That's Condo-tainment!

The stars of South Florida's condo circuit may not be the most youthful performers, but oy can they sing

Later this month the renowned Hollywood actor and standup comic Noriyuki "Pat" Morita will take the stage in Weston. About 500 people will pay just $8 for a seat in a luxury theater with a state-of-the-art sound system. They will undoubtedly be captivated as Morita reprises his Oscar-nominated Karate Kid role of Mr. Miyagi and rehashes bits from his days as the malt-shop owner on Happy Days.

The performance has not been advertised in newspapers or on the radio. If you call up Ticketmaster in hopes of landing a ticket to see the "Hip Nip," as Morita was billed in his early nightclub days, the operator will offer only bewilderment. In fact, even if you happen to have seen all four Karate Kid movies and every rerun of Happy Days, somehow discern that Morita is going to be in town, and hightail it to the theater box office, the ticket seller will turn you away cold.

Morita is not the only star sneaking in and out of South Florida this winter without your knowledge. Gabe Kaplan, of Welcome Back, Kotter fame, has performed numerous times in recent months to little public fanfare. Jimmie "Dy-no-mite" Walker, Rich Little, Freddy Roman, Fyvush Finkel, Nell Carter, and Nipsey Russell have all given shows in recent years that you were not allowed to attend.

Gerry Rainbow's forte is providing entertainment for the hundreds of clubs that thrive at condominiums
Sherri Cohen
Gerry Rainbow's forte is providing entertainment for the hundreds of clubs that thrive at condominiums
Last of the red-hot mamas: Judy Borne calls her act a mix of Totie Fields, Ethel Merman, and Sophie Tucker
Paul Demko
Last of the red-hot mamas: Judy Borne calls her act a mix of Totie Fields, Ethel Merman, and Sophie Tucker
Condo king: Robert Lee oversees condominium shows for Big Beat Productions
Sherri Cohen
Condo king: Robert Lee oversees condominium shows for Big Beat Productions
Connie Stevens (hint: She was married to Eddie Fisher) recently finished a two-week run on the Condo Circuit
Connie Stevens (hint: She was married to Eddie Fisher) recently finished a two-week run on the Condo Circuit

Why is it, you ask, that 500 people will have the pleasure of watching Morita perform for a measly eight bucks, while you'll be sitting at home, forced to make do watching Karate Kid III on video and maybe downing a few beers for consolation?

Simply put, you don't have the right address.

Morita, like dozens of other performers each week in South Florida, is working the Condo Circuit. And only residents of the Bonaventure condominiums can get in the door.

On any given day in South Florida, particularly from November to April, scores of performances, from ballets to drag shows, are given exclusively for condominium residents. The gigs range from luxurious venues seating more than 1000 people to small banquet halls hosting the monthly meetings of a perhaps 25-member chapter of a Hadassah women's group.

Performances start precisely on time, are heavy on Gershwin, show tunes, and nostalgia for New York City -- and feature enough Yiddish to leave the goyim scratching their heads. The Condo Circuit is as endemic to South Florida condominium culture as early-bird specials and election-day palm cards.

Because you are prohibited from witnessing this peculiar cultural phenomenon, I (exerting the exclusive media privileges of a New Times hack) spent four days and nights investigating the Condo Circuit. I talked with agents, condo bookers, performers, and residents. It wasn't always pretty….


Day 1: Errol Dante and Gerry Rainbow

Even from the parking lot of the Leonard Weisinger Community Center in Margate, a voice can be heard belting out "The Impossible Dream" from the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha. I'm right on time for the 12:30 performance of Errol Dante, but apparently the singer-comedian has started without me.

"He is very good," the woman at the front door reassures me. "But this is his last song."

The audience comprises 28 members of Jewish Women International. The elderly condo-dwellers are seated on folding chairs in the drab, gray-walled room. The majority possess elaborately frosted hair, clutch oversize purses close by their sides, and pay rapt attention.

Dante wears a blue suit and complements it with a red shirt that almost matches his crimson face. The 53-year-old veteran performer is square-jawed and solidly built. As the song reaches its climax, Dante thrusts his right arm in the air for dramatic effect. His booming operatic voice (think Michael Crawford on steroids) nearly drowns out the prerecorded musical accompaniment.

