In a long, free-flowing conversation, Robert Kotonly, co-owner of New Hope’s Rrazz Room, never uses the word “cabaret.” Not once. He says “nightclub.”
Kotonly grew up in Union, New Jersey, thinking of the great nightclubs of Manhattan — the Blue Angel, Persian Room, Copacabana — that flourished before his time. He was impressed with the elegance and sophistication of such rooms and longed to re-create them on some scale for a modern audience.
His opportunity came, as opportunities often do, in an unexpected way. He and his partner in life and business, Rory Paull, graduated from the University of Miami, where they met, and came to New York City, closer to both of their hometowns, to open a travel agency. “This was in the day before the Internet changed the travel industry,” Kotonly says. “It was so long ago, airlines gave agents commissions on sales.”
Kotonly and Paull specialized in handling all travel arrangements for businesses. One of their clients was Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater, and one of its managers was David Rodriguez. “David was leaving the Apollo to start his own club in Bergen County. In any business, you get to know your clients, and he and I had had several chats about nightclubs and performers. Although the Rrazz Room features a lot of performers who sing songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook, my personal taste runs to jazz and rhythm and blues. David asked if, perhaps, Rory and I would like to recommend a performer or even produce a show.
“I had always wanted to do that, to produce a nightclub show. Ironically, when it came to doing it, we veered away from music altogether and produced an evening of comedy and sketches with the husband-and-wife team, Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna.”
The Bergen County experience triggered something in Kotonly and Paull. They began concentrating less on corporate travel and more on show business. Their main job was promoting large shows that played in convention centers and medium-to-large theaters. By doing this, they learned a lot about the various business aspects of the entertainment industry. They also met many performers and formed relationships with some of them.
New Hope’s Rrazz Room is among the latest of the clubs Kotonly and Paull have created. They opened it in November, 2013, at the Ramada Inn on Lower York Road (Route 202). The room they use housed two previous boites, the Cosmopolitan Room and Bob Egan’s, an extension of the cabaret entertainment Egan initiated at Odette’s — a venue that put New Hope on the cabaret map.
At the time Kotonly and Paull made their arrangement with the Ramada, the 130-seat room has been unused for almost two years. Being in a hotel, which can provide services to go beyond producing a nightclub show, the room fit the model Kotonly and Paull established successfully in San Francisco, where they operated clubs for 10 years before coming to New Hope. Kotonly notes growing pains and lessons learned since opening the New Hope Rrazz Room, but after almost two seasons, he says he sees the pattern necessary for success and growth. Since inaugurating their room in New Hope, the partners have opened Rrazz Rooms in Miami and Coral Springs, Florida. Kotonly says having the three Rrazz Rooms makes it easier to book talent because it provides an opportunity for an entertainer to be contracted for three venues.
Upcoming acts in New Hope include singer-songwriter Nellie McKay on Friday, April 10; veteran magician the Amazing Kreskin on Saturday, April 11; Tony winner Beth Leavel (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) on Sunday, April 19; Tony winner Randy Graff (“City of Angels”) on Saturday, April 25; Roslyn Kind, a.k.a. Barbra Streisand’s sister, on Thursday, April 30; pop and jazz singer Suede on Friday, May 1; and comedian Vickie Shaw on Saturday, May 2. Bob Egan continues his well-known talent showcases several times a year. In fairness to Kind, I can say from personal experience she is a wonderfully expressive singer in her own right and deserves to be judged on her own merits.
Kotonly says he is aware now of the tastes of the New Hope audience and realizes that the best approach is to book the Rrazz Room primarily on weekends, when the local population is enhanced by New Yorkers and others on retreat. He adds he and Paull have plans to expand the number and types of acts to be more like the model that worked so well for them in San Francisco.
Producing and promoting concerts took Kotonly and Paull to many cities, but eventually they settled in San Francisco, a city that appealed to them for its size, beauty, and openness. “San Francisco was a great live and to produce concerts. It also had a tradition of sustaining nightclubs. Singers and jazz artists appeared regularly in clubs of the kind that piqued my interest during my teen years. The most famous of the venues was the Plush Room in the Empire Hotel.”
