Puttin’ on the Ritz
ALEX DONNER is as Manhattan as it gets, and that’s why his bands are such a hit in the suburbs.
Mr. Donner, a 52-year-old singer and bandleader, first started booking engagements full time 20 years ago, and has since become a staple on the upscale wedding and society circuit and at other events, including benefits, galas and debutante balls.
His company, Alex Donner Productions, books combos ranging from classical duos and trios to funk and R&B bands, but it specializes in the old-style, elegant society dance bands in the mold of the legendary bandleader Lester Lanin, for whom Mr. Donner used to work.
In his promotional glossy photograph, Mr. Donner sits elegantly in a tuxedo, backed by a fuzzy Manhattan nighttime cityscape. A product of the Upper East Side, Mr. Donner lives and works in the tony Sutton Place neighborhood in the East 50’s and has played the city’s finest cabaret rooms, including the ones at the Algonquin and the Carlyle.
But, Mr. Donner says, half his work in the New York area is in the suburbs. In a way, it is outside of Manhattan that his musical groups may shine brightest, their glamour glowing greater away from the glare of the city lights.
Mr. Donner says that many of his clients in the suburbs come to him looking for a Manhattan band with a sophisticated repertory and a reputation they cannot find outside the city. Whether or not that assumption holds, he seems happy to perpetuate it, leveraging the city’s glamour and exporting its elegance.
The Alex Donner Orchestra is well known at the prominent suburban wedding meccas and catering temples, including the Hilton Short Hills, the Hyatt in Greenwich, Conn., and the Westchester Country Club.
With his trademark white music stands bearing his logo — an eighth note wearing a black bow tie — Mr. Donner evokes an age of supper clubs and band boxes, an era of fur stoles, fox trots and Fred Astaire. It is the New York that Mr. Lanin presided over. Besides being a staple at presidential inaugurations and royal weddings, Mr. Lanin, who died in October at the age of 97, was a fixture at the Plaza Hotel and at many Vanderbilt and Rockefeller functions.
”A lot of people call me the heir to Lester Lanin,” Mr. Donner said in a recent moment of humility. ”And we try to update Lester’s thing.”
Mr. Donner sang with Mr. Lanin’s bands in the 1970’s and worked in his offices after college, learning the society-band business, he said.
Mr. Lanin taught him the successful formula: show up reeking of class and furnish the function with casual ?n. Dispense a steady stream of smooth sound and segue smartly from Richard Rodgers to rock ‘n’ roll, from Dixieland to disco.
Like Mr. Lanin’s bands, Mr. Donner’s perform a range of songs from standards to smoothed-over rock. He may have several Alex Donner Orchestras out simultaneously on a given night. His company handles about 220 bookings a year, which range from a trio for $3,000 to a 25-piece orchestra for $20,000.
In his offices in an East 52nd Street high rise, he sat recently on a zebra-skin chair near a poster of himself singing in front of a glittering cityscape with the words, ”New York: My Hometown.”
He said that he recently merged his company with another that handled more-contemporary bands. Not that he has dropped the New York angle. The names of his six contemporary outfits are New York Minute, New York Soul, New York Masterpiece, New York Avenue, New York Rhapsody and New York Grooves.
Mr. Donner grew up on Fifth Avenue in a world of debutante balls and society functions. He graduated from Princeton and worked as a divorce lawyer, for Roy Cohn’s firm, but kept making appearances as a singer and bandleader on the weekends. ”Divorces during the week and weddings on the weekend,” he said. He himself has never been married. ”I’m married to my band,” he said.
He tells about how he handled the divorce of a Houston oil heiress in India in 1986, and then played at her next wedding. Soon he was doing so well as a bandleader that he quit practicing law.
Mr. Donner walks with short, staccato steps, his hand swinging tightly in a quick metronomic rhythm. One recent Friday found him bestriding the city and suburbs with ease.
He headed first to the Plaza Hotel, where the orchestra was playing a dinner dance for the St. Andrew’s Society, a charitable organization. Then he headed to Macaluso’s, an ornate catering hall in Hawthorne, for the 60th annual dinner of the Cheese Importers Association of America.
At the Plaza, it was the last party before the hotel closed the following day for a two-year renovation. Men wearing kilts and furry sporrans swung their bustled ladies to music played by the Alex Donner Orchestra, a sextet with trumpet, trombone and tenor sax backed by a rhythm section.
The music stands, despite being laminated white cardboard, looked quite elegant, and there was nothing flimsy about the music. The band moved smoothly from ”De-Lovely” to ”S’Wonderful” and then to ”Something’s Gotta Give.”
Mr. Donner took the stage to sing ”The Lady Is a Tramp” with a wise-guy Sinatra phrasing. Then he did ”Mack the Knife” in full Bobby Darin mode, hamming it up and waving his arms and ad-libbing.