On the balmy evening of September 9, 1960, there seemed to be an even greater sense of possibility laced through the typically restless Greenwich Village air. This possibility could be traced to West Eighth Street, down thirty-one steep stairs, through the darkness of The Bon Soir, and into the club’s dressing room where 18-year-old Barbra Streisand anxiously sat tending to her hair, and her nerves. She was to make her Bon Soir solo debut around midnight, singing for an audience that could be cleanly divided into her most adoring friends and an oblivious crowd simply looking toward a leisurely night of entertainment. Little did they know that within a few hours, they would witness the birth of a star whose unmatchable talent has secured her not only a place, but rather a throne, in the pantheon of American entertainers.
At the genesis of her career, Streisand did not fancy herself a singer. Her dream was to be a successful actress, and that was what she worked and trained tirelessly for. Born April 24, 1942 in Brooklyn, Streisand was well-known to her community for her musical gifts. She sang at PTA assemblies, in choral clubs, at weddings and summer camps, but preferred to spend her free time at the library studying the biographies of famous stage actresses.
In the summer of 1960, Barbra’s desire to break into acting was coming to a head. She sang frequently at friends’ parties but yearned to incorporate more storytelling, more persona into her music to scratch the acting itch. After a riotous performance at The Lion, a gay nightclub in Greenwich Village, Streisand was invited to audition for a spot at The Bon Soir. Streisand seized the opportunity to meld her irresistible vocal talents with her narrative command, shocking owner Ernie Sgroi Jr. and her surprise audience with a cleverly saucy rendition of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from the Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs. Sgroi offered her a two-week run beginning on September 9.
As the day approached, Streisand and friends were deep in the weeds of preparation for her set. Songs were chosen, direction was determined, and narratives were teased out to portray and amplify facets of Streisand’s own personality. A jaunty arrangement of “Lover, Come Back to Me” became a story of a woman who couldn’t let go of her love, “Nobody’s Heart Belongs to Me” was the story of an inexperienced girl yearning for love, and “I Want to Be Bad” was the manifesto of a girl asserting her own freedom of choice. When Barbra performed her set on September 9, the audience was enraptured by her masterful storytelling as much as they were by her entrancing voice. Due to her popularity, Streisand’s initial run at the Bon Soir was extended to a total of eleven weeks.
Streisand’s resounding success at the Bon Soir did not end there. The star played the venue four separate times between 1960 and 1962, establishing her career’s home base in Greenwich Village even as her theatrical renown was catapulted to even greater heights. At this point, Greenwich Village was also Streisand’s literal home base. The budding star lived around the corner from The Bon Soir at 69 West Ninth Street with her lover and fellow actor Barry Dennem for two years.
The 1960s saw Greenwich Village emerge as a hub for performers looking for venues Off-Off-Broadway. Taxis from across the city brought New Yorkers to Greenwich Village to witness the kooky art being made there, especially at venues like The Bon Soir that were known for their envelope-pushing acts. The Bon Soir in particular was popular for its female acts. Famous women like singer, dancer, and comic Mae Barnes, the brash and bluesy Sylvia Syms, and comedienne Phyllis Diller took the stage at The Bon Soir by storm to make it a place where women, both black and white, would shine.
The Bon Soir closed in the 70s, signaling the close of the Greenwich Village cabaret era that had flourished in the 50s and 60s. However, by that time, the club had made its mark as the birthplace of so many illustrious careers, including Barbra Streisand’s. To get a glimpse of this vibrant Greenwich Village establishment, listen to Barbra Streisand’s album, “Live at the Bon Soir,” which was recorded at the club in November 1962 to be released as Streisand’s debut album with Columbia Records. The recording was ultimately scrapped as Streisand’s debut in favor of a studio recording and sat mostly-unreleased in Streisand’s archives for 60 years. Now, it serves as a welcome reminder of a unique moment in Greenwich Village history and a portrait of a young icon on the cusp of super-stardom.
Barbra Streisand also lived for a time just around the corner from the Bon Soir at 69 West 9th Street. To learn more about this and Streisand’s time in our neighborhoods, check out Greenwich Village Historic District Musician’s Tour.