"To dream the impossible dream!" Dante croons, wrenching every melodramatic drip from the tune. "To fight the unbeatable foe! To bear with unbearable sorrow! To run where the brave dare not go!…"

As Dante is ready to bound off the stage to enthusiastic applause, he's halted by a question from the audience.

"What's the gentleman's name?" a woman calls out brazenly. Dante doesn't flinch at the lack of recognition. Apparently he's fielded this question before.

"If you liked what you heard, it's Errol Dante," he says. "If not, it's Jerry Vale." The audience roars.

By the time the audience quiets down, Dante is off the stage and packing his gear to head for another condo gig (the reason for the early start time). Before taking off he hands me a black folder emblazoned with gold letters: "The Golden Voice of Errol Dante." Dante got his start as a house singer at the famous Copacabana in New York City and was a protégé of Tony Martin. He's worked his shtick in the major clubs of Vegas and Atlantic City. If you'd managed to sneak into one of the roasts during the glory days of Manhattan's members-only Friar's Club, the odds are decent that Dante would have been cracking jokes and performing the national anthem for the likes of Don Rickles and Dean Martin. Sinatra once said Dante possessed a "great set of pipes."

Yet here he is, just past noon on a Tuesday in Margate, plying his trade for a crowd that knows Errol Dante only as one more item on the agenda for the monthly meeting of Jewish Women International. Dante averages five or six performances a week during the season and estimates that 90 percent of his business is through the condominiums. He still gets the occasional prime gig in Atlantic City and likes to drop names from the good old days ("Milton Berle is a good friend of mine," he notes), but Dante's bread is buttered on the Condo Circuit.

"It's keeping your instrument going," he says of the Condo Circuit a few days after the Margate performance. "Whether you're a comic or a singer, you have to keep at it. It's a way of making a living through performing. As long as they call me, I go."

Disappointed by my brief introduction to the Condo Circuit, I head to David's Catering and Banquet Facilities on far western Commercial Boulevard in Tamarac in search of performer Gerry Rainbow. The parking lot of the bright pink, Mediterranean-style building is packed with cars on this Tuesday afternoon. David's Catering, with its numerous banquet halls, is a frequent stop on the Condo Circuit.

I find Rainbow at the front of a generic banquet hall singing a merengue tune. Rainbow has a three-piece band called the Rainbows, and the audience is the "social club" at Hawaiian Gardens, Phase II. It's a predominantly female group of about 50 people with a strong predilection for pastel-color attire. They are seated at round tables, picking over salads and dinner rolls. Today is the annual installation of new officers, and in their honor the club has rented the catering hall. An elaborate crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and a wooden dance floor beckons.

"A round of applause for the best couple on the dance floor," Rainbow implores, as the Rainbows finish the song. "Oh -- they're the only couple."

It's a standard Rainbow line, one that he will use again before this afternoon's show is over. Rainbow looks every bit the Vegas showman. He wears a purple shirt and blue paisley tie beneath a black sport coat. The 64-year-old's hair is a wavy pompadour, his gray eyes all sparkle, his skin a well-baked South Florida tan. Regis Philbin comes to mind. Rainbow has a serviceable singing voice and a considerable repertoire of bad jokes. His claim to near-fame is that, in the late '60s and early '70s, he toured as a drummer for performers such as Sonny and Cher and Dionne Warwick.

For the last decade, Rainbow has resided in South Florida, performing as a band-leader in combination with operating Entertainment Connections, a talent agency for condominiums. His niche is not the large condo concert halls but more modest fare. Rainbow caters to the endless clubs and associations that thrive in the condominiums. At Century Village at Pembroke Pines alone, there are more than 75 clubs -- everything from the AARP to the Yiddish Vinkle Club.

"If enough people move in from Kentucky, there'll be a Kentucky club," Rainbow quips. And all of these clubs want entertainment at their monthly gatherings. A dose of show tunes or standup comedy before getting down to the serious business of budgets and agendas. On any given day during the season, Rainbow has perhaps a dozen shows booked for his stable of hundreds of performers. His clients get no more than $250 a gig.

