ended her first triumphant solo show, Andrea tapped Rolla on his shoulder, announcing to him that she “needed to do this again!” “Of course,” Rolla replied, and, already booked up, offered dates several weeks hence. Andrea clarified what Rolla didn’t yet understand—-she needed to do this again…., ”Now!”
With no immediate dates available, the now legendary, (but preposterous for L.A.,) weekly Saturday night series, “Marcovicci at Midnight” was conceived, changing the “art of cabaret” forever after. Energized by the musical and biographical research into which she delved each week, including listening to the Polly Bergen records Rolla proposed, Marcovicci distilled each of her week’s discoveries into brilliantly prepared and delivered shows, which happened also to include such morsels as quotes from Dorothy Parker and poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay, earning from The Los Angeles Times the sobriquet, “The Thinking Man’s Chanteuse.”
Nothing quite like this had been seen before, and the rest, as they say, is history. Marcovicci’s forays into Manhattan at The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel were subsequently received with unqualified enthusiasm by Donald Smith, the doyen of cabaret on the East Coast and founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, now helmed by K.T. Sullivan, (who ALSO began her cabaret career at The Gardenia,) and the name “Andrea Marcovicci” became synonymous with the title, “Queen of Cabaret,” which earlier had been applied to Julie Wilson. Marcovicci’s continuing recent performances at The Gardenia have served only to repeatedly re-establish that title.
If there be an “heiress to the throne,” the name Maude Maggart comes to mind. A “Gardenia baby” on multiple levels (even before she was born, Rolla knew both Maude’s father and her mother through all of their common connections with the Broadway musical, Applause!,) the adolescent Maude, possessing many of the same sensibilities as Marcovicci, became entranced by Andrea at The Gardenia, chose to follow in her footsteps, and as the millennium’s odometer “turned over,” debuted her own act at The Gardenia, following which none other than Michael Feinstein, taken by her exquisite talent and voice, introduced Maude to Manhattan’s supper club society in his own show at Feinstein’s at The Regency.
Tom Rolla and The Gardenia have thereby been instrumental in the development of two of the most compelling cabaret stars on the planet, and have participated in the careers of many, many more…both inside and outside the fairly insular world of “cabaret.”
We are proud to continue this legacy, continue to champion live music (there’s really nothing quite like it!,) continue to promote the rarified “art of cabaret” specifically, (there’s really nothing quite like IT, either!,) and continue to serve as fertile ground cultivating the next generation of “Rising (and risen) Stars.”