FRIARS CLUB: It’s honor to speak with a true pioneer in the entertainment Industry. As the founder of Catch A Rising Star, you fostered the careers of some seriously talented, ridiculously hilarious people: Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Andy Kaufman, Ray Romano, Richard Belzer, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Joy Behar, Dave Chappelle, Marc Maron, Susie Essman, Chris Rock, Denis Leary, Larry David, Louis C.K… Seems like you caught more than a few rising stars. How big was your net?
RICK NEWMAN: 170, 180 seats? Plus a big bar, too. I opened Catch A Rising Star on December 18th, 1972. The funny thing was, I opened it as a variety club, with singers and comedians, but it ended up becoming a hotbed for comedy.
FC: Clearly, this was before PowerPoint business plans. Had you ever opened a club before?
RN: No, I was in advertising. But on the art side. I thought my career was going to be as a commercial artist. But deep down, Catch was something I always wanted to do.
FC: Why did you open on December 18th? You think it would be wise to wait until after the holidays.
RN: I wanted to be up and running for New Years Eve.
FC: Didn’t leave you much time.
RN: Not really. For the Grand Opening, I was looking for a celebrity to throw a party for, to get some press. I didn’t have any connections back then, but my friend’s Dad knew Rocky Graziano, the former heavyweight champion of the world. He made the introduction, and I go to meet him at his pizza joint on the lower east side, which was called The Champ, and we talked for an hour or so— he was just the greatest character-- and at the end of it, he gave me this fake punch on the chin, and agreed to let me throw his 50th birthday party at the club.
Once he committed, I was able to get some comedians— Jackie Clarke, Jackie Kannon, who had a club call Rat Fink Room-- and Earl Wilson, who wrote a column for the New York Post called, “It Happened Last Night,” which everyone in town read. Our Grand Opening Night was a blast, and Earl gave us a stellar write up, which everyone read the morning after, and Catch was officially on the map.
FC: What made you think you could pull this off?
RN: My wife asked me the same question, at the time. I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth. I was a young kid. I guess I just believed!
FC: Youth is an amazing thing. Looking back now, why do you think Catch A Rising Star took off like it did?
RN: I think time was just right. Back then, the Upper East side was nothing like it is now. It was this hoppin’ singles scene, really. And there weren’t any clubs. All of these young people were looking for a place to go where they could meet and mingle and enjoy a night out.
FC: And you thought, comedy club.
RN: I wanted a variety of talent, at first. I would kick each night off with music. I had a piano player, a bass and drums, and I would let singers or other musicians come in with sheet music, and do two or three songs with the house band. Then, I’d have two or three comedians go up, depending on who was available.
FC: Sounds like a lot of talent to book every night.
RN: It was. The funny thing is, at the very beginning, everyone I hired to work there was an entertainer—singers, musicians, comics-- because I was never sure if I’d be able to book a whole night. I needed my staff to be able to get on stage and entertain, if I ran out of talent. I’d also have them sit at the tables to make it look like they were paying customers.
FC: Sounds like a fun place to work...
RN: It really was. Catch wasn’t a headliner club, at the start. I booked all new talent, so there was a very different energy there.
FC: But it fast became the place to be, for both up and comers and established names. What was it that opened the floodgates?
RN: About eight months in, David Brenner agreed to get on stage and work out some new material. And he was a very hot commodity at the time, always a beautiful girl on his arm, and after he went up, word got out, all the best talent started pouring in. It got to a point where Catch became a major player in the New York circuit. Everyone would end up there at the end of the night, because they knew Catch would be hopping until 4am. Did I mention the Playboy Bunnies would show up after they finished with work? Comedians and playboy bunnies. How's that for hanging out together?
FC: Ah, the 70’s…!
RN: It was a special time. I became friends with various talent managers because all of their clients wanted a safe place to work out new material. That’s how Robin Williams started at Catch.
FC: What a treat it would have been to see him so early on. Did he make you laugh the hardest? And if not, who did?
RN: Robin Williams always made me laugh. As well as my incredible MC’s, Richard Belzer, and later, Bill Maher. Richard Lewis was perennially hilarious. Robert Klein was one of my personal favorites. Gilbert Gottfried never failed to have the room double over in fits, and he was only 18 when he started coming in. And of course, there was Andy Kaufman.
FC: Oh man, what did he do?
RN: I was sitting with David Brenner when he came in to audition, andAndy did his Foreign Man impression, which no one had seen yet, and it was off the wall. And then he went into Mighty Mouse, which was even more bizarre, and not long after that, he was literally crying uncontrollably… David and I had never seen anything like it, and we were both on the floor.
FC: I imagine you found yourself on the floor a few times over the last forty some odd years at Catch. Who else made their bones at the club?
RN: Freddie Prinze and Gabe Kaplan broke early on. When Freddie went on Johnny Carson, he plugged Catch. He and Gabe got TV deals from their acts, and when word about that spread, things really took off. It was a very good time for the industry.
FC: You’ve dedicated your career to nurturing talent. What, in your opinion separates the people mentioned above from those condemned to obscurity? Is it luck and hard work? Or is there some other quality they all share?
RN: It’s a combination of things, really: stage presence, persona, the type of material you’re doing, and hitting it out of the park on the right night. The William Morris agency was at the club all the time. Even on their days off, the young agents were there, on the hunt for talent. A lot of the comedians who succeeded were the most eager. They wanted stage time whenever they could get it. But it didn’t end there for them. They would record their acts, go home and study them, and make the necessary changes, to help a joke land better. They worked and worked and worked it.
