"Over 22,000 songs in 20 languages," beckons the Website for Studio, the self-proclaimed "world's largest karaoke club," located below the Shelborne Hotel in Miami Beach. "Giant dance floor with lasers, strobe lights, and smoke! 2 VIP rooms! Chance to jam with the band LIVE! Make a professional CD of your performance!"
Desiring an escape from New Orleans (where I live) to swim, I scoured the Internet for diversions in Miami Beach. I found Studio. The best claim? "Our flattering lighting will enhance your performance." Seemed serious. Or at least a good enough excuse for a visit.
Studio is owned and operated by longtime talent agent Louie Rosenthal, who hails from New York City and resembles Andre the Giant's tropical brother. In pictures on the club's Website, Louie's partly unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts reveal chest hair and gold medallions as he towers over the Olsen twins, John Stamos, and Kelly Clarkson, who apparently are among his celebrity fans, patrons, and former clientele. In every snapshot taken inside the dark club, Louie wears sunglasses.
After a full South Beach day of swimming and getting my car towed, I arrive at Studio to find not the karaoke arena I'd been led to expect, but instead a charming dive bar.
Studio's smoky smell and small stage remind one of a diminutive live rock and roll club. Strips of pink neon and colored stage lights barely illuminate the space, but bright reading lamps shine above thick books: sacred texts full of song names. Studio's MC, a gray-haired keyboardist who goes by the moniker "Ronnie's Connection," uses the same small sampler as many professional electronic musicians, but only for toilet flushing sounds and fake applause. The sampler sits covered in dust, as do three keyboards on stands and, it seems, Ronnie's Connection himself.
As touted on the place's Website (www.louiestudio.com), a cornucopia of musical instruments lines Studio's every wall, ready for those who want to jam while singing. The concept is less unusual than the actual array of instruments; the walls boast not only keyboards and bongos, guitars and basses (including versions with no strings for those who just want to "air" along), but also banjos, trumpets, sousaphones, and even a washboard. It's enough gear for at least one rock group plus a country ensemble and a New Orleans brass band. Studio's advertised "live band," however, is you -- or whoever else picks up a sousaphone.
"Other clubs have karaoke one, two nights a week," brags Louie, in person, lounging in the dark, personal VIP corner that all nightclub owners keep for themselves. "Japan created karaoke, and I have friends who live in Japan, and they all say that even there, there's no place there like mine with the instruments and sound effects and lighting." While describing the club's professional ProTools recording setup and the cameras that record patrons' live music videos (every night but Sunday), Louie leads me to a secret door under the stage. In this dark crawl space live three massive CD changers that house every radio hit ever plus obscurities by everyone from R.E.M. to Morrissey. Louie claims to have spent $200,000 on song rights alone, and he'll soon add another CD tower to accommodate more than 30,000 total songs.
Bragging rights, though, are not really what Louie is after. He simply wants you to have the same privilege as Bobby Brown, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Howie Mandel, or any of the other notables lining Louie's walls. "Dealing with so many celebrities over the years, I know what a rush it is to be onstage," Louie says. "I wanted to give people the chance to feel that rush. My celebrity friends come in all the time and tell me: Even on that stage I still get nervous!'"
Louie and I are interrupted when Ronnie's Connection calls my name. But I'm not yet drunk enough to sing, because even here, beers are seven dollars. "But we don't charge a cover," Louie reminds me, and then explains that for its first five years in the mid-Nineties, Studio lived in Sunny Isles Beach, and a brew cost $4.50. "I used to think seven-dollar beers were ridiculous," Louie says, "but in the six years we've been on South Beach, the rents are so high I have to charge seven dollars."
Despite sobriety, I take the stage to sing George Michael's "One More Try" -- with an unfair advantage, since this is my morning shower song. "You can go ahead and turn the microphone up," I boldly tell Ronnie's Connection.
"I'll adjust it based on your performance," he boldly replies.
"All right. But please don't put that fake clapping at the end of my song. I want to hear the truth."
Truthfully I get a great response from Studio's mostly young Latin crowd, several of whom then proceed to commandeer the stage in a large, excited group for several Spanish-language songs. The boys slap bongos; the girls play air guitars. True fun is being had.
"I don't speak a word of Spanish," Louie admits. "Not a word. But we get a huge Latin crowd; they can't believe the songs I have. And I tell my Spanish customers what I tell everyone: If we don't have it, tell me, and I'll get it.'"
Sipping my second beer slowly and waiting for my next song, I meet Chrissan Silver, a 29-year-old self-described "karaoke connoisseur," who drove from Orlando to visit Studio. "It's very cavelike in here," Chrissan opines by way of a compliment. "I feel like I'm in some kind of small karaoke abyss. The size, though, makes getting up and putting it out there less intimidating than in larger clubs."
Chrissan's beautiful red-haired girlfriend refuses to sing but compensates with elaborate avant dance interpretations of Chrissan's song choices, such as Madonna's "Like a Prayer." She also declines to do shots of tequila with Chrissan, who instead buys me a shot and then another before accompanying me on back-up vocals for Hall & Oates's "You Make My Dreams Come True." Slightly drunk, Chrissan plays bongos to accompany my rendition of Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)." Several members of the young Latin crowd jump onstage and join us on various hand drums. It is magical. But when Chrissan and I then team up on bongos to accompany another fellow's Johnny Cash number, Ronnie's Connection shouts us down.
I soften my skin-slapping, but Ronnie scolds, "C'mon! What are you doing?"
At song's end, Chrissan and I slip quickly off the stage as Ronnie initiates the fake applause sample and growls to the crowd: "I don't know what the hell those bongos were about!"
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Louie is still nice to me, though. He tells me that investors have asked him to open another Studio in Orlando. "But I can't be in two places at once," he says. "And I have to be here. People come here -- celebrities come -- they come looking for me." Louie also believes Orlando just doesn't have the right personality to accommodate a place like Studio.
And thus I spend the next half-hour drunkenly trying to talk him into New Orleans. "It's a natural fit!" I shout over someone's Spanish singing. "New Orleans is the only other place this weirdness would fly. They're such similar cities -- if y'all exchanged wealth for poverty, and suntans for alcoholism.... We're both these strange, anomalous islands, flourishing against all odds in conservative surroundings!" I try to rally Louie, who calmly studies me from behind his sunglasses. "We're like the last bastions of true regional character in America!"
And our stylish tolerance is rewarded with places like Studio.