Photos courtesy The Dresden Room
There’s a reason the 1996 movie Swingers became an immediate cult classic, and it goes way beyond the cheeky hipster-before-hipsters-were-a-thing banter, or the captivating performances of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. There was another, even more charismatic character beguiling the film’s beautiful babies and “so money” men-on-the-make: Los Angeles.
LA, and specifically its nightlife, was more than a backdrop in the movie—it was what gave the players life, and purpose, and hope, not just in their quest to get laid or even to find love, but to connect in any human way. And for all the hotspots the film depicted, its heart beat loudest at one beloved landmark in particular: the Dresden Room, home to two real life characters captured in the movie, the inimitable lounge duo Marty and Elayne Roberts.
The married couple recently celebrated 35 years of playing jazz standards and covers at the storied Los Feliz nightspot, but the pair maintains a timeless mystique that keeps the joint packed five days a week. Their sequined-swathed get-ups, sassy repartee, and cool jazz stylings feel more “now” than ever, making the pair beloved by vintage-styled neo-Rat Pack types and ironic boho babes alike.
Sure, they still croon The Bee-Gees “Stayin’ Alive,” as they famously did in the flick, on a more or less nightly basis. Even upon Swingers’ release 20 years ago, they were considered, well… seasoned. But the pair—who won’t reveal their ages—still fill the place, and continue to earn new fans who were still in diapers during Swingers’ zeitgeist moment.
Their snazzy renditions of songs like “Fire” and “I Will Survive” have come to feel like personal anthems—for their longevity, for their show, and for those of us who grew up watching them on celluloid and in the flesh. They’ve starred in a Tom Petty video, jammed with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and made a fan out of David Lynch. It’s comforting yet surreal to know and that on almost any given night, you can swing by the Dresden and Marty and Elayne will still be jazzing it up right where they’ve always been.
It was standing room only at their April anniversary bash, and lines still trail down the block for continued celebrations of their milestone at the 62-year-old restaurant and bar, a divey but decadent, wood-paneled locale that looks a bit like Tony Montana’s hangout in Scarface. It’s easy to get hammered on the Dresden Room’s signature drink, the “Blood & Sand,” and start chatting up a potential hook-up at the bar, but it’s tough to keep your attention off of Marty and Elayne for long.
They’re skilled musicians in their own rights: Elayne has played with Count Bassie, while Marty has jammed with Gene Krupa. Both are effortless and consistent on their instruments and with the crowd. They showcase Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Eydie Gormé-style magic, with guest sit-ins and an old-school Vegas vibe that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. Amidst the recent month of milestone celebrations, we sat down for a chat with couple—who married after four months of dating in 1974—to find out what’s kept them singing for 35 years and counting.
NOISEY: You two are total legends! Thanks for talking with us tonight. So first, tell us how you got started making music.
Elayne Roberts: When I was three years old, my parents had an anniversary party, and I sang for my relatives. They put me on top of a table, and I sang and everyone gave me dollar bills! I sang “Comes Love,” they all ran up to give me money and I said to myself, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a singer!
Marty joins us and gives a sly smile.
Marty Roberts: I’ve heard good things about you.
He grabs my hand and starts petting my fingers.
MR: That’s a nice ring.
ER: Watch out, he’s a klepto!
Haha. You obviously likes sparkly things Marty. Your sequined jacket is to die for. The ring is marcasite, by the way.
MR: Watch your language!
ER: So when I was six, I started studying classical music in New Jersey, where I grew up. I was playing piano and classical music. I remember my teacher said, "You’ll never get publicity unless you pay for it," but that’s proven to be so untrue. We’ve gotten so much here over the years! It’s like it’s fallen from the sky!
Anyway, my father put me in television as a child. I did commercials. I did stuff when they needed a child to sing or play piano. I did all-night telethons. I modeled bathing suits when I was a teenager. But modeling was boring, I didn’t do anything, just stood there. I wanted to do something, and that was sing.
Did you ever have aspirations to be famous in pop music world?
ER: No. But I did want to be a jazz star. And we did it, too. We got on jazz radio. That was our goal, and in 1987 we made it. Several of our records made it to jazz radio, in fact. When you do a session with a bunch of tunes, some just hit. Those are the ones you want to play over and over, and you can’t believe you did it. We took all of those and put those in the CDs.
MR: We play our own CDs in the car when the radio doesn’t have anything we like.
People listen to music digitally these days. Do people still buy your CDs?
MR: Oh yes, and they buy the LPs too! Those are coming back!
ER: When we married, we only wanted to play jazz. And then when we had a baby, we decided to stretch out and play Top 40 and do whatever everybody was doing to make a living. We got write-ups, then we got on jazz radio, and Marty said “We’re real artists now.”
MR: A friend of ours said this, and it’s true. He said, “When you do a song you hate, the light goes out of your eyes.” So I said, “Let’s throw out all the songs that we don’t feel something for, and do only what we love.”
ER: And as soon as we did that, we got all the attention.
How did you come to be at The Dresden?
ER: We were working down the street at The Derby, it was called Michael’s back then. The boss here came to see us every Tuesday. He lured us away 35 years ago. It was April Fools day!
How did you build up your fan base over the years?
ER: Jazz was always our first love, but we realized the crowd really liked the renditions of pop hits more than anything else. Over the years, we added some good hits such as Ricky Martin’s “Living La Vida Loca,” and got rid of others that didn’t feel right. “Windmills of Your Mind” is a beautiful song, and I tried to do it, but there was just no chemistry. It’s like going out with a guy that’s just boring you all evening.
Speaking of love, tell me about your epic romance.
MR: Over four decades ago, she called me to play with her band. Her drummer at the time was underage, and she needed an older fella to help sign the contracts. When we met, there were sparks. Soon after, we scored a gig together on the Sunset Strip at The Melody Room, which was a club across the street from the Whiskey a Go Go.
ER: Our bass player wanted to go out with me, and told Marty we were together and to stay away from me!
MR: Yeah, so I thought she was taken! But when I found out she wasn’t, we started dating, and we were married four months later.
ER: A few years later, we our had a daughter, and we raised her all the while playing here six nights a week.
Wow. You’re here five nights a week now, right?
MR: Sixteen years ago we took an extra day off.
Swingers was huge for you guys. Tell me about its impact on your career.
ER: It was more of an acting job than anything else. We were trying to be funny more than musically good. We thought it was a small independent film that’d come and go without much attention.
MR: Suddenly, we had lines down the block to get in, and it never stopped. Then we did Target commercials, Ricky Martin’s VH1 Behind the Music, and we were on, just lots of TV shows.
What have been some highlights of your 35 years at this iconic nightspot?
MR: 1987 to 1990, before Swingers, is when things really started to build up. Frank Zappa’s band and family members, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even Julia Roberts with that actor fella she was seeing [Kiefer Sutherland] all came in to jam. It was a little quieter. People weren’t yelling like they do now. Then, in 1990, we did the Tom Petty video and it became a circus.
How have things changed over the last 35 years, as far as nightlife is concerned?
MR: You’re going to laugh, but here it is: People are stupid, and the masses are asses!
That’s the title to one of your original songs isn’t it? Do you prefer originals to covers? What are the most requested numbers?
ER: We like both.
MR: We do 50 percent originals, and 50 percent covers, standards, and hits.
Will Marty and Elayne ever retire?
ER: We still love what we do. We’ll do it till we’re ready to go to jazz heaven.
Lina Lecaro is the nightlife columnist for LA Weekly, a freelance journalist covering music and pop culture, and an internet radio DJ based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.