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Floating Arts Salon Fills 'Cultural Gap' in City
Mable Lee's been in show business since the age of 8, singing and dancing with big bands, at nightclubs and on numerous New York City stages.
On Saturday, at age 89, the Harlem resident added "Jewish museum" to her long list of performance venues.
The crowd at the National Museum of American Jewish History roared as Lee, with the casual sass of a woman who knows all eyes are on her, flung off her gauzy white skirt.
"Oh, talking about your eyes," she crooned, pumping the beat with her hips, now clad only in skintight white hot pants.
Lee's act was part of the Fourth Wall Arts Salon (www.fourthwallarts.org) -- an eclectic collection of dancers, musicians, dramatists and other local artists who come together to showcase their work in the least expected settings. The result, said painter Keir Johnston, is "art for art's sake."
It all started about a year ago, when Johnston and a few other friends were brainstorming ways "to fill what we felt was a social and cultural gap in our experience of the city," said Fourth Wall executive producer Elijah Dornstreich, 35.
They bring the salon to a new venue on the fourth Saturday of every month: from a cathedral to the WHYY radio studios -- any place with a philosophical connection to their artistic mission, said Dornstreich, who left a career in mortgage financing to devote himself to promoting the arts.
They also try to circulate through various areas of the city to "cut across all cultural divides," he added.
"There have been a lot of efforts to get people to integrate and interact," Dornstreich said, "and I don't think it should be overlooked in what is still a pretty segregated city."
Ticket sales cover the venue rental, honorariums for the performers and a program manager, the sole paid employee.
Dornstreich handles most of the logistics, while muralist Johnston and performer Ali Bradley coordinate the artists.
Bradley, for example, was the link to Lee; they met at a national tap dance event in New York 10 years ago.
"I taught her how to do all this," Lee said, gyrating in demonstration.
So far, Saturday's show holds the record for attendance with more than 350 audience members, far more than the number of chairs. The overflow -- black, white and Hispanic, young and old -- mingled in the back while the emcees introduced poets, an opera singer and even a grade-school string ensemble.
In honor of the location, Klingon Klez filled the role of the usual house jazz band, said Dornstreich. Flutist Mimi Stillman and percussionist Gabe Globus-Hoenich performed a medley that included Yiddish favorites "Oyfn Pripetchik" and "Tumbalalaika," and writer Adam Mansbach also referenced his Jewish background.
Benjamin Baker, 27, an attendee who also helped produce video profiles of the featured visual artists, complimented the salon for giving community members an outlet to "charge" their creative energy.
"How many places are you going to have people in their 50s and 60s listening to spin records by D.J. Supreme," he asked, "followed by tap dancing?"