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This story by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August

19, 1998. All rights reserved.

100 Nights of Cafe Improv

Stand outside the Arts Council of Princeton on the

fourth Saturday of any month and you’ll both hear and feel


from the Loft Theater where the monthly Cafe Improv takes the stage

from 9 p.m. to midnight. In a perfect world, the entertainers playing

there would be in coffee houses or bars, but instead, in our George

Thorogood world, this music is entertaining the small community that,

for a mere $1 admission, tanks up on the free fruit juice and cookies

while they enjoy the egalitarian and eclectic lineup.

Now, co-founder John Irving says he has every confidence that,


we skipped a few Christmases over the years," his partner Tom

Florek is correct in calculating that this Saturday, August 22, will

be "exactly" its 100th evening. Each man claims to have missed

two or less sessions over the series’ eight-plus years.

Besides the dozens of Cafe Improv devotees who attend each month,

this talent show also entertains the hundreds of bodies laying


across the street at Princeton Cemetery (and a potential new throng

of cable TV viewers). That certainly wasn’t the intention of Irving

and Florek, who launched Cafe Improv in 1990.

"The point of Cafe Improv was to provide a place where people

can perform. Some people are really good, but don’t make performing

part of their career," says Florek, a volunteer who also works

as a principal interactive systems designer and programmer at ETS.

"A lot of people at Cafe Improv you won’t see anywhere else,"

"Being a successful performer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re

been played on mass media," explains Florek. "I really like

a lot of the music and poetry that I hear. And I really enjoy


a play where other people can enjoy poetry and music."

Florek, known for his ragtime piano that encompasses both original

compositions and ragtime versions of pop tunes by such contemporaries

as the B-52s, says he’s mainly responsible for hauling, lifting,


and setting up the sound equipment. Since January of this year, he

also helps set up the video crew for live broadcast of the entire

show on Public Access TV, Channel 30. Moving onto TV has changed the

show a bit. "We have to have a lot more people in the crew, and

we also have a lot more people attending," he says.

Florek stresses the "alternative" nature of

the Cafe Improv. His reasoning? Most musicians are faced with all

too few alternatives. "Playing in bars is a humiliating


he says emphatically, as one who speaks from first-hand knowledge.

"The people who are there don’t want to listen to you. The people

who own the bar hired you to sell drinks. This doesn’t do justice

to people who have worked on their art."

Some of the more high-profile touring acts that have chosen the Improv

venue include Annie Bauerlein, Peter Spencer, and Jeff Folmer.


favorite acts to date include the Meandering Dead Dog Madrigal Group

that came onstage in costume to sing "You Ain’t Nothing but a

Hound Dog" in perfect madrigal style. Also impressive, in the

recent debut of the up-and-coming high school rock band, Dorothy’s


Irving, managing editor of Academic Questions, the quarterly journal

of the National Association of Scholars, books the acts and collects

the money. With spots for six or seven musicians and several poets

each night, he books on a first come, first served basis. Felicia

Thomas has recently taken over the job of booking the cafe poets.

Irving reports that the provisional lineup for August 22 includes

Steve Mazzetta, a New York guitarist and singer of original


songs; singer-songwriter Roia Rafieyan, who is also a Flemington-based

music therapist; Jim West and Judy Bubar, a husband and wife, guitar

and fiddle, country and folk combo; the Bloody Someday Poetry Troupe,

with poetry and drama by Stan Haleva, T.H. Cornell, and Michelle


poet Jim Weldon in his Cafe Improv debut; bluegrass-tinted songs by

Dennis Darnell and friends; poet John Watson reciting verse from Los

Angeles via live electronic hookup; and Tom Florek and Erik Schopf

with "a weird brand of musical commentary on life."

"I take performers at face value. If I have an empty spot I’ll

give anybody a chance," says Irving, who has only twice, in the

annals of Cafe Improv, regretted this policy. "I’m afraid I’ve

had to leave the room more than once."

Irving is also the man who books the young pianists 8-year-old


Irving and 5-year-old Michael Irving as the show’s standard warm up

performers. Nepotism? Yes, they are both related to the booker.

Irving carries with him a red book that holds a six-year list of


and performers, beginning March 28, 1992. Scanning for the series’

high points, he mentions music by Frank Glas and Ted Irenas; an


comedy troupe of Princeton University math students; and a renowned

Princeton professor (whom he declines to name) from West Virginia

who plays guitar and sings. "I can’t see anyone who’s made the

big time — yet," he notes.

Irving does recount a fairly recent debacle when a poet in white face,

fortified by whisky, recited a raunchy text about "dismembering

young ladies, and other unpleasant stuff about women." The poet’s

props included a partner with a boom box, an inflatable doll, and

ground beef. "We laid back and took it, but it didn’t leave a

good taste in our mouth," says Irving.

"Our golden rule is that every act be respectful of the other

people in the room," says Florek. "We have no problem with

people expressing a political or a religious opinion," he says.

Florek would rather not dwell on the whiskey-guzzling poet and his

ground beef: "That particular poet won’t be back," he


Cafe Improv 100th Birthday, Arts Council of

Princeton ,

102 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8777. $1. Saturday, August 22,

9 p.m. to midnight.

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