Last Saturday, Waltz Astoria turned one year old. Owner Bill Everson, 54, described the 12 months since he converted the former delicatessen into a meeting place for musicians, artists and writers, as charmed from the start. For Song Zhang, his 26 year old business partner, their venture fulfilled a dream she nurtured since high school.
Zhang met Everson, a customs broker from Brooklyn, when she attended his class on international shipping. An exchange of cultures soon followed. He introduced her to the music of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and the classically trained pianist from China played him the centuries old composers. A year later they went shopping for a space.
“The original idea was to create a small music venue for intimate musical performances,” said Everson, who admitted to spending more money on making Waltz a “listening room” than on anything else. It worked so well, often the audiences—mostly Astorians in their 20s through 50s—sat in rapt silence, prompting Everson to remind them they were free to talk and move around. “We soundproofed everything,” he recalled. As in the movie, “Field of Dreams,” once built, the players would come.
Enter George Thompson’s mother visiting from Oregon. While exploring her singer/songwriter son’s neighborhood, she found Waltz and volunteered him and his guitar to be their first musical act. Though Thompson, then 28, already had a gig lined up at CBGB, he hadn’t played much before moving to New York. “It provided a nice platform for getting my legs under me,” he said. “It’s a really nice acoustic room.”
On most Friday and Saturday nights at Waltz, you’ll find a band or solo artist performing two 40 minute sets. Though there is no standard cover charge, Zhang emphasizes the sense of self worth that comes from getting paid. “I always encourage the musicians to charge at least $5,” she said. Waltz takes no cut, relying on the café to pay the bills.
Depending on which direction you look, Waltz takes on a different personality. Gazing toward the grand piano and chocolate brown drapes, you might imagine you’re in a 19th century drawing room. Opposite those are moderne chairs and tables along a celadon wall.
Here customers settle comfortably, enjoy a beer, latte, chai or muffin while writing in journals or chatting, subsidizing Waltz’s talent development. A successful turn at the Wednesday night open mic can result in a showcase. For jokester Matt Taylor, it led to hosting a weekly Tuesday gig of stand up comedy.
The 27 year old Astoria resident said all of the young comics he knows live within blocks of each other, including the four who performed at his inaugural show three weeks ago. According to Taylor, there are no comedy clubs in all of Queens. Compared with Manhattan laugh emporiums, Waltz fills that gap, but for a different crowd. “The audience is smarter,” he said. Nobody’s hammered and there aren’t any tourists.”
The Borough of Queens United Artists Collective Kum Ba Ya, better known by its acronym BQUACK, holds mixers every first Thursday of the month at Waltz. “They’re bringing people together,” said David Gibbs, a publicist in his 30s, and one of BQUACK’s five founding members. “We’re tagging along with them.”
“We really did this from our heart rather than from our head,” added Everson, referring to the spoken word evenings, wine tastings and other events that pack the house.
While searching for a name, Zhang read how the waltz was once considered a “forbidden dance.” The “innocent, yet naughty” aspect of the word seemed appropriate, Everson said.