Rick Newman pictured left at the Stage 72 Triad Theater.
“It was the right idea at the right time. And yeah, it was quite a magical place”.
That’s how founder Rick Newman describes Catch a Rising Star, the club that helped launch the stand up comedy boom industry in the 70s and 80s. Rick Newman is a club owner, entrepreneur, talent manager and producer. Last month Newman and his good friend Jeffrey Gurian talked with Ron Bennington on SiriusXM’s Ron and Fez Show about about some of Newman’s latest projects. They got around to talking about the old days when Catch a Rising Star was first getting started. Newman has some amazing stories, and he almost never does interviews, so hearing him talk about his historic club — which opened December 18, 1972 — was a rare treat for anyone who loves comedy, and stand up in particular.
Rick Newman said that he never planned to open a nightclub devoted strictly to comedy. He was looking to open a place where celebrities would gather. Rick said that his first two names that he was considering for the club were , “The Talent Scout” and “Off Off Broadway”. But while driving home one night, the name for his place came to him. “I was driving back to Queens and I had the radio on and Perry Como’s ‘Catch a Falling Star’ came on. And I heard it and it was (singing) ‘Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket’. I just switched it and I made it ‘Catch a Rising Star‘.”
Newman’s “competition” was Budd Friedmann, who had already established his club in New York. But neither lounge considered themselves to be “comedy clubs”. Rick Newman said, “When I opened up a Catch a Rising Star, now there were two of them. It became real. Budd didn’t really call himself a comedy club, nor did I. We were a variety club. I put on and found Pat Benatar. And Melissa Manchester used to come in. Natalie Cole came in, Patti Smythe. We did music and comedy. And Budd had Liza Minnelli and Bette Midler, There was no such thing as a comedy club per say at that point.”
That all changed for Catch a Rising Star on a night when David Brenner walked in.
“At that point, I was auditioning a lot of people. It took about a little less than a year, which was amazing, for it to catch on, pun intended. In the sense that, David Brenner came walking in one night– and he lived near ‘Catch’ on 77th Street — he came in on a Saturday night with a beautiful young lady. He always had a beautiful girl on his arm. He sat down and I kept going over to him and asking him. And he was hot at that point, and I really hadn’t had any comics that came in and people knew. And after watching the show for awhile, I kept going over and he kept saying, ‘Not yet, not yet.’ And then he called me over, he says, ‘I’ll get up’. And that opened the floodgates. And God bless him and may he rest in peace.He really was the person that turned it around.”
Rick said that changed everything for “Catch“. He said “From there on in, I had a lot of young comics that were working out. But I had a lot of singers too. I had a lot of music. At that point, Freddie Prinze and Gabe Kaplan– they kind of broke from ‘Catch a Rising Star’ which really helped. David Brenner was already a name. But before Billy Crystal and Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman, all of them broke, I had Gabe Kaplan and Freddie Prinze that broke.”
On what made Catch a Rising Star a success, Newman said that it was the style of the comedians that made the difference. “It was a different time. You weren’t watching your father’s comedians on the Ed Sullivan Show. Here was a club that had young people coming to it and the comedians spoke to them. They spoke their language and they spoke about the way that they saw things that young people related to.”
At Catch a Rising Star, owner Rick Newman said part of the appeal is that the club did one show that “went on all night long”. He added, “The Playboy Club would close. All the Playboy Bunnies came over. All the management came over. The comics loved this. They loved hanging out. You had Bunnies running all over the place, so to speak. It was magical. It really was.”
The club became the place for comedians to hang in New York City. They loved the atmosphere. Rick said, “And then down in my office, downstairs, that became kind of club within a club. We had all the performers. People would fly in from the West coast and they’d come right downstairs. And we’d stay downstairs all night and comics would go up and do their sets one at a time while we were downstairs carrying on.”
“Catch” was full of comedians that went on to be legends. There was one that Rick Newman counts as a personal friend and favorite– Richard Belzer.
Well, unquestionably, at the beginning, I had never seen anything like it. Richard Belzer came in and auditioned. And he had no material, but he had the audience hysterical. And he was able to go around and just pick on people whoever was unfortunate enough to be sitting at the table right in front of him. He would destroy them. And women, he would pick up their pocketbook and go through their pocketbook. But drop dead hysterical. So, he became my emcee. We are and were like brothers. We still are.”
Rick described Belz as setting the bar for what a comedian and a comedy club emcee should be. “He wrote the book. I’m not kidding. For the “new comedian” that happened from the 70s on, as far as an emcee and host, he wrote the book. He was amazing. …And even though he was an unknown, people were calling and asking if he was emceeing that night. He became my main emcee.” Rick added, “He became a cult following in New York. Always dressed in black. Quick, acerbic, bright, smart and funny as hell. And he really did become…he personified what you were suppose to do.”
Rick Newman said the friendships between the comedians led to incredible moments during the club’s heyday. “Belzer was good friends with John Belushi. So he was immediately drawn into that circle. And then Robin (Williams) and Belzer and Belushi were very close. They used to get up on stage. Belzer and Robin would do back up doo-wops while Belushi did Joe Cocker. I mean the things that went on if you were there and you saw it. Like, ‘Oh my God, magical’.”
These days, Rick Newman has a new club, Stage 72 at the Triad where he hosts events like Celebrity Autobiography where celebrities read passages from other famous people’s memoirs, and it’s a huge hit. Plus Rick Newman has a new film in the works. “I am working on a documentary, but it’s not a documentary per say about Catch a Rising Star. It’s documentary about that period of time. Actually, I have been working on it for awhile. It’s called Timing Is Everything. And it’s not just about the timing up on stage, but it’s the timing in everyone’s life. So we have started a documentary and like I say, it’s not only about Catch a Rising Star, it’s really not. It’s about all the clubs that were around then. the comedians, the managers, the producers, that era, that time and the specialness of it.”
Find out what’s playing at the Triad at stage72.com.