By FRANK SWERTLOW
At the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood last week, legendary harmonica player Toots Thielemans was playing a sweet rendition of “When Somebody Needs You” with jazz pianist Kenny Werner.
They had the gathering hooked middle-aged marrieds, tables of single women staring intently at the duo, and guys at the bar who put down their drinks to listen to the music.
It was a typical night at a club that’s anything but typical for Los Angeles. Jazz is not exactly the most happening genre in town, attracting an older audience that tends to spend more time at home in front of the TV than cruising the Hollywood club scene.
Nonetheless, the gritty Catalina just south of Hollywood Boulevard on Cahuenga Boulevard will be celebrating its 13th anniversary in June not exactly a fixture, but a survivor nonetheless.
The question is, how? The small club, which seats a little more than 100, books some of the top jazz musicians in the business, people who command hefty payouts to perform. With two performances a day, seven days a week, filling the club is a constant challenge.
“Sometimes there is no profit,” said Catalina Popescu, who owns the club along with her husband Bob. “The cover charge usually covers the musicians, but we have our own overhead. It’s a struggle.”
Nonetheless, the Popescus have managed to do better than break even, though she admits that sometimes they are forced to take out loans when things get thin. “You don’t do this to make money,” she said. “You do it because you love it and determination prevails.”
The Catalina has hosted such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea and dozens more. Upcoming performers include the Pharoah Sanders Quartet, the Ray Brown Trio, Marcus Hunter and legendary cabaret performer Bobby Short.
These musicians don’t come cheap. Popescu says she pays between $5,000 and $50,000 a week to the artists. Cover charges for performances range from $5 to $50 depending on the status of the artist, plus dinner or a two-drink minimum.
Popescu declined to reveal the club’s annual revenues. Key to keeping the place in the black is keeping as many seats filled as possible.
Popescu accomplishes that by consistently booking high-quality acts and by creating an appealing atmosphere. The key to the latter is Popescu herself. “She is very friendly, affectionate, talkative, and makes the place feel like home,” said veteran music critic Richard S. Ginell. “She makes it a place that people are pulled toward.”
Ironically, Popescu and her husband, both of whom were born in Romania, knew nothing about jazz when they opened their club, which was initially a restaurant specializing in seafood. When that gamble seemed destined to fail, a local disk jockey, Dennis Smith, suggested that they offer entertainment specifically, live jazz. The couple rolled the dice again. That was in 1986.
Catalina Popescu, a gregarious woman who smiles easily, proved aggressive in going after talent. When the new club was still struggling, she wouldn’t take no for an answer from Dizzy Gillespie’s handlers. She got the jazz great’s home telephone number and persuaded him to perform. It took 20 minutes to seal the deal.
“He put us on the map,” Popescu said. “I still remember the night I saw him. This great musician was on my stage! My stage! I’ve never forgotten that.”
While the Popescus own the club jointly, it is really Catalina who runs the place; husband Bob is a contractor. Popescu must keep track of her staff of 25, book acts, promote the club and deal with musicians who are often late, sometimes don’t show up and many times make heavy demands.
She lured Bobby Short, who will bring an eight-piece orchestra direct from the Caf & #233; Carlyle in New York. Short, who played at the club last year, likes the feel of the place.
“One of the keys to this club is that you can hit the audience, pow, right in the eye, within seconds,” he said. “You can maintain that intensity for as long as you are on stage.”
Moreover, Short says that his style of cabaret needs a performer who can wrestle with the audience, up close.
“You have to be able to hear the fat lady laugh,” he said. “It’s not cabaret unless you have the drunk in the corner or the bragging businessman or someone cackling all the time, but then you get them all to turn around and watch what you are doing. Now that is real cabaret.”