Singer, director, teacher, booking manager— he’s done it all and continues to do it all (except for booking). We last spoke with him in March 2005. Always quick with the quips—and very funny quips at that— we fe lt it was time to see what’s new with this 2009 Bistro Award winner.
Frank Dain What made you decide to leave your position at the Metropolitan Room?
Lennie Watts You start with the biggie!! [Laughs] Well, I really didn’t want to take the job to begin with. After The Encore, I had really had enough. After meeting with the owner, and talking about what we wanted the room to be, I thought I would feel different at the Metropolitan Room. I didn’t. Opening that room was a tremendous amount of work.
I think it was a year into it before I had a day off and, even then, I would get calls and emails at home. I was constantly on call. It was like being a doctor (without the doctor’s salary)! Performers would call me at 9:00 in the morning to talk about booking or their placement on the postcard. There were several times that I would just look at the phone and say, “Really?? Did you actually just say that??” I couldn’t go anywhere without having to talk about the Metropolitan Room. I found myself spending all of my time in the office typing, or talking on the phone. It’s also very hard to be in middle management. You have all the responsibility, but no authority. I found myself apologizing all the time for things that I had no control over. It was also incredibly difficult to watch everyone else living their dreams, while I was in the basement working on the web site.
The real decision was made when my Dad, my godmother and my friend D. Jay Bradley died within months of each other. It made me realize that I needed to start taking care of myself and to start living the life that would make me happy. I know it sounds terribly Oprah... but it’s true.
Frank You’ve booked three rooms—Mama Rose, The Encore and the Metropolitan Room. Was there any difference in how you booked the rooms and in how the rooms were run?
Lennie Although Mama Rose was “the beginning of the end” for me, I loved it. They say that you never forget your first one! There was no pretense there. It was what it was. I loved that I was given $12.00 and a glue gun and told to “make a cabaret room!” There was a true sense of family there. I loved the space, and was extremely proud of the fact that we made a room work where many thought we couldn’t. We had a few folks really try to kill the space. One former booking manager did everything he could to trash the place and try to keep people from booking there. He would tell performers, “Nobody will go see you on 14th and Second.” Then he opened a room on Staten Island!!! [Laughs] Things got a little out of hand when the owners just stopped caring.
I remember, during a very cold winter, the neon light went out (the ONLY way to know the club was there). It was out for months. I used to have to stand outside in the freezing cold with a flashlight looking for people who looked like they might be looking for the place, and light their way up the (crumbling) steps!
The Encore was a whole other ballgame. I was basically running the whole place. Piano bar AND cabaret room. I was literally working 24 hours a day. I did like the room though. I thought it was a nice space. I loved the scrim and the lighting. I went home for Christmas one year, and the owner decided to close “the joint.” It was the best phone call I ever got! I felt really bad about everybody losing their jobs. I had brought everybody with me from Mama Rose. (They also came to the Metropolitan Room.) Both Mama Rose and The Encore were rental spaces. I like to call them “$80.00 and a dream” rooms. I wanted to try to raise the bar. I tried to upgrade the bookings. I asked Julie Reyburn and Lumiri Tubo to open the room to set the standard. Karen Mason did a nice run there as well as Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. When I moved to the Metropolitan Room, it was very important to me to keep the bar raised. I wanted to have more control over the quality of the acts. I asked Billy Stritch to open the room. The bar was set! It was tough, though. I pissed some people off, got some nasty calls and emails.
Frank The Metropolitan has celebrated its third anniversary. What has made it so successful? What did you contribute to that success? Why did it succeed and the others didn’t?
Lennie I think the Metropolitan Room opened at a great time. Other rooms were closing, and we offered a beautiful space, where we treated performers with respect, and we advertised!! I think the fact that it was a new space being run by familiar faces made it easier for performers to take a chance. I had a reputation, and folks trusted me. I felt really great about the fact that performers knew that I had their best interest in mind always. I am extremely proud of the people that I brought with me to help create the room. In the two and a half years I was there, I got three complaints about the staff. I loved being able to bring the folks who were so loyal at the other places into this new environment. I met a lot of really wonderful people (and only a few ***holes)!
Frank What did you learn?
Lennie What did I learn? I learned that you can be good at something, but not enjoy it!
Frank What’s the biggest change in your life since leaving the Metropolitan?
Lennie Actually, It’s more about leaving the job, not the place. People say I’m back to my old self. I laugh a lot more. I’m feeling a ton more creative. It’s a little scary, but very exciting. When I started telling people that I was leaving, the reaction was always, “GASP...what will you do?” I would tell them that I would do what I’ve always done: direct, teach, and perform. They would look surprised and then say, “Oh yeah, that’s right. You always did that.” Not to sound dramatic, but I feel like I got my own identity back.
I’m directing a lot. I’m teaching two to three nights a week. Steven Watkins and I just started a class at The Singers Forum that deals with arranging. I do workshops with kids. I’m working on my apartment and, oddly enough, seeing more cabaret than I have in years! I’m working on a new variety show for the fall called Watts Happening, and booking my Manilow ‘73-’83 show out of town.
Frank Tell us more about your directing.
Lennie I love telling people what to do, so it’s the perfect job! It’s great fun to see an idea become a full-blown production. I love directing theater and cabaret. The difference is, in theater it’s the actor’s job to make my vision come true. In cabaret, it’s my job to make the artist’s vision come true. I love the challenge of working with different personalities and different concepts. The biggest compliment I ever got about my directing is that I don’t do a “cookie cutter” show. The personality of each performer (for better or worse) [Laughs]) is highlighted. I’ve had the privilege of working with some really fantastic folks.
Frank And your teaching?
Lennie I love teaching, too. I have become a much better performer since I started teaching. It’s a lot of fun, and extremely creative. I don’t, however, take the responsibility lightly. I’m gentle, but honest. There are plenty of people who will take your money and tell you how great you are. I work with artists of all levels. It’s my job to help them grow and move up to the next level. It’s very enlightening.
Frank Since we last spoke, have you seen a change in cabaret? If so, what?
Lennie Well, I just saw you two days ago, so not much has changed! Honestly, cabaret never changes. The songs change, the faces change, but the idea of cabaret will always be around. People have been crying that cabaret is dying for as long as I can remember. There are a lot of young people getting into cabaret. We just need to stay open to the new music and new ways that these artists express themselves. As long as we have the need to be entertained, moved and stimulated, we will have cabaret.
The problem always seems to be getting the word out about what happens in these rooms.
Frank You were away from MAC for a while but are now back and on the Board. What brought you back?
Lennie A momentary lapse of good judgement. [More laughs.] Seriously, I liked the way things were going. I was impressed by all of the things that Hector Coris was doing, and I wanted to help. I think this is going to be a very exciting couple of years for MAC. We are redesigning the web site, working on more seminars and workshops, pumping up member benefits and a few other projects that if I told you about, I would have to kill you.
Frank You are once again directing the MAC Awards this year. [This interview was conducted a few weeks before the 2009 MAC Awards.] What is your approach? Is it different from what you’ve done before?
Lennie My approach is to highlight the great diversity and creativity of the Cabaret World. There are so many wonderful, diverse talents to draw upon. This year I’ve asked comedienne Nancy Witter and Cabaret Grand Diva Andrea Marcovicci to host. The pendulum doesn’t swing much further than that! We will also feature the nominated Male and Female Vocalists in a tribute to Motown. I wanted to show that there is a wealth of great material out there to draw upon that was written after
1950, and to show that The Great American Songbook is still being written. I wanted to make the evening (which we all know will be LONG!) like a big party.
Frank What are your plans and goals?
Lennie To stay happy, creative...and employed!