Having Tagged Such Talent as Kaufman, Benatar and Kaplan, Rick Newman's Getting Off the Ground

updated 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Pat Benatar was an amateur with a knee-wobbling case of stage fright when she was discovered at the club. Gabe Kaplan tried out there the routines about his Brooklyn high school that eventually evolved into Welcome Back, Kotter. Andy Kaufman first did his Elvis impersonation on its tiny stage. And John Belushi would flail through his spastically cruel Joe Cocker takeoff for its audience.

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the club is Catch a Rising Star, a 180-seat night spot nestled between a barbershop and a Chinese restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Known as "Catch" to regulars, the club has made a sort of low-rent impresario out of its affable founder-owner, Rick Newman, 41, a burly, mustachioed six-footer who perhaps has helped launch more comic careers than childhood anxiety. With similar boîtes like the Comedy Store in L.A., the Improvisation on both coasts and the Comic Strip in New York, Catch is one of the top places where newcomers can break through and established stars can break in new material. The hangout is now so successful that Newman has moved into showbiz management (old pal Benatar is now his client) and is making the logical jump to TV production: This week HBO will air its second special taped at the club, The Seventh Annual Young Comedians Show, and Newman plans to develop more cable programming.

A decade ago Catch was just a crackbrained idea of Newman's, then a restaurateur from the Bronx. He was planning to open a combination eatery and antique shop in Manhattan. Fortunately, he remembers, "I heard this song Cabaret on the radio, and it just clicked in my head. Wow! There's no place on the East Side showcasing talent!" He opened. Audiences stayed away in droves. Waitresses and performers would sit at the tables so it wouldn't look empty. Then one night David Brenner walked in and decided to go onstage. Audiences came in droves. Brenner told Newman he should hold amateur auditions before live audiences on Monday nights. Soon such star comedians as Bill Cosby began stopping by to catch Catch regulars like then unknowns Gabe Kaplan and Jimmy Walker. "I'm a big believer in instinct," Newman says. "I had no formal background in comedy. I always went with who I felt was funny."

His instincts worked. "When I first heard Freddie Prinze, I thought he was incredible," Newman recalls. "We'd talk for hours about comedy. His street material would alienate audiences. He had to translate that into something that wasn't frightening." Andy Kaufman was something else again. "Nobody could figure him out. He developed his 'foreign man' routine here. I didn't know if he was putting me on or not. His first night here, he did that and went into his Elvis. Offstage, he asked me, in his 'foreign' voice, how he did. I said, 'Will you talk normal? I know you can from watching you onstage.' He says, 'No, no, this is the way I talk. That's only the way I do Elvis.' "

Other big names still use Catch (which retains its original decor of peeling plaster, exposed pipes and dime-store candle holders) "the way an athlete uses a gym," says Newman. "You work out." Brenner agrees: "Catch is the only place where a comedian can be bad. If I'm going on Carson, I go to Catch first."

Newman, the youngest of four children of a Hungarian immigrant tie maker and a housewife who died when Rick was 18, comes from the same urban streets that spawned so many comedians. "I was the bad seed of the family. The crazy one. I got into lots of trouble in school," Rick remembers. "I've never been one to do things in a normal, mainstream way, but my parents always encouraged me." He subwayed from the Bronx to Manhattan to study commercial art and acting, but got nowhere in either advertising or the theater. By 19, he was managing a friend's nightclub in Queens. Three years later he opened his own place. "My partner and I were doing real well, and then I got into a terrible thing—gambling," he says. "I began to gamble on sports and things went sour." After pulling himself out of debt, he opened Catch and struggled through its early lean years. "Now," he says, "I only gamble on myself."

Divorced three years ago from Tammy Berger, his wife of 13 years, Newman lives in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with his girlfriend, Renee Geller, 26. His 13-year-old twins, Mara and Mason, visit twice a week. Most weekends he and Renee try to get away to a sprawling summer house he has bought in Long Island's pricey Hamptons.

At Catch, now assisted by Richard Fields, his partner of two years, Newman still works to keep the overhead low and morale high. Top dollar for performers is $20 a night ($60 for the emcees) and cab fare, but struggling unknowns get a fortune in exposure, contacts, encouraging Newman bear hugs and even rent money during tough months. Many feel like the once terrified Benatar, who is looser now when she goes back to the club on visits. She appreciates what Newman has—and has not—done with the place. "Rick has never let the club slip into something else," she says affectionately. "The paint is still peeling. It's still sleazy."

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