The spotlights in the Colony Hotel’s storied Royal Room may be dark, but Rob Russell’s eyes brighten the room when he talks about the renowned entertainers who have performed on the cabaret stage in Palm Beach.
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., Ann Hampton Calloway, Kitty Carlisle, Michelle Lee, Julie Budd, Diahann Carroll, Marilyn Maye, Melissa Manchester, Ben Vereen—they’ve all thrilled audiences in the room that earned its moniker as a favorite dining spot for the former Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Russell admits he’s not much of a morning person, due to the late nights he works as the hotel’s entertainment director for the past 12 years. He books the performers, some more than a year out, but is also responsible for all the other “details,” too.
Russell arranges for special instruments for the singers’ musicians, picks the performers up at the airport and sees to their every need during their runs. He’s even found himself on stage:
“Michelle Lee was here,” he recalled with a chuckle. “A lot of people don’t realize she got her start on Broadway as a singer, even though she’s probably most famous for starring on Knot’s Landing for 14 years. She was doing her show and came back to the sound booth. I had this beautiful beaded cape for her to wear for the encore number when we realized my button was stuck on the cape.”
He smiled, “She kept telling me, ‘Rob, we’ve got to go, we’ve got to go. Just put your arm around me.’ She did the encore and I helped her finish the song.”
As the saying goes, “That’s show business,” and Russell was certainly prepared. A native of Babylon, New York, a seaside community on Long Island, he could be found in the audience at Broadway openings as a youngster. And his neighbor was Bob Keeshan, better known to a generation of children as Captain Kangaroo. Russell later completed a degree in musical theater at the State University of New York at Fredonia, one of the leading programs in the country.
Above all, Russell cherishes the relationships he has developed with his performers. Many have become close friends and he has vacationed with others. When Russell suffered a heart attack a couple of years back, Marilynn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. called him at the hospital and, after listening to endless adulation from the attending nurse, prayed with Russell as he was wheeled into surgery.
“The greatest thing is the friendships, by far,” he said with his slight New York accent. “There’s a trust that is built between us. I always come through and that’s not always the case in a lot of places where they work.”
“Rob truly does understand the entertainment business and that’s often times rare….and he’s also such a lovely host. He understands the tremendous importance of meeting and greeting the guests,” explained Marilyn Maye, who performed more times on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson than any other singer and is returning to the Royal Room for her seventh appearance.
“I call him the Prince of the Royal Room,” Maye said.
As the Royal Room announces its 2013-14 schedule, Russell remains true to his commitment to The Great American Songbook, booking artists who sing the classics penned by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. But he also recognizes the songbook is evolving.
“My thing is to keep teaching the younger generation the Songbook….but it is changing and there’s new material being added. For instance, The Beatles’ Yesterday was written in the ‘60s, now it’s over 50 years old, and we’re hearing songs by Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, Elton John and Joni Mitchell,” Russell noted.
He’s also eager to introduce the Songbook to younger audiences: “Once they come in, they’re hooked.” He recently launched a successful summer series geared to those younger audiences and featuring rising artists like Ariana Savalas, daughter of the famed television detective.
This season, he’s already looking forward to a live performance from Melissa Manchester of the theme from the movie, Ice Castles. The Royal Room will also welcome a debut by television host Regis Philbin, who co-starred on The Joey Bishop Show for years and is quite a crooner himself.
But, for Russell, the highlight will be the New Year’s Eve performance by the Tommy Tune, winner of nine Tony Awards, more than any other performer.
Always working, Russell is already booking next season and his dream would be to snag Liza Minnelli, a task made much easier by the enthusiastic word of mouth from the long list of stars he’s already hosted.
"We all know how wonderful Rob and The Colony are,” attested Maye.
ROYAL ROOM 2013-14 SCHEDULE
Nov. 29-30, Dec. 4-7: Michel Bell and Catherine Matejka
Dec. 11-14: The Four Freshmen
Dec. 31, Jan 3-4: Tommy Tune
Jan. 7-11, Jan. 14-18, Jan. 21-25: Steve Tyrell
Jan. 28-31, Feb. 1: Marilyn Maye
Feb. 4-8: John Pizzarelli and Bucky Pizzarelli
Feb. 11-15: Clint Holmes
Feb. 18-22: Regis Philbin
Feb. 25-28, March 1: Amanda McBroom
March 4-8: Paulo Szot
March 11-15: Melissa Manchester
April 1-5 and April 8-12: Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.
For more information and reservations, call (561) 659-8100 or go to TheColonyPalmBeach.com. JW Arnold