Tony Starlight’s Supperclub & Lounge, 3728 N.E. Sandy Blvd., hunkers down in a fitting location — Hollywood. The one in Portland, not the place with the big sign on the hill near LA.
Nee and aka Brett Kucera, Tony Starlight opened his namesake place in January 2007, determined to bring Portland a nostalgic entertainment venue it didn’t have. Not a jazz club, a New York City-style piano bar, high-end resto, nor a concert hall, his room would be a supper club with a variety show, starring himself as Dino, Tom Jones, Frankie, Neil Diamond and made-up characters. He’d make people laugh, connect with the audience, get to know the community — at least the ones who showed up at his nightclub.
What’s odd is that by now the club has become all of those things.
Starlight, 40, with a chameleon voice and dead-on comic timing, adores music and theater. From 1993 to 1999 he performed a slightly blue gig of dirty jokes and song parodies at such Portland spots as the defunct 1207 Club and the Gypsy. With his wife Sherry’s job transfer to LA in 1999, he boned up on theater and club stuff, but LA wasn’t the place for him or for his act. In 2006, he returned to Portland, ready to roll out a new club. “There was no room like the one I wanted to set up.”
His variety show tonight features him and a tight three-piece band performing schticks from Dean Martin to the Doobies, Mel Torme to Tom Jones. He mixes up his show with other local acts but says he “sometimes gets stuck booking” himself. Some nights, it’s Starlight doing Neil Diamond, other times it’s Starlight’s Sinatra, or a four-horn Copacabana review.
The club books a variety of other acts, from The Bureau of Standards Big Band to Nancy King with Steve Christofferson, Mike Winkle, the swinging Shanghai Woolies (with Gavin Bondy of Pink Martini) to Andrew Oliver’s Bridgetown Sextet playing traditional New Orleans Jazz and many others. Their traditional signature Neil Diamond tributes and other lovingly campy offerings are still staples. He has expanded the diversity of the music from what it was when he opened the club and plans to keep the vibe while expanding the music.
Whichever the act, most guests, many repeats and Starlight’s adopted friends, reserve tables at the 50-seat supper club. The bar supplies another 60 seats. You can see the show from there, but not as well as from the dining tables.
The club marks a distance from Starlight’s growing up in the ’80s with U2, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. He knew early on that he “wasn’t going down that route. I couldn’t see what my generation was all upset about.”
Instead he went to the library and grabbed a stack of Fats Waller and Satchmo LPs and kept his eye on the past. “I fell in love with the aesthetic of this kind of entertainment – George Burns, Liberace. All those people.”
Or Jack Benny all over again, in spirit, a half-century later.
6:00: Doors open. Tony greets the first customer with a “Hi Ralph.” Tony wears his street clothes, not a costume. He carries his cell everywhere. Bartender Rebecca Cody checks her olive jar, slices lemons.
6:20: The phone rings. “I get a lot of this at the last minute,” says Tony.
He personally returns reservation phone calls, asks for the full scoop from his customers. A birthday? An anniversary? A party? “ I want everyone to have a good time. Usually people are disappointed by unmet expectations,” so he tells them what not to expect – and what to anticipate.
It’s not kitsch. It’s not Jimmy Mak’s, a music-only jazz club. It’s not a gourmet restaurant with a singer or two. There’s no TV, video poker or cheap drinks. “It would be one thing if it were Applebee’s,” says Starlight.
And it’s not a concert hall. His place is an old-fashioned supper club featuring a variety show a la Jack Benny, starring Tony Starlight in numerous, usually exaggerated, personas. His act makes people laugh. The audience pays attention. The entertainment spans generations, hitting on Sinatra to Dean Martin to Neil Diamond to Facebook.
6:25: Pianist Rick Jewett straightens his tie. He is the pre-dinner warm-up. He’s 83 and has met Sammy Davis Jr., “all those guys,” as bartender Cody says. He has the keyboard touch of Bill Evans, one of his heroes, and he wears a hearing aid. He checks his watch. “Where is my tip jar?” Tony finds him the foot-high turquoise tulip-shaped vase and places it carefully it on the grand piano.
6:30: Chef Jasmine Dixson brings out a plate of salmon with coconut rice and fresh green beans for Starlight to sample. He’s watching his weight and has lately adopted the habit of walking his Australian shepherd mix dog. He picks at the food.
6:45: Dixson returns from the kitchen, carrying a caramelized version of the coho salmon to Starlight, sitting at the bar, ready to shovel down a meal before his two-hour act. He’s lost 10 pounds recently. He nods. “Caramelized, then. That one.” Dixson swings back to the small, hot kitchen and revs up for the 50 dinner orders that will come in all at once in a few minutes.
7:20: Tony descends to the basement dressing room to check out his jackets, hats and wigs. Musicians Reece Marshburn, Arick Gouwerok and Sam Folger huddle at a table in the basement’s corner, looking over their music. Their act is honed. They’ve been with Starlight for a while. They laugh, they’re relaxed. They were all born after 1975 but they know Sinatra, the Rat Pack, Billy Epstein, Mel Torme, Neil Diamond, Tom Jones, Blondie, Cat Stevens — as if they were weaned on them.
7:35: Pianist Jewett finishes up “You Can’t Take That Away,” smooth as a well-shaken martini. He stops to chat with a guest about how he met Sammy Davis Jr. on a train in the early ‘50s. “Made my day,” Jewett says.
