As he prepares to unveil a superhero-themed karaoke bar downtown, Andy Lebwohl is sprouting a dream planted over 20 years ago, when he was just your average comic-book-reading 8-year-old crooning “New York, New York.”
Lebwohl, who’s now 30, is putting the finishing touches on his new Crown Street bar, Karaoke Heroes, which is scheduled to open on Saturday. While other bars may have a karaoke night once a week, Karaoke Heroes, at 212 Crown St., will offer all karaoke, all the time.
In addition to a main bar area with a mini-stage and two cordless mics for singers, Karaoke Heroes will offer “Asian-style karaoke,” meaning that groups of people will be able to rent sound-proof rooms (pictured) to belt out their favorite songs in private for $8 per person per hour.
A superhero theme and decor makes the bar more distinctive. The place is decorated with the bright colors found in the Sunday-morning comics and when it opens, all the staff will be wearing capes, Lebwohl said. It’s just the first of what Lebwohl envisions as a chain of such bars.
In an interview Monday, Lebwohl sat on a zebra-patterned couch in one of the bar’s private karaoke rooms and explained the connection between karaoke and superheroes.
Karaoke, he said, is about stepping onstage and becoming your best self. You get a chance, for a few minutes, to become a rock star, a larger-than-life figure who’s also sort of a superhero, said Lebwohl (pictured picking out a song to sing). “The psychological root of both is the same.”
Both karaoke and superheroes have also played a defining role in Lebwohl’s life. He’s always loved comic books and he’s loved karaoke since he discovered it at age 8 while on vacation with his family in Vermont.
They were having a late lunch at a slope-side pub at Smuggler’s Notch ski resort. The bar was getting ready for that evening’s karaoke night. Lebwohl jumped onstage and took the mic, singing the Frank Sinatra version of “New York, New York” and planting the seed for a lifetime of karaoke enthusiasm.
“I’ve always been a ham,” he said. “I’ve always had a performer’s personality.”
After that “New York, New York” moment in Vermont, Lebwohl went on to sing with two a cappella groups at Columbia University, where he also earned a law degree. He’s sung karaoke around the world, including in a combination karaoke bar and strip club in Ukraine.
After law school and three years as a bankruptcy lawyer, Lebwohl decided he needed a change, to pursue what had been his “escapist fantasy” during his time as an attorney—to open a karaoke bar.
He enrolled in Yale’s business school, where he developed a business plan to open a chain of superhero-themed karaoke bars, the first of which he is on the cusp of opening on Crown Street.
On Monday, workers were busily installing wiring and a low stage in the new bar, while freshly hired servers were trained on the point-of-sale computer system. In keeping with the superhero theme, Lebwohl said those staffers will all be wearing subtle superhero costumes. “Everybody’s going to be in a cape.”
Further embellishing the superhero theme, the ramp into the bar will have a Batcave feel, with red telephones on the wall that people can pick up to hear, for instance, the Gotham City’s police Commissioner Gordon urgently calling for help fending off the latest supervillian attack. Lebwohl has also picked up an old wooden phone booth off of eBay, just like Clark Kent uses to transform into Superman.
Lebwohl said he hired Marvel Comics writer and artist Al Milgram to create an 8-page comic book featuring “Karaoke Heroes.” The panels of the comic book will be blown up and affixed to big light boxes on the wall (pictured).
Most recently, the space has hosted a series of nightclubs with edgy names: Static, 5 Senses, Oracle. Lebwohl said he wants to create a new kind of nightlife experience. “A nightclub should make you feel good about yourself,” he said. “It should be interactive. There should be more to do than just drink.”
Karaoke Heroes will have a Playstation 3 connected to one of the room’s TVs, so that dudes who don’t like to sing can play Mortal Kombat and Streetfighter when their girlfriends drag them to the karaoke bar, Lebwohl said. The bar itself will be equipped with LED lights that will ripple out when a drink is placed down, he said. There will also be a vending machine dispensing electronic cigarettes, which are legal to “smoke” indoors, Lebwohl said.
Lebwohl is marking the opening of the bar with a $1,000-grand-prize karaoke contest on the New Haven Green on Saturday, organized with radio station KC101. Former American Idol contestant William Hung will also be on hand to celebrate the opening. When he was “eviscerated” by Simon Cowell in the third season of the show, Hung became not a superhero, but a “folk hero” Lebwohl said.
On Monday, after belting out a powerhouse version of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” the song that lifted him into the second round of the 2011 national karaoke championships, Lebwohl shared the secret to a successful karaoke performance.
“Commit,” he said. “You are the rock star.”