The acts Rainbow books are not exactly stars, but -- like Errol Dante or himself -- people who have at one time or another had a proximity to fame. One of his acts, Rainbow notes, used to be seen on a billboard as the opening credits rolled for Hawaii Five0.

During a break in the performance, Rainbow introduces me to Estelle Drexler, the chairman of the entertainment committee for the social club. Drexler sports a peach skirt and matching jacket, gray hair stacked on top of her head like a fez, and a beatific smile. "You know how long I've known him?" she asks, pointing to Rainbow and giggling. "I forgot already."

Suffice it to say that Drexler, a Bronx native who has lived in South Florida for 25 years, has been booking acts from Rainbow for quite a while. Has Rainbow ever steered her onto a bum act? "Never, never, never," Drexler says, shaking her head back and forth emphatically. "He has never stuck us."

As Drexler talks Rainbow returns to the microphone. "Anybody speak French here?" he queries. "If you speak French, say 'Oui, oui.'"

"Oui! Oui!" the crowd clamors as the Rainbows launch into a brisk rendering of "I Love Paris." Two women take time out from their meals to dance in the center of the banquet hall. They stand side by side, each with an arm around the other's waist, stepping their way gingerly across the dance floor. The ladies this afternoon often must make do with dance partners of their own sex, as they outnumber the men almost two to one.

After the chicken, fish, and stuffed kishkes have been served and the substantial leftovers dutifully set aside in Styrofoam containers, Rainbow prods the crowd into a sing-along on "Bye-Bye Blackbird." Everyone present seems to know the words. He also performs a polka by request and then induces seven audience members to take a stab at the "Electric Slide" -- though in this case it would be more aptly described as the electric shuffle. The elderly socializers cautiously execute the steps, eyes locked intently on their shoes.


Day 2: The Phantoms of the Opera

Apparently my press credentials aren't all they're cracked up to be, because the woman collecting tickets at Huntington Pointe in Delray Beach is having none of it. She doesn't have a ticket waiting for me and she's not letting me in. Period.

So I circle around the back of the theater and search for an open door. The first I try turns about to be a strangely located shower. Behind the next door are three guys in Sha Na Na-like outfits smoking cigarettes. As I find out later, these are the Riffs, a doo-wop group that is on the bill tonight. One of the Riffs leads me to Robert Lee, the man in charge of condo shows for Big Beat Productions and the organizer of tonight's marathon "Showcase of Stars."

Lee plants me in a folding chair near the front of the 640-seat, sold-out theater just as "Ric and Vic," the first of eight acts this evening, are introduced. Ric enters singing, "Shalom, shalom." As he sings he dives into the audience, walking the aisles with his cordless mic, doling out roses to the ladies.

He pounces on an unsuspecting woman named Juanita. "Do you know the difference between Kellogg's Corn Flakes and sex?" Ric booms at her, whispering conspiratorially that she should answer in the negative. "Nooooo? You don't know the difference between Kellogg's Corn Flakes and sex? Are you absolutely sure?"

A pregnant pause.

"Can I come to your house for breakfast tomorrow?"

Big, big guffaws.

Not one to lose the momentum from a good joke, Ric singles out another audience member, Irving, to serve as his foil. Except this time he wants to know if Irving understands the difference between Canadians and canoes. The punch line? "Canoes tip."

Ric closes with a ribald joke involving Liberace, heaven, and cockatoos. The audience chortles with delight despite themselves.

Vic takes over on stage. She has long blond hair and wears a shimmering floor-length evening gown. Vic plays the regal lady to Ric's buffoonish male. She performs a short set culled from what might as well be dubbed "The Condo Circuit's Greatest Hits." Gershwin's "Summertime" is heard for the first (but not last) time tonight, prompting grunts of approval from the audience. As is "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," which I'll learn is apparently required listening any time five or more people over the age of 65 gather at a South Florida condominium.

Ric then makes one more appearance, introduced this time as Luciano Pavarotti. He wobbles on stage, rounder and wider than before and with a fake black beard. In an operatic bass voice, Ric/Pavarotti delivers an aria that is a fusion of Italian and Yiddish. He follows it up with a story about the last time he was scheduled to play Miami but had to cancel because the black folks (or as Ric prefers, "schvartzes") were rioting in the streets.

