Volume 79, Number 34 | January 27 - February 2, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Cabaret veteran Crane is a rare bird
Village treasure ruffled, but unembittered, by Madoff ripoff
BY STEPHEN WOLF
In a lovingly tended garden behind a beautiful Greenwich Village brownstone, a sprite and lively woman adds fresh seed to her aviary. She is both knowledgeable about — and proud of — all the species her garden attracts. There are finches and warblers; robins and doves; cardinals, jays and sparrows of all sorts. With a two-tiered running stream of water for sips and baths, the garden even attracts rare visitors like a grossbeak or a rufous-sided towhee. Pigeons and squirrels are discouraged.
If viewed with a slightly tilted eye, she too could resemble a bird — a full-breasted, orange-crested canary wearing around her neck a thin gold chain with a miniature radio microphone attached — a symbol of her passion, her gift, and the past.
Her name is Cynthia Crane and for decades she has sung cabaret — that sassy, sexy night-music from Lautrec’s Paris that has curled itself like blue smoke through the New York City streets and into small dimly lit clubs with a few rows of tables and chairs encircling the intimate stage. People drink, huddle, whisper; this could be the Twenties, Harlem or the Village.
She has performed at Danny’s Skylight Room, Don’t Tell Mama, the National Arts Club, Tavern on the Green, The Russian Tea Room; for the USO on military bases; with lip-syncing drag queens at outrageous Michou’s in Paris and, more respectably while there, at the Museé de Montmartre and the American Embassy.
She’s released CDs with such tantalizing titles as “Smoky Bar Music,” “The Time Has Come” and her insightful “If I Knew Now (what I knew then)” as well as the tender “Cynthia’s in Love.” She even has a Christmas album.
All her albums are available at CDBaby or Amazon — but hearing music live is the best, and Cynthia’s a great performer. She’s got some Edith Piaf about her, some Billie Holliday and some Liza. She can be a siren, a flirt, a comedian, an angry, impassioned voice of reason. “A petit package of charm, wit, and talent,” wrote Cabaret Scenes Magazine. Classically, beautifully dressed, she adapts to a variety of voices and themes. Like the best of cabaret singers, she can twirl your hair through her fingers and sing in a manner that tightens your date’s smile.
There’s also a burlesque quality to her, and the seducing temptress from moments before now makes us laugh with verbal slapstick and a flexible face with which she’s willing to appear silly. At times, she’s filled with righteous wrath at injustice or ignorance — remnant of a time when issues mattered and we believed that, especially in song, things could really change. But then, with a shift in lighting effects, a different key struck on the piano and something in her voice, Cynthia sings the blues and becomes a heartfelt, aching, victim of love. We believe her, reminisce with lowered eyes, and have another drink.
She was born — well, a lady never gives her age away — a while ago on W. 11th Street, a new member to an old New York family going back before the Civil War. She’s heiress to the old Crane Oxygen and Ambulance Company, the first such service in the relatively young city (which used to deliver oxygen to the six-day bicycle races in Madison Square Garden and dropped two hundred gallons of it each day to the Ziegfeld Follies in orchid-colored ambulances that had no radios — so her father would sing).
In showbiz since childhood, she moved with her husband, writer/producer Ted Story, into this Village brownstone forty years ago. Together, they ran the Impossible Ragtime Theater for a decade — remaining artistic and bohemian idealists loyal to the Village even as the Village changed around them.
With a heart as large as her voice, a passionate conservationist, chair of the block association and one of the earliest forces in “God’s Love” providing meals for people badly stricken by AIDS, she donates time and money to a long list of needy organizations (and was the relentless force that got the bell to ring once again in the 128 year-old Jefferson Market tower). Her latest project is to light that newly-melodic tower on Sixth Avenue and W. 10th.
Though none of us understands why bad things happen to such good people, she continues undaunted — devoting her life to making the world a better place. After all, she’s got her health, a half-dozen dazzling CDs, a loving husband, two grown daughters living nearby, grandkids and her voice. Most of the rest, she’s lost to Madoff — even her beloved 1909 Steinway.
The 150 year-old townhouse at 142 W. 11th — where three-tiered New Year’s Day parties would last 15 hours (and where at their last, final party, the ponzi schemer hung in effigy from the rafters) — is now for sale. So is much of the cool stuff inside: clocks, antique lamps, tables, and chairs, knick-knacks like in a flea market dream, a man-hole cover dated 1664 (when the English stole New Amsterdam from the Dutch and changed the name to New York). There’s even a carousel horse trotting in the air. On the 25th of March, she starts another set of shows at Don’t Tell Mama on W. 46th. Some of the material’s about Madoff.
After a difficult time, she is resigned and undefeated by this fate. Despite knowing the beloved brownstone must go, Cynthia looks out her kitchen windows to her bustling atrium and with eyebrows raised in furrows of concern, says, “I just worry about the birds.”