Lounge Wizard : Micro-cult figure Joey Cheezhee, ‘the funniest man on roller-blades,’ pays strange homage to Vegas-style entertainment
Danger--the threat of contusions and abrasions--gives the Joey Cheezhee Show its edge.
Not that the material isn’t snappy. Joey roller-blades through the crowded lounge at Kelbo’s Hawaiian Restaurant doing smarmy monologue and crooning rock ‘n’ roll favorites to a bossa nova beat. A seven-piece band plays onstage. It’s a lounge act from hell, or maybe heaven.
“He’s the funniest man on roller-blades,” says Carol Arabia, one of the regulars at Joey’s Monday night performances in West Los Angeles. “And he’s sexy.”
Perhaps, but the part that grabs your attention is when Joey skates fast. Really fast. He accelerates into the audience, careening off pillars, tumbling across tables, spilling drinks and knocking over candles.
During a recent show, he snatched a pair of crutches from a patron and spun across the dance floor holding them out like helicopter blades. People in the front row ducked, lest Joey lose his grip.
Not a chance. He let go on purpose, whipping the crutches into the audience.
“There have been some close calls,” he says, claiming that no one has been injured. “I was thinking of having people sign a waiver, like when they go see Shamu.”
But the danger is irrelevant, he insists. This act is a Catholic Mass. A punk rock concert. A moment for sharing.
Don’t wait for the punch line, it’s not coming. From beneath the sarcasm, the flash and crash, emerges sincerity.
“Obviously, I can only take myself so seriously,” he says. “But I’m not some witless parody.
“In Las Vegas, all the traditional lounges have been razed,” he says. “I think there’s something in the style of lounge entertainment that is great and we’ve lost that.”
“Love,” he tells the audience. That’s what we have lost. And they believe him, clapping and singing along, shouting encouragement, returning week after week.
The memorial that Joey has erected--a dizzying two-hour spectacle--has become a micro-cult success, attracting everyone from industry types to oldsters who grew up on this stuff. At Kelbo’s Coco-Bowl, beneath blinking lights and a ceiling shaped like a giant coconut shell, amid cigarette smoke and the sticky-sweet scent of mai tais , lounge is the latest sally into hip nostalgia. Where else, after all, can you be bombarded by Polynesian kitsch and a punchy horn section?
“People are sick of processed, overly refined entertainment,” Joey says. “The beauty of this show is that people are pulling for me. They are willing to tolerate a lot of loose ends.”
Such madness traces back to Detroit, he says, where a young Joe Sehee hung around a lounge called Bob & Rob’s and “fell in love with the whole aesthetic.” A sense of what he calls fromage oblige began to percolate.
Sehee didn’t yet fancy himself an entertainer so he enrolled in law school. He dropped out and worked as a lay person with the Jesuits in San Francisco. Then, when asked to entertain at a small benefit, he reached down deep and came up with cheese.
People liked it.
The born-again Joey soon formed a band, the Velveata Underground (with the spelling changed at the insistence of the folks from Kraft). Last summer, he performed at the Golden Monkey in Santa Monica. Kelbo’s offered him an indefinite run.
“We had a lounge act before and were looking for a young Harry Connick Jr. on roller skates,” says George Hernandez, the restaurant’s general manager and part owner. “Joey Cheezhee fit the bill.”
Lounge lives beyond the confines of the Coco-Bowl. Pianos are tinkling at the Dresden Room on Vermont Avenue and Del Conte’s in Torrance. KXLU radio dallies with sharkskin and gold lame during its “Molotov Cocktail Hour.” This is music from an era when the singer stood face-to-face with listeners.
At Kelbo’s, each week’s show begins with a gravelly voiced mouse puppet, Topo Fromagio, who sings the Joey Cheezhee anthem (example: “Who has played every nursing home in town?”) as the crowd chants “Cheese us!”
Joey was sick one week and arrived in a wheelchair, hooked up to a cheese-filled intravenous bottle. The next Monday, the band played “Jesus Christ Superstar” as he skated in carrying a child in each arm.
Patrons are sometimes encouraged to turn and say hello to each other, as in church. One of the musicians might read a passage from Wayne Newton’s autobiography. A collection basket is passed.
During his monologue, Joey elaborates on the history of lounge and confesses that his mother disapproved of his entering show business, “knowing the pain and degradation that would go along with being a roller-blading lounge singer.”
Interspersed with these bits are songs that include a ballad version of The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” and a rendition of the “Love Boat” theme that deftly transforms itself into Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
And there’s the skating--loops, jumps, spins--that nudge the evening firmly into the theater of the absurd. Joey isn’t too proud to do a pratfall for chuckles. Nor is he above dropping his sequined pants to show the audience hip and knee padding beneath.
“I take my lumps,” he says, limping back to the stage.
“We love you, Joey,” a woman shouts from her table.
So the show goes on, and will continue to, every Monday night, until someone offers him more money to host his own television program or film a documentary about lounge singers.
That could be a long time. Love doesn’t count for much in Hollywood.