Before introducing the next performer, the emcee offers a joke. "We have 112 more acts coming up," he says. "You'll be here until seven in the morning." The joke resonates with a shade too much truth.

The sea of gray hair at Huntington Pointe this evening looks like your typical condominium audience. But many of those present are the power brokers of the Condo Circuit: entertainment buyers. These are the people responsible for deciding what acts get booked into what condominiums. Many of them are residents who volunteer on entertainment committees, but the largest condominiums also have paid staff members to line up gigs. Talent agents have been known to slip these entertainment buyers money on the side in order to ensure loyalty. As one talent agent puts it, "an extra 50 bucks to take their friends out to an early-bird special."

All of the acts performing tonight are working for free. Some have paid their own travel expenses from as far away as Boston or New York in hopes of lining up future bookings. Over the next three hours, two different performers will don mask and cape in imitation of the Phantom of the Opera, three will sing songs by Gershwin, and there will be jokes about black Jews, Alabama Jews, and gay Jews. It's the Condo Circuit equivalent of the all-you-can-eat buffet.

It's also the kind of show that could land a performer a dozen lucrative jobs. If, for example, Claire Eaton, the entertainment buyer for Sunrise Lakes, Phase III, which has 6000 residents and a 1000-seat concert hall, finds Vicky Daniels' version of "Summertime" more suitable than Valerie Marino's, it could mean a prime gig down the road.

Robert Lee says that he'll line up 50 to 75 dates in the next month for tonight's performers. As is the norm on the Condo Circuit, the gigs will mostly be for two years down the line. "They're booked up all the way through 2001," Lee says. "To me it's ridiculous." Many performers have a 60-day cancellation clause written into their contracts just in case something better kicks up. "If they get three weeks in Vegas, they're gonna say forget about some condominium in South Florida," Lee says.

Judy Borne enters singing, "Hello, hello, what a wonderful word!" She is a heavy woman with a small round face and wears a glittering silver shirt with black pants. (Glitter of some sort is apparently a required accouterment for all female performers on the Condo Circuit.) Borne's shtick is heavy on another condo staple: audience participation. She immediately gets the crowd giggling by instructing them to turn to their neighbors and say, "Boy, do you look sexy tonight!"

She then picks out a short, frail man in maroon dress pants and a sensible sweater. His name is Marvin. "You're just dying to touch me, aren't you?" Borne teases him, vamping her ample body. After some prodding, Marvin reaches up to the stage to take Borne's hand, only to be slapped away. "You animal!" she cries. But not long after, Marvin is up on stage shaking his tush as Borne implores, "Sock it to me, Marvin!"

I slip backstage as another couple takes the stage, singing… Gershwin! Borne has already shed her stage costume and is on her way out the door. Her face glistens with sweat from the vigorous performance. Makeup runs down her cheeks. She describes her act as a combination of Totie Fields, Ethel Merman, and Sophie Tucker. "You could say I'm the last of the red-hot mamas," Borne notes. A retired professor from Malden, Massachusetts, she has been performing semiprofessionally for 30 years.

"I want to work here," says Borne, who recently became a North Palm Beach-based snowbird. "That's why I'm doing all this, paying my way. I want to break into this circuit."

Out front the show continues. The Riffs momentarily stem the onslaught of show tunes with some doo-wop numbers, but they are followed by back-to-back performances by the twin Phantoms of the Opera. One Phantom distinguishes himself by tap dancing, the other by emotionally tearing off his mask at the climax of a song. When Rachel Paston is introduced two and a half hours into the showcase as a veteran of 11 Broadway shows, it's time to leave.

Apparently I'm not the only one sucked dry of tolerance for Gershwin, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Borscht Belt humor. Out in the lobby one man queries his friend, "How much longer do they have to go?" The only half-joking answer: "Oh, they're about halfway through."


Day 3: Where are Liza's genitals?

