Friday, May 30, 2014

Robert Kotonly and Rory Paull: Casting a Wider Net in Cabaret

For five years, the Rrazz Room at Hotel Nikko was San Francisco's premiere venue for established and emerging cabaret artists. For its owners, life and business partners Rory Paull and Robert Kotonly, the Rrazz Room (now in New Hope, Pennsylvania and Coral Springs, Florida), was and is an exhilarating, exhausting labor of love.
I have known Robert and Rory for many years.
Although, we have never worked together, I have the utmost respect for what they have done for cabaret and are continuing to do.

They, not too long ago, took over Bob Egan's Cosmopolitan Room in New Hope, PA.
Tonight (May 30th, 2014), legendary vocalist Julie Budd opens for the weekend. This is in celebration of her latest album, They Wrote The Songs.
Robert and Rory share a moment on the stage of The Rrazz Room in San Francisco

Last night, Robert was rushing to be at Nicole Henry's show but he managed to squeeze me in to discuss where he has been, where he is, and where he is headed.

Today, I celebrate Robert Kotonly (as well as Rory Paull) and their bodies of "worth".
I began the interview by asking Robert if he was where he THOUGHT he would be at this point in his life.
Producer Ken Henderson, Robert Kotonly of Rrazz Productions, Joe Roland and friend Bruce.
He thinks that if anyone is asked that question (although we are focused on him today), he doesn't think there is one person who could tell me, "I am EXACTLY where I thought I would be destined to be."
Sometimes, it's better; sometimes, it's worse. Sometimes the minute or the day is good or bad and/or anything in between.
To answer my question, he is satisfied where he is in his life.
Rory Paull and Robert with Joyce DeWitt  (Photo: Steven Underhill)

Is he where he thought he would be, he doesn't know.
He considers that a tough question.

Robert and his partner Rory have always been good in business.
For the most part, he knew he was going to run some kind of business at some point in his life. They ARE doing that and they are doing it well. He is proud of the work they have accomplished. He is still doing what he loves to do. That's presenting the best entertainment in the most intimate and well thought out venues. They have been doing this since 2000.

Prior to that, they had other incarnations of "Robert and Rory" in business. For the sake of my blog and its followers, today we are going to focus on the entertainment portion of their careers.
Pia Zadora with Robert Kotonly and Rory  (© Pat Johnson)
He is very happy to still be doing after all this time what he loves to do.
When Robert and Rory graduated school, they had a travel agency. That was at a time in which people actually used travel agencies! This was before the internet and the different ways that people now book travel. It was a great business until 2001, when 9/11 happened. 9/11 combined with the internet all but undermined the way that travel agencies operated. It got harder and harder to do what they were doing, but they always had a general interest in entertainment, especially Robert. They had some clients that they handled at their travel agency. One of the corporate clients they handled was the world famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
with Sally Kellerman
The gentlemen who was running the theatre at the time became very friendly with Robert and Rory.
He moved on to the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, New Jersey.He always knew that Robert wanted to be a concert promoter and be in the business.He suggested to Robert that he try and do a show with his guidance. This would be a safe way to see how it goes. He might love it. He might not.

The first show they did was at Bergen PAC in 2000 was Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna's show, If You Ever Leave Me, I'm Going With You, which eventually went to Broadway.
Front row: Denise Perrier, Lady Mem'Fis, Faith Winthrop, Linda Kosut, Robert Kotonly, Bill Lanese, Clairdee. Back row: Conrad Frank (aka Katya Smirnoff Skyy), Jonathan Poretz, Nicole Henry and Robert Vickers (aka Bud E Luv).
Robert and Rory were investors. They sold out not one, but TWO shows. Robert admits to their naivete at the time. They did two shows back to back, a three PM and a seven PM show on a Saturday! They worked so hard for the success of that show. Robert doesn't believe there was one thing they neglected to promote that show.
Due to that home run right out of the gate, they thought that it was ALL going to be like  that...always great and always wonderful.
Rory Paull (far right with glasses); Wesla Whitfield (behind table) and Robert Kotonly (with tie) at the Plush Room in San Francisco on March 7, 2007.

