San Francisco loves its success stories, especially when they revolve around the big bright lights of entertainment. All this should make the week more interesting when a fierce creative posse, which includes CeCe Peniston, Mary Wilson, Linda Lavin, Pia Zadora and New York transplant/drummer extraordinaire Tommy Igoe, hit The Rrazz Room for its ambitious anniversary gala on March 21.
Having stormed onto the scene four years ago, after the famed Plush Room bowed at the York Hotel, owners Robert Kotonly and Rory Paull had a vision to take San Francisco's nightclub scene to the next level. They had already established themselves as viable bookers, luring in diverse acts to the Plush for several years -- from Joan Rivers to drag maven Varla Jean Merman. But mostly, they were craving to create something very "un-cabaret."
"Going in, the Plush Room was known as a cabaret and to me, cabaret is a poison word," Kotonly says.
A lot of time people hear the word cabaret and they have a pre-conceived notion of what it is. Maybe it's an 'old act' that has been singing with a piano player. It's almost outdated. And it's certainly not what I had in mind, in terms of our scheduling. When I say cabaret, I think of nightclubs. Where people got dressed up and went to nightclubs.
The result may have surprised skeptics who couldn't envision the Rrazz pulling it off near the lobby of the popular Hotel Nikko. But over the last four years, the skeptics have faded away and Kotonly and Paull have proven themselves to be quite an enterprising duo, offering an eclectic mix of entertainers across a broad spectrum -- R&B, Broadway, Classic Rock, Folk, Comedy and more.
Lil' Kim even popped up on the roster. So did Jefferson Airplane.
And all this during a time when the country was experiencing one of its worst economic mood swings. Today, The Rrazz Room is a triumphant success. It continues to solidify itself as one of the most alluring and resilient nightclubs the city has to offer.
"Sometimes, when I sit there and look at what's going on in the room that we created, I'm surprised," Kotonly goes on, "because it really is the essence of what I perceived the room to be -- an intimate space with great sound, with the audience up close and personal with legends -- not has-beens, but legends -- like Ashford & Simpson and others."
The journey getting here is interesting to trace. New Jersey boy Kotonly met Paull (who is from Long Island) at the University of Miami. They knew they wanted to open a business together and eventually found themselves operating a travel agency when "travel agents used to get paid."
One of their clients happened to be a performing arts center in New Jersey and the owner decided to give the guys a chance booking a show.
"We didn't know anything about anything -- nothing," Kotonly muses. "But we knew that we could do it if we try."
Renée Taylor and Joe Bologna were booked in the 1,300-seat theater for two shows in one day.
"It's funny -- sometimes when you don't know what you can't do, it's good, because we made it happen," Kotonly adds.
They fell into the same kind of luck in the early 2000s when the operators of The Plush Room handed over the booking to them. "Looking back, we were very naïve -- we were so naïve but we had the heart to get us through."
The anniversary gala is also a big, bold benefit for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Sharon McNight hosts. And the all-star lineup: Natalie Douglas, Edwin Hawkins, Linda Lavin, Deana Martin, Will and Anthony Nunziata, Freda Payne, CeCe Peniston, Billy Stritch, Mary Wilson, Pia Zadora, Tommy Igoe -- who's set to perform at The Rrazz every Monday night beginning April 2 -- and Pete Escovedo, Juan Escovedo and Peter Michael Escovedo,
In the meantime, the future looks promising for The Rrazz Room as it heads into year five.
In addition to adding Igoe to its Monday night roster beginning April 2 -- the popular drummer's success in Manhattan's Birdland Jazz Club was considered mind-bending -- Broadway legend and revered actress/performer Elaine Stritch takes the stage for three weeks this spring (May 23-June 10) with "Singing Sondheim -- One Song At A Time." (Actually, Stritch reached out to the Rrazz directly after hearing from friends that it was a stellar performance space.)
"We're able to diverse programming," Kotonly notes. "People come. They support the room. One of the reasons I have been able to do this is that I think we've broken people of thinking, 'OK, we're going to see cabaret-like acts.' I think our programming is interesting and I think -- I hope -- people are starting to look at it and say, 'Wow, I didn't think that could happen in that room.'"
Take note of some Rrazz highlights in the slideshow below: