It’s standing room only at Tulsa’s Joe Momma’s Pizza. Dressed in black, all Western, sporting aviator sunglasses and a bolo tie, Simply Irresistible turns and faces his audience. Underneath the disco ball, the crowd, stippled with light, is already clapping.
He steps up to the mic. There’s no band behind him, but the music is there. On cue, he adds the vocals. And they are amazing. He owns his audience by his sixth note. A fixture in Tulsa’s thriving karaoke scene, he does not disappoint. His singing lives up to his name and the product comes as advertised.
Simply Irresistible – widely known as SI on the karaoke circuit – also plays the black hat in The Rock ‘n’ Roll Dreams of Duncan Christopher. The film, a product of Oklahomans Jack Roberts and Justin Monroe, follows a confused and hapless Duncan, played by writer Jack Roberts, through the bars and cafés of the Tulsa karaoke scene as he searches for love, himself and a place in the world.
The awkward but nuanced story chronicles Duncan’s efforts to step out from underneath his wildly famous father’s shadow and move past his father’s music to find his own. But Duncan doesn’t find his dreams on the big stage. He finds them on the karaoke stage.
The film’s faithful recreation of Oklahoma’s karaoke scene is fun and a quirky backdrop for the film’s more serious moments. But it also hints that while karaoke is a passing amusement for many, it’s much more for others. For many singers, the karaoke stage is a place to find themselves. It is a place to be a star. And it is a place to make an almost schizophrenic break from the real world, if only for just a few hours.
What began as a small Japanese diversion in the 1970s became, over the space of a decade, a national obsession. Infectious, karaoke spread to other countries in the early 1980s. Nobody disputes that karaoke first hit American shores in 1982 at Dimples, an upscale bar in Los Angeles. From there it fanned out across the country, arriving in Oklahoma in 1985.
Nobody’s entirely certain, but karaoke veterans generally agree that the birthplace of Oklahoma’s love affair with karaoke was Tulsa’s Elephant Run. The level of certainty is the same for Oklahoma City, but the pros believe that karaoke first came to the city at Russell’s or Henry Hudson’s on 58th Street.
It’s fitting that Duncan finds himself on the karaoke stage. While his father made magic with musical instruments, Duncan’s not that good. He can’t even sing that well. And the karaoke stage, with its own brand of awkwardness – unless you’re a pro or haven’t had enough drinks – fits Duncan’s perfectly. He opens up and puts his heart into it. And it provides him with a safe way to pull out of his shell and engage the world.
“Karaoke is sort of like church. You go and release all of the stress of your daily life. All you’ve really got to do is commit. And that’s all anybody cares about. If you show up and commit, people will appreciate the fact that you gave it a go,” says Roberts.
For sure, there are more Duncans out there than hardcore karaoke veterans. To be good at karaoke means belting out a tune as well as its original singer. Being a karaoke superstar means performing – not just singing – a song better than its original performer. That’s a lot of pressure. It starts getting a little competitive. Especially if it is, in fact, happening at a karaoke competition.
“Pretty much every time I go, I feel like it’s a competition. Even though there may not be prizes, there’s always glory. There’s always glory. So when I’m performing up there on the stage, it’s always a competition,” says SI.
The film, shot in Tulsa and its surrounding suburbs, features an almost entirely Oklahoman cast. And a completely Oklahoman production crew, along with a totally Oklahoman soundtrack. It was even produced with Oklahoma money. The very fact that a film like Duncan Christopher could be shot entirely in Oklahoma testifies to the vitality of the state’s karaoke scene. And showing off Oklahoma’s karaoke scene is showing off Oklahoma itself.
“We wanted to shine the metaphorical belt buckle that is Oklahoma,” says Monroe. “There are stereotypes in Hollywood of Oklahoma being ‘too bumpkin’ or boring or a definite ‘fly-over’ state. Jack and I know a very different Oklahoma. A very alive Oklahoma. A very creative and artistic Oklahoma. This state is magical, and we knew that music would infuse itself into our movie.”
Roberts and Monroe are carrying Oklahoma’s flag around the nation and the world. The film has picked up major awards at five important film festivals, and only halfway through the festival season. The producers are hoping for more as they travel to Buenos Aires and London.
International and national acclaim is nice, but Roberts and Monroe have harbored plans from the beginning to debut the film in Oklahoma theaters first. They can’t go into detail about their plans, but Oklahomans can look forward to seeing Duncan on the big screen very soon.
Kari Brummet’s KariOkie Café & Bakery, only three years old, sees its fair share of lip-syncing characters on Thursday and Saturday nights. Located in Kiefer, it’s a little off the beaten path, but still a vital part of Tulsa’s karaoke scene. The cafe’s original location in Bixby was too small to hold the crowds. The new location holds 100 people, and performers enjoy a bigger stage.
Brummet didn’t fall into karaoke. She wasn’t particularly interested in it. But during a business trip to Detroit she was angered into it.
“Some friends and I ended up in a karaoke bar. A guy was singing Garth Brooks and I was appalled. It was the KJ (karaoke jockey) that was running the thing and he didn’t know the song. I went up and told him I needed to help out before Garth Brooks found him and killed him,” she says.
