In 1957, you could find Frank Sinatra in every nook and cranny of the American entertainment world — in tabloids, on television, larger-than-life in movies, and across the radio dial — but you could not find Ol’ Blue Eyes in a New York City club.
That year, the crooner refused to play in New York City clubs because of an archaic legal requirement demanding performers apply for a pass from the city. “I will not seek a cabaret card in New York because of the indignity of being fingerprinted, mugged and quizzed about my past,” Sinatra said at the time.
Sinatra’s stand was a show of solidarity with other artists caught by the so-called Cabaret Law. The singer helped force a change in the policy, but the statute would stay on the books — until today, when the law is scheduled to be scrubbed from the city’s code at tonight’s city council meeting, closing a truly bizarre 91-year chapter.
Since the high-water mark of the gin-and-jazz-soaked Roaring Twenties, it has technically been illegal for three or more people to dance in New York City restaurants and bars unless the establishment has a special “cabaret license.” More than an odd throwback, critics charge the legislation has racist roots and has arbitrarily been applied to minority and controversial performers, historic names such as Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk.
Under the statute, bars and restaurants face a complex set of bureaucratic gymnastics if they are interested in a cabaret license. The process includes fire code inspections, the green light from a community board, electrical inspections, background checks, surveillance camera installation and proof that an owner is up to date on any child support obligations. The process is so onerous that most establishments don’t even bother. The Village Voice reported last March that of the 25,000 restaurants and bars in New York, only 118 have the license.
“It gives them a way to arbitrarily shut down places they have problems with,” a Brooklyn bar owner told the Voice. “I think it’s just one more tool in their infinite tool box to cause problems for any place they want to cause problems for.”
History would back up that theory. The original Cabaret Act was passed in 1926 as a response to the popularity of Harlem jazz clubs that drew mixed-race crowds.
“Well, there has been altogether too much ‘running wild’ in some of these night clubs and, in the judgment of your Committee, the ‘wild’ stranger and the foolish native should have the check-rein applied a little bit,” the Board of Alderman’s Committee on Local Laws wrote in the 1920s. “Your Committee believes that these ‘wild’ people should not be tumbling out of these resorts at six or seven o’clock in the morning to the scandal and annoyance of decent residents on their way to daily employment.”
The original outline of the law just required clubs to obtain licenses. In 1943, the statute was amended so that musicians also had to obtain “cabaret cards” to perform. The cards were issued every two years by the police department after each artist was fingerprinted and questioned about their background and any past criminal history, according to Thump, an online music publication of Vice.
Numerous greats — from Ray Charles to Billie Holiday — had their cards pulled after run-ins with the law. In 1953, jazz great Charlie Parker lost his card and was forced to plead to be reinstated. “My right to pursue my chosen profession has been taken away, and my wife and three children who are innocent of any wrongdoing are suffering,” Parker wrote. “I feel sure that when you examine my record and see that I have made a sincere effort to become a family man and a good citizen, you will reconsider. If by any chance you feel I haven’t paid my debt to society, by all means let me do so and give me and my family back the right to live.”
Music historians have long argued the law hampered the career potential of many artists.
“What opportunities were stymied by the cabaret card?” Jazz Times asked in 2012. “How much sooner might Monk have found recognition, and what would the effect have been on his psyche? What if Miles Davis hadn’t lost his card in 1959, after being clubbed outside of Birdland: Might he have found more work for his sextet, fresh off the release of Kind of Blue? Think of the reputations that moldered, the engagements that never came to pass.”
Thanks to high-profile pressure from Sinatra and others, the musician card system was cut from the law in 1967. The statute mainly gathered dust until the 1990s, when then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s quality of life task forces evoked the statute when shutting down grimy clubs and after-hours spots. “Rudy Giuliani demonized nightlife as our city’s bastard child, trying to smooth it over to make things safe for tourists and co-op owners,” New York columnist Michael Musto wrote in Noisy last March.
But Brooklyn Councilman Rafael Espinal’s repeal effort is the first time the anti-Cabaret Law movement has captured a majority of the city council — although, as Jezebel points out, under the city’s zoning laws, dancing will still only be technically legal in certain commercial manufacturing districts.
“It’s over,” Espinal told the New York Times.