The program lists eight performance slots ranging from a talented young singer performer still in high school to a veteran Trenton-area songwriter and blues singer, along with a Princeton-based improv group, a songwriting area music educator, and a husband and wife singing and songwriting duo with more than a decade of area performances on their resume.
Throw in some free snacks and beverages and, boy oh boy, the $2 entrance ticket to a Princeton tradition is more than a solid investment for a night of art and entertainment.
“We’ve been doing the show since 1990,” says coordinator Tom Florek of Cafe Improv, the monthly variety-like show held at the Princeton Arts Council on the last Saturday of the month.
The next session starts at 7 p.m. sharp on May 26.
“It is a project of the Arts Council of Princeton,” says Florek during a recent interview. “(Arts Council staff member Robin Middleman) asked cofounder (Princeton-based editor and Arts Council of Princeton artist) John Irving to do a musical event. John asked me about it, and I said once a month rather than once a week. It was our idea to make it more a concert, have printed programs and things like that.”
“It started as an open mic, and eventually we wanted people to sign up in advance,” Florek says, explaining how its format developed and how the project is sustained. “I was bad at scheduling, but (Irving) took over, and it formulated from there.”
Another innovation was broadcasting the performances on Princeton TV starting in 1998. “Princeton TV was in the same building as the Arts Council,” says Florek. “I happened to notice, knocked on their door, and asked if they wanted it to be on TV. That was when they started. At one point we were live, but that doesn’t happen anymore.” And while the recent Cafe Improv show is broadcast on Monday nights throughout the month, in Princeton TV’s early days they were on twice a day.
“I recorded all the shows, but we never did anything with the audio. When we started with Princeton TV it boosted it up to another level of complexity,” Florek says.
An all-volunteer operation, Cafe Improv covers maintenance costs with its $2 admission fee. Florek says the original arrangement involved paying a weekly rental, but now the project gives its after-expenses year-end balance funds to the council.
Florek says one of the major expenses involves “lot of cables, electronic gizmos, and microphone stands. We had to purchase a video mixer. I like to say Cafe Improv comes from the magic of Chinese eBay.”
Additional income comes from DVD sales, including the Best Of compilations and other DVD sales, including recordings made from the master tape for performers. “It all adds up. We have a little pot of money to work with,” says Florek.
In order to avoid copyright or licensing fees, Florek says “We encourage original music, and if we had to we would go completely original.”
On a recent Saturday night on the stage — featuring the vintage “Cafe Improv” image curtain by former area artist Bethy Bacon — original music and material were prominent. That includes performances by Trenton-area performers Frank Pinto and Rich Ziegler, Highland Park singer and songwriter Neil Fein, Cari Joy of Lambertville, and Grover’s Mill Coffee House regulars Eva and Rodney Hargis.
“I like the idea that people who are not suited to playing in bars can play,” says Florek about Cafe Improv’s approach. “We have classical musicians and traditional Indian music to play. It’s a place where the audience can focus on the act.”
He says performers get involved through “word of mouth. And there is a website (www.cafeimprov.com). We tell people go to the website and there is a place to contact the scheduler. We have a scheduler who actually lives in Vermont and watches the show on TV. She got interested after finding the show on the internet.”
About the selection process, Florek says, “Honestly, it’s anyone who wants to play. Loud acts usually don’t play in the room. People should be respectful of everyone in the room. And nice acts get special treatment. Anybody in the community. We love when acts from Princeton High School come in. We have a good audience, and we attract good players as well.
He says while there is a core audience, “We never did any research. A number of them are people from town. Some are attached to performers. Others just wind up showing up. The show is also popular on cable TV, so people are aware of the show through the internet and cable TV. There have been times I’ve been putting up posters up downtown and people come up and say, ‘I like so and so.’”
They may also like the informality and the hospitality. “There is a little room for free snacks and soda. People can go back there to talk to one another. There are a couple of Meetup groups that meet at Cafe Improv. Sometimes people go back there and talk,” says Florek.
