The media, too, took notice of the elegant club, with its simple décor, leather banquettes and generously equipped stage. On its opening night Billie Stritch performed his one-man Mel Torme show there with The New York Times in attendance and the Times' review marked an auspicious beginning to the 115-seat cabaret, which has since garnered both a Nightlife Award and a Bistro Award and was named best cabaret in the city by New York magazine in 2006.
It happened so fast, says Lennie Watts, the room's booking manager. It was the right time, the right room, the right people.
It might seem that there is no good time to open a cabaret-small clubs like this are a dicey business and even the most beloved rooms can suffer financial setbacks that prove fatal, even with a full roster of talent lined up to assure good houses. Eighty Eights, Judy's, Danny's Skylight Room, Mama Rose and Encore-all deemed successful cabaret rooms-have closed in recent years. But Metropolitan Room owners Chris Mazzili and Michael Reisman are hardly newcomers to the volatility of this type of business and presumably they know what works. Before it was The Metropolitan Room, the space at 34 W. 22nd was Gotham Comedy Club, which the pair managed so successfully for 11 years that they decided to expand into a broader platform, moving one block away into an upscale Art Deco space on 23rd Street, next to the historic Chelsea Hotel. They choose to keep the 22nd Street location as a live music venue and thus The Metropolitan Room was born.
Key to the room's success is Watts' network of performers and knowledge of the cabaret scene, culled from years of experience working as a bartender and booking manager in other clubs like Don't Tell Mama, a midtown cabaret of more than two-decades standing, its sister club Mama Rose and Encore. For the new club Watts brought in established cabaret performers he knew and supported, like Stritch, but the idea was to turn The Metropolitan Room into a top-shelf venue that would feature stellar talent no matter what the genre. This meant Watts had to step away from the student showcases and self-promoted, self-contained vanity performances that serve as the bread and butter for most cabaret rooms and find out what jazz, pop and folk acts would draw the audiences that would keep the room viable.
I wanted to move up a level, Watts explains, as he spoke about how he set out to accomplish this. I had started by doing cabaret. I didn't know much about jazz, but I got educated in it by doing it. I learned by listening. Watts estimates that about 30% of the room's shows are jazz acts like drummer Jeff Tain Watts, trumpeter Nate Birkey, harpist Corky Hale, pianist/singer Patti Wicks and singers Libby York, Stephanie Nakasian and Laurie Krauz. The remaining 70% of the acts are a mix of theater performers like Andrea McArdle and Tom Wopat and pop or folk singer/songwriters like James Taylor's daughter Kay Taylor.
We're looking for what is good, Watts asserts. It might not be your cup of tea, but the people who perform here will be good at what they do and every night is a different experience. [Our goal is] to stay creative with bookings, to keep it fresh.
Part of the management's initiative also is to encourage career-building among both seasoned and new performers. In July The Metropolitan Room kicked off the first Metrostar Talent Challenge, a seven-week-long competition open to approximately 60 singers and duos of all musical styles who have not performed in the club. Each Monday night for the seven weeks jazz singer Baby Jane Dexter, cabaret critic Roy Sanders and a visiting celebrity judge preside over the contest; their votes, along with supplemental audience ballots, will determine the winners each week. The last singer standing on Aug. 18th will receive a fully produced, week-long engagement at the club and a Live at The Metropolitan Room CD recording of the show.
At the time of this writing, the competition has proven to be surprisingly popular. We sold out the first two shows. It's bigger than we thought it would be, Watts reports.
One could also say the same about the success of the room itself, which in only two years has risen to dominate the city's cabaret scene. For Watts there is no mystery as to why. The Metropolitan Room is just a great place to sit and watch a show, he says.
~ Suzanne Lorge