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 The Brancatelli File

joe LUSH LIFE

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

December 12, 2002 -- This is about once upon a time, when people thought business travel was the lush life, men wanted to dress like Sinatra or Ellington, women wanted violets for their fur and American popular music was, well, popular.

This is about hotels and nightclubs. About how you used to be able to check into a big hotel in most any major city in America and then wander down to its nightclub and see a real, live recording artist performing real, live music. This is about places called the Coconut Grove and the Persian Room. About once upon a time, when you could have been in the Fairmont in San Francisco and Tony Bennett would have been there, too, working downstairs, telling you where he had left his heart.

If you're younger than 50, you may have only fleeting, fond memories of when hotels had nightclubs. If you're not yet 40, you may have never actually been inside a hotel nightclub. And, if you're under 30, you probably have no idea hotel nightclubs ever existed.

But it's true, I swear it. All by itself, Hilton once operated nightclubs in 14 hotels. The Royal Box was a fixture at the Americana Hotels. All the Fairmont hotels had show rooms. And even today, a few hotel clubs remain: Most famously, in New York, at the Carlyle Hotel, there is Bobby Short holding court at the Café Carlyle and, across the lobby, Barbara Carroll playing an elegant, jazzy piano in Bemelmans Bar.

But hotel nightclubs are so rare now that when a new one actually opens, as it has at The Regency Hotel in New York, it is very big news. And hotel executives go to great lengths to explain that the club, Feinstein's at The Regency, is a quirk, not a trend.

"I love being back in the nightclub business," says Jonathan Tisch, chief executive of Loews Hotels, which manages The Regency and once operated the Americana hotels and their Royal Box nightclubs. "But I think this is a uniquely New York story. I don't see nightclubs" at any of Loews' 14 other properties.

Rosewood Hotels, which manages the Carlyle, is currently promoting an extraordinary Café Carlyle Classic package: For rates starting at $550, guests receive accommodations for two nights, two admissions to Bobby Short's show and a Bobby Short CD. But Rosewood says it has no plans to open nightclubs at any of its other luxury hotels. Neither does Fairmont, where president Chris J. Cahill thinks nightclubs are "romantic, but not practical" for the 41 hotels currently flying the Fairmont flag. Hilton has hundreds of hotels now, but not a single nightclub, not even at the Waldorf-Astoria, where the Empire Room once presented the brightest lights of American popular entertainment.

"I have considered opening a nightclub," says Waldorf general manager Eric Long. "In its day, the Empire Room was high visibility. I would love to have that component back. But the cost of entertainment is prohibitive."

Tisch of Loews agrees. "The days of performers being able to work a hotel nightclub circuit are gone," he says. "Besides, the kind of entertainment people gravitate to has changed. People accept the bar as entertainment now. You don't have to pay a performer."

And Michael Matthews, vice president of marketing for St. Regis Hotels, says it is "unlikely" that the legendary Maisonette nightclub at the group's flagship New York property would ever be revived. "Hotel nightclubs headlined great singing acts and comedians," he says. "They were wonderful, but they rarely made money."

Which explains why Feinstein's at The Regency, which opened in October, 1999, is unique. The 150-seat club actually shares space with the hotel's plush restaurant, 540 Park. After breakfast (The Regency claims the power-breakfast concept was invented here) and lunch are served, a crew comes in and transforms 540 Park into Feinstein's at The Regency. Out go the spacious dining tables and service stations and in come a stage, racks of lighting and audio equipment and café tables and chairs.

In fact, Feinstein's at The Regency doesn't even belong to Loews or The Regency. Tisch is partners in the endeavor with Michael Feinstein, the Grammy-nominated vocalist and pianist, and his personal manager, Allen Sviridoff. It is Sviridoff who handles the complicated, day-to-day tasks of running a nightclub.

"Michael had always wanted a club in New York," Sviridoff explains. "We approached Loews and everyone thought it was a good idea. From a hotel standpoint, you don't make money on a nightclub. But it's a great marketing tool."

For fans of great music and cabaret, Feinstein's at The Regency has been a godsend. Among the acts who have played the club since it opened: George Shearing, John Pizzarelli, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, Keely Smith, Ann Hampton Callaway, the late Rosemary Clooney, comedians Rita Rudner and The Smothers Brothers, and, of course, Feinstein himself. The club has also booked magicians and television entertainers such as Tony Danza and Susan Lucci, the soap-opera queen who has a cabaret act.

As a showplace, Feinstein's at The Regency is almost a nightclub cliché: Seating is tight, prices are high, service is erratic, the food is an afterthought and the acoustics and the site lines aren't exceptional. But Feinstein's offers what all great nightspots do: A place where performers can interact with their audiences, a venue where dedicated fans and even casual music lovers can be a part of a live musical event that is new and unique every evening.

"The reason why the club is a success is the intimacy," says Sviridoff, who still hopes there will be branches of Feinstein's in other major cities. "Audiences want this, they crave this. So do the performers. I'm convinced hotels should be doing nightclubs again."

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.