Although I indulged in Orlando's energetic nightlife scene during my younger years (RIP I-Bar and Rosie O'Grady's), today I tend to avoid Orange Avenue and Church Street for the sake of my sanity and hearing. However, last weekend I was lured into the lion's den by two new venues, and learned that it is possible for adults to enjoy a proper, sound evening downtown.
My first stop was at Proper listening room (112 S. Orange Ave., properorlando.com), the latest venture from developer Jeffrey Gitto's V Group, and likely one of the last clubs to debut downtown before a moratorium on new bars goes into effect. Surrounded by sumptuous hardwood walls accented with tiger-head wallpaper, I sat on an oversized sofa sipping silky-smooth buttered bourbon with Proper's artistic director, Kevin G. Becker, whom I've known as a friend and collaborator (through our Empty Spaces Theatre Co.) for two decades. His latest gig curating Proper's entertainment is the culmination of a 40-plus year career in the music and performance industry, which began at age 5 with an appearance on Philadelphia-area TV in the Al Alberts Showcase. Becker first came to Orlando in the 1990s, starting his undergraduate degree in music compositional theory at Rollins (where he DJed on WPRK), then returned in the aughts after touring with his brother in an alternative rock band.
"Music has always been in my blood," says Becker, who is an avid vinyl collector as well as a musician and composer. Rather than rely on outside promoters (who he says "have no interest really at the end of the day [in] the brand or the bar or the community"), Becker built a "23-slide pitch deck" to convince Gitto into letting him curate both Proper's extensive, eclectic record collection — currently 965 albums, with a target of 2,000 — as well as the slate of "selectors" who spin the quartet of top-end turntables.
Listening rooms originated in 1950s Tokyo, and traditionally forced patrons to sit silently focusing on the music. Becker says he and his team have "Orlando-ized" the concept, choosing to focus on "community outreach and community engagement."
To that end, virtually all of Proper's vinyl was sourced locally (except for "a few things I've had to go into weird Eastern Bloc countries to find") and local record stores like Remix are being invited to sell their wares at "Cratetails" happy hours. There will also be a members-only Record Club, private monthly events where "you'll be able to bring in a record or two [and] get to hear something that you love [on] our system."
That's a rare opportunity because ordinarily Proper doesn't accept requests (with limited upcharge exceptions), instead letting the selectors craft a cohesive audio journey. Those curators include both celebrated "resident artists" like Nigel "Blacksuede" John, Blue Star and Mr Mogambo and up-and-coming "house selectors" who Becker says "have deep loves and passions for vinyl and [are] looking to get into the industry," likening them to an arts incubator program. With no microphones or beats-per-minute mandates, Becker tells his artists, "It's your living room and the clientele are being invited into your house, [so the] more that you're sharing rare cuts and rare things that people might not know, the better."
As the din of Orange Avenue droned on outside the bar's wide-open front wall, a swinging duet between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong drifted soothingly from the Danley Sound Labs loudspeakers (each costlier than a luxury car) mounted overhead. That's just one disc in a diverse library that ranges from the 1930s and 1940s — including vintage recordings by Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker — to 1970s Nigerian funk and modern psychedelic soul. Of course, you'll also find that some Harry Styles and Lizzo made the cut, and if you ever hear Styx's "Come Sail Away" in there, you can blame my donation.
Although that wide-open window seems a strange setup for a sophisticated sonic experience, Becker says Proper's team is embracing the sounds of our city because their goal is "to bring back the culture and the community that we had in downtown back in the '90s," recalling the era of Yab Yum and Go Lounge. "We're trying to reconnect to that, and the open door is a big piece of that."
My night downtown continued right around the corner, where Florida Theatrical Association presents Adam Rapp's Tony Award-nominated drama The Sound Inside through April 30 inside Orlando Fringe's ArtSpace (54 W. Church St., orlandofringe.org). Rebecca Fisher stars as Bella, a socially isolated college professor in the midst of a personal health crisis, who develops an inappropriately intimate connection with Christopher (Logan Lopez) a promising but perplexing creative writing student.
I'll spare you any spoilerish details about the story's tragically inevitable O'Henry-esque twists, but suffice to say you should heed my trigger warning about self-harm. Fisher, long one of my favorite Orlando actors, is at her peak here, delivering Rapp's monologues of dense prose with remarkably restrained intensity. Young Lopez goes toe-to-toe with her, with expertly underplayed internal emoting.
In fact, every element of this production — Daniel Cooksley's blank-canvas revolving set, painted by Amy Hadley's stark lighting and Josh Seyna's striking black-and-white projections; Rich Charron's haunting background score, and most especially Kenny Howard's reserved direction, which eschews his usual kineticism for static stage pictures — adds up to a uniquely chilling (and chilly) experience. With its challenging subject matter and unremitting emotional tension, I can't exactly suggest The Sound Inside as an evening of light entertainment. But even if I never quite warmed up to its icy protagonist, this show makes another compelling argument for serious arts-seeking adults to sound out Orlando's latest arrivals, and give downtown Orlando a proper chance.