Liza Minnelli steps onto the stage at the Bonaventure Town Center Club in Weston clad provocatively in a fishnet dress over black leather bra and panties singing "All That Jazz." Over the course of the next hour and a half, the diva will don more skimpy outfits than a Milan runway model. Liza is joined by a small stable of dancing beefcakes with a predilection for suspenders (but not shirts) and female dancers in elaborate costumes.

Last I'd heard, Liza was doing just fine on yet another comeback romp through the New York City cabaret scene, but apparently she's made time for South Florida.

The performance builds to a medley of songs from Cabaret. Liza trots out many of the classics from her Oscar-winning performance as Sally Bowles. She is joined by an impish Joel Grey-like character in top hat and cane. "Mein Herr" is ably performed, as is the classic title song ("Life is a cabaret, old chum…").

Then Liza is alone on stage, singing "What I Did For Love" from A Chorus Line. "Won't forget… can't regret… what I did for love," Liza belts out.

Suddenly she's ripping off her clothes, exposing… well, a man. Although one that, at least to my naked eyes from the rear of the banquet hall, appears strangely genital-free. The man-who-just-a-moment-ago-was-Liza then puts on jeans and a work shirt, pulls off his black wig, rips off his fake eyebrows, and scrubs off his makeup. This is greeted with thunderous applause, a near-unanimous standing ovation, and numerous screams of "Bravo!" The oldsters are eating this drag queen up. Apparently transvestite revues are no longer just for gay men.

The show is Liza 2000. It features a Cuban guy with a remarkable ability to imitate Liza Minnelli, both vocally and physically (although it must be said that his thighs betray him).

After the show Bob Fedderwitz, executive director of the Bonaventure Town Center Club, is enveloped in a hug by a grateful patron. "You've done it again, Bob!" she gushes. "That was wonderful!"

Fedderwitz, who is responsible for booking entertainment, worries that the show was too good. That he may have peaked too soon. "It's too early in the season," he says. "Now they're going to compare everything to that show."

Fedderwitz has some ideas on how to top Liza 2000, though. "I always tell people I will have Ricky Martin here," he says. "2040 to 2050, that's what I'm aiming for."

Outside in the parking lot, a gaggle of old-timers is contemplating the mystery of Liza's genitalia. "But what does he do with it?" wonders one mystified woman.

Her husband answers curtly: "He hasn't got any."


Day 4: "Who thought they were gonna see Connie Francis? Connie Chung?"

Twenty minutes before showtime and there's already a ten-minute traffic jam entering the parking lot of the 1600-seat Century Village East clubhouse, the Carnegie Hall of condominium concert venues with its luxuriously cushioned seats and massive stage. The car models tend more toward Lincoln Town Cars and Oldsmobiles than the typical South Florida profusion of S.U.V.s and convertible Mustangs.

The occasion is a concert by Connie Stevens, the 62-year-old, onetime wife of Eddie Fisher. She is perhaps best known for her role as Cricket Blake in the '60s TV show Hawaiian Eye, and nowadays Stevens spends much of her time hawking her Forever Spring beauty products. About the only time her name has been seen in print recently (usually right after the words faded starlet) is for an alleged long-ago dalliance with presidential hopeful John McCain. Stevens is nearing the end of a 20-show run on the Condo Circuit. According to one entertainment buyer, her fee is about $5000 per show, so she's hauling a pretty penny out of South Florida.

Stevens is certainly not the only performer to walk out of Century Village East flush with cash. Lainie Kazan, Hal Linden, and Mamie Van Doren have all played for capacity crowds this season. "You have a captive audience here," says Amadeo "Trinchi" Trinchitella, the politically powerful condo commando who also serves as chairman of the recreation committee at Century Village East. "The people are gonna come see the shows no matter who's playing, because they want to go out for the night." The $3 show is subsidized by the condominium's entertainment budget. Fees for star-quality entertainers can run as high as $12,000.

Precisely at 8 p.m., a tuxedoed emcee takes the stage and announces that an upcoming concert has been cancelled and that help is available for residents in filling out their income tax returns. "And the one that always gets the groans:" he adds, "As of now, all movie tickets will cost 75 cents." The audience obliges with a collective groan.

