TONY STARLIGHT HITS 25 YEARS OF CROONING
Neil Diamond, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Elton John don't come to mind when you think of houseboat living on the river.
But Brett Kucera, aka Tony Starlight, who lists the four singers as his favorite alter egos, should come to mind now that we know. Starlight doesn't live in a penthouse on Broadway. He lives on a houseboat floating in Multnomah Channel behind Sauvie Island.
"I really like it," says Starlight, Portland's resident crooner of most things yesteryear who's celebrating 25 years of doing his thing on stage. "My wife, Sherry, always wanted to live out by the water, and we started looking at Jantzen Beach, and the realtor kept telling us about a nice home out in Scappoose.
"I didn't want to live out there. But, turns out, it was worse driving out to Jantzen Beach than Scappoose. I don't mind that drive at all. And we got a bunch of property, and I enjoy walking the dogs."
When not enjoying the tranquility of houseboat living, he stars under the lights of ... Southeast Madison Street. It's where his dinner club is, where he sings Neil and Dean and Frank and Elton, and many other songs that bring back memories and good feelings out of middle-agers (and older).
He'll celebrate 25 years in show biz with a show Saturday, Sept. 22, at Alberta Rose Theatre.
Besides seven years of living in Los Angeles, Starlight has entertained folks as maybe the city's preeminent showman.
Twenty-five years ago, Starlight, a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who also lived in Bozeman, Montana, and Hood River, moved to Portland. He worked at the Virginia Cafe with another fellow and they recruited another guy and they played a five-song set "that was campy as can be" at the old Mark's Hawthorne Pub.
"I had no idea what I was going to do," he says. "I was a frustrated singer/songwriter." He listened as fans fell for grunge music, and "I don't know why the richest generation of human beings ever are so angry. The grunge thing was all this anger."
So he went counter-culture and hooked on to the crooners, and added in some personality from his days as the class clown.
"I was surrounded by these better musicians than me. I piggy-backed on them."
It went over well. Gigs happened at other since-closed places — Gypsy, 1201, Jimmy Mak's, McCall's. He did some Weird Al-inspired parody and, once back from Los Angeles in 2007, he realized that doing impersonations and jokes was the way to go. He opened his own club, and then moved to another one, the Tony Starlight Showroom at 1125 S.E. Madison St.
Starlight, 48, made a name for himself by doing music that everyone of certain ages could identify with: music that dominated the landscape in its day.
"My show's a real nostalgia show," he says. "We're the last generation that had a common popular culture. When we grew up, we all watched the same three TV channels and listened to the same 3-4 radio stations. We didn't have an infinite selection.
"I don't like Huey Lewis, but I can sing 10 Huey Lewis songs because I listened to them constantly growing up. When I do a TV theme, you've heard it 1,000 times — 'Dukes of Hazzard,' 'Three's Company.' Start in on a Hall & Oates song, and you know it. … I can appeal to a broad range of people."
He's not a world-class singer. He's a bit schticky. He's unapologetic.
"It's a bit of a blessing as far as uniting people," he says.
He does shows on Diamond, Martin, Sinatra and John, as well as on TV music, '70s, '80s and variety.
Of his favorites, he says:
• Neil Diamond — "He's an entirely unique entertainer. He writes songs unlike any other, sings, his style ... it carries over to old show business. I love old show business. And, my vocal range is right there, baritone." Some of his favorite songs: "America," "Forever in Blue Jeans," "Holly Holy," "Play Me," "Longfellow Serenade," "Cherry Cherry."
• Dean Martin — "One of the greatest comedians that there ever was. A state of calm and cool, not afraid to be silly, and seemed cool. Beautiful voice, charming, the funniest charmingest entertainer. … With Dean, I just love the jokes and spirit of goofing around." Some favorite songs: "Sway," "Ain't That a Kick in the Head."
• Frank Sinatra — "He emotionally captured a song better than anyone else from that generation. He was a great actor, he knew how to act out a song. He could tear your heart apart, be tender, and could also be very cocky and powerful." Some favorites: "I Got You Under My Skin," "The Lady is a Tramp," "It Was a Very Good Year."
• Elton John — "His writing is so interesting. Musically complex, fun to play with a band, rock and roll. So many songs are anthems. Amazing musician, songwriter, entertainer, and had such energy and over-the-top costuming." Among faves: "Crocodile Rock," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Saturday Night."
Starlight does many shows each year, and virtually every week.
And he still loves it.
"I've continually had to fine-tune what I do to the changing market," he says. "It's like a mom-and-pop show, like a Vegas show in Portland. There's nobody that does what I'm doing with a show every week, and I'm producing it, and I'm owning the venue." He likens himself to Darcelle, the famous drag queen, who has been an institution in Old Town for more than 50 years.
"I love this business and entertaining, but I couldn't live in Las Vegas. I love it here. I know the people and it just feels comfortable."
Tony Starlight's 25th Anniversary Special takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22, at Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 N.E. Alberta St. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. For more: http://www.albertarosetheatre.com, tonystarlight.com.