New York City Cabaret Card

From Prohibition until 1967, a permit called the New York City Cabaret Identification Card was required of all workers, including performers, in New York City nightclubs. Their administration was fraught with politics, and some artists' cards were revoked on specious grounds. For many performers, the revocation of their cabaret card resulted in the loss of their livelihood. Those of Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk[1], Jackie McLean[2], Elmo Hope, Billy Higgins[3] and Billie Holiday[4] were suspended because of drug charges, and that of Lenny Bruce for his reputed obscenity.

Burlesque dancer Sally Rand challenged the refusal to issue her a cabaret card, which was refused based on her alleged scanty attire. A judge overturned the decision as an "arbitrary and an unjustified act". The judge noted that the cabaret regulations take effect only after a card had been issued to a performer and warned Rand that her privileges could be revoked if she did not follow regulations.[5] J. J. Johnson challenged the withholding of his card at the New York State Supreme Court in May 1959, and won the issue of a valid card.[6]

In 1960, Lord Buckley died soon after his card was seized under mysterious circumstances. The ensuing scandal led to the abolition of the cabaret card system. Following the seizure of Buckley's card, Harold L. Humes convened a "Citizens' Emergency Committee" -- which included Norman Mailer, David Amram, and Norman Podhoretz -- in the apartment of writer George Plimpton. Humes and Maxwell T. Cohen, Buckley's lawyer, confronted Police Commissioner Stephen Kennedy at a raucous hearing. In January 1961, Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. announced that control of the cabaret card system would be removed from the New York City Police Department.[7] The system was abolished in its entirety in 1967, with the New York City Council voting 35-1 to eliminate the required cards. The Council's discussion of the issue included the reading of a message from Frank Sinatra, who would not perform in New York City and had refused to apply for a cabaret card, citing the application and investigation process as "demeaning".[8]


  1. ^ Weber, Bruce. money raised from the revenue was collected and put into the policeman's retirement fund. The police used this card to insure their retirement pure graft.res=9502E2DD163EF934A35751C0A9669C8B63&scp=1&sq=%22cabaret+card%22 "THEATER REVIEW; A Portrait in Words For a Wordless Artist", The New York Times, February 7, 2000. Accessed January 14, 2008. "...his 1951 arrest on a false drug charge (he was protecting his friend, the pianist Bud Powell), which resulted in a 60-day jail sentence and the revocation of his cabaret card..."
  2. ^ Freedman, Samuel G. "HOW INNER TORMENT FEEDS THE CREATIVE SPIRIT", The New York Times, November 17, 1985. Accessed January 14, 2008. "Mr. McLean ultimately served several years on Rikers Island on narcotics charges and lost his cabaret card, which was tantamount in jazz to losing the right to work."
  3. ^ "Interview with Charlie Haden"; Accessed March 10, 2008. "That started when he (Billy Higgins) lost his cabaret card when we were at the Five Spot, which made him free to be on all those Blue Note records."
  4. ^ "NEW YORK BOOKSHELF; 'Red Menace' to Warhol's Factory: The City as Bohemia", The New York Times, October 22, 2000. Accessed January 14, 2008. "Billie Holiday suddenly stood up at her table and sang as Mal Waldron played the piano. (She had recently been deprived of her cabaret card by the police.)"
  5. ^ "SALLY RAND WINS CASE; Police Lose Battle to Keep Her From Getting Cabaret Card", The New York Times, April 1, 1947. Accessed January 14, 1948.
  6. ^ "TROMBONIST WINS, GETS CABARET CARD", The New York Times, May 15, 1959. Accessed January 14, 2008.
  7. ^ Sibley, John. "POLICE LICENSING OF CLUBS TO END; Wagner to Shift Control of Night Spots and Employees to License Department POLICE LICENSING OF CLUBS TO END", The New York Times, January 17, 1961. Accessed January 14, 2008.
  8. ^ Bennett, Charles G. "CABARET-CARD USE ENDED BY COUNCIL; Repeal Awaits Signature of Mayor--Vote Is 35 to 1", The New York Times, September 13, 1967. Accessed January 14, 2008.

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