By Tammy Scileppi
It was that unforgettable era of sex, swagger and swing – when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin and Sammy Davis, Jr. were household names.
With his irresistible charm and polished, old-fashioned style combined with a flair for singing those iconic songs of yesteryear, Bayside native Jonathan Poretz, wonderfully recreates the heyday of a young Las Vegas, bringing a retro ‘60s vibe to the Feinstein’s/54 Below stage, where he performs his swoon-worthy production of “When Vegas Was VEGAS!” Tickets are on sale for the 7 p.m. show scheduled for Tuesday, May 15.
Feinstein’s/54 Below is a popular nightclub in the theater district, located a few blocks from the heart of Times Square and just below the legendary Studio 54, at 254 W. 54th St.
Backed by his swingin’ mini-big band, the modern-day crooner and San Francisco resident, will be pulling out all the stops when he returns to his hometown of New York City after 35 years.
So, if you’re in the mood for a dose of vintage Vegas, you and your date can almost step back in time when you experience music, comedy, and uniquely told stories from a bygone era.
Poretz, who has toured the United States and Europe in various tribute shows as Frank Sinatra, puts his unique stamp on every song he belts and wows audiences with authentic, big band arrangements of everyone’s favorite songs from the vast catalogs of Sinatra, Martin, Darin and Davis Jr., including “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” “Ain’t That A Kick In The Head,” “That’s Amore,” “What Kind Of Fool Am I,” “Mack The Knife,” “Splish Splash,” “My Way,” “New York, New York,” and many more.
The all-star band is led by drummer extraordinaire Michael Berkowitz, a Broadway and concert veteran who has served as musical director for Marvin Hamlisch and Liza Minnelli, among others.
Poretz left his beloved Queens behind for sunny California in 1995 and has been living in the Bay Area for 23 years.
“While Thomas Wolfe wrote ‘you can’t go home again,’ this ‘prodigal Son-atra’ believes otherwise,” Poretz said in an interview with TimesLedger. “I’ll be coming home to perform in May, and bringing with me my 90-year-old dad (also from Bayside, by way of Brighton Beach), who’ll be making his last visit home to see/hear his son perform in our home city.”
The journey back to New York has been a lengthy one, Poretz said.
“When I left New York City, I had pretty much put my music career and ambitions on hold,” he said. “My PR day job was taking me out to Silicon Valley almost monthly and leaving was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. Sadly, it was my mother’s passing, the same year I moved to California, that made me realize I needed to get back to doing what makes me happy. After all, life is short.”
The Bayside High School and Queens College graduate said his initial re-entry into music was through musical theater. He played Sky Masterson in a community theater production of “Guys & Dolls” in 1997 — 22 years after he played Sky in the Bayside High School Production of that show in 1975.
“Once again, I was hooked on performing. After several shows, I realized my true passion was singing,” Poretz said.
The rising musician said he has his parents to thank for building his love of music at a young age.
“I was fortunate that my parents took my brother Andrew and I to jazz concerts throughout our adolescence,” Poretz said. “I’d say I heard Mel Torme at least a half-dozen times when he’d come into town with the Newport/Kool Jazz Festival. I was also a huge Sinatra fan, mostly because of my brother, who played his music constantly on my record player in my room. When he took me (at my parents urging) to a Sinatra concert in 1975, I was mesmerized. It was then that I really began exploring his music and appreciating the lyrics of the songs he sang.”
The singer’s road to New York City was by way of Feinstein’s at the Nikko, in San Francisco, where he initially debuted “When Vegas Was VEGAS!” in 2016. “My sold-out shows there enabled me to get booked in my hometown. Guess, unlike the song, ‘New York, New York,’ I had to make it everywhere before I could make it in New York,” said Poretz, noting that while NYC and Queens had changed dramatically since he last lived in Bayside in 1984, “the Sicilian pizza at VI Pizza on Bell Blvd. was just as good as I remembered.”
So, what do you love about vintage Vegas?
“Vegas in the ‘60s was pure, unadulterated entertainment. Performers didn’t rely on light shows, explosions and special effects,” he noted. “Sinatra and the Rat Pack – they performed on a pretty stark Copa Room stage at the Sands. Just them, a big band, a few props and, oh yeah, booze. Back then, you could see all the greatest performers of that time in any one of the main showrooms. If you couldn’t get in to see Frank, Dean and Sammy, well, you could go check out Vic Damone, Tony Bennett, Jack Jones, Nat King Cole, etc. And if you couldn’t get into see them, well, you’d have to ‘settle’ for the Lounge – as in Keely Smith and Louis Prima (that’s a joke). They were amazing!”
While his journey took him across the country, Poretz said he really misses living in Queens.
“Growing up in Bayside was special. I miss the Q13 and 28 rides from Bay Terrace to Flushing,” he said. “From there I always enjoyed the short hop to Shea Stadium and Flushing Meadows Corona Park.”
He also remembers playing football on a field behind his building in Bay Terrace and how his music career began as a teen in the borough.
“Being the young rock singer in the Buddy Brooks Orchestra at Ripples on the Water, in Whitestone, from ages 15 to 19, playing hundreds of weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, I received the best musical education from those players,” Poretz said of his early band.
But it’s the little things that he remembers the most.
“I loved my old shopping center; the bowling alley where you could bowl three games and eat a hot dog, french fries and a coke for $1.25; the coffee shop where we’d have a celebratory sundae after performing in chorus at PS 169; sitting through four showings of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ when it opened at the newly minted Bay Terrace Theater,” he recalled.
Poretz said he uses Facebook to connect with his family and friends in Queens and is thrilled to have the opportunity to see them again in May.
“I’m very excited that so many of them will be on hand at Feinstein’s/54 Below for my homecoming,” he said. “We’re planning a family reunion on the weekend I get in.”
The performer is especially thrilled to see his father, and the feeling is mutual.
“He’s ecstatic. He knew this was my dream, so he wanted to be part of it,” Poretz said. “He’ll be 91 in June, so, as he said, ‘I want to make one more trip to New York City while I’m vertical.’ Although I joked to my dad that I bought him a one-way ticket, he’s coming back with me. But not before we paint the town during the week we’ll be visiting.”
Calling his show, “a swingin’ big band tribute to the icons of a generation and the men who transformed a desert’s heat into an oasis of cool,” the performer says. “It was the music of Broadway coupled with the sound and interpretation through jazz that attracted me to the Great American Songbook. The more I listened to Sinatra and his phrasing, the more I realized just how amazing the lyrics to these great melodies were. I believe that it’s the lyrics that will keep this music going.”
“We all go through everything these songs talk about — love, loss of love, heartbreak, happiness — articulated in ways that speak to us, or at least to me. So, I’m just doing my part to keep this music alive,” Poretz added.