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Vodvil, where every night is fun and games

Entertainment is serious business at the new bar and restaurant in L.A. devoted to games, trivia, karaoke and general merriment.

August 26, 2011|By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times
  • Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your game: Cal Iseminger is the impresario of fun at Vodvil.
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your game: Cal Iseminger… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Vodvil, a new bar and restaurant in L.A. devoted to modern-day parlor games, feels like a mix between a fancy bingo hall and the set of a 1970s-era game show. On a recent Tuesday night, a packed house that could easily have been assembled by central casting played a spirited game called Face the Music, which required them to write down the lyrics from a catchy pop song of yore after the DJ played a sound bite.

One of the song clues was from "Danger Zone" by Kenny Loggins. "Until you get it up as…," was the lyric played over the speakers, the players then looked at their game sheets where six blank spaces were left to complete the lyric. A wave of groans crashed through the room as diners scratched their heads, stumped.

Present for the collective moment of puzzlement was Cal Iseminger, the impresario of good, clean fun who serves as Vodvil's director of entertainment. Dressed in smart pants, a pressed shirt and an old-fashioned tie, Iseminger looked around the room with an air of mock disbelief.

"C'mon! 'Top Gun,'" he shouted, giving up a clue as to the famous lineage of the song, which became an anthem when that Tom Cruise-piloted plane of cinematic success soared to the top of the box office in 1986. "We need some more guys at this table."

The correct answer turned out to be "… high as you can go," and the team that got that right, as well as 10 or so other lyric completions, was rewarded with shiny gold coins to a vintage vending machine stocked with prizes including Big League Chew bubble gum; Nerds candy; Fun Dip; a Slinky Jr., and breath spray labeled "Remember the Names and Faces of Everyone You've Ever Slept With Breath Spray."

Though game and trivia nights are popular among certain groups of friends, they are usually held in private homes, or happen once a week in bars. The idea of devoting a bar and restaurant exclusively to those activities, like Vodvil is doing, is a novel one in Los Angeles. And judging by the reaction that Vodvil is getting so far — it is often packed on weeknights and turns into a rowdy party on weekends — it's an idea that Angelenos are hungry for.

The idea came to founder Joshua Saltman, a former entertainment lawyer, a few years back when a night of karaoke in Koreatown wasn't enough to satiate his desire for alternative forms of adult fun. Meanwhile, Iseminger, who grew up in a remote area of Maryland and moved to Hollywood after a stint singing on cruise ships, was building a thriving private games business of his own.

Cast as a regular extra on "Desperate Housewives," Iseminger had been tapped by the show's creator, Marc Cherry, to host a game night party that proved such a success that other cast members, including Felicity Huffman, hired him to create similar events for their gatherings. When Huffman made an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and mentioned Iseminger's game nights, his business exploded.

"My next big break was doing Matthew Perry's 40th birthday party," said Iseminger.

Saltman was soon introduced to Iseminger by a mutual friend and the pair began collaborating on the concept for Vodvil.

Iseminger is tall and easy to like, and through his private business, Cal's Game Night, has cultivated plenty of celebrity friends who he says like to swing by Vodvil every now and again. Jennifer Love Hewitt is one such pal, and Iseminger says she enjoys renting out the venue's private karaoke room with her friends.

"She's a ridiculous singer!" gushes Iseminger, who through his celebrity game experience has learned to put the rich and famous in their place if they try to gain an unfair advantage on his watch.

"All of a sudden I was calling out Sheryl Crow at Felicity Huffman's for cheating," he recalls. "And I was like, 'What am I doing?' She ended up winning that night anyway."

At Vodvil, Iseminger personally trains all of his hosts, who are hired for their improv acting skills, and the goal for each night is to include everyone in the action and to keep things moving at a fast pace. Around 10 p.m. on most nights, the games give way to karaoke, which due to the proliferation of showbiz types at Vodvil, is a pretty serious affair.

Those who are not munching on "TV dinners" including meatloaf, fried chicken and mac 'n' cheese created by former "Top Chef" contestant Jamie Lauren, are hopping onstage to sing better-than-average versions of "Proud Mary" and "Don't Stop Believin'."

During a recent rendition of the former by a plump guy calling himself Big Ben, another man got up and did a sultry dance with a napkin onstage, ending it with a very professional-looking somersault. Saltman, who was sitting nearby, seemed pleased with this spontaneous development. It's the kind of moment that initially made him want to create Vodvil: a place for unrehearsed Hollywood magic.

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