NEW YORK - Donald F. Smith, 79, a champion of high-style cabaret who founded the Mabel Mercer Foundation and the New York Cabaret Convention, died Tuesday in New York.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Rick Meadows, the foundation’s director and Mr. Smith’s longtime assistant.
Mr. Smith founded the Mabel Mercer Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes public interest in cabaret, in 1985, a year after the death of Mercer, a celebrated singer and a close friend with whom Mr. Smith worked for many years as an unpaid promoter and publicist. During that time he brought her reputation to its pinnacle, culminating in triumphant engagements in San Francisco and London. The London shows brought Mercer, who was born in England, back home after more than 40 years.
The formation of the foundation was partly Mr. Smith’s response to obituaries and tributes that misleadingly described Mercer as a jazz singer. She was really an art singer, the foremost exponent of an intimate nightclub style known as parlando, which blends singing with speaking to convey emotion. Frank Sinatra and Barbara Cook are among the singers who have cited her as a major influence.
Since the late 1980s the foundation has produced the New York Cabaret Convention, an annual national showcase for nightclub talent. The convention originated with concerts that could last up to five hours.
It also expanded to other cities. There have been three conventions in Chicago and one each in Philadelphia, London, and Palm Springs, Calif.; three others have been held in East Hampton, N.Y. Plans have been made for the New York convention to continue under the artistic direction of the singer KT Sullivan.
Mr. Smith was born in New Bedford, Mass. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he moved to New York in 1955 and worked at the Abercrombie & Fitch and B. Altman stores. He became friends with Margot Fonteyn and Mercer, and offered his services as a promoter.
In 1980, after Mr. Smith had spent five years trying to persuade the Algonquin Hotel to bring back its long-dormant Oak Room, the club reopened with Steve Ross, a protégé of Mr. Smith’s, performing on an upright piano with a single spotlight. The upright was soon replaced by a grand piano, and cabaret remained a fixture at the Oak Room through the end of last year. (The hotel, closed for renovations since January, announced last month that it is discontinuing its cabaret.)
Mr. Smith’s tastes were elegant and traditional. He nurtured a stable of performers including Michael Feinstein, who played his first major New York engagement at the Oak Room, as well as the nightclub star Julie Wilson and the singer and actress Andrea Marcovicci. He produced centennial tributes to Cole Porter and Noel Coward at Carnegie Hall.
Mr. Smith, who has no immediate survivors, lived in an East Side apartment atop his office in rooms plastered with pictures of Porter, Fred Astaire, Gertrude Lawrence, and Ethel Merman.
One picture, Sullivan recalled, sandwiched between autographed photos of Joan Crawford and Audrey Hepburn, was of Walt Disney’s Snow White. Mr. Smith had signed it himself: “To Don: Love, Snow.’’