Interestingly, in France at first the word “cabaret” alluded to any establishment that served alcohol. However, cabaret first appeared in 1881 in the Monmartre area of Paris at the Le Chat Noir saloon. Artistic types, such as poets, composers and artists gathered to share their work, and see people’s reactions. This informal setting was to be the launch of the long rich cabaret history.
Within a few decades there were cabarets opening throughout Paris, and by the turn of the century other French and even German cities began opening similar businesses. These newer cabarets included more organized shows that offered individual musicians and groups of performers. The tradition for attendees to sit and eat while watching the show became commonplace. Following the end of World War I, Berlin, Germany became the hot spot for cabaret, featuring satire, transvestitism and love or torch songs. Not surprisingly these cabarets were shuttered after the Nazi’s came to power.
In the United States cabarets began in the 1910s with the first European type establishment, Sans-Souci opening in 1915. The American cabarets were slightly different than their French counterparts, but dancing and drinking were a big part of the experience. Because of prohibition speakeasies became the norm, but following the end of prohibition in 1933 supper clubs came into vogue. These popular 1940 and 1950 venues became career launching grounds for the likes of Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, Yul Brynner and Eartha Kitt, to name a few. The 1960’s ushered in the era of rock and rock, which transformed the cabaret and nightclub scene, forcing many famous hot spots to close down because they could not afford to pay for big name acts.
However, leave it to the gay community to bring back cabarets in a big way in the 1970’s, along with the release and subsequent success of the 1972 movie Cabaret. While there were many examples of successful clubs and cabarets in the 1980s, AIDS put a strangle hold on the freer times and smaller locales became the norm. Today, cabaret clubs are difficult to find, and costly to put together. There are virtually no small cabaret clubs, and the few that are in business cost a pretty penny.