Anyone in show business will tell you much of it is wonderful, but not every day.
That is how they got into the business. That led to large concerts in major theatres. They decided to go to San Francisco. They had an opportunity to book the Bea Arthur's, And Then There's Bea, prior to its Broadway run, (Renamed Bea Arthur on Broadway - Just Between Friends). They presented it at the Alcazar Theatre for two weeks. They did very well. Not only did they have her there, they also presented Catskills on Broadway with with original stars Freddie Roman, Mal Z. Lawrence and Dick Capri reprising their Broadway roles. They also presented Donna McKechnie for a week. 

They called the series, Summer at The Alcazar. Robert and Rory spent the entire summer in San Francisco and became friends with the then owners of The York Hotel where the famed Plush Room was housed with a huge history. They just didn't know if they wished to continue or not. The owners honestly told Robert and Rory that they didn't know anything about running a cabaret room.
Robert and Rory had the connections AND the enthusiasm to make it work. They were offered the room to book. That was how it started in San Francisco. They ran The Plush Room very successfully for three years and THEN, the hotel was sold.
The new owners wanted to turn The Plush Room into a restaurant. In order for them to raise the rating on the hotel, (this happens in the hotel world), a restaurant must be included. Robert and Rory had worked hard for three years and were not ready to shuck it all. They decided to take their skills to the next level. The next level was that they needed better capacity, a better sound system, better lights, and something closer to Union Square, if possible.
That's what they did.
They moved from the Plush Room to the newly formed Rrazz Room where they were for five years. Then they moved on to Live at the Rrazz. The reasons they moved from the Rrazz Room was not from a lack of success.
The space at the Rrazz Room had noise issues. There was sound leakage in the building.
The forces of the Universe were telling them it just wasn't working. It was just getting too hard.
That was the West Coast Chapter of their lives.
They returned home to the East Coast. They wanted to regroup and they had a lot of connections with theatres and venues.
Two places happened for them. They knew of Bob Egan's Cosmopolitan Room in New Hope. It was originally run by Bob, them someone else, and then it was dormant for a while.

They contacted the owners of the hotel, told them who they were, and that they were returning to the East Coast. Robert and Rory expressed interest in booking the space. In addition to this, Robert and Rory were dealing with the Coral Springs Center for the Arts in Coral Springs, Florida. Again, they were friends with the director of the theatre.
with Joy Behar and Judy Gold
He told them he knew about all they were doing, he had this beautiful space, but he didn't know if it would fit their needs.
He asked them to go down and see it which they did. It is the Coral Springs Museum of Art space.
It is an exquisitely beautiful space. They are now booking a season of talent in that space and they are converting this elegant museum into an elegant nightclub at night. Their last season ran December to April.  
They did one show a month for the entire season. When they return, they are planning on doubling or tripling that schedule. They are continuing! They keep reinventing themselves to do what they love.
 with Marilu Henner at 2nd Annual RRAZZiversary Gala Celebration and Benefit For Haiti Relief (Photo Credit: Pat Johnson)
They are experts at branding. They have held on to the name Rrazz since they started. Rory is Robert's partner. Obviously, both names start with the letter "R". They combined that with the word "jazz", mulled it around in their heads, and voila! They opened the Rrazz Room under Rrazz productions and the rest is history.
One of the things that they do really well is getting a real gauge of where to best place the talent they book. They certainly get to know what talent will work in each market. Each market is a completely separate situation. Each one has its own personality. 
What works one place may or may not work someplace else. There ARE certain people that are close to Robert's heart and he will try and get them booked.
There are many things that Robert loves about what he does. He says that he was the kind of kid who liked to dress up a bit and go out. He likes being with people. Running a nightclub, for Robert, is almost like hosting a party every night, especially when there are repeat customers.
with Petula Clark. Photo: Courtesy Rrazz
When they left San Francisco, part of his heart stayed behind. Not just because of everything they had done their professionally, but also, more importantly, because of the people they had become friends with. What Robert and Rory did mattered in those people's lives.
Robert is really proud of that and that is the main inspiration to continue.
Once there was a child in the audience in the Rrazz Room in San Francisco who was very ill.
His father wanted to take him to see an entertainer that he had loved so much as a kid. That entertainer was Davey Jones from The Monkeys.
Part of the nightclub experience that Robert loves so much is the intimacy of it.
They introduced Davey to the father and the son.
with performer CeCe Peniston. Photo: Courtesy Rrazz