While the project has some very specific area roots, Florek himself is not from the area.” I grew up in Buffalo and live in Lambertville. I’ve been here since 1987.”
The 55-year-old variety show coordinator came to the area to work at Educational Testing Services. “I’m a principal research system specialist. We write software for research projects.”
The son of a teacher mother and trucking company office worker father, Florek has a computer science degree from the State University of New York.
But he also plays piano, as demonstrated by the recent Saturday jam session that followed the formal program. “I always played music and took lessons as a kid. I also play accordion, a little bit of bass, and do some bad drumming.”
In addition to playing at Cafe Improv and past involvement with Preston Harrison Raggedy Band, Florek is also involved with the weekly radio “Tom and Doug Show.” Created with musician Doug Gentile in Iowa, the digitally produced program originates from KHOI-FM in Iowa, is available on Pacifica Radio, and is heard on five stations.
“That show has been on the air for five years. Last year we started doing a TV show and that’s on Friday nights on Princeton TV. That’s been the focus of my musical output. It’s been writing and recording new songs for the radio show,” says Florek.
“I like pop music that has little rag-time tinge to it,” Florek says. “But when I play with Doug we play jazz but it has a little comedic angle to it.”
At the recent Saturday night show, the topic of Albert Music Hall in Waretown, New Jersey, comes up with Florek applauding the name of the venue that has been showcasing Pinelands and New Jersey talent for decades.
Florek says he played there with Raggedy Band. “They do it right. We’re lower budget then they are. We’re more of a shoestring.”
That includes the team of volunteers. “These are people who got interested and started to get active,” Florek says. “Some showed up on a regular basis and we started to ask them to do things. Some started suggesting jobs and said they would do it.”
That includes the monthly presence of announcer Mary Michaels, stage manager Kent Payne, sound engineer Shelly Lightman, and production video crewmembers Tom and Jean Imbrigotta, Larry Feldman, Debbie Pisacreta, and Kumar Sudhansh. Lynn and John Irving handle the front desk.
It’s this many-hands approach that helps address the ongoing challenges of running a live stage show and a television production. “There is always something that doesn’t come out right,” he says about equipment hums and other sound or visual related glitches. His remedy is to make several backup copies.
Other challenges are people behind the scenes and on the stage. The former is affected by seasonal habits, such as holidays and vacations. On the stage is another story. “Usually there are seven slots. Because we schedule in advance, it is a drag if two or three people don’t show up for that day.”
Yet as indicated by the past few months that has not been a problem, and performers of all levels are on board to perform. “A lot of time professionals like to come for the audience to get their name out,” Florek says, “And they get a produced video to show what their act is like. They can get a copy and use it for whatever purpose they want. Usually we’ll send it for $10 for postage. A lot of people use it for the YouTube pages. I enjoy it when people post their Cafe Improv clip.”
Something else Florek likes is a weekly prop that isn’t going to break the budget. “It’s a Stetson,” he says about the old hat he wears each week. “It was from some used place, Goodwill or something like that. We just started wearing it to look cool. Then it became expected. Then it became identified with the guys who were running things. So it became, ‘Just talk to the guy with the hat.’”
And if you do, you’ll hear Florek say two things about Cafe Improv. The first: “We feel the overall health of the community requires a healthy art scene and an artistic expression from the community itself.” The second is what he says monthly during the show: “Each Cafe Improv is a miracle, a true blue spectacle.”
But dig a bit deeper he says, “I find it to be a great way to reach out to artists. I always hated the process of looking for places to perform as a musician. Trying to get a bar to book you can be humiliating. I really wanted to create a place where people could feel that their artistic contributions were respected. It really makes me feel great to hear people tell us that playing at Cafe Improv makes them feel like a star, Some performers have told us that performing at Cafe Improv is the ‘highlight of their musical life.’ That is the kind of thing that we’re aiming for, and I get a lot of personal satisfaction from that.”
Cafe Improv, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Fourth Saturday of every month. Next show, May 26, 7 to 10 p.m. (with 6:50 p.m. warm up show). $2. www.cafeimprov.com