"Bobby, come on over for dinner, We'd be so glad to see you. . ." -- Stephen Sondheim
Robert Waltrip Short removes a lavalier microphone from his Louis Vuitton briefcase as if the mike were a piece of crystal. He is wearing a natty checked tweed suit and an understated blue shirt and a proper, clubby necktie, but whatever he was wearing would look right because Bobby Short is right.
Some people have style. Some people are style. Bobby Short is not only the premiere cabaret performer in America, he is a custodian of class. He reminds people of fine wines and lost elegance, and before they go to see him perform at a bistro like Charlie's in Georgetown -- where Short is playing five completely sold-out nights this week -- they get their shoes shined. They get out their glad rags. They get out the gladdest damn glad rags they've got.
Bobby Short is evening dress and supper club and Dom Perignon. He and his songs evoke days of privilege and luxury, of high life and prairie oysters and towns painted red and steppings-out. And transatlantic crossings by ocean liner -- crossings "on the wrecks, of course," says Bobby Short with a big loud laugh. "That's a ship what was a ship!"
It's almost impossible to steer Bobby Short on a pretentious course. He's the leading practitioner of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Sondheim and other songwriters (he is nothing less than a keeper of the culture), but he always refers to himself as a saloon singer, and while the room at Charlie's is being set up for his appearance, he playfully haggles with Pete Lambros, the burly manager.
Lambros pulls back a curtain to reveal an additional roomful of waiting empty tables. Short calls out, "Oh, this is how you can afford me!" And Lambros says, "Well, we really can't afford you, but we think you're great," and Short says, "I don't want to hear that! I've heard that song so many times!"
"I want to tell you this," says Lambros, pacing. "We've sold the house out for every show. We've added extra shows. You're making money, we're making money. We love it."
"That makes sense, doesn't it?" Short exults. "That's what I want to hear! I want to hear that! Now, each one of these chairs means $10?"
"Per show," says Lambros. "That's 20 per night. Times five, okay?"
"Baby! Baby!" shouts Short, like a man whose horse is just moving up from behind. "That's 40 bucks right there, 80 bucks per night! Jesus Christ!"
Now about Bobby Short: Bobby Short has his shirts made for him in London. He buys his Italian-made shoes in France or Italy. "I've always had a tailor since I could afford one," he says. He spends July and August in "the South of France," near Cannes. "I like to travel well," he says. When in Paris, Mr. Short always stays at The Ritz. The Ritz exists for people like Mr. Short.
He's the melody from a symphony by Strauss. He's a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, he's Mickey Mouse.
But serving as a model of the right thing to do, and wear and eat and be and say, this can be tiring. "I'll tell you, it's a killer," he says. "It's more than a burden. It's very difficult to fulfil all those notions for people. They're not all true. They can't be. It's very hard work just satisfying yourself. When you think about other people who want to be satisfied too, it becomes -- insurmountable!"
"There's a fragrance that's here today, and they call it 'Charlie'. . ." -- The Charlie song
It was a bit of jolt five years or so ago to find Bobby Short popping up in, of all things, a TV commercial, even it it is, as he says, a "very tony" one. But Revlon came to him with this song, and he took it home and arranged it the way he wanted to sing it, and suddenly people who don't know from, or particularly care about, supper clubs or the South of France had Bobby Short in their laps. Five years after it was made, the commercial is still on the air, and there's Bobby Short sitting in his customary black tie at his customary piano and serenading a perfume.
"No, I did not make 'tons' of money," he says when told he must have. "I guess I did rather nicely. The original contract was not for very much money at all, so the negotiations I made after that made me money and of course Revlon was very nice about asking me to do the voice-over for the nail enamel." (Short's distinctive, breezy speaking voice can be heard on another Revlon ad: "We've got your color," he says.)
"Listen, I like to live well, and within reason I'll do almost anything to make money. I mean, I do have taste boundaries and so forth, but I do like money and I'm willing to work for it. So there you have it."
Appearing on television is not like appearing in a club or in concert, however. Elegance don't count for much here, and the audience is anything but respectfully standoffish.
"I tell you, that kind of recognition is a whole different dimension of the business I'm in and it calls upon a whole different facet of your ability to deal with people. Because people who've never even been in a saloon know you precisely. They don't often know your name, but to get from my front door to a taxicab, which is a block away sometimes, it's almost impossible because people say, 'OH MY GOD!' -- as they're going by in cars -- 'Oh my god, there's charlie! Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie!'
You've got to stop and be nice to somebody who has seen the commercial. It's the price you pay."
It has been reported that Short becomes irked when some wisenheimer at a concert will shout out a request for the Charlie song. It is a pretty gauche pas. "Well, that's happened. You ignore it." When he played a big room in Atlantic City, he had the orchestra play the Charlie song during one of his bows. "Which was kind of nice, for the ones who went, 'Oh, That's WHO IT IS! Ahhhhhh!'
"Oh, it's a different world. I'll tell you what it is, it's intimacy. You sit in your own house, or in your own bed, totally undressed, or in your pajamas, unshaven, and watch somebody, and it's as though you've known them all your life, isn't it? It's as if they're right there in bed with you. And so of course you go up and say 'Hi! Yeah! Saw you last night! I was in bed!'" He laughs with slightly helpless bemusement. "That's what it amounts to. Ohhhh."