Davey had them come up on stage with him and play the bongos as he played The Monkeys' hits. It was so touching and so wonderful and it made Robert feel so proud.
They had a hand in making this kid and this father having an experience that they will remember for a very long time. Those are the kind of things that make Robert really excited about what they do. Even people coming in from a bad day at work or a bad day in general and they forget about all that when they come into their space, it means the world.
There is a flip side as well. Sometimes, 150 % of one's energy  has been put into a project and it is not what it was expected to be, sometimes for one reason or another, it doesn't work. Educated guesses have been made as to why something that you thought was going to be "through the roof" is not.
That, to Robert, is a little upsetting because he likes to be in control of the situation.
There are always extenuating circumstances, however, that sometimes takes away that control.
Robert came into this business in 2000, which doesn't feel that long ago, but when you look back, a lot has changed since then. When he and Rory came into The Plush Room and certainly The Rrazz Room, what they did that was instrumental in no small way, was open the window to the types of entertainers that were now being accepted into  major clubs in the country. Diversity has certainly opened its doors in programming in some of these high end rooms. Robert does believe the Rrazz Room and every reincarnation since they have started has contributed to that.
They continuously pushed the envelope. His time is so new in New Hope that only time will tell of their success.

There are some artists that they have yet to book but they are very much in the same process of building success.
There were some major artists they booked in San Francisco that had been playing in San Francisco forever, but not in major venues.
Maybe they never would have had it not been for Robert booking acts like Vesta Williams, Miki Howard, The Blue Notes, Jerry Butler; these artists were not working in San Francisco or in most major nightclubs in the country.
They should have been. Of course, these venues book talent on how they can sell.
Sometimes people forget that there are other forms of entertainment that will work in the same space that is, historically, for a certain genre of entertainment. Robert and Rory were one of the first major clubs to book artists like Varla Jean Merman, and artists like Lypsinka, and The Kinsey Sicks and artists like that. Now, Robert sees, Thank God, because it's the right way, these artists are playing major clubs. There was definitely a line in the sand before. Robert and Rory certainly helped. That was the goal. That line is not so straight anymore. That line has kind of fizzled.
with Mary Wilson  (© Pat Johnson)
There is not so much of that line anymore. Entertainment has changed and it has become, kind of, more diversified and that is a great thing.

The greatest lesson that Robert has learned in this business is not to take things so personal. He admits that it is his personality to do so and sometimes "you just have to let it be."
That is not only in entertainment, but in everything. Being in this business, EVERYONE has to be a little thick skinned. 
When Robert came into it, looking back, he admits that he was very naive and very vulnerable. All of those things that could get you in trouble down the line. He says he has to become a little harder, not in a bad way, but in a realistic way. What Robert's expectations are are not necessarily what someone else's expectations are no matter what the situation is.
Sometimes just let things be and not try to change them or make them better. Sometimes, they are what they are.
Robert and Rory are very excited about where they stand right now. They built something very special in San Francisco. He still gets emails from patrons and agents and artists who miss what they did there. That is all great and something to be proud of.
They are not resting on their laurels. What they desire to do is build something just as special in Coral Springs and New Hope and continue to just look forward. That is what is so wonderful about the world of entertainment. Every day, every month, every year there is new and exciting artists that need to be seen. If Robert and Rory can put beautiful new venues that respect that in cities that don't have that now, then he is really excited about that.
He is open to all possibilities. Something tells me that is going to happen!
with Kris Koskela, Lisa Bautista (@jfmpresents) @TaylorRHicks
For More Info, please visit The Rrazz Room Website
Thank you Robert Kotonly and Rory Paull for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!
With grateful XOXOXs ,

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1 comment:

  1. What a Great Story about the RAZZZ Room! I loved it!