It was a good experience for Brummet, and after she returned, she hunted down some karaoke bars and became a regular at Remington’s in Tulsa.
Karaoke became her new hobby. She accumulated karaoke CDs, a good set of KJ equipment and eventually moved up to hosting her own karaoke night. After a few years, she decided to leave her career as a math teacher and open up her own karaoke cafe.
The KariOkie Café & Bakery serves no alcohol and is smoke-free. This, Brummet says, gives kids a place to do their karaoke thing.
“High school kids love to sing karaoke,” she says. “They don’t have to be asked or begged. They do it at the drop of a hat.” The cafe also sets itself apart from the competition by offering, along with a massive standard karaoke book, a selection of Christian contemporary and gospel music.
Pat Hyde, a manager at Oklahoma City’s Cookie’s, brought karaoke to the bar after years of performing at other clubs.
“I’d been singing karaoke for about 16 years at various places around the city and thought that it might go over really well at Cookie’s, considering that we have a good college crowd there,” says Hyde. “We have a lot of Oklahoma City University students in theater that come to Cookie’s to sing.”
Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays bring out the pros who grace the crowd with renditions of everything from Broadway show tunes to Led Zeppelin. But, Hyde emphasizes, newbies shouldn’t be intimidated by the regulars. Cookie’s gets an accepting crowd that appreciates any singers who give it their best. After all, those pros started out as newbies.
Cookie’s unusual venue contributes to the fun.
“Cookie’s is a little hole-in-the-wall neighborhood bar that, on most nights, is just a place where people can come and meet and have a drink or two and watch sports,” says Hyde. “But on karaoke nights it transforms into one of the hottest karaoke spots in the Oklahoma City area. During the summer, it’s standing room only to sing. The atmosphere changes from a neighborhood bar to a really hot, eclectic spot for karaoke.”
Fred Anderson has been a KJ at Tulsa’s Remington’s for 15 years. Tulsa’s karaoke veterans put his show easily in the city’s top five. He’s seen plenty of newbies grow into full-fledged performers. The key is an accepting audience, the kind of audience that doesn’t boo singers off the stage, the kind of audience that lets it go and hopes the next singer is better. That’s where first-timers need to be. After that, the rest takes care of itself.
“Once you get up and sing and hear people clapping, it’s in your blood,” says Anderson.
This is the kind of audience that nurtures Duncan as he moves out of his father’s shadow. It is the kind of audience that makes the city a welcoming place for a small-town boy. Those are the kinds of crowds that singers find in most of the karaoke clubs in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Sure, there are pros out there. The next American Idols are singing to these crowds. But in Oklahoma it’s not so much about winning as it’s about showing up, committing to the stage and singing your heart out.
“We’ve met people that treat karaoke like church,” says Monroe. “They go every single week. They have their own entourage that they bring in. They go up there and rock the stage, pour out their souls. Whether they’re great singers or not doesn’t really matter. As long as they commit fully to the music.”
The hottest karaoke scene in Tulsa comes around on the last Wednesday of every month. Joe Momma’s Pizza transforms itself for Charity Okie, a karaoke fundraising event supporting the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Oklahoma. It’s SI’s favorite venue, where he likes to bust out his favorite crowd pleaser, Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.”
SI’s won a handful of Charity Okie contests, but he hasn’t won them all. Several of Tulsa’s karaoke regulars turn out for the event, and the competition is stiff.
Charity Okie founders Jonathon Bolzle, Wes Alexander, Bart Yount and Jon Schroeder do it up – fog machines, big screen projection TVs, the works. They want every performer, new or pro, to feel like a superstar on Joe Momma’s stage.
“It’s the best karaoke experience that someone can have here in Tulsa. We go over the top with lighting, fog and effects,” says Bolzle. “We try to make everyone’s performance as awesome as possible so they can have as much of a true to life performance as possible.”
Bolzle, a longtime karaoke fan, developed the idea behind Charity Okie after visiting a number of Tulsa’s karaoke clubs and deciding that they just didn’t deliver the goods. He and his co-founders began the search for the ultimate karaoke experience. Somewhere along the way, they decided to incorporate a charity.
“What the charity does is bring out people who might not normally enjoy karaoke and gets them to set their pride and dignity aside and do something for the cause. So we get a lot of people who’ve never done karaoke getting up there and doing it because they want to support the cause,” Bolzle adds.
The audience members vote for the best performers at Charity Okie with their wallets. Volunteers walk through the audience with buckets. Every dollar in the bucket is a vote for the performer on stage. The top three earners win prize packages. Those incentives, along with the good times, bring in enough money to support one child’s wish each year. And don’t forget the gong. Is a performer turning a great tune into a weapon of mass destruction? Pay $5 for the privilege of gonging them off the stage.
There are plenty of places to check out Oklahoma’s thriving karaoke scene – even if only for the spectacle. But as long as you’re there, you might as well step up to the stage. A little stage fright is normal. Having that much fun is not.
First-timers should take it from Kari Brummet: “It’s always the timid ones that have the best voices.”