“Decades of performance experience”

The Crowd:  B.W.Cook, staff writer

 

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

 

On a recent Saturday night, my wife and I joined two longtime friends for dinner at the Ritz Restaurant, Fashion Island.

 

The friends, Pamela Sharp and Vincent Cirincione, are part of the Hollywood “A List” crowd, not particularly familiar with the Newport scene, and they didn’t know much about the history of the Ritz Restaurant. We walked in the door about 8 p.m. and the bar was alive and jumping. The hostess ushered us to a booth in the barroom, and the four of us slid into the black tufted cocoon and ordered a drink.

 

“What year is this?” asked Cirincione with a smile on his face. Sharp stared at him with a funny look and said, “You don’t know what year this is?” Cirincione responded quickly, “I know what year this is, but I think that I am time traveling backward and I’m waiting for Sinatra to start singing. Are we in Newport or Vegas? I can’t quite figure it out.”

 

Just as Cirincione expected the reincarnation of the big band singer to begin performing, Newport’s very own crooner to the society crowd, Jim Roberts, sat down at his piano centered in the Ritz’s long and narrow barroom and began to play and sing a selection of music straight out of the Sinatra era.

 

Cirincione was quick to add, “I was right. This is 1969. Sinatra lives. And I am so happy to be here.” Sharp looked at me and said, “You know, B.W., all of these kinds of restaurants are pretty much gone in Los Angeles. Scandia, Chasen’s, the Bistro, they are all gone. This place brings back great . . . Brown Derby memories.”

 

I was quick to let our Hollywood friends know that a little piece of the old world is still alive and well in Newport Beach and still an “in spot” for people of all ages who want to experience good food and the good life. At this point, Roberts stepped up his act, singing a selection of up-tempo ballads about the good life. The room came alive as diners sent requests to the piano man via the cocktail waitresses, and the music never stopped as dinner was served.

 

This column is not an advertisement for the Ritz, although it remains one of our favorite restaurants, and it is not a nostalgia piece about yearning for the old days, or even a cultural inquisition into the lifestyle differences between Newport Beach and Los Angeles. It is a column and tribute to Roberts, our piano man and crooner who is celebrating 50 years as a performer and entertainer in the Newport Beach community.

 

 

Sharp asked Roberts, “How can you be celebrating 50 years in show business when you look so young?”

 

She turned to me and said that I should see his plastic surgeon. I told her “thanks a lot” and reminded her that Roberts had told me once that he had started performing as a young boy. In fact, he made his professional debut in 1959 at the age of 14 and had his first singing job in Newport Beach at the ripe old age of 16 in 1961.

 

Fifty years later, he has not stopped performing and has never looked back. Presently, Roberts works magic at the Ritz Restaurant Friday and Saturday evenings and at Duke’s Place at the Balboa Bay Club & Resort on Monday and Tuesday nights.

 

For the past decade, he has served as the music director for Big Canyon Country Club and has performed at just about every major hotel, restaurant and club in greater Orange County.

 

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Roberts was a member of a boy group known as the Bel-Aires. The group was a hit at the old Rendezvous Ballroom on the Balboa Peninsula. They were famous for the harmonic melodies of that idyllic era and also for the surf music that was all the rage.

 

Fans might remember “Mr. Moto,” which was one of the first surf hits taking Southern California radio by storm, part of the Bel-Aires’ act. The next musical stop for Roberts was with a group known as the Challengers, appearing regularly on television on the Lloyd Thaxton Show and also on Wink Martindale’s “Dance Party” program broadcast from Pacific Ocean Park just south of the Santa Monica Pier. During these years Roberts, became known as “Jimmie the Beach.”

 

He later used this nickname when he and his family owned the Balboa Island store known as the Balboa Beach Company.

 

In the 1970s, Las Vegas came calling, and Roberts performed at such landmarks as the Thunderbird Hotel and the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel, where he was the featured keyboard artist for the John Davidson Show.

 

Then he spent the next 14 years as a regular at a Manhattan Beach bistro known as Lococo’s. It was also during this time that he and his family became very involved in the Newport Beach community, active in multiple charitable causes and community efforts.

 

Over the past decades, Roberts has provided his services for such events as the annual Newport Beach Mayor’s Dinner, and Sept. 10, Roberts will be donating his talents for the city of Newport Beach’s Homer Bludau Appreciation Dinner Gala set to unfold at the Marriott Hotel in Newport Beach.

 

 

His additional performance duties have taken him both as performer and master of ceremonies to such events as the annual fundraisers for the United Way of Orange County, the Newport Harbor Chamber of Commerce, the American Cancer Society, the Assistance League of Newport-Mesa, the National Charity League and the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

 

Over his five-decade career, he has also shared billing with the Righteous Brothers, the Beach Boys and the Lettermen and has also co-hosted numerous telethons benefiting such organizations as United Cerebral Palsy and the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Assn.’s annual telethon event.

 

Musical performance remains a passion for Roberts, who also entertains for numerous private affairs. During the daylight hours, when he is not in a romantically lighted barroom singing Sinatra ballads, he just might be serenading you at Newport’s Duffy Boat headquarters on the Pacific Coast Highway.

 

When you stop by, either for a purchase or rental of the iconic electric watercraft, who knows, if you ask him for a song and a boat, you might just get them both.

 

Congratulations, Jim Roberts, on 50 years of making people happy in Newport Beach, and may you keep the music playing for at least another 50.

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