Want swing with those fries?

Crooners' '40s and '50s standards draw a crowd to the early show at a Pikesville McDonald's

July 30, 2008|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN REPORTER

Monday evenings under the golden arches of a McDonald's in Pikesville, a troupe of tie-and-jacketed crooners entertains a sitting-room-only crowd of aging, adoring fans. Headlined by Gary "The Singing Stockbroker" Richman, gentlemen and ladies take turns singing tunes from Sinatra to ... Sinatra. Diners sing or toe tap along, very slow dance in the aisle, or quietly sip their McDonald's coffee and nibble their grilled chicken sandwich. They come at 5:30 p.m. every Monday for dinner and a show.

It's the Copacabana McDonald's.

It's McCopa.

"It's a happening!" says Richman, the crew leader, the man in the fedora singing "The Lady is a Tramp" well behind a Happy Meals Transformers display. Richman, who a few years ago was singing at an Italian restaurant in Canton, has since built a "A Night at the Copa" rat pack, a Saturday-night radio show on WVIE-AM, and a local touring schedule that stops Mondays in Pikesville.

This week was the group's 80th appearance at the McDonald's, and they were all there: Richman with his indestructible enthusiasm (and whiskey prop glass), and his singing, belly-dancing wife, Holly (by day, an Outreach Zoomobile instructor at the Maryland Zoo). There was Mickey "Baltimore's Own Blue Eyes" Light, and Steve "The Singing Baloney Salesman" Earle. Announcer Stan Plotkin and "Beloved Baltimore radio and TV personality" Eddie Applefeld were also in the house, among others. To mark the 80th, the men wore tuxedos and fedoras.

"Gary should go in the Mafia," said Peggy Matz from Pikesville, impressed with Richman's sartorial swagger. She's a groupie, no other way to say it. She waited for the show to begin - and waited to order her usual sundae.

She and the rest of the Pikesville crowd come early to get seats up front. They stay late - sometimes to 7 p.m. - to hear their favorite songs from their favorite singers at this McDonald's across from a Shell station on Reisterstown Road. There are about 13,800 McDonald's restaurants in the country, where billions are served with an occasional bingo night or book-club gathering mixed in - but not entertained like the Monday crowds here. Typically, the crowd is 50 to 75 people, but they've had as many as 175 people come out to what locals call the "Gucci McDonald's."

It's a swinging time, anyone would tell you from Richman's lineup of tribute singers. All of them more than carry a tune, and none of them sound too much like Ol' Blue Eyes, but that is hardly the point. Their road shows are a tribute to the performance style, the singers and "swinging" music of the 1940s and 1950s. "Fly Me to the Moon," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "(Chicago is) My Kind of Town, "Mack the Knife" and "Luck Be a Lady," are included on the group's 66-song set list. They also sing "Happy Birthday" given their bookings at birthday parties - and retirement centers and occasionally Alzheimer's facilities.

The group's fliers declare, "Welcome Back to 1953. Live Entertainment for You!!" All that's missing, perhaps, are cigarettes, booze, the Las Vegas Strip - and international fame. But who needs that when you have a tuxedo, an open mic, recorded music, and a captive hungry audience who hangs on your every vocal phrasing? There's no lip-synching, just singing. And when the "Singing Stockbroker and His Friends" are done churning out "My Way" or "Summer Wind," they might get a kiss on the cheek or a date to dance.

"They all sound good - and he's smooth," said Morley Grossman, listening to Richman sing "When Somebody Loves You." Grossman brought his own food to the show: a corned beef sandwich. Looked like he was going to stay awhile. When the song and tape were over, Richman approached Grossman's nook. It was a set-up all the way.

"Sir, are you the one who ordered a stiff drink?"

Buffered with extra napkins, the audience member was noncommittal. Richman broke out his prop glass and pretended to dump it out. Grossman chuckled, as the singing host surveyed the packed room. "There are three seats left - they're all in the men's room!"

At the counter, Juan Bates was a satisfied store manager.

"I love this. People say it's classy, and it is," Bates said. "Does good business for us, too." Tuesday is bingo night, but on Mondays, the coffee, diet sodas, fries and grilled chicken sandwiches really move. "You should see the customers when they come in here."

Ah yes, the unsuspecting McDonald's customers who come in for an innocent Quarter-Pounder but find themselves in a swinging Twilight Zone.

"It's absolutely adorable," said Anita Miller of Pikesville. Normally, she's here Tuesdays for bingo, but her regular Monday bingo night fell through. "I just came in for a bite." She sat in the back of the restaurant, what could be called reserved seating. She waited to hear Mickey Light sing his coat-over-the-shoulder version of Sinatra. Miller thought of her late husband, Ted, and how much these old songs meant to him.

"Oh, my husband would have loved this," she said.

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