The years seem to drift away. The only apparent difference in the Oak Room was the absence of cigarette smoke, and it appeared that there was more designer water on the tables than sparkling champagne. On stage was cabaret empress Andrea Marcovicci, celebrating her 20th anniversary in the hallowed music hall of the Algonquin Hotel.
In previous seasons the lean and lovely thrush has offered song salutes to Ruth Etting, Gertrude Lawrence, Mabel Mercer and Fred Astaire, in addition to composers Noel Coward, Jerome Kern and Kurt Weill. This season in a program that will run through mid January, Marcovicci pays tribute to Hildegarde, the memorable chanteuse who died last year at the age of ninety-nine.
Before Liberace, Madonna and Sting, Hildegarde adopted the single name identity that carried her to fame as an international star, appearing in Gotham's most fashionable clubs from the Savoy Plaza and the Roosevelt Grill to the posh Cotillion Room of the Hotel Pierre.
Marcovicci offered a verbal profile of Hildegarde who "long before Miss Piggy made elbow length white opera gloves all the rage." She played piano wearing those trademark gloves and created a familiar image in couturier gowns, jeweled glasses and a fluttery lace handkerchief. When she appeared at the Persian Room she commanded a then unprecedented fee of seventeen thousand dollars plus a percentage of every bottle of uncorked champagne.
Marcovicci, the obvious heir to the throne, summed Hildegarde up as "a Garbo who sang with oodles of charm and a clarion call of a voice!" And it was the songs of an era that Marcovicci revived with the kind of luster that defined the singer and her time.
A stately lean and lovely Marcovicci, framed in the golden glow of a pin spot, looked back at a career and an entertainer who knew something about romantic allure. "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?" a sprightly 1933 tune by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, still offers a jaunty embrace and Rodgers and Hart's "There's a Small Hotel" remains the epitome of a secret rendezvous. But it was the ballads of World War II that wistfully recalled a unique moment in time. "The Last Time I Saw Paris" was Oscar Hammerstein's love letter to the city of lights, set to music by Jerome Kern, and perhaps the most telling wartime song was a soldier's melancholy letter to "Lili Marlene."
And then there was Hildegarde's signature song that served as a love letter to any soldier in any conflict and revived the memory of familiar places, a small café and the park across the way. "I'll Be Seeing You" written in 1938 with music by Sammy Fain and lyrics by Irving Kahal retains at its core a simple heartfelt message that Marcovicci revealed with an emotional thrust that left in a tear in the corner of every eye.
In the closing moments of her program Marcovicci added a benedictory celebrating her mission in a life of song. "It's my ministry," she noted, "Not just the song, but the entire fabric. I believe in the American popular song as the poetry our lives."