Karaoke business brings Japanese tradition to Collingswood
COLLINGSWOOD, N.J. (AP) — Ronnie Schmeltzer co-owns a karaoke party business, but you'd never catch her with a mic.
At least not in the traditional karaoke bar setting.
"I am a terrible singer," she confessed. "I would never, ever in a million years, do it in a bar."
But she and her husband Michael, who used to live in Japan, rocked the karaoke scene on a family trip back to Asia.
"The four of us were singing for three hours. We left and were like, 'We've got to get more,'" Michael recalled.
The experience was the spark for the couple to take karaoke beyond the bar back home in Collingswood.
"You don't have to get drunk and sing in a bar," Ronnie Schmeltzer said of Japan's private suites for karaoke. "It was so much fun."
The rooms at Songbird Karaoke, which the Schmeltzers opened in August, are modeled on the "karaoke box" they enjoyed so much in Japan. Each room comes with a tambourine, microphones, a volume-control remote and an iPad that lets partygoers program their playlist.
And much like Schmeltzer did in Japan, guests seem to loosen up in the private environment.
Michael Schmeltzer described one recent customer, a dad on the quiet side who figured he might sing a song or two at his kid's karaoke party.
"He really got going — he sang more songs that anyone in the room," Michael said, adding the comfort level comes because "they're in front of their group."
The Schmeltzers, married for 11 years, met in the travel business. Their family includes daughter Leah, 10; and sons Matt, 20; and Justin, 25 (who was working and couldn't join in the karaoke trip to Japan).
When they returned from their Japan adventure, they realized they couldn't find anything like the karaoke experience they had overseas.
They walked around their Collingswood neighborhood and suddenly started to see open spaces as opportunities.
"We were saying, 'Wow, this could work. What if we did this?' " Ronnie Schmeltzer said.
They found the perfect spot in a former masonic hall at 790 Haddon Ave., spent a year renovating the space and now live above the business. ("I don't know how anyone who has a business doesn't live there," she said.)
In the few weeks that the karaoke spot has been open, there have been some surprising bookings: A group of librarians, a book club and a toddler who took over.
The little girl came in with her parents, and after singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," she "wouldn't give up the mic," Ronnie said.
People of a certain age might think karaoke was a trend they'd already experienced. But it never fully developed beyond a weekly bar event in the U.S., largely because of music licensing issues, Michael Schmeltzer said.
Technology has changed that. Songbird uses the app-based Healsonic karaoke system, which offers access to more than 33,000 tunes in English and 15,000 in Spanish. Should you want to sing in Chinese, you will have 35,000 options.
In an age of escape rooms, ax throwing and painting parties, karaoke suites seem to belong, Ronnie Schmeltzer said.
"We think it fits as an overall industry thing. People want to be more involved in what they are doing. They want to do things together."
That was definitely true for Molly Cervini of Collingswood, who planned a baby shower for her cousin's wife at Songbird Karaoke.
"It gave us all something to do besides watching someone open presents and doing cheesy games."
Singing Broadway numbers and Disney tunes turned out to be more fun, Cervini confirmed.
"We were nervous no one was going to actually sing, but once we actually did it, we were all fighting over who was going to go next."
Kate Woods of Collingswood, who recently had her daughter's high school graduation at Songbird Karaoke, said the guest of honor wasn't initially sold on the idea.
"When I first told her, she said, 'Mom, karaoke?'"
But the party ended up winning over her daughter ("She had a ball") and guests of all generations.
"Everybody was up having fun. People were singing with their moms and dads," Woods said. "People are different personalities, and some were up right away and some took a little longer, but everyone was singing."
What's the hottest hit among today's karaoke singers?
"'Bohemian Rhapsody' will not come down from No. 1," Ronnie Schmeltzer said. The Backstreet Boys, Cardi B, Journey and Toto round out a recent top-five list.
Michael noted that guests can create a playlist of songs from the Healsonic karaoke app ahead of the party.
As for food, Songbird offers in-suite party menus from four restaurants in town — Tortilla Press, The Pop Shop, Cafe Antonio's and Dragon House. Beer and wine is BYOB.
Since the karaoke party suite is a pretty new concept, the Schmeltzers believe people have to check out the space to truly appreciate it. So during the Collingswood Crafts & Fine Art Festival this summer, they invited passers-by inside. Some took a seat on the cozy love seats in the lobby, whipped out their phones and started making party plans.
Woods was one of those who started to visualize her event when she walked inside. She had originally planned to have her daughter's graduation party at home but wasn't completely thrilled with the idea.
"You know how much work it is to have a party at home."
Woods initially checked out Songbird Karaoke because she's friends with Ronnie Schmeltzer.
"Ronnie gave us a tour and gave us a little demo and I was like, 'Oh my god, can I have my party here?' "
(For the record, she was a paying customer.)
"I didn't have to set anything up. I didn't have to clean anything up," Woods said. "The kids had fun at our party."
Songbird Karaoke offers suites of varying sizes for different occasions, but none of the rooms will have guests feeling boxed in.
"We wanted people to be able to get up, move around and dance," Michael Schmeltzer said.
A party host helps with larger events.
"If it's a kid's party, they are going to be holding the iPad, making sure everyone gets a chance to sing," Ronnie said.
Cervini said she was glad to see Songbird Karaoke offer another entertainment option in her town, adding she'd return for smaller gatherings with friends.
"Collingswood doesn't have a whole lot of after-dinner things to do, especially during the colder months," she sad. "Anyone wanting to do something different and who doesn't mind making a fool out of themselves would have a good time. It's great."
And as the Schmeltzers point out, it's a party genre that's pretty unique.
There might be karaoke venues "on every corner" in Japan, said Michael Schmeltzer, but "there's really nothing like this around here."
Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/