Mining for Cabaret in Colorado

Mining for Cabaret in Colorado

By Lynn Timmons Edwards

When I’m on the road and visiting a new community, I love to Google “piano bars,” “open mic,” “karaoke,” and, of course, “cabaret” (though be prepared to find the latest strip club). In Colorado Springs, Colorado the first place that comes up is Icons, with a 4.8 rating over 156 reviews.

It identifies as a gay bar and is located at 3 East Bijou in downtown Colorado Springs. Icons has no open mic ,and when I was there, it didn’t even have a pianist. What it does have are Broadway-quality singers who take the stage in between making drinks and talking to the regulars, who are their biggest fans. The first night I visited happened to be Father’s Day, and the pianist scheduled to play had to cancel. Never fear, Mark Autry was holding down the fort, singing to tracks with a mic in one hand and mixing a drink with the other. Autry is a Broadway tenor, born and raised in New York, who gigs at Icons in between touring contracts. “Streets of Dublin” and “Corner of the Sky” were solidly in his voice. A Dear Evan Hansen request—no problem. He grabbed a stool on the tiny stage at the front of the 50-seat bar and delivered “On a Perfect Day” as though he had been doing it eight times a week. He has played Gabe twice in Next to Normal, and he nailed “I’m Alive” from its score. A Disney song from The Hunchback of Notre Dame made for less interesting cabaret. I quickly texted Josh Franklin, co-owner of the club, to see if we could get together. I met the following night with John Wolfe, Josh’s partner in life and business, to talk about how Icons came to be.

Mark Autry

Josh Franklin & John Wolfe

John Wolfe We started the club in the most unlikely of times—fall of 2020. I met Josh at the Goodspeed Opera House doing the musical version of It’s a Wonderful Life in 2015.  Being his understudy turned into a wonderful real life, and we relocated to Colorado Springs to sit out the pandemic.

Lynn Timmons Edwards Where were you when the world shut down and how did you end up in Colorado Springs?

John I was in Columbus, Ohio on tour with My Fair Lady. Josh had recently closed in Cyrano in New York and gone to Colorado Springs, his hometown, to write. When Broadway shut down, he called me and said “get on a plane and fly out here.” We owned a small house there and as the pandemic wore on, we wanted a place for the queer community to safely gather. The only gay bar in town was Club Q which catered to a young gay crowd and has now been shuttered since the mass shooting in November of 2022. Icons was a former bakery and then a construction office for a new hotel. We both sing and play piano and just started entertaining on the patio. Colorado Springs was a hostile place for the LGBTQ community back in the 90s. Josh fled to New York after his high school music-theater training as I had fled West Virginia. But Icons is part of a new, more welcoming landscape, and we love it here.

[As a small-world note, Josh Franklin’s musical, The Consoling Mechanism, was recently featured at the 2023 New Works Festival at the Phoenix Theatre Company. We had already crossed paths but did not even know it.]

On Monday night, Zack Janzen was in residence at the bar and on stage. Also possessing a Broadway-quality voice, he is a drag queen waiting to be born. He has a beautiful face with soft features, a buxom body, and a passion for big numbers such as “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard. Just as John Wolfe referred to the stable of professional singers on staff as their family, in walked Gina Milne on her night off. She treated us to an original cast-recording rendition of “Defying Gravity,” and then joined Janzen for the duet on “Beauty and the Beast.” We sat and told theater stories, many of mine, including working on the 20th anniversary Broadway production of My Fair Lady, which predated the life of these young talents. 

Zack Lanzen & Gina Milne

Moving North on route I25 to Denver, you can spend a fun evening at Charlie Brown’s, which features an old-style traditional piano bar. It is in the Capitol neighborhood at 980 Grant Street. It offers a two-for-one Happy Hour until 7:00 pm and has parking on site. I walked in on a Friday night to hear the piano stylings of John Hayden, who has been playing there several nights a week for the past five years. He is a lover of the Great American Songbook, and he’s thrilled to have a cadre of talented singers to accompany. I had the chance to talk to George Andrianakos who has owned Charlie Brown’s, formerly part of the Colburn Hotel, for the past 33 years.

The piano at Charlie Brown’s

Lynn How did you come to be the proprietor of this great restaurant and piano bar?

George I immigrated from Greece in 1967 and worked in area restaurants while I was putting myself through school. The place was shuttered when I bought it, but it had been a piano bar previously. I had known some of the folks who worked here. I loved live music and wanted to keep it going. That was almost 34 years ago.

Lynn Timmons Edwards & John Hayden

Andrianakos brought me a copy of the History of the Colburn Hotel and Charlie Brown’s which is featured on every menu. Judge Ernest A. Colburn opened the hotel during the midst of Prohibition on May 25, 1928. There is speculation that an elevator shaft, long since sealed, led early Coloradans to a basement still filled today with old bottles, glasses, and secrets of a bygone era. No one quite knows how Charlie Brown’s got its name. Past patrons include Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg. Film stars James Stewart, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, and Marilyn Monroe are known to have stayed at the Colburn while filming in the area. In 1985, Paul Lopez, known as “Paulie, the Man of 10,000 Songs,” who had been legally blind since birth, became the house pianist. One of his most infamous fans was Tony Bennett, who sang with him many times, as did Bill Murray when he was a local student. There is a picture of Murray on the menu taken during his last known visit back to Charlie Brown’s in 2006. Lopez played until he passed away in 2011.

Sara & Sarah

My fellow cabaret singers, whom I got to know on a first-name basis, included Sarah and Sara. Sarah is a hair and make-up artist currently working with Opera Colorado.  Music is her avocation, but she has the pipes of a contralto, and she treated us to “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Crazy,” and her version of “At Last” that could be heard for miles without a mic. Her friend, Sara, is a classically trained soprano, and she performed her friend’s favorite, “So in Love” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate. Besides me, the other serious singer was Amy, who said she was trying to get back in shape vocally. She and pianist Hayden tackled many tunes, including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Misty,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Cry Me a River.” Hayden is happy to pass the mic around, and several of the patrons in the restaurant were there to listen to the music and kept the tips flowing.

At some point we dissolved into soprano mania with a chorus of “I Feel Pretty” that inspired Hayden to play nearly the entire score from West Side Story. A young man named Jordan joined in taking the lead on “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Theme from New York, New York,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” According to Hayden, who hails originally from Chicago, there are five rotating pianists currently on staff. He lamented that 20 years ago there were 20 piano bars in Denver, but alas, Charlie Brown’s, much like Martuni’s in San Francisco, is now a treasured relic that provides an outlet for singers of Broadway songs and the Great American Songbook. It’s one of the two goldmines I discovered on my road trip through Colorado.

Lynn Timmons Edwards

Lynn writes and performs themed cabaret shows based on the songs of the Great American Songbook throughout Arizona. She has had three short plays produced in the Theatre Artists Studio Festival of Summer Shorts and is working on a full length play, "Fairy," based on the life of Mary Russell Ferrell Colton, a founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona. In addition to writing and singing, Lynn plays bridge and tennis and enjoys traveling with her husband and artistic companion, Bob. Born in Ohio, Lynn is a graduate of Denison University (BA), Arizona State University (MPA) and has lived in Arizona since 1977.