Joel Grey Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of ‘Cabaret’ at the Smithsonian (photos)

Joel Grey came to the Smithsonian for a special donation ceremony and the screening of his Academy Award-winning performance in “Cabaret” at the National Museum of American History’s Warner Bros. Theater Feb. 22. The event marked the film’s 40th anniversary. In honor of the occasion, the actor donated the straw hat that he wore when he danced with a gorilla, while singing, “If You Could See Her (Through My Eyes).” Other items from the museum’s collection of “Cabaret” costumes were on display, including the black tuxedo pants and tailcoat used by Grey in the film and the 1987 revival tour, and the pink satin vest, wig and shoes worm by Grey in the stage production.

Before the screening of “Cabaret,” Grey sat down with curator Dwight Blocker Bowers for a discussion of the film.
Grey said he was just about to quit the business in 1966 after a series of uninspiring roles when he got a call from famed producer and director Hal Prince about a new show based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I Am a Camera,” which in turn was adapted from the 1939 short novel “Goodbye to Berlin” by Christopher Isherwood. Grey was to be given five songs by his good fiends John Kander and Fred Ebb, but there was initially no real definition of his character role. In rehearsal, it took weeks before Grey found the darkness in that character which became the emcee. It was based in part on real persons Grey encountered while he was stationed in Germany in the Army, and nightclub performers he had seen earlier.

The musical was set in Berlin in 1931 during the Nazi rise to power, and just a year before the actor was born. The straw hat Grey donated was worn during what he considers to be the “quintessential place in the film where everything changes . . . the character of the emcee was . . . so much of a double idea… Adolf Hitler-like in that he promises the audience a very good time . . . bread on every table. . . . They follow and they have a good time, and at the end he turns out to be something other than what we thought he was.”

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