The New Old Lounge Act at Cicada Restaurant
by Kristin Friedrich
If you’re committed, and your shoes are semi-comfortable, Thursday nights in Downtown Los Angeles can include endless combinations of the following: symphony, theater, live music, an art walk, sporting events, a speakeasy, and bars of the wine, dive, faux bordello, frat boy and velvet rope variety.
As if the list needs to get any more colorful, there is now a Texas-born crooner who channels Sinatra and cracks wise, Rat Pack-style, with an orchestra that does not exist.
Max Vontaine appears every Thursday at Olive Street’s ornate Cicada restaurant, his rich baritone teasing out hits from the Chairman, Bobby Darin, Cab Calloway, Tom Jones and Elvis. He also tosses in the odd chestnut such as The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” and the theme song from “The Love Boat.”
One imagines a conversation with Vontaine to be filled with wafting smoke, deep chuckles and “You’re money” and “Daddy-O” asides. But Vontaine is the creation of Max Hartman, and Hartman is a regular guy who speaks with the faintest of Dallas twangs and now calls Silver Lake home.
Hartman came West two years ago to try his hand in the entertainment business, both as an actor and the frontman of the rock band Mur. The group is currently on hiatus, and Hartman has used the time to resurrect a lounge act he created back in Texas. Swaying in front of a red velvet drape, jabbing an unlit cigarette around like a sword, and shaking a dry martini, Hartman has been singing at the Art Deco Cicada for about six months.
It hasn’t always been white tablecloths and Chardonnay. Hartman’s last permanent gig was at Pasadena’s Old Towne Pub. He says the decor featured “trash bags over broken urinals and old crusty pirate drunks at the bar.” Not that he’s complaining. Hartman got several wedding gigs out of the deal, and once played a biker’s baby shower in the Valley.
Back then, Hartman says, his show was “a little more R-rated.” He smoked real cigarettes onstage and engaged the aforementioned pirate drunks in adult-themed banter. At Cicada, his act is clean as a whistle, and just as well too, as the audience on a recent Thursday included an L.A. City Councilman and what looked to be several frequent and upscale diners.
Cicada often has music for private events, and has previously scheduled musicians in the mezzanine bar, but General Manager Richard Liberman says this marks the first time a reoccurring act has played the dining room. Liberman first glimpsed Hartman at his illustrious pub gig and saw the opportunity to bring it to the Cicada set.
“In the middle of these old guys and this old place, he had this great act,” Liberman says. “I knew he had to come to our establishment. He’s a perfect fit, he brings out the style of the restaurant.”
Hartman says his lounge act and the rock band are two different animals. “I enjoy doing the Max Vontaine bit. It’s less of a personal expression, it’s about entertaining people and paying tribute to these great old songs,” Hartman says. “The band is more torturous and personal.”
One of the appealing things about the old Vegas Rat Pack vibe, and Hartman’s act in general, is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. On his iPod from the stage, Hartman cues songs – orchestral back tracks he often purchases from karaoke shops – and then thanks the invisible band for their efforts. And on occasion you just may catch a rakish lyric or two he’s slipped into the number.
A few songs into the night, couples hit the dance floor to the tune of “Fly Me to the Moon,” Hartman starts dipping his mic like it was a curvy blonde, and birthday requests materialize from a diner whose birthday it probably was not. (Even in a three-star dining establishment, never underestimate the lure of a potentially free birthday drink and a wink from Max.)
Liberman says the Thursday night crowd is growing, and a bit of a groupie element appears to be forming in the front tables. In his smoking jacket and cufflinks, Hartman is as smooth as his swank surroundings.
“It was a bizarre experience, the first time I looked out in that big, beautiful room,” Hartman says. “I think I’m supposed to be doing this.”
Cicada is at 617 S. Olive St., (213) 488-9488 or cicadarestaurant.com. Max Vontaine performs every Thursday, 8-11 p.m.
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