FC: Sounds competitive.
RN: It was, but I’ll tell you what, there was a real camaraderie back then. After we’d close the club, everyone would go to the 24 hour diner on the corner called the Green Kitchen, and sit around for another however many more hours, giving each other notes. Helping each other with lines. Coaching each other on how to navigate the biz. That’s dedication.
FC: You mean, people were actually supportive of one another?
RN: Oh yeah. When someone would finally get booked on The Tonight Show, we would stop whatever was happening at the club, gather around the bar, turn the volume up on the TV’s and root them in. It was a very big deal. It was an actual community, and even to this day there’s a camaraderie among comedians. They’re a truly special breed. Comedy is a craft, it’s true. But over the years I’ve seen it evolved into an art form all its own. And let’s be perfectly honest. No one really makes it over night. The strongest acts are honed and honed and honed, and that happens over years.
FC: Out of curiosity, who’s your favorite comedian pre-1960?
RN: Oh, you know, I listened to my father’s comedians. The guys who were on Ed Sullivan-- Alan King, Buddy Hackett, George Carlin. Even Lenny Bruce, when he was coming up.
FC: Bruce was one of a kind… Changing gears for second… Later in your career, your partner at the Triad Theater, Peter Martin, asked if you would be interested in helping produce an Off Broadway show called “Celebrity Autobiography.”
RN: Yes, I met with the two creators of the show, the brilliant Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel, and the general manager Angelo Fraboni, and Peter Martin, and decided to join the team. I’m glad I did, because we’ve been playing to sold-out audiences for almost nine years.
FC: It’s astounding, frankly. For those of our readers who’ve been living in a cave, this is a show where current celebs like Tony Danza, Matthew Broderick, Kristen Wiig, Alec Baldwin, Brooke Shields, Gina Gershon, Rachel Dratch, Janeane Garofalo, Rita Wilson, Lily Tomlin, Danny DeVito, Ray Romano, Debbie Harry, Martin Short, and Ryan Reynolds, read the often-hard-to-believe, word for word biographies of other celebs like Sylvester Stallone, Suzanne Sommers and Justin Beiber, to name only a few. It’s one of those rare ideas that never gets old.
RN: Well, the shows always vary, because the cast is always changing, depending on who’s in town, and that keeps it fresh.
FC: And the biographies your actors are reading from are constantly changing as well.
RN: That’s right. One of the most hysterical performance readings we do involves our current President. Actually, his whole family. There are biographies for Donald, Ivana and Ivanka, and we read from them simultaneously, with three different performers. Five-time Emmy winning Saturday Night Live writer, Alan Zweibel, often reads The Donald, and I’m telling you, people are pounding the tables.
FC: It’s just too timely.
RN: And there’s a waiting list of celebs wanting to do it. It’s still running, and it still sells out. If you haven’t seen it, you must. It plays at the Triad Theater, monthly.
FC: You’ve also had your finger on the pulse of the music scene for the past few decades. You managed Pat Benatar for over a decade. Did you “treat her right?”
RN: Ha, yes, as a matter of fact, I did.
FC: I listened to her as a kid. We all did. She was tough and sexy and kicked ass. Her videos were amazing, too. Was she also caught at Catch?
RN: I’ll never forget having a drink at the bar with a few of my buddies. It was around 2:30 in the morning, and I hear this voice coming from the stage, and I excuse myself and walk into the showroom. I sidle up to Richard Belzer, who was my MC, and he’s listening intently, preparing to move the show along to the next act, and I said, “Belz, ask her to do another song.” So he walks up and says, Rick Newman, the owner, wants you to sing another song. So she confers with the house piano player, Eddie Rabin, and he sits back down and starts playing Stairway to Heaven. And Patti sings it, just her and Eddie on the piano, and when she finished, everyone leapt to their feet for a standing ovation. The whole room was just wowed. I told her, come back whenever you want… It didn’t take her long, either.
FC: How did you come to manager her?
RN: Everyone was after her for representation, but she was savvy, and she really didn’t trust anyone. One night she walks into my office and asks me to manage her, and I told her, “I really don’t know enough about the music industry, Patti.” And she said, “We’ll learn together.” And I said, “Okay!” And it was the smartest okay I’ve ever uttered. It wasn’t long before she was selling out Madison Square Garden.
FC: It’s an amazing success story… So when did you get involved with the Friars Club, and why did they accept someone like you as a member?
RN: I got involved with the Friars not long after I opened Catch A Rising Star. Freddy Roman used to come into the club at the end of the night, after doing all the ballrooms in town, and he and his friends would be in tuxedos, and we all got to know each other. Freddy sponsored me into the club, and Jean-Pierre Trebot, who was Executive Director at the time, asked me to do an evening of Catch A Rising Star at the Friars, and I had Freddie Prinze and David Brenner and Pat Benatar and a few other talented people perform, and it was the perfect way to start at such a legendary venue.
FC: Okay, last question. And please answer honestly… If you were a Chinese food dish, which one would you be, and why?
RN: I’d be a ten ingredients lo mein, ‘cause it’s a delicious little bit of everything.
NOTE TO MEMBERS: If you have a “special” show, comedy, music, magic, one act plays, musicals-- anything but mime and prop comics— reach out to Rick, tell him you read the Q&A on the site, and give him your best pitch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.