Tony Starlights Delivers the Sizzle
By Vanessa Anthony
Though the hey-day of the supper club has long since past, there are some that miss the relaxed refinement for which these places were known. Portland’s own crooner/entertainer extraordinaire, Tony Starlight (a.k.a. Brett Kucera) is just such a person. Longing for a venue to perform in which people could sit and leisurely enjoy entertainment while dining was what drove Kucera to open his alter-ego’s eponymous supper club and lounge. “There was nowhere to perform the kind of show that I want to perform. It’s all just clubs and rock venues that have dressing rooms, stages and lighting that are not appropriate for what I want to do,” explains Kucera, “Also, my audiences don’t want to stand and drink out of plastic cups or use dirty bathrooms.”
From the outside, this unassuming location on the triangular lot at NE 37th and Sandy near the I-84 on-ramp, doesn’t evoke thoughts of New York’s most famous supper club, the Copacabana, which helped to launch the careers of folks like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis- (no doubt where Kucera gathered some inspiration for his Tony Starlight act.) But walk through the doors of Tony Starlight’s Supper Club and Lounge and you will be rewarded with a glimpse of the golden era that enchanted us. The haunting timbre of dashing crooners whose gilded voices stepped from the silver screen and into the lounges of places like the Sands in Las Vegas.
Enter a time when entertainers did it all- acting, singing, dancing and even comedy. Where men wore spiffy suits, polished shoes and hats and women wore slips, hosiery and dresses made of chiffon and taffeta accessorized with gloves. It was a time when the drinks of the cocktail hour were martinis, gimlets and champagne cocktails and a man pulled out chairs and held doors open for his lady. “I’ll see a couple come in really casual the first time then the second time they come in they’ll put on something a little nicer and all of a sudden the husband sits up straight in his chair and he pulls the chair out for his wife and you begin to see people behave in a different way, “says Kucera. This is the magic of the aesthetic Tony Starlight’s conveys.
Thick velvety curtains shut out the modern world and since Starlight is a man on mission you won’t find video poker machines or the sickly glow of TV sets hanging in the dark corners of the room. What you will find is a large romantically darkened room lit glamorously with a shimmering blue glow. As you enter you make your way through the street level bar and lounge area taking in all of the vintage posters and memorabilia but your focus is almost instantly drawn upwards to the raised dining area and the beautifully lit and appointed stage.
On the stage, the shiny black lacquer of Starlight’s resident baby grand piano is resplendent, bathed in soft lavender light. The sweet plink of the keys being played consummately by 81-year-old Rich Jewett, who on this evening is plying the crowd with such sultry tunes as Sophisticated Lady (Ellington, Parrish & Mills), Stardust (Carmichael and Parrish), Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Ellington and Russell) and Moon River (Mercer and Mancini), setting the mood beautifully and delivering you from your digital age worries to the warm, gentle arms of yesteryear.
Opened in January 2007, Starlight’s has become a local hit, taking reservations sometimes months in advance and it’s no surprise as to why. Kucera keeps things as authentic as possible, even barring his staff from addressing him as anything but Tony or Mr. Starlight in order to keep the restaurant’s persona in tact. This is because he wants his restaurant to be a destination spot harkening back to the days of the Copa and the Sands, where folks could come for the whole evening- moving gracefully from cocktails to dinner and a show.
The bookshelves are stocked with selections on movies, music and stars of this bygone era. Including a wonderfully preserved collection of Time Life Books Swing Era albums with their accompanying books that talk about the time period.
Kucera’s joint is about more than supper it’s an event but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect a great meal at Starlights.
The menu here is just what you’d expect from a time unfettered by the low fat, no sugar, dairy-free, low carb and gluten-free craze we’ve become accustomed to. A place where you can sink your teeth into steak, pasta, seafood and a selection of veg-friendly options with names like Rosemary Clooney’s marinated hangar steak paired with a rich gorgonzola sauce or Chuck Webb’s Jumbo Prawns doused in butter, garlic and red pepper flakes and served over linguini- tastes like something the Chairman of the Board might belly up to. The appetizers (a selection of anti-pasto, fried calamari and baked brie await) and desserts (try the Tiramisu and the Swedish Cream with raspberry sauce) make for a fitting beginning and end to the evening.
Starlights also has a bar menu for those looking to spend a bit less but still feel the swanky vibe including their 2007 Hollywood Burger Battle winning patties, salads featuring prawns or BBQ chicken, Portobello and red pepper sandwich and grilled cheese and tomato soup.
But as perfect a scene as Kucera and his staff have set and as delectable as the food and cocktails are (there’s a decent wine and beer selection as well) the real reason to come to Tony Starlight’s is, of course, the entertainment and no one does it better than Tony himself.
With an act backed by a consummate jazz trio (Reece Marshburn on piano, Russell Gores on drums and Arick Gouwerok on stand up bass) Tony swings with the best of ‘em crooning into an old Elvis style mic and working pop culture references from the 20’s to the 80’s into his act. It’s a performance that weaves audience participation, comedy, standards and pop culture into a show that you can’t take your eyes off of.
Starlight’s unabashed bravado and charming knack for impeccable customer service even lead him to take a patron’s car keys from her during his performance so that he can run outside and turn the lights on her vehicle off. He never stops singing, carrying his mic with him to her car and back.
A master of the parody, that could rival the likes of Weird Al Yankovic, in Tony’s adept hands Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” becomes the tale of a tattooed teen with a Mohawk called “I’ve Got Ink All Over My Skin”, “The Girl from Ipanema” is thusly transformed into the “Girl with Emphysema” and interwoven with the theme from Star Trek and there is even a reenactment of High-Noon with a 60 year old audience member out on the town for his birthday.
Nothing is off-limits as Tony wades into generation Xer territory singing selections from the Muppets, Schoolhouse Rock and Mister Roger’s neighborhood but he really gets the crowd going with a tribute to 80’s TV show, Solid Gold (SG). It is here that Starlight shows his skill for costume change (or should I say wig change) and impersonation with a reenactment of SG’s music countdown.
A short disappearing act and Tony returns clad in a blue ruffle shirt, unbuttoned halfway, paired with a dark blue brocade jacket and black slacks. Armed with his ice bucket and what appears to be a carafe of scotch, he prepares for the evening’s farewell as Dean Martin. Peppered with alcoholic humor that pokes fun at Martin’s image, Starlight parodies Pennies From Heaven (Bourbon from Heaven) and When You’re Smilin’ (When You’re Drinkin’.) When he’s done the audience has to be told the show’s over as we all sit in rapt attention waiting for more.
Which only goes to prove that Tony knows show business and the first rule of show business is: “Always leave ‘em wanting more.”
3728 NE Sandy Blvd
Portland, OR 97232
For reservations call: 503-517-8584
Hours: Tues-Thu 5pm-12am, Fri-Sat 5pm-1am, Sun-Mon Closed
21 & Over (except Wednesdays from 5pm-9pm)
Cover charge: $5-$10 average