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Rediscoveries : Alan Eichler Is Bringing Vintage Cabaret Stars Back to Limelight

Alan Eichler is certain that people smirk behind his back.

“A lot of people make fun of me and my old ladies,” he said.

A slight and nervous man, Eichler has spent 20 years reviving the careers of such forgotten chanteuses as Anita O’Day, Hadda Brooks and Ruth Brown--celebrities of the ‘40s and ‘50s whom he fell in love with as a child.

Eichler tracks them down. They may be working as bus drivers or maids, but if they can still sing he coaxes them back. He struggles with nightclub owners to get them a chance on stage.

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“All my life I’ve been fascinated with older stars, and I’ve always been put down for it,” the 44-year-old talent agent said. “I’ve gone through periods where I questioned my judgment.”

Now, Eichler is earning a measure of vindication. Put in charge of the Cinegrill at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel two years ago, he has paraded a steady stream of cabaret singers before the public.

Eichler’s “old ladies” have been good business for the Cinegrill. The cabaret’s eclectic fare--everything from blues to Cole Porter to Yma Sumac--has drawn a steady clientele of older patrons and a hip crowd of young nightclub-goers.

“I’m talking about music that is timeless,” Eichler said. “I’m not looking back, I’m looking at something that can still hold an audience.”

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To an extent, the Cinegrill’s success signals a rejuvenation of cabaret--a term that entertainment people use to describe a broad range of acts performed before small audiences. Several Los Angeles clubs feature such entertainment, as do nightspots in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago.

“It’s not like a concert, where you are one person in the middle of a thousand. It is more intimate,” said Olivier Vabois, a manager at the Rose Tattoo in West Hollywood. “You are close to the singer, so close. You are more involved.”

And cabarets pride themselves on the scene that type of entertainment creates.

“There’s a certain glamour and romance attached to this,” said Tom Rolla, who owns the Gardenia Restaurant and Lounge in Santa Monica. “The youngsters come in and have cocktails, and it’s like the ‘40s all over again. Guys in their 20s wearing half-tuxedos. Girls wearing gloves and hats. It’s like living a movie.”

Cabarets in Los Angeles tend to feature young singers. Rolla praised Eichler for luring past stars back to the microphone.

“I think it excites people to go out to cabaret,” Rolla said.

Eichler insists he wouldn’t manage older stars if they couldn’t sing well. And he certainly hasn’t become wealthy from his efforts. One suspects that his business sense has been skewed by personal obsession.

By age 12, Eichler had collected stacks of 78-r.p.m. albums from his grandfather’s record shop in Queens, N.Y. The songs of Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante and Sophie Tucker played on his Victrola. He began taking the train into New York City every time Patti Page appeared there.

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“That was my first infatuation,” he said.

A shy youth, Eichler recalls forcing himself to wait at the backstage door after every show to say hello to Page. This sort of casual meeting would later become one of Eichler’s most useful business tactics.

As a young man in the early 1960s, Eichler worked for $55 a week in the mail room of a New York publicity agency. In the evenings, he hung out at nightclubs like the Bon Soir on 8th Street. Thelma Carpenter sometimes played there.

Carpenter, who had been a star in the 1940s, was singing a few nights a week and working days as a coat-check girl. Eichler introduced himself backstage, and the two hit it off. He became her manager, conducting business on a pay phone during lunch breaks from the mail room.

Carpenter became Eichler’s mentor, leading the 19-year-old on nightly forays.

“She’d take me to see Judy Garland and Shirley Booth and Beatrice Lillie,” Eichler said. “She said to me, ‘You’ve got to see these people while you still have the chance.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

Eichler was soon promoted to publicity agent and handled Dorothy Lamour’s road production of “Hello, Dolly!” and the second U.S. tour of the Rolling Stones. He continued managing on the side, booking clients like Geraldine Fitzgerald and Helen Forrest into clubs around the country.

Those were good times for cabaret, as places like Reno Sweeney came into vogue in New York City. Eichler’s reputation grew, and the owner of a club named Marty’s asked him to find Helen Ward, who had been Benny Goodman’s vocalist in the mid-1930s.

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Ward hadn’t been heard from in years. Eichler put the word out to his extensive network of singers, musicians and club owners. He found Ward working at a clothing store in Washington, and talked her into coming back.

“She showed up at Marty’s a little disarrayed,” Eichler recalled. “I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’ I was planning on disaster.”

The singer came through.

“She put together the most wonderful, sophisticated act,” Eichler said. “And by the end of the week, you couldn’t get into the room. It was packed.”

Not all of Eichler’s rediscoveries work out so easily or successfully. Some are accustomed to grand nightclubs and have to adjust to working smaller rooms.

“Anita O’Day used to complain to me that everybody was staring at her,” Eichler said. Others must be cajoled to play such places--a woman who once headlined the Cocoanut Grove might be hesitant to play cabaret. A little pampering is required.

“I needed that kind of treatment,” said Hadda Brooks, who was a staple of Los Angeles night life in the ‘40s. “I couldn’t have come back to work without it.”

Brooks had left show business 16 years ago, tired of the travel and grind. Eichler found her living in Boyle Heights.

“He called me out of the blue,” she recalled. “I was a bit puzzled.”

But a well-reviewed performance at Perino’s last year convinced the 71-year-old woman that the public still wants her music. She has since appeared at Cinegrill and the Plush Room in San Francisco. Eichler wants her to play Carnegie Hall.

“If I can live to see Hadda Brooks in Carnegie Hall,” he said, “that will be the thrill of my life.”

Passion is what keeps Eichler going. He’s been in Los Angeles for seven years now, working long days that are split between duties as talent agent, entertainment director for the Cinegrill and part-time work as a theatrical publicist.

His clientele continues to grow--Patti Page recently needed a new agent and hired the man who, as a child, had waited devotedly for her at the backstage door. And Yma Sumac, one of his most prized clients, will open Friday at The Strand in Redondo Beach, a relatively mainstream club for one of Eichler’s acts.

But Eichler’s chanteuses don’t get paid much. Some get a percentage of the door, which could be $400 or less. A few of the big names make up to $1,500 a night. Either way, he doesn’t make much from his manager’s percentage.

“In my fantasy world, I still think that one of these singers will hit the jackpot,” he said. “I’d like to drive a Rolls-Royce and live in Beverly Hills. But I don’t need those things.”

Instead he lives in Hollywood and thrives on memories . . . of the time Elton John came to see Nellie Lutcher at the Cinegrill and sang with her on stage, or the time 1950s wonder Sumac returned to music after he had coaxed her back from retirement in her native Peru.

Eichler becomes animated when telling those stories. There is a certain magic in such moments, he says. The next instant, though, his mood darkens. Eichler recalls the last days he spent with the late Maxine Sullivan.

Sullivan, a swing-style vocalist in the late 1930s, had come to Los Angeles to attend the 1987 Grammy Awards, and Eichler was her escort. He took her to visit bandleader Woody Herman.

Eichler sat quietly to one side as Sullivan and Herman reminisced about a lifetime of music.

“You can’t imagine something like that,” he said.

Within weeks, both Sullivan and Herman were dead.

“It was devastating, and I still haven’t gotten over it,” Eichler said. “It’s hard for me to even listen to Maxine’s records anymore. I’m dealing with that now . . . a lot of these people are going to die soon.”


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