BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Most Wednesday nights, Marilyn Reitman, a former teacher who now works with Broward County senior citizens, lets loose at a dark piano bar in Northeast Miami.
“Hey, big spender!” she belts out, cheered on at Magnum Restaurant | Lounge by a throng of other novice performers — her new friends.
“We can make fools of ourselves and be supported,” Reitman says as she steps away from the piano.
“By other fools,” adds Henry Perez, a South Florida events photographer who also sings during Open-Mic Cabaret night there.
Magnum, open since 2002 at 709 NE 79th St., is one of several South Florida music venues that harken to an era when glamorous nightclubs, piano bars and cabarets filled the tourist strips of Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale.
Some of these nightspots, like the recently opened Cabaret South Beach, are strictly pro. Others, like Magnum, encourage everyday folks to share the spotlight.
“You get to sit around the piano and have some kind of conversation with the piano player and the other people around the piano. Or you can stand away and still enjoy it. With a setting that is very reminiscent of the ’50s, ’40s, whatever you want to call it,” says Magnum owner Jeffrey Landsman. “You need to understand the colors of the piano bar. You go to a piano bar in any city in the world, and you’ll find some kind of universal thread. What I’ve tried to do is create all the universal threads and put it in Magnum.
“There are booths created in a Ralph Lauren texture with the colors of red. Pictures everywhere that make you feel it’s a bordello in a sense. It’s a speakeasy in a sense. It’s a piano bar. It’s a gin bar. But we’re high-class at the same time,” says Landsman, a longtime South Florida restaurateur who made his name in the 1990s with an eponymous South Beach dining spot called Jeffrey’s.
When Landsman opened Magnum, he expected it to have a mostly gay clientele. That’s not exactly how it turned out.
“I have people of every age, every demographic come into Magnum or wherever I’m playing,” says pianist Bill Campbell, who performs several nights a week there. “It’s amazing the friendships that are made, the laughter, the tears.”
Most customers at the bar “want to be entertained,” Campbell says.
“Some of them want to forget their problems. Some want to feel that spotlight on the face, something I’ve felt all my life,” he says. “That’s what I want. I want them to feel what I’ve felt all my life.”
Perez said he and a friend, journalist Charlotte Libov, began performing together as “Sonny and Cher” during karaoke night at MOVA, a gay bar that happens to be in the old location of Jeffrey’s, 1625 Michigan Ave., off Lincoln Road.
“When that contest was over, we were hooked. I started venturing into singing by myself,” Perez says.
Another friend, gay nightlife promoter Edison Farrow of South Beach, suggested Perez try Magnum.
“I started singing with Bill Campbell. He coaches us how to sound better when we’re doing the songs,” Perez says. “I found this voice I didn’t know I had. It’s been amazing. I’ve never taken one singing lesson. ... I don’t know the key of D from the key of G. I just open my mouth and sing.”
Soon, Perez and Libov began bringing their South Beach pals (mostly gay men) to Magnum, where they sing Wednesday nights with new friends they’ve made.
“A piano bar feeds this wonderful feeling of conviviality. It’s such a wonderful social thing to do,” says Libov, who recently launched a Facebook group call Sing Out! Already the group has more than 320 members, most from South Florida.
“What happened at Magnum seemed to happen organically,” Libov says. “We were people who didn’t know each other but were in the same kind of circles. Suddenly their friends were singing, and their friends were saying why don’t you sing, too? Once you did it you were hooked. ... I think of it like skydiving, but you don’t have to jump out of a plane.”
Other Magnum regulars include David Kessler, Gustavo Briand, Rick "Jazzed," Antonio Gayoso, Hannah Lasky, and Sharon Levin-Plotkin.
Libov bemoans the closing in January of a South Beach music institution, the Van Dyke Café on Lincoln Road. “Van Dyke is gone,” Libov says. “On one hand we’re building this tremendous audience for [live entertainment]. But the places are moving, shrinking. It’s kind of like hitting a moving target.”
These New York-style bars often conjure images of older gay men singing show tunes around a piano. That’s exactly what you’ll find at Tropics, a Broward restaurant and lounge at 2000 Wilton Dr. in the heart of gay Wilton Manors.
“It’s gentlemen over 50 mainly,” Tropics owner Tony Dee says of his clientele. “What is the appeal? Enjoying music, liking to sing with a mike and letting people applaud, obviously.”
For 17 years, Dee co-owned Chardees, a popular Wilton Drive restaurant and lounge now occupied by Bill’s Filling Station, a gay bar.
