Live music is not easy to find these days when eating out. Busy schedules, commuter traffic, are weighed against the convenience of microwave dinners and movies on Internet-cable TV, creature comforts entice people to stay in for the night.
Yet, San Francisco entertainer Kathy Holly is determined to bring live music shows back to San Francisco’s provincial night life.
Holly is a native San Franciscan. She has seen the City change over the decades from a thriving center of culture to a high-tech hub during the dot-com boom.
Like many of the singers/performers in the local live entertainment/cabaret scene Holly works constantly to find suitable venues to perform and feature her group The Supper Club Six and other singers.
“I have always loved performing before a live audience, said Holly as she talked to Digital Journal News while preparing for a Valentine’s Day dinner show on Feb. 7 at Villa d’Este Italian Restaurant.
Villa d’Este is a popular spot for locals in San Francisco’s Lakeside Village of the West Portal District – not far from Stern Grove.
For Holly, Dorothy Donell, Bill Ramos, Marilyn Cooney, Kat Fitzgerald & Debra Mugnani who make up The Supper Club Six, singing show tunes and “the standards” is what draws them together. “The music we like to sing is what our audiences enjoy, lots of happy memories of times that shaped the generations and the nation,” said Holly.
Holly and her two groups, Supper Club Six and "Uptown Singers!" perform at restaurants in the City and around SF Bay Area to share the delight of music from Broadway, Opera, Jazz and the Big Band Era. While they perform a variety of music, the Jazz standards and the Great American Songbook era is what they do best and most.
“My group "Uptown Singers!" sings Opera,” noted Holly. The Supper Club Six sings show tunes and standards.
Local sheet music archivist Bob Grimes, explained, when people say, “'mostly standards' or from the 'Great American Songbook,' they are referring to that era from the 1920’s to about 1960,” he said.
Grimes, along with Bob Johnson and retired record store owner Randy Wallace are among the sparse-remaining local collectors of that era. Each spoke glowingly of those days and how much that time in American music had an impact upon the culture.
In chatting with each of the six singers they too all made reference to that era and style of music.
“Music appreciation, I think is not really taught much in school these days and so younger generations know nothing of this type of music,” said Donell.
Donell, who is also a member of "Uptown Singers!" relishes opera and lends her high-octave range to the classic arias and ballads. Ramos who has been performing since his teens likes to sing mostly “the standards;” songs made famous by Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
Cooney writes songs of her own and produced a CD. “Kathy is so gracious to us all, we enjoy working with her,” she said. Cooney, Fitzgerald and others were pleased that Holly invited them to join her endeavor. All of the six singers commented how much Holly works to promote live performance shows.
A holiday on the calendar is an opportunity to produce a show. Holly is producing a lunch and show for St. Patrick's Day at the Irish Cultural Center a few blocks from Ocean Beach. This event is part of her Lunchtime Cabaret Series that is ongoing. There is a different theme every month. "It seems like Kathy is always coming up with ideas for a show," said Cooney.
Fitzgerald agreed as she sang “Night and Day” a favorite by Cole Porter reminiscent of the movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.
Old movies are the perfect reference when Holly and her group introduce a song. There are many of the songs from the Great American Songbook era are featured in countless movies.
Mugnani, who looks a lot like actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus from the TV show ‘Seinfeld’ is also a native San Franciscan. And, like Holly wants to build a rapport with the audience that creates a sense of community through songs.
Mugnani organizes the annual SF Native Jamboree. Her signing with Supper Club Six allows her to make more contacts for the annual event. Holly sees the jamboree as an outreach for her music production endeavors.
Many people don't realize that San Francisco has been a center for music throughout the decades, starting with the Gold Rush and continuing on to the present.
With the backup of musicians like pianist Dave Miotke and Chris Amberger on bass the entire restaurant becomes a stage and patrons are enveloped in live music as they dine.
Miotki and Amberger appear regularly with the group at The Villa D'Este. Miotke, who also doubles on accordion, has worked with Holly's shows at other venues such as Sinbad’s at Pier 2 along the Embarcadero – waterfront, Caesar’s Italian Restaurant in SF’s popular North Beach, and Restaurant Jeanne d’Arc near Nob Hill to name a few.
