In 1920, the Winton Club of Winchester ran its very first cabaret to help support Winchester Hospital. Today, the organization will hit a milestone as #100 debuts on Jan. 28 at Winchester’s Town Hall. Called “Uncorked,” it will celebrate 100 years of memories and moments.
Why a cabaret? As Winton Club President Margaret Bertochi noted, “as the hospital expanded, the Winton Club wanted to expand its fundraising efforts and wanted to put on a cabaret show as an alternative and it stuck.”
While the cabaret hasn’t run every year - there was no show in 1944 due to World War II - the long-running tradition managed to reach 100 shows in 100 years thanks to a double edition of the cabaret in 1942. By 1945, the show officially became an annual tradition.
In 1924, the Winton Club began naming each show calling the first “Rainbow Review.” Each year, the president chooses someone or someones to chair or co-chair the event. The chair or chairs then choose the name, theme and style of each show.
While it may seem strange to have the biggest fundraising event of the year for the hospital in the dead of winter, Bertochi said it helps to break up the season. Amazingly, Bertochi, along with this year’s co-chairs Gayle O’Grady and Phyllis Gleason could only remember one time when the weather forced a cancellation. Back in 2015, a blizzard forced the Winton Club to cancel one night’s showing. This isn’t to say the weather hasn’t played a role; in some instances attendees come to the cabaret on skis and sometimes the weather causes cast members to miss out.
But that’s a couple minor inconveniences in what has largely been 100 amazing years.
Wars, depressions, recessions, everything changes except the Winton Club’s annual cabaret. Well, technically, the show changed, too, because on two occasions it left the cozy confines of the Town Hall auditorium for the McCall Middle School due to Town Hall renovations. In 100 years, though, that seems rather impressive. (Note: one year the pipes froze at Town Hall and rehearsals had to be done with winter hats on.)
The show boasts a large and committed cast: this year, more than 100 volunteers (or more people than the number of shows they are celebrating) dedicate the month of January to putting on the spectacle attendees have come to know and love. One volunteer in particular, Jan Cooper, will participate in her 65th consecutive show, joined onstage by her two daughters. The cabaret is really a family affair, as mothers join their sons/daughters and husbands joins their wives onstage.
It’s become the event of the year in town, so popular that the Army has even allowed reservists time off to participate. The longest-running act is the drill team, usually with 16 people (though some shows have run drill twice). Another popular act, the Tambos (started in the 1940s), at one time were only on the show every other year, but now attendees can see them all the time.
Traditionally, the Sunday after the last show, the president chooses next year’s chair or co-chairs. Although word often leaks out beforehand, everyone does a (fairly) good job of keeping the secret. For this year, Bertochi had a difficult choice: being the 100th cabaret, she definitely knew two heads would be better than one, but what about three?
In the end, she went with two experienced, veteran members of the Winton Club in O’Grady and Gleason. Gleason produced two shows: Moving Right Along in 1980 and Fascinating Rhythms in 1993. O’Grady produced Countdown in 1999. Together, with the help of their husbands, they came up with the idea of “Uncorked.”
“We had a bunch of ideas bundled into a bottle, if you will,” Gleason mentioned, adding how their husbands met them at the door with champagne after they were announced as the new chairs.
Pop the cork and let’s toast to the past 100 years.
Both women said choosing the theme for this upcoming show was the hardest thing they’ve ever done. Expect the show to include a lot of information and even more memories. They said they went and asked Winton Club members about their favorite moments from shows past, and of course added in some of their own.
They also admitted, not surprisingly, having two chairs has made planning this year’s show “infinitely” easier than had either one of them gone it alone.
“We started it off with several meetings with former chairs asking them about their favorite memories,” they both shared, admiring it would be hard to include everything. “We wanted to include thoughts from the entire membership.”
Besides reliving some great memories and moments from the past, the show will honor former chair Berta Swanson. She and Ann McGovern helped bring some of the past to life. In general, expect a bigger and longer show with 32 or 33 songs due to all the wants and needs. It takes a long time to remember and pay homage 100 years of history.
“We’re custodians of tradition for the year,” Gleason noted.
When asked about the possibility of adding more nights, the co-chairs expressed gratitude for the hard-working cast but added it wasn’t really feasible.
“Our cast is willing to give it their all for five nights a week for the entire month,” Gleason said, “then they need a breath. Some are also involved in other community shows. Plus, (five shows is) tradition.”
What’s been the most stressful part of putting this 100th cabaret together: “Keeping everyone happy and making sure everyone is heard,” they both said.
They acknowledged that putting the show together is harder and more work than the rehearsal process. Especially a show like this, where the audience will more than likely all have their own ideas of what should happen, what songs should be sung, what numbers should be reprised from older shows, what memories should be reborn, and what moments need remembering.
It’s no surprise then the co-chairs both admitted chairing this show is more difficult, even with two people, than their previous efforts.
“We want to give the audience something special,” both O’Grady and Gleason stated.
Even though this show harkens back to 100 years of history, don’t expect to hear just the classics.
“Using older music balanced against newer songs says we’re headed in the right direction,” the co-chairs remarked.
Of course, O’Grady and Gleason don’t have all the pressure on them, as Bertochi admitted to feeling the pressure to pick the right chairs. Thankfully, for both women, it was “very easy to accept. We didn’t get scared until after we said yes.”
The key question leading up to now concerned the right approach to celebrate 100 shows. Everyone felt there would be “great anticipation” within the Winton Club to see how this special 100th show would be presented.
This ins’t the first time the Winton Club’s had something to celebrate; they’ve had big shows for the 25th, 50th and 75th shows in the past. In fact, they already sort of celebrated the 100 milestone back in 2011 because that’s the year the Winton Club itself turned 100. Therefore, it’s kind of old hat to them.
Even in looking back, the cabaret has always looked ahead. The co-chairs said every chair wants to top the previous show in their next one. That means the 101st show in 2021 will be even more unbelievable than this upcoming one (no pressure).
But before the Winton Club can look forward to show 101 (or Cabaret 101 as the chairs referenced it, a good name for the producer of that show to use), it has to finish show 100. Thanks to the help of Ellen Knight at the Winchester Archival Center and Lisa Rice, the program editor for the 100th show’s program book, the co-chairs have been in good hands diving into the history of the cabaret.
What did they find? Well, not to spoil anything, but tickets to the first show cost only $1 and there the audience could purchase candy, cigars and cigarettes. In 1934, the Winton Club promoted a Winton Club Circus and the following year the men stepped up and put on their first version of the cabaret.
It’s been quite the past 100 years; and the co-chairs admitted they learned a lot about the history of the cabaret preparing for this show.
Since the last show either of the two co-chairs produced ran in 1999, some things have changed. O’Grady, the producer of that particular show, Countdown, said nowadays the cast is busier and more time is needed, but “we’ve gotten better at scheduling and rehearsing. We’re more respectful of people’s time.”
She added how technology has helped. Even still, the stress never goes away. However, by showtime, Gleason said she’s more excited than nervous.
“We want to give the audience a comprehensive view of 100 cabarets,” she said. “To balance the history and tradition as well look forward.”
As a last word, the co-chairs asked residents to “come enjoy and celebrate with us.”