Burgers to Broadway

The other day, the family and I decided to play tourist (this IS New York City, after all). We had reservations to be in the studio audience for a taping of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert…which, if you’ve ever done something like that, you know it means a series of standing in line waiting for the next opportunity to stand in line, even when you have a reservation…but I digress…

Anywho, after we’d checked in and gotten our tickets, we had some time before we had to come back and stand in line again–so we decided to have lunch, tourist style. We came across this historic 50s-style retaurant, Ellen’s Stardust Diner, right on the edge of the theater district on Broadway, and decided to try it.

The food? Meh. The cost? Ouch. The experience? Inspiring.

It turns out that in this diner, while guests have their meal, the wait staff take turns singing for them. It’s not entirely unlike karaoke–except the guests don’t sing, the staff does. And the singing is much, much better.

Okay, so it’s completely unlike karaoke, except for the singing part. But again, I digress (what is WRONG with me?)…

You see, for many years, Ellen’s Stardust Diner has had a storied legacy of propelling new Broadway singers into their careers, to the point that it is an honor to be part of the wait staff, and singers must audition in order to be hired. The restaurant is even set up so the wait staff can sing in an elevated “center stage” area, complete with a runway between the booths. This diner has become a coveted launching pad, a relatively safe place for these singers to hone their performance chops while paying the rent. Thus, throughout the course of our lunch, singer after singer (including our own waiter) took a turn at the mic, performing renditions of everything from well-known show tunes to operatic arias to Florence + the Machine.

Now, for the majority of the restaurant patrons, this was just part of the touristy gimmick of the diner–a fun thing to do for lunch. But for us three creative types sitting in the corner, the played out much differently. The Wild One fought back the tears (and failed at one point). The Director said it “hit him in the feels.” For we could feel the struggle of these artists perhaps more than most.

The Grind

This is the part of the artist’s career we could not-so-lovingly refer to as “the grind”–the constant pushing and plugging away at one’s craft, fighting off the enemies of screaming self-doubt and public indifference while attempting to pursue the dream. None of these waiters and waitresses actually wanted to be waiting tables for a living–they wanted to be on stage, or on the set, or on the road. To them, their turn at the mic was one more chance to show the world what they could do, and hopefully to be discovered. And so each one gave it their all to see if they could win over the talking, dining tourists who were effectively taking them for granted.

As a musician, I know what that feels like. I know what it is to play music in a room where people aren’t really paying attention, because they didn’t really come to listen to you–they came for lunch, or coffee, or just to chat. You know in your head that this is the case, but it still hurts a little when they aren’t listening, or when they’re talking over the most important part of your song. I know the pain because I’ve felt it myself, and I’ve seen it in the eyes of so many of my friends in the music scene who are in the midst of the grind, playing gig after gig in the bars and coffee shops, paying their dues day after day, night after night. This is the part of the career that isn’t fun, but for a performing artist, it can be incredibly useful. For if you can win over a group of people who aren’t actually there to see you perform, you know that you’ve upped your game.

For some of the singers, you could tell it was just the beginning of their struggle. One even stopped in mid-song to admit her song wasn’t working, and started over with something else. A couple of others–you could just tell it was only a matter of time before they moved on to something much bigger. They were ready.

But perhaps just as moving as watching these singers perform and feeling their shared struggle was the support being shown them by the restaurant. At one point between the performances, the restaurant manager came to the mic and spoke glowingly of the wait staff. She told us about how many times their wait staff had completely turned over as singers had gone on to get hired for major productions, and how proud Ellen’s Diner was to be part of helping these rising stars go “from burgers to Broadway.” She talked about the grind, talked about how these singing waiters and waitresses were using their money to pay for rent, and singing lessons, and dance lessons. And then she pulled out a bucket and said the restaurant had set up a scholarship to help the singers, and that in addition to tipping our wait staff, everything we put in the bucket would be shared among the wait staff to help them pay for their training.

What this restaurant manager did was so critical because it was a huge show of support, reminding the restaurant patrons NOT to take the singers for granted, and giving them an opportunity to show their support in more tangible way. And from what we could see as she brought the bucket from table to table, it worked.

As for us…she didn’t have to ask us twice.

What we experienced at Ellen’s Stardust Diner was a clear reminder, not only to respect the struggle of up-and-coming artists, but also how important it is to support and encourage them. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: every time an artist performs, or paints, or writes, or sculpts, that artist is putting his/her heart on the line. Yes, ultimately we create art for ourselves and not just for others, but at some point, I think every artist needs to know that it matters.

So the next time you’re out and about, and you happen into an eating or drinking establishment where someone happens to be performing–even if you’re not that into what they’re doing, maybe show them a little respect for the effort by watching or listening in.

And if there’s a tip jar in front of them…you know what to do.

P.S. Stephen Colbert was worth the wait. :)