Opening the show is comedian Steve Solomon, who is portly, balding, and wears the requisite black tux. From the outset he plays the room like an Israeli rabbi. His routine is laced with Yiddish words like schmuck and kvetch, and on more than one occasion Solomon announces that he's been "running around like a meshuganah." He mentions growing up in Sheepshead Bay and summering in the Catskills, both of which set off knowledgeable murmurs from the crowd. The jokes are heavily focused on old people with health problems, old people having sex, and old people with health problems having sex.

A Solomon joke: A little Jewish man named Milton goes to the doctor. The doctor tells him that he has herpes. Milton goes home and informs his wife, who looks up herpes in the dictionary. "Milton, it's nothing to worry about," she says. "It's a disease of the Gentiles." This elicits paroxysms of laughter.

"Is that too dirty for you?" Solomon queries, as he does throughout the routine.

"No!" is the enthusiastic reply.

You get the feeling that the audience would have been happy to leave it at this: 45 minutes of comedy for $3. But then out comes Connie.

She enters singing, "I love music, sweet sweet music" -- and the mood immediately sours. The easy laughter and whispered endorsements in the crowd are replaced by silence. Stevens wears a maroon dress that looks to be velour and a grin that looks to be permanently frozen on her face. Glitter, of course, sparkles from her eyebrows. She is supported by a four-piece band and one backup singer. The only word that comes to mind in describing her voice is loud.

"Hi everybody!" Connie calls out, but the response is decidedly muted. The audience seems a bit shell-shocked by the sudden and overwhelming emergence of spirit. "C'mon everybody!" Connie shouts. She claps her hands and bounces around the stage, but only a handful of people join in.

I'm the only clapper in my row.

"This is the first time I ever performed on this circuit, and I'm having a great time," she says. "Who thought they were gonna see Connie Francis? Connie Chung?" There are a few embarrassed giggles, but nobody owns up to being unfamiliar with Connie Stevens.

Then Connie breaks into an elevator-rock medley of Billy Ocean's "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going," and Billy Joel's "You're Only Human (Second Wind)." She wanders the audience Oprah-style with a tote bag, not-too-successfully trying to sing as she bribes the audience with gifts. First out of the bag is Dexatrim. "It helps, I swear it does," Connie testifies. Most of the people in this audience need diet pills like they need a pogo stick. Connie doles out makeup, pantyhose, Grecian Formula. And then the kickers: Ex-Lax and Poli-Grip (although she has trouble finding any takers on the latter, finally forcing the denture adhesive on some unwitting man).

"You think y'all are checking me out. I'm checking you out," Connie tells the audience when the medley ends. "I don't get out very often, so it's such a pleasure to sing for you."

The guy next to me is asleep.

Connie fairs better when she retreats to more-traditional material. A version of Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)" is well received, as is a Sinatra song. Connie even ventures into the audience again (this time sans Ex-Lax), and gets a fair number of people to sing along on the pop standard "Close to You" ("Why do birds suddenly appear/Every time you are near?…"). This has the added bonus of making Connie's voice sound downright angelic in comparison to the amateurs in the audience.

The woman in front of me is snoring.

Stevens' fate could be worse. The Condo Circuit is not the easiest crowd to win over, and audience members don't hesitate to vent their displeasure. One entertainment buyer recalls scheduling Pat McCormick, at one time a prominent comedy writer and TV talk-show regular, who appeared on Gun Shy and The Don Rickles Show. Unbeknownst to the talent booker, McCormick had recently suffered a stroke. He appeared on stage with an assistant and read jokes from a book because he couldn't remember the punch lines.

"He was reading, and the whole audience got up and walked out on him," the entertainment buyer recalls. "If they're not happy, they have no problem, they have no shame, walking out."

Connie at least keeps the audience in their seats -- for most of the show. "This last song is for each and every one of you here," Connie announces, but apparently few people are interested in the gift. As Stevens launches into her final song, everyone begins pouring out of the theater. They seem to rise at once, as if on cue. It's unclear if this is simply established Century Village protocol or if the audience is passing judgment on Connie. By the time the song ends, most people have their backs to the stage, heading toward the exits. I'm the only one left in my row.

"Thanks everybody!" Connie says, grinning resiliently. "Love you, Florida!"

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:

paul.demko@newtimesbpb.com

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