By codified reputation and tradition, if not always by practice, a few famous venues of musical presentation in New York have long represented achievement in their areas: in classical music, Carnegie Hall, of course; in jazz, the Village Vanguard; and in punk, C.B.G.B. (There are comparable institutions in hip hop and other musics.) C.B.G.B. closed four years ago and is now a clothing boutique, and its counterpart in the field of cabaret, the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, folded this Thursday. With the closing of the Oak Room—a serenely elegant hostel for the American songbook in the one-time home of the Algonquin Roundtable—New York will have a great deal less of what the venue presented: that is, not just refined music, but symbolism of the durability of refinement.
Like C.B.G.B., the Oak Room was a club for connoisseurs of a highly formalized style of music; and like all connoisseurs, the audience at the Oak Room was deeply absorbed with both the music and its own connoisseurship. I loved the place and admired it for the high musical standards it sought to sustain. (My wife, the singer Karen Oberlin, performed a long engagement there not long ago.) It was pricey, but the performers were paid well, and I understand that the club ran at a loss on many nights. It was too easy to deride the Oak Room as snobbish, because members of the regular audience often looked the part of snobs—old, over-dressed, and white, like caricatures from New Yorker cartoons of the E.B. White era. Yet the elitism in practice at the Oak Room was no more restrictive than the elitism in practice in any post-hipster club in Bushwick on any night, and, despite appearances, the Oak Room’s elitism was a democratic one; anyone who developed a taste for the music and saved up enough money for the cover and minimum was welcome—indeed, encouraged to come by the evangelical management.
That essentially benevolent elitism has been replaced by one more banal. According to Marriott, which owns the Algonquin now, the space that used to be the Oak Room will be converted into a lounge for clients in its Marriott Rewards Elite Benefits program, in which bluntly named “elite” status is conferred through a system of points accrued strictly through the spending of money, rather than the application of taste.
In requiem: the sublime Oak Room stalwart Barbara Carroll performing Sondheim’s “Old Friends.”