At 25, Jack Sosnowski, co-owner of the new Ivory Room piano bar at 116 W. Mifflin, is hardly a member of the core demographic for the music of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But he admits he's always had a soft spot for the golden throats of the Rat Pack and the songs they helped cement in the standard repertoire of club and lounge performers everywhere.
That's part of what made him open the cozy, stylish Ivory Room this month with partner Julie Stoleson. "A lot of my friends make fun of me for getting into 'Dad's' music, but I just love it," he laughs.
Sosnowski and Stoleson really got hooked on the piano-bar concept during pilgrimages to Chicago's Redhead Piano Bar. The sing-alongs with pianists who seemed to know every tune ever written, the jovial patrons making requests, the black piano nestled within a small side bar that hugs its contours - they loved every detail of the long-established Redhead.
And they figured a similar, urban-oriented nook was a perfect fit for downtown Madison. "I've been in the bar business," says Sosnowski, who previously worked with Stoleson at her sister and brother-in-law's State Street hangout, the City Bar. "And I know this spot right by the Overture Center would be a great place for something like this.
"We contemplated doing dueling pianos and a kind of college-type scene. But we realized that might be a little much. We really wanted to have this cozy atmosphere, let people have fun and have all ages feel comfortable."
The after-theater crowd has already discovered the Ivory, which sits on a mostly deserted block of West Mifflin a few hundred feet from the doors of Overture Hall's glassed-in lobby. "Saturday after Aida at the Overture Center, people in their 60s and 70s came in after the show and stayed until bar time because they were having such a good time," says Sosnowski. "And the music was everything from Guns N' Roses to 'Danny Boy.'"
The bar's '50s-inspired interior has also turned heads. Sosnowski says that nearly everyone who's wandered in during the first few weeks of operation has been mesmerized by the ceiling, which features a striking constellation of bright white fiber-optic lights shining in the inky black firmament. Sosnowski did the work himself and says it was a painstaking job.
"People come in and say, 'I'd like to do that in my basement or living room.' And I say, 'No you don't! Trust me.' It took hours - on your hands and knees, up on the top level of the ladder. But it was worth it in the end."
The Ivory Room's storefront is also hard to miss. A neon sign featuring a natty white facsimile of a grand piano gives its exterior an urbane flair, and a big picture window frames the small electric grand piano surrounded by padded black stools that sits at the front of the bar. Sosnowski says he got the idea of giving passers-by a good view of the entertainment from New Orleans clubs, where bands are situated in the front of the room to hook a walk-up crowd.
While Sosnowski and Stoleson's business plan calls for drawing steady patronage from Overture audiences and the growing population of downtown condo-dwellers, the Ivory Room isn't an elitist establishment. Big-city piano bars like the Redhead can have dress codes, but the Ivory Room welcomes everyone who's of age.
"This is Madison," Sosnowski says, acknowledging the absurdity of enforcing sartorial regulations in a town that largely gets by on tie-dye, jeans and logo wear. "People dress up for the events at the Overture Center and then come over. But people here feel comfortable in jeans, and they feel comfortable in suits."
On a recent Wednesday night, there wasn't a suit in sight at the Ivory Room. Even so, much of the youngish, rather collegiate crowd that trickled in steadily after 9 o'clock seemed familiar with piano-bar protocol. Several young men gravitated to the pads of yellow Post-Its sitting atop the piano and scribbled down requests for Chris William, who'd already dispensed restrained versions of Elton John's "Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters" and "Fly Me to the Moon."
No one actually sat at the bar that rims the piano. In fact, no one in the crowd sung along audibly with William. But there was a lot of nodding in time with the music, and applause greeted the end of every tune - including an unlikely lounge version of Bob Dylan's "Just Like a Woman."
"Sometimes it takes a little while to get people going," says Sosnowski, who, appropriately enough, stocks plenty of the top-shelf brands of social lubricant that are de rigueur in today's neo-cocktail lounges. "But people who've seen this kind of thing before go right to it."
Regular Saturday night pianist Richard Shaten (who teaches economics by day at MATC) has extensive piano-bar experience, as do several of the Ivory Room's other keyboard players. That, Sosnowski says, makes jump-starting audience participation pretty easy on weekends. (Sosnowski was also pleased to discover that John Chimes, a mainstay of the local piano scene, brought a portion of his long-established following down to Mifflin when he first appeared at the bar.)
Nothing's a sure thing in the bar business, but the Ivory Room is exactly the kind of inviting, entertainment-oriented nightspot that Overture Center proponents hoped would crop up within the shadow of the $200 million arts complex. It's a good concept, and much different from the more impersonal lounges already operated by several downtown hotels.
Sosnowski just hopes that any success the Ivory Room enjoys will also rub off on the rest of the block. "I'd love to see restaurants and shops go back in across the street," he says enthusiastically. "That'd be good for us. I think it'd be great for the Overture Center, too."