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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
102 Witherspoon Street, 609-924-8777. $1. Saturday, August 22,
9 p.m. to midnight.
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