Of the Plush Room and his experience there Kotonly says it “was grand in the way I always imagined a nightclub to be. San Francisco has a lot of local talent, everything from singers in the Rosemary Clooney mold, like Wesla Whitfield, to comics, jazz, and rhythm and blues artists. By 2005 Rory and I had established ourselves as producers. We had learned to deal with agents, managers, vendors, food and beverage people, and the various parts of show business that are separate, but more complicated, than the performance you see on the stage. The Empire Plush Room needed new management, and we were asked if we’d be interested. The answer was a resounding yes. For one thing, the Plush Room had a rich history. It started as speakeasy in the 1920s. It also fulfilled our ambition to run a live entertainment venue.”
Kotonly adds that he and Paull “switched gears from large auditoriums to an intimate club easily. The next step was making the Plush Room a more versatile venue. Rory and I changed the mix in terms of the acts we booked. In addition to the great singers of Gershwin and Porter, we added rhythm and blues performers such as Ashford and Simpson and brought in novelty acts such as Varla Jean Merman and Lypsinka. Our formula was wildly successful, and eventually we ran three clubs in San Francisco. Our second was the Rrazz Room, the two “R’s” in the name coming from our names, Robert and Rory. Starting the Rrazz Room was a necessity. Another hotel chain bought the Empire in 2008 and gutted the Plush Room. We moved to bigger room with better, more modern sound and lighting at the Nikko Hotel.”
Kotonly and Paull moved to San Francisco in 2003, and after 10 years, Kotonly says, they each wanted to move back east, closer to their families and their roots. “You can have a great feeling for a city, but in times, things change. Doing business in Northern California became more complex. San Francisco has the highest minimum wage in the country. Many in Northern Californian behave as if they’re doing you a favor by working for you. As wonderful a city as San Francisco is, and as many regulars as we had at the Rrazz Room, we needed to draw more from towns on the other side of the bay, or to the south, like Palo Alto. These factors all influenced the timing of Rory’s and my desire to move closer to New Jersey, where I grew up. In looking at possibilities, New Hope became increasingly attractive. For one thing, it had a vacant room that was established as a nightclub. For another, Bob Egan and others had established a clientele that looked for live nightclub entertainment. We figured we had a handsome room, with good sound and lighting and a base of audience support. We also knew the performers liked playing in New Hope, which would be an advantage for booking.”
“Hotels are always a good partner for a nightclub venue,” Kotonly continues. “The Ramada Inn provides food and beverage for our audience. They also have rooms where our performers can stay and change from their street clothes to the outfits they wear on stage. Rory and I book the entertainment, including handling all business arrangements with the talent. We also hire and supervise the wait staff and others who assist in running the room. The menu is decided by the Ramada Inn, but we constantly study our audience’s reaction to it and make recommendations based on what we hear from our staff. One or both of us is usually present for most shows, so we are in close touch with our audience.”
Realizing that the situation would be different in a small town versus a big West Coast city, Kotonly says, “We have learned a lot about New Hope audiences in the last year-and-a-half. We definitely have a core audience, but it became clear that it was wiser to schedule shows for weekends than to try to book solid weeks as we did in San Francisco. It’s a matter of audience development.”
That includes building a wider base and different audiences for different kinds of music, “I am partial to a mix of musical styles. I like it when one day, you can present a sophisticated nightclub singer in the Rosemary Clooney mold, and the next day you’re featuring a down and dirty blues artist or a great rhythm and blues talent. Our San Francisco clubs thrived on this kind of variety. Entertainers also like knowing a room will welcome and accommodate them based on their talent and ability to entertain rather than a particular genre. Our intention is to build that kind of venue and that kind of loyalty in New Hope.”
Then there’s the magic that attracted the producers in the first place. “The beauty of a nightclub is the proximity of the entertainer to the audience. The room is intimate, and reaction is immediate. The entertainer can see the people. Often, members of the audience speak to the performer after the shows. It’s all so personal and close,” says Kotonly.
Rrazz Room at the Ramada New Hope, 6426 Lower York Road, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Tickets vary by performance, $15 to $75. Two item (food or drink) minimum per person. www.therrazzroom.com or 888-596-1027.