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50 Years Young, NYC's Duplex Celebrates Anniversary

NYC's Duplex could easily use as its theme song Sondheim's "I'm Still Here." Since 1950, it has had seven ownerships, closed twice, and had two West Village addresses (55 Grove Street, and now 61 Christopher Street). There have been many ups and downs for this club, once named "Upstairs at the Duplex" (by press agent Betty Lee Hunt, when New Yorker critic Rodgers Whitaker described the room thus and started the trend of naming clubs "Upstairs" and "Downstairs"). Even an entertainment trivia buff might be surprised at the diverse list of performers using the Duplex as a launching pad.

In 1955, Hal Holbrook developed his Mark Twain show while managing the club. In 1956, Sylvia Syms and Professor Irwin Corey were headliners. After Jan Wallman began managing there in 1959, television scouts frequented the room. Barbra Streisand, already at the Bon Soir, was so eager to be seen at the Duplex she sang for free. The roster soon included Ruth Buzzi, Dick Cavett, George Segal, Stiller and Meara, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Klein, Barry Manilow, and Richard Pryor. Joanne Worley credits the Duplex as where she honed the material used on "Laugh In." Back Stage asked alumni Joan Rivers, who returns to perform there on October 20, what impact the club had on her career. "The Duplex was the first time I started to connect to the audience," she recalls. "It was the first time I ever got a review—'Funniest words out of the mouth of a babe since Elaine May'—and that actually brought us business."

As with many '60s clubs, the Duplex relied on free publicity for audiences, but as columns and NYC papers folded, so, in 1968, did the cabaret. Marcia Lewis, with husband Dick Woody, achieved a reprieve in 1970-1971, featuring David Brenner, Lee Roy Reams, Loni Ackerman, and Steve Landesburg. The Duplex then closed till 1975, when, at the height of disco fever, it became a disco for six empty weeks. While many cabarets closed for good, the Duplex survived, and soon became part of an NYC cabaret revival in 1978, helmed by new owners Erv Raible and the late Rob Hoskins. Their booking formula was to become known for how they treated their acts and staff. Raible also provided support by doing flyer layouts. The downstairs piano bar was staffed by Broadway hopefuls and featured an open mike. Comedian Rick Aviles (best known as the killer in "Ghost") used this frequently while still a struggling NYC street comic. By the mid-'80s, the cabaret's roster included future award-winners Liz and Ann Hampton Callaway, Charles Busch, Karen Mason, and Chicago City Limits.

Looking back, current owner Rick Panson recalls, "I bought the Duplex in 1984 as a business venture 'sight unseen' with Larry Shumel, an old roommate of mine from SUNY New Paltz. [Today Panson is the club's sole owner.] I didn't know what a gem I had until I actually began operating and realized what a wealth of talent worked and performed at the Duplex. Everyone was pouring their heart and soul into their performances, and I was astonished by such wonderful camaraderie." Panson featured singers and monologists, while also creating a Saturday stand-up show presenting future headliners, including Jon Stewart, now host of "The Daily Show." To continue the tradition of supporting performers, Panson used his interest in graphic arts and marketing. He designed their flyers, generated a monthly club newsletter, and developed a computerized mailing database.

The Duplex gained a reputation for developing full productions without the large theatre cost, such as the original "Nunsense." When a larger space became available for the club, Panson gathered his staff to make the move in one night, so the Duplex wouldn't have to go dark. The new address featured a piano bar, a "Game Room" bar with pool table, and a 70-seat cabaret theatre with state of the art lights and equipment. Shows developed there included "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," Sherry Vine and Theatre Couture's "The Bad Weed '73," and currently, on Saturdays in October, Danny Pintauro (Jonathan Bower from "Who's the Boss,") stars in "The Velocity of Gary." In the '90s, other Duplex performers included Judy Carne, Wigstock's The Lady Bunny, and Lea Delaria.

Phillip George, director of "Forbidden Broadway," recently produced and directed "Shout!" at the Duplex. He observes, "I think of the Duplex as my own personal Philadelphia: an out-of-town tryout, only in town. When you're reduced to a piano, a microphone, and an audience, you really find out about the nature of comedy. You could never replace the Duplex. It would take at least 20 years of performers' collective hopes, despair, laughter, and sheer creative energy to seep into the brickwork of any other space. It's the creative epicenter of Greenwich Village. I love it."

The '90s also saw the stage used for developing comics, with a Friday "Stars Of Tomorrow" Talent Search (reinstated this year as "Stars 2000"). Comedians, including future CBS sitcom star Jim Gaffigan, performed, as well as newcomer John Fugelsang, who used his Back Stage Bistro Award-winning Duplex show "Junk Male" to generate industry interest. His career credits now include former VH1 veejay, co-host of "America's Funniest Home Videos," and, currently, regular appearances on "Politically Incorrect."

Duplex Piano Bar staffer Bill Morgan, featured on Sunday, Monday, Thursday, and Friday nights, observes, "The great thing about working at the Duplex is the creative freedom and supportive environment that allows you to take chances, and perform to a diverse audience that is ever evolving. People travel from around the world because of the reputation of the Duplex. The most gratifying moments are when people visiting New York City come up to you and say of all their NYC experiences, this has been the most fun."

Also billed as a "New York Experience," the mid-'90s at the Duplex offered "Leah Sutton's Variety Show." Sutton, whose shows first became popular in Soho, provided Saturday night Duplex audiences with shows featuring headline singers and comic combinations including Joy Behar, Caroline Rhea, and Jerry Dixon. As the main celebration for the Duplex's 50th anniversary, Sutton once again gathers top name Duplex alumni for a Variety Show to benefit The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, on Oct. 23 at 7:30 pm. Performers include Karen Mason, Judy Gold, Mario Cantone, Rob Krauz of "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," Jeane Tinker of "Nunsense," and singer/songwriter Gerry Dieffenbach, who is also a popular feature in the piano bar Saturdays and Sundays.

Summing up his hopes for the next 50 years, Rick Panson feels the "best is yet to come" for the Duplex. He also looks forward to "staying on the cutting edge" and "bringing cabaret and piano bar to even more mainstream audiences."

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