Dee took over Tropics two years ago. Back then, the restaurant had a small piano bar, he says. “I enlarged it to make it a cabaret room.”
Three months ago, Farrow, the events promoter, opened an actual cabaret in the heart of gay South Beach.
“I was in the performing arts for 17 years,” Farrow says. “I first took a bartending course when I was 22. I started bartending at a Red Lobster in Long Island. They all kind of come together in owning a cabaret and promoting it. It all falls in line.”
Farrow moved to Miami Beach in 1996 and worked as a bartender at Twist, a gay bar on Washington Avenue. He moved to Los Angeles for two years, then came back to South Florida and Twist. In 2000, he launched SoBe Social Club for gay young professionals and tourists.
“It started as a get-together for friends. I never intended to be a promoter. It wound up being my career for 13 years,” he says.
Living in South Florida, Farrow says, he missed hanging out in New York-style lounges with first-rate live entertainment.
“Some say people don’t appreciate live music here, but I don't think they have had the opportunity to see it,” says Farrow, who on Nov. 28 opened The Cabaret South Beach, a lounge featuring musical bartenders and servers.
Farrow stresses The Cabaret is not a piano bar and that ordinary patrons are not encouraged to perform.
“Everyone who works there is a professional singer,” Farrow says. “Piano bars, you sit around and sing. Ours, you come and listen to a performance. It’s a very different thing.”
Farrow says he was inspired by several New York venues that had all-singing staffs.
“I liked the concept but want to give it our own Miami twist, a current version of what a cabaret would be,” he says. “Our venue, our servers and bartenders sing, some play the saxophone, piano, guitar. We throw in surprise acts — circus acts, aerialists, burlesque dancers — to round out the entertainment. In 2014, where would you see a fan dancer or a belly dancer?”
All performing servers must audition before getting the job.
“I am a singer; I’m one of the entertainers. I’m also a server. We sing and deliver drinks all at the same time,” says EnVee, a Cuban-born Coral Gables High grad with shocking red hair just breaking into show business. “This venue is amazing. It’s not just a venue to have fun, it’s a place to showcase our talent. It’s been such a positive experience.”
Farrow says EnVee has landed several singing gigs as a result of her work at The Cabaret, including an offer to perform at the Adrienne Arsht Center in an upcoming musical.
South Beach aerialist and dancer Manny Angels says he loves performing at The Cabaret because “it’s where I get to express myself.”
“I feel like people really value the art of my work compared to other big nightclubs where it’s just set after set,” says Angels, who hangs from the ceiling in sparkly beige tights. The audience is great. They engage in your performance.”
Farrow, who co-owns The Cabaret, 233 12th St., with Miami banker Ed DeCaso, says he’s proud of the diverse clientele they’ve quickly established.
“I love the fact that we have such a mixed audience. All races, all ages, all types. Locals and tourists,” Farrow says. “The only thing they have in common is they love live music and live performances.”
Jenny Martinez-Mendoza of Miami Beach said she and her husband Gabriel discovered The Cabaret “just walking by.”
“I love the vibe, I love the energy. I love the singers. It’s just amazing. I love the colors. I love the bartenders. I love the ambiance,” she says. “I love the red-haired lady. She’s amazing.”
South Beach property manager Troy Kurtz says he visits The Cabaret three or four times a week. He describes the live music scene before Farrow’s bar opened:
“Kind of like ... dead. Just stereotypical bars and clubs. I didn’t go out often,” Kurtz said. “There’s so much different energy here. ... It’s what South Beach needed. It’s a whole variety of people. Straight, gay, white, black. You name it.”
Says New York tourist Orlando Reece: “It’s a great space and great energy. There are some really great clubs in New York, but Miami has a different vibe.”
Magnum’s Landsman says he’s living the dream. “No matter what stage of my life — as a young man and even today — I’ve always loved the piano bar,” he says. “The piano bar has such a phenomenal energy. You can come around and enjoy the music and never be disappointed.”
IF YOU GO
Magnum Restaurant | Lounge: Open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. 709 NE 79th St., Miami. 305-757-3368.
The Cabaret South Beach: Open seven nights from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. $10 entertainment fee Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. 233 12th St., Miami Beach. 305-763-8799.
Tropics: Restaurant open Sundays through Thursdays 5:30 to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m. Piano bar is dark Mondays and Tuesdays. 2000 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors. 954-537-6000.