GREG DAWSON: 1934-2007
by James Gavin


TO OPEN a cabaret is an act of insanity. There’s barely a chance of breaking even; and the headaches of playing The Great Ziegfeld, while trying to run a bar and fill seats, are endless. But Greg Dawson, who died of liver failure on October 20 at age 73, had no fear. In 1973, he put aside a durable PR business and joined with eight partners to start a restaurant, The Ballroom. He opened it in SoHo, a then-bleak and untrendy area with little nighttime traffic, but cheap rents. Decorated in summery white and green, The Ballroom brought a ray of sunshine to West Broadway, and the food won raves. Two years later, Greg – a Yale graduate whose past also included big-time radio and gay activism – gambled his profits by adding cabaret to The Ballroom. With that, he proved himself one of Manhattan’s great impresarios.

Even in the midst of a city-wide cabaret renaissance, The Ballroom stood out. Greg found a way to fuse that intimate art with theater and a constant sense of surprise. Capacity crowds of about a hundred saw Joe Papp, the patriarch of the Public Theatre, perform a song-and-dance act for the first and last time. It was one of the hottest tickets in town. After her Ballroom run, Jane Olivor, the Brooklyn Piaf, was signed to Columbia Records and discovered by Merv Griffin. Imagine Andrew Lloyd Webber deigning to sing his songs and tell his story in a tiny club. He did, in 1977, as part of Dawson’s
Broadway at the Ballroom series. Leonard Sillman, whose New Faces revues were once the toast of Broadway, staged his last show for Dawson.

I’d heard about this history in 1983 when, as a teenager, I began to haunt The Ballroom in its second phase, on West 28th Street. Greg befriended me, and I got to know him as an acerbic, stubbornly opinionated, wryly funny intellectual. “He had
no trouble taking chances,” adds Baby Jane Dexter, whom he presented in 1977. That risk-taking left a mark on many lives, including hers. “He had a long-run policy, where he allowed artists to develop over time,” she notes. “And he always paid you. He wouldn’t think of having you work for the door.”

Since he rarely boasted to me, it took years for me to learn of his earlier history. Greg’s aunt, Emily Hahn, wrote prolifically for the
New Yorker and authored fifty-two books, many about China. His uncle was Manierre Dawson, the celebrated abstract painter. Fresh out of Yale in 1955, Greg served as talent coordinator for the interview show of Tex and Jinx, radio’s most popular married sophisticates. The Red Scare was hardly over, but that didn’t stop Tex, Jinx, and Greg from booking “dangerous” guests. In 1964 he became PR director for the World’s Fair under the aegis of its designer, Robert Moses. Three years later, Greg helped David Rothenberg found the Fortune Society, a still-thriving rehabilitation center for ex-cons. (Greg would later do some time of his own, but that’s another story.) On the heels of Stonewall, he helped form the pioneering Gay Activists Alliance. And in the late ‘70s, after he’d lost his shirt on the SoHo Ballroom, Greg managed his favorite singer, Margaret Whiting, and toured with the hit show 4 Girls 4: Whiting, Rosemary Clooney, Helen O’Connell, and Rose Marie.

“He was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known,” says Whiting. “He knew about history, and he was on top of everything happening in the world. He had a great sense of humor. And he did more for cabaret than anyone I know.”

In 1981, Greg revived The Ballroom in another risky location: 28th and 8th, a remote corner of Chelsea’s less-fashionable side. The new version had a first-rate Spanish-style restaurant, a black-box cabaret theater, and Blossom Dearie, who began a long-running early-evening residency. In 1985, Greg coaxed Peggy Lee to The Ballroom for a smash comeback to cabaret. Both women put the club on the map. Greg masterminded Martha Raye’s first club appearance since the ‘30s, hosted Yma Sumac’s reemergence, gave Eartha Kitt a New York base, launched John Wallowitch and Bertram Ross as a cabaret team, and afforded Mary Cleere Haran her breakthrough showcase. Jack Jones, Jimmy Scott, Patti Page, Jack Gilford, Harold Nicholas, Karen Akers, and Charles Pierce performed there too. Feisty as he was, Greg got along with the peskiest divas.

But by the early ‘90s burnout set in, and he left The Ballroom. With fellow impresario Steve Paul, he mounted a series of nightclub salutes to the great songwriters. A Rodgers & Hart revue at Rainbow & Stars featured Whiting, Elaine Stritch, Jason Graae, and Judy Kuhn.

Those shows were Greg’s farewell to cabaret. Subsequently he lived in Brooklyn and indulged his other talents, including art. He painted playful geometric patterns in basic colors; they evoked a child’s playpen as seen through the eyes of a slightly demented tot. Greg also sculpted whimsical figures that might have stepped out of an old Puppetoons cartoon. Some of the activities they depicted might have shocked the younger age group, but irony and humor always shone through. On my wall hangs a bronze relief he gave me for my birthday. It shows a square configuration of ghoulish, animal-like faces staring out, dazed. Underneath is the title: LIFE IS A CABARET.

His certainly was, though not of the tearfully revealing kind. “He didn’t show his sensitivity on the outside,” says Baby Jane Dexter. “But if he believed in you it was unconditional. I loved him, and I’ll miss him.”