"You've gotta do that Charlie song while you're here, 'cause this is Charlie's," Lambros calls out.
"I'm NOT gonna do it!" Short retorts without any pause whatsoever.
Short has done a few other ads, like one, he says, "for Gloria's jeans" (though when he himself wears jeans, "I wear Levi Strauss; they fit me best"). "Gloria" is heiress and bonne vivant Gloria Vanderbilt, who sashayed in and out of the personality columns last year when she was blocked from purchase of a $1 million apartment in Manhattan's River House by its board, which voted to keep her out. She claimed then it was because of her friendship with, and the board's fears she might eventually marry, Bobby Short.
It seemed odd then that one of the world's most elegant bachelors would be a victim of racial prejudice in an allegedly ultra-sophisticated American city, as Venderbilt claimed -- but then, you can find imbeciles at every rung of the social ladder, can't you?
Short says he was never engaged to Vanderbilt, contrary to published rumors, and does not want to rehash this nasty episode. "I don't want to hear about that, no. I just think that's old news. The lady has moved elsewhere and all that's over. God knows it's certainly old news in New York. Nobody in New York even cares about it."
Didn't it leave him with unpleasant thoughts about the human race, such as it is? "Oh, I don't know. It was something I've learned to live with. I think if you want to learn about the human race, you get a job as a salesperson at Bloomingdale's. You want to learn about the human race, get a job as a saloon singer." "You're so supreme, lyrics I write of you/Dream, both day and night of you/ Scheme, just for the sight of you/ But what good does it do?" -- Ira Gershwin "Bobby Short, Bobby Short!" sputters Pierre Sosnistski, maitre d' at Charlie's. "I've never seen anybody would could draw as many people as that guy. All day long they've been calling, "We want to see Bobby Short, We want to see Bobby Short,' all day long. The secretary almost quit. She said 'Pierre, I can't handle it any more!' Two o'clock in the morning people would call!"
Bobby Short's personal appearances are booked through April 1982. He recently played for a private party in La Hoya, Calif.; "For the Blatzes. I played for their fifth anniversary, and their 35th. She went to Finch in New York and she's a great fan of mine. And she paid me a lot of money and she invited 100 of her closest friends."
She also made the arrangements 18 months in advance.
In addition to club dates, Short will be appearing in future weeks at the Annenberg Library in Philadelphia and the Pittsburgh Museum. He's going off to the Caribbean for 10 days to finish a book he's writing called "Saloons" ("Listen, any place that sells hootch -- to me -- is a saloon," he says).
Bobby Short can remember, however, when he was not in such demand and not the toast of both coasts and many points in between. He was singing and dancing at the age of 11 in his native Danville, Ill., but it wasn't a quick trip to the top. He spent the '40s in Hollywood but without attracting much notice. "For years I had a great grudge against Hollywood 'cause I felt they should have made me into a big, big star," he says, with a wry laugh. "I had to go to New York to be taken seriously in Hollywood.
"The '60s were awfully hard for me. The rock revolution really took over, and I did not starve, but my star was not rising, and going to the Carlyle was a lifesaver for me. And now I'm cutting down on my season already." The Cafe Carlyle has been Short's posh HQ in Manhattan since 1968; it has become his most natural habitat.
And when he Arrived, did he feel any resentment toward the adoring fans who'd previously ignored him? "Well I think that now about this success. I think that, good God, 30 years ago I looked better and sounded better and of course my manners weren't quite so polished then as they are now" (Big Broad Laugh) "but I just think that now when some night it's all I can do, because of my various allergies and whatever other weaknesses I have, to get a show out. I keep wondering, is if fair? Why wasn't I given this marvelous chance when I didn't have all these human problems that people have. As one gets older, it's more and more difficult to make it all work, isn't it?"
People think of him as ageless, though.
"Well I'm not. And I'm being honest with you about it. And that's what it's about: I've got to keep on appearing ageless. I know that's what it's about. And something else: In a saloon situation, people tend to own you, in the nicest kind of way, most of the time. But no kind of ownership is ever attractive all the time. And they feel they can tell you when they think you don't feel good or when they think you aren't really happy or tell you you've lost too much weight or put on too much weight or why you should get a hairpiece.
"And of course, they're always wrong."
A grand piano is being shoved around on the little stage now to get it into proper position for the performance. "Nobody ugly in front of the piano, please!" Short calls out to Lambros, who is going over the list of reservations for the first show. Short surveys it for the names of friends: "Who are the stars coming tonight? My interest is purely social. Society, that's all I care about." A self-mocking, or at least self-effacing, laugh; then he puts the list down. "Oh Lord. I don't know a soul."
To test the acoustics, Short soon whams into a couple choruses of "I've Got a Crush on You," tossed off by the Gershwin brothers about five decades ago, or maybe late last night, from the way it sounds. Short does not sing Ira's lyrics at this point, but he will at show time: "The world will pardon my mush/ But I have got a crush, my baby, on you."
The piano becomes an extension of him, of his joie de vivre and brio and all those other rarefied italicized qualities, as he plays. He's emphatically and irrefutably in his element. He's It. He is, to quote himself on another performer, "de-loox." He is, whether he can stand it or not, ageless, as ageless as the best love song the Gershwins ever wrote: "In time, the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, They're only made of clay, but Our love is here to stay."