8:05: The musicians take their places on the modest red-curtained stage with the big sparkling star behind it. Marshburn, who plays piano and is officially dubbed the music director, sits down. Gouwerok, who Starlight calls the “handsome Dutchman,” hugs his bass, half-smiling. Sam Foulger eases in behind the drums.
8:10: Sean Childs, who doubles as maitre’d until showtime, mans the single spotlight. He shines it on the musicians. Then Tony Starlight bursts on the stage in his silver sequined shirt and spats, a fake cocktail in his hand, Rat-pack style. It’s a full house this Saturday night, just what he wants. He announces, all glittered up: “And here’s Tony Starlight featuring Tony Starlight’s drummer, pianist, and bass player!”
It’s a schtick. In real life. he thinks highly of his young musicians, encourages them to contribute bits to the show. Later, during the act, he introduces each member enthusiastically.
8:10: Tony is singing “Nice and Easy Does it Every Time,” flirting with the audience, weaving among the tables. He stops at the Overton family’s table. Chris, the 50-ish dad, taps his flip-flops on the floor. He’s a huge fan of “Divaville” on Portland jazz radio station, KMHD, a showcase for mid-century crooners. “I have a good feeling about you,” Tony says to Overton. He shoves the mike in Overton’s face and Overton sings “Nice ‘n’ Easy Does It.” Several others in the audience take a whirl at the words. Overton is the best.
8:30: “It’s the Great Snozzola himself,” Starlight says, snazzy in a boater hat. Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr. and an anniversary greeting to a couple along the back wall follow. Tony’s shirt is open, gold-chain-style. “Sorry I had to bare my navel,” he jokes. “That’s broken up many a marriage,” Marshburn says from the piano bench, a regular Ed McMahon to Starlight’s Johnnie Carson.
8:45: Tony chooses three guys from the audience, two of them fresh from the Portland beer festival. He names them And, But and Or and tells them to pick a dance gesture. But, from Hawaii, chooses the back-and-forth “lawnmower.” Or, also in from Hawaii, adopts the “white’s man’s overbite.” And bops his head. The music starts. Each time those words appear in the song, the guys do their signature moves. It’s hilarious. The audience won’t shut up. The guys dig into it, even the shy And, who happens to be Spencer Overton, 23, Chris Overton’s son.
9:00.: Christiana, dressed in a sleeveless black sheath, heels and pearls, is celebrating her birthday. Drummer Sam Foulger ushers her onstage. He’s just sung his Whole Foods spoof: “Can’t buy happiness but they do hand out little slices – at Whole Foods!” Starlight changes into his lisping sci-fi/Adam Sandler/nerd persona and sings “The Rose” to the birthday girl. She laughs politely.
9:08: Starlight struts onstage in an aqua silk (or polyester) shirt, grinding his hips, shaking his black curly wig. He belts out “It’s Not Unusual.” His leopard pants squeeze his lower body, Tom Jones-style. An uptight 30-ish couple sitting close to the stage are trying not to laugh. The rest of the audience cracks up.
Starlight sings “What’s New Pussycat,” straight into the face of a senior member of the Overton party. “You and your Pussycat Nose!” She loves it. OR at least smiles as wide as a Cheshire Cat.
The band members pretend to be itching for a break. “The way you can do some good in this world,” Foulger says from behind his drums, “is to buy some drinks for the band!” Marshburn drinks only the non-alcoholic stuff.
9:15: The band and Starlight take a break.
9:25: And, But and Or enjoy more drinks while the we-are-not-entertained date couple move closer together. Chris Overton nurses his beer. One partner of the grumpy couple leaves. The other comes back and grins through the rest of the show.
9:45: Starlight is back, this time as Neil Diamond. He hurls out “Sweet Caroline” in his rich tenor, maybe baritone, voice. The audience joins in: “So good, so good, so good!” “Reaching out…” Starlight moves to touch Chris Overton’s wife. Innocently, of course.
9:50: Drummer Foulger, who possesses the show-biz gene and creates some scenes for the show, sings a Facebook number: “Casey, will you be my friend? Be my Facebook baby. Just click confirm and I’ll put my love to test.” Foulger looks like a young version of ”Law & Order” actor Sam Waterston.
9:55: Starlight slips into Bob Seeger’s “Night Moves,” twisting the words like pieces of taffy, cracking up the audience. Old and young are bouncing their heads like thoroughly entertained Bobbleheads.
10:01: The Solid Gold Countdown starts with Christopher Cross’s 1979 sappy “Sailing,” (Starlight wears a sailors’ cap) and ascends through the Doobies, Lover Boy, Air Supply, Cat Stevens, Blondie. Tony interchanges wigs and hats as he drops into character. The audience is sated. The applause lasts 30 seconds.
10:10: Reece Marshburn exits stage left, his black notebook of music tucked under his arm. Ladies zip their purses, men take final swills, young sexy women swipe their lipsticks. It’s the throwback days, sort of, where men pull out the chairs for their dates and women, some of them, wear high heels. Tony works the room, shakes hands. He’s not done yet. He likes his guests. He wants to know them. He wants them to be happy. He wants them to come back.
And they will. The next time. Tony Starlight has been as smooth as Sinatra for four years, after all, and a packed house is turning out to be a regular thing in Hollywood.