Yet Holly seems most at home in restaurants like Villa d’Este. It lends itself to the supper club experience with its art-deco ambiance. “This is how a supper club is supposed to look and feel like,” said Holly.
Interestingly, while supper clubs were very popular in the Mid-west region, the very first one originated in California, in Beverly Hills to be exact. According to Jim Draeger of the Wisconsin Historical Society of Madison, the first supper club was established by Milwaukee native Lawrence Frank.
Frank's menu included prime rib, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, sweet peas, and Yorkshire pudding, which became staples in the established supper club menu. Frank also introduced the "doggie bag" to the dining-out culture. Supper clubs soon became destinations and roadside attractions across the nation.
Villa d’Este may not have prime rib on its menu but does offer a variety of entrees and Italian dishes to choose from. Villa d’Este is considered by many others besides Holly to be the best place for a supper club venue.
Ramon Oropeza loves his restaurant that he and his family have owned and operated for 30 years. Oropeza strives to create a dining atmosphere with full course dinners, hors d'oeuvres, select wines, cocktails and a bar.
Over two years ago, Holly had the idea of forming a group just for performances at spots like Villa d’Este on a monthly basis. “It took me awhile to convince Ramon that having a supper club group at his restaurant would be a welcoming idea,” she said.
Restaurant patrons like Andrew Bela Newman and his wife Katie who got up and danced a few times during the Valentines’ Day performance remember the supper clubs of years gone by. Supper clubs were a place to dine on fine food and listen to the best music and dance the night away.
"San Francisco used to have so many places to have dinner and dance," said retired school teacher/dancer, Rachelle Reyes, she like the Newman's and others are well acquainted with Holly and her music.
In addition to performing with her group, the "Uptown Singers!" in the Best of Opera to Broadway and Cabaret Holly likes to features other groups like the Grant Ave Follies from Chinatown's Forbidden City Nightclub era and "The Blenders" who pay tribute to the McGuire Sisters and the acapella group "Sounds of Rhythm."
Many in the neighborhood and around town consider the shows that Holly produces a rare opportunity to experience affordable live entertainment.
"Kathy has certainly become a force in the local cabaret community when producing a show," said Johnson. He noted that producing a show is not easy.
"Often the singer has to pay out of pocket for many of the expenses to get a show up on stage, said fellow local singer Linda Kosut. She agreed with Johnson as Kosut knows all too well how difficult it can be. Venues are disappearing in a very high-cost city like San Francisco.
"While it can become a financial hardship, that by itself is a testimony to the passion many singers have for performing," said Kosut.
San Francisco does have about seven or more places that call themselves “supper clubs.” Yet there are fewer and fewer affordable venues around town for live music performance shows. “Octavia Lounge - along Market Street at Octavia was a neat place to go for open microphone sets on Sunday nights,” said Cooney. But it closed and became a DJ bar.
“That’s what many younger groups think live music is today, a DJ or MC presenting prerecorded music,” said Johnson. Wallace agreed as he said, “San Francisco used to be dotted with many places where people would go for live music and oh what gorgeous music it was, the melodies were uplifting and the lyrics made sense.”
Ann and John Hunt who performed a few songs as guests for the Valentines’ Day show at Villa d’Este agreed.
Holly enjoys sharing the spotlight with other singers, comedians or musicians as guests for her shows.
They remembered those days. “Every hotel had an orchestra or band and most cocktail lounges had a musician or a piano player,” said Ann.
Some of the singers and those in the audience talked about the TV show "Glee" and how on some episodes the characters will present songs from musicals.
Yet some who treasure the Big Band and American Songbook era fear that much of the appreciation for that music is lost to contemporary trends like rap and hip-hop styles of music.
“I heard Enrico’s in North Beach closed” said Holly with a sigh of disappointment in her voice.
She hopes that her production endeavors with The Supper Club Six at Villa D'Este and other places will revive live entertainment performances in San Francisco and help it to flourish once again.
For more info about Kathy Holly and her productions featuring groups such as The Supper Club Six and other entertainers visit: www.kathyholly.com