Rick Newman: His Trendy Comedy Club Made Careers

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Rick Newman, Whose Comedy Club Made Careers, Dies at 82”:

Rick Newman, who opened Catch a Rising Star on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1972 and built it into a trendy club where Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Freddie Prinze, Jay Leno and countless other comedians did some of their earliest work and sometimes returned to refine material, died at his home in Los Angeles.

Mr. Newman had run a few other businesses, including a singles bar and a steakhouse, before he decided to try a comedy club.

“For the first time in my life I’ve got a reason why I was born,” he said in 1975, when Catch, as it became known, was drawing crowds and making careers. “It’s unbelievable. Sometimes I just want to bust.”

Budd Friedman, who died in November, had shown the way with the comedy club Improvisation (soon known simply as the Improv), which he opened in Midtown in 1963. Mr. Newman made his new club — on First Avenue near East 78th Street — equally influential, serving up a hodgepodge of performers whose very unevenness was part of the fun.

“On any given night you may catch singers, comics, musicians, jugglers or animal acts ranging from near professional to downright awful,” The Daily News of New York wrote in 1973, four months after Catch opened. “Hope springs so eternal, an 83-year-old hoofer recently took a turn.”

The newspaper noted that a sign above the stage read, “All entertainers must leave the stage instantly if any objects are thrown.”

If some of those entertainers — especially on Mondays, an audition night that welcomed all comers — were not destined for greatness, others were. One Monday discovery in the early years was Richard Belzer, who so impressed Mr. Newman that he became the regular M.C. and worked at the club for seven years.

Mr. Crystal was another whose career took off at Catch.

“For years I was in a three-man comedy team and extremely anxious to go on my own,” he said. “I finally left the group and talked to Rick, and he gave me times right away.”

At first those were after-midnight slots, Mr. Crystal said, but the audience responded.

“Rick then knew he could put me on in prime times,” he said. “And Rick also knew I also was a new father who was ‘Mr. Mom’ to my baby daughter during the day, as Janice” — Mr. Crystal’s wife — “had gone back to work giving me this chance to become what I always wanted to be. Rick started to give me early good times, and gas money so I could drive home to Long Beach, over an hour away.”

“He was a very warm man, good sense of humor but a better sense of people,” Mr. Crystal added. “A friend to all who got up on the stage.”

In an unpublished memoir, Mr. Newman recalled a pivotal night about four months into the life of the club. The place was getting decent crowds on weekends, he wrote, but “still did not have that star level of talent who was instantly recognizable to the public.” One Friday night David Brenner, who already had a national profile thanks to appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” came in just to see the show.

Mr. Newman said he asked Mr. Brenner repeatedly if he wanted to get up and do a few minutes of material. The comic declined at first but eventually relented, took the stage and did 45 minutes, to riotous response from the audience.

“Right at that moment in time, it was like BAM!,” Mr. Newman wrote. “It was immediately cool to get onstage at Catch, and now we were no longer just presenting new talent.”

As Mr. Brenner explained in an interview with The New York Times in 1982: “You can’t practice on ‘The Tonight Show’ or in Vegas. Catch is a place where you can be bad, and that’s how you get to be good.”

Other name comics followed Mr. Brenner’s lead, stopping at the club to work on new material. In 1979, the entertainment writer Jack O’Brian noted in his column “The Voice of Broadway” that Mr. Williams, by then a star from the TV series “Mork & Mindy,” had recently stopped by and done “the longest stint ever at Catch a Rising Star, one hour and 10 minutes.”

“Three years before,” Mr. O’Brian wrote, “he was just another comic at Catch doing a 10-minute stint.”

Agents and bookers took to frequenting the club, looking for promising talent and sometimes signing up newcomers on the spot. The club was best known for comedy, but one of its biggest discoveries was a singer, Pat Benatar, who turned up at an open-mic night in 1975, when she was working in a cabaret-singer mode.

“I want you to come back as a regular performer,” Mr. Newman told her, “but I don’t think you have to do ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ anymore,” referring to the 1920s standard. Instead she literally changed her tune, and within a few years she was one of rock’s biggest female stars. Mr. Newman managed her for almost 15 years.

Mark Krantz worked for Mr. Newman in the 1970s and early 1980s, managing the club and its bar.

“The hang at the bar was as funny as what was inside,” he said.

“We all played jokes on each other,” he said. “Some maniac walked in with a raincoat and a Bible in his hand, and nobody helped me throw him out, so I threw him out. And that was Andy Kaufman.”

Mr. Kaufman, the offbeat comic who turned his timid, heavily accented “Foreign Man” character into a role on the sitcom “Taxi,” tried that character out at the club and — well, Foreign Man is, comedically speaking, an acquired taste.

“He did Foreign Man until the audiences were booing and walking out,” Mr. Newman recalled in 1982. “But then suddenly he broke into his incredible Elvis imitation and caught us so completely by surprise that we ended up crying, we were laughing so hard.”

That must have told Mr. Kaufman that he was going to be a star.

“One thing that Rick had was a really great laugh,” Mr. Krantz said. “If you made him laugh, you won.”

Rick was born Irving Newman on Feb. 21, 1941, in the Bronx. His father, William, made ties, and his mother, Martha (Zipper) Newman, was a homemaker.

He grew up in the Bronx and studied graphic design at the School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design).

In his unpublished memoir, Mr. Newman said that he was originally thinking of calling his club Off Off Broadway or the Talent Scout, but fate and a radio station intervened.

“Driving on my way home to Queens, the song ‘Catch a Falling Star’ by Perry Como came on the radio,” he wrote, “and like a lightning bolt hitting me, I said to myself, ‘That’s it.’”

He sold the original club — which was sometimes promoted with the name Rick Newman’s Catch a Rising Star — in 1986. Catch a Rising Star then became a franchise with locations throughout the country, but the original club closed in 1993. In 1996, Mr. Newman revived the name in New York with a club on West 28th Street, but that venue lasted only two years.

He was also involved in other enterprises, including, in the 1980s, the restaurant Columbus on the Upper West Side, whose partners included Regis Philbin and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

“He had enormous culturally influential success in three different industries — comedy with Catch, music with Pat Benatar and restaurants with Columbus,” Mr. Martin, his business partner in the Triad, said by email. “By putting his name in front of the Catch a Rising Star title, he created his own brand that made him famous, yet he remained humble, likable and supportive.”

Mr. Belzer, Catch’s longtime M.C., died the day before Mr. Newman did.

“Their encouragement and belief in me gave me the confidence I needed, and I was one of many with the same feelings,” Mr. Crystal said. “As hard as it is for me, their losses a day apart seem kind of poetic now.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Times Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

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