Now that the Algonquin is closing its cabaret room, the Oak Room, I’m prompted to recall my most memorable moments there. I’d always been crazy about Dorothy Loudon. She was so hip and funny. I’d always rooted for her while, for years, she hung around the edges of the business, playing the clubs that appreciated her unique and urbane blend of irony and slapstick, honing her talent until finally she burst upon Broadway with her screamingly funny portrait of Miss Hannigan in Annie. I didn’t realize that what made her acid characterization so viciously heartfelt was the accumulated frustration she’d had to endure year after year on the fringes of success. To deal with this, she had turned to alcohol.
It was at a book party that Donald Smith organized for a volume of photos of Broadway musicals and their stars. Celeste Holm was there (Oklahoma, Bloomer Girl) and Jane Powell (Meet Me in St. Louis, the stage version) and Ann Miller (Sugar Babies). Don had engaged pianist Forrest Perrin to play the Oak Room’s Steinway. In his gracious, friendly, mild-mannered way Forrest accompanied several of the lesser-known performers who filled the spaces between the star turns, people like Karen Mason and Maureen McGovern. But there was a hush of anticipation as Dorothy climbed up on the small platform. Everyone in this very New York crowd knew Dorothy’s style: funny, hip, outrageous. “Let’s do Hard-Hearted Hannah,” she said to Forrest. “B Flat.” Forrest smiled at her apologetically. “I’m sorry, Dorothy, I don’t know that one.” he said. Dorothy rocked back on her heels in mock amazement. She grasped the edge of the open piano lid in a comic stagger. “What?” she inquired, “Did I hear you correctly?” The edge in her voice captured everyone’s attention. “You don’t know Hard-Hearted Hannah???” I saw Forrest blanche.“Did you, by any chance, bring the sheet?” he asked. Dorothy rolled her eyes in comic exaggeration. “C’mon, it’s a standard –you don’t need a sheet.” Forrest gave her a weak smile. He opened his hands helplessly. “Dorothy, I’m sorry.” Dorothy became aware everyone was watching. She turned to the crowd. “Can you believe this??” she asked them. “He doesn’t know Hard Hearted Hannah.” She called into the room: “Donald, what kind of pianna-player did you book for this party?” I suddenly realized Dorothy had been drinking, and was now wound up. “In all of New York, you searched and searched ‘till you found the ONE guy who doesn’t know Hard-Hearted Hannah. Well, congratulations.” she turned back to Forrest. “How long have you been doing this?” she asked. “I mean, NOT playing Hard-Hearted Hannah?” Poor Forrest looked like he wanted to crawl under the piano. He couldn’t answer, he was too humiliated. “Is there anyone in this room…” Dorothy had the microphone now. “…anyone in this room who can play this song?” Well, I could have done it –and in B Flat, too. But I wasn’t about to embarrass Forrest, who was a friend. Seventy five people were witness to the poor guy’s vicious treatment at the hands of this woman who, until now, in my mind, had been a shining light of intelligence, humor and brilliant iconoclasm in the world of entertainment. Well well, I thought, you live and learn. The charming, funny, young entertainer I’d known for years had -with her access to stardom- allowed herself to unleash this most unappealing side of herself. I’m sorry I had to see it.