Savoy Orlando’s Starlite Room gets into the theater game

By : Jeremy Williams
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Savoy has been the LGBTQ bar with a small town feel for more than a decade. In fact, it celebrates 13 years as Orlando’s small town gay bar this month.

In the last few years Savoy has undergone renovations and upgrades to its interior, and while the main bar has maintained its success with cool drinks and hot dancers, the other half has struggled to find its identity. Enter Orlando’s theater god Michael Wanzie.

“I would go to Savoy and I would see that room and would think that it was so underutilized,” Wanzie says. “Growing up I was an I Love Lucy fanatic and watched the show in re-runs five evenings a week. I was mesmerized by the scenes that took place in Club Babaloo and The Tropicana Club. I couldn’t wait to grow up and be old enough to go to a nightclub that featured a singer or a floor show.”

By the time Wanzie was old enough to get into these cabaret-style, one-person-act clubs, they had all but vanished. Only a few were still in existence in New York.

“The era of the supper club is gone but I am still a sucker for an intimate cabaret space with close-up and personal entertainment,” Wanzie says. “When I go to New York I love 54 Below, The Metropolitan Room and the back room at Don’t Tell Mama.”

Wanzie saw the space at Savoy and had an idea to bring an intimate cabaret space to Orlando that would satisfy both his “childhood fancy” and the need for a performance space of an intimate size.

“For Orlando Fringe 2016 they had so many more applications then they had space for so they were looking for some off-site, what they call BYOV, or Bring Your Own Venue,” Wanzie recalls. “I talked to [Savoy owner] Brandon [Bracale-Llewellyn] about it and said, ‘Why don’t you dip your toe in the water and let’s try it as an experiment.’ We weren’t trying to be very ambitious with it, just trying it out to see if the people would come. That was the beginning of my relationship with Brandon and the room.”

Wanzie booked three shows that did a total of 11 performances for the 2016 festival, and it was a success. The following year they expanded to seven shows with a total of 32 performances. Again, it was a hit.

“It proved people were willing to come around the corner a bit and down the block. Blue had already been doing this at The Venue, and it is a very popular off-site venue, as is St. Matthews Tavern, so it worked out really well,” Wanzie says.

The first step was getting the room ready as a more permanent theater space.

“There use to be a postage stamp-size stage in the middle of the long wall, so we tore the bar out at the end of the room and put in a nice size stage, 12 feet by 10 feet I believe, where the bar was and added curtains for a backdrop,” Wanzie says. “The stage itself was custom built for us. It’s in two sections, it’s mobile and can be versatile with the space placing the stage against a wall or in the center of the room.”

With some rewiring and lighting work, along with new seating and a fresh paint job, the Starlite Room at Savoy was born.

“I think the Starlite Room is really going to fill a niche,” Wanzie says. “If you are doing something and you don’t have an established following yet or you’re doing something new without name recognition, you can come to the Starlite Room where 50 people in the space is a huge success and 90 is a sellout. It’s providing just the right size space that didn’t exist up until now.”

The entertainment has already started to line up. Wanzie has comedian Jeff Jones in the Starlite Room hosting “Comedy Showcase” every second Tuesday of the month. He also bought in the one and only Miss Sammy to host “Showtunes at Savoy” every Thursday. If you are going to be seeing shows at the Starlite Room, who better to help keep theater on your mind then the stage legend herself?

Wanzie has also booked a new cabaret series that will kick off on Oct. 1. The “Twilight Cabaret at the Starlite Room” will be on Sundays with a 6:30 p.m. curtain time.

“The first one is going to be an actor and singer by the name of Ron Miles, and his show is called The Gospel According to My Old Man. It’s a wonderful cabaret about the influences in his life based on his father. He sings some familiar songs but mostly quirky, seldom heard songs and he has some guest artists who are going to join him,” Wanzie says.

Wanzie says that an official kickoff is planned around the time of the first cabaret. He also booked the Starlite Room’s first play which will run in the month of November.

“It’s an original play by a local actor, Scott Browning. He wrote a play called Wind Up 1957, about the gay bar scene in Los Angeles in the 1950s,” Wanzie says. “It isn’t an interactive play with audience participation, but it is immersive and the play will be going in and around the audience. It’s an intimate setting in a gay bar so we thought that the Starlite Room would be the perfect setting for that.”

Browning was inspired to write the play when he read the book Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s by Will Fellows and Helen P. Branson. It was the first piece of literature in the U.S. about gay culture that was allowed to be published.

Wanzie’s annual Christmas Show is set to open in December and will be performed in the Starlite Room as well.

Anyone seeking more information on how to get your show or act in the Starlite Room at Savoy can reach Wanzie at WanzieMichael@gmail.com.

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