Katya Smirnoff-Skyy Celebrates 18 Years at Martuni's
Christopher J. Beale READ TIME: 6 MIN.
"I generally don't lip sync unless I absolutely have to," bragged actor and singer J. Conrad Frank. "I am a theater person, so I approach anything I do character first."
In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Frank explained that the character Katya Smirnoff-Skyy was custom-made for a specific reason: to host cabaret and sing live. This week Katya celebrates 18 years hosting Katya Presents at Martuni's piano bar, a passion project that became an institution.
When Frank conceptualized Katya almost 20 years ago, the idea was to create a character he could embody and then take off to do other work that wasn't in Katya's wheelhouse. Today, not only is Katya more popular than ever, she is also just as serious a part of Frank's artistic career as anything else.
J. Conrad Frank is about as native a Bay Area resident as you'll find. Born and raised in San Mateo, Frank went to Lick-Wilmerding High School. His grandfather ran the makeup and luggage concessions at the Joseph Magnin Company, a department store in San Francisco. The store closed in the mid-1980s, but the family's company is still going strong, and Frank's "day job" is with the family business.
Frank was an artistic child and sang with the Ragazzi Boys Chorus, but by college he tried to pivot to something else. He studied architecture in college before the music bug bit again, and he switched to opera.
"I was a countertenor," said Frank, "and I found that opera singers took themselves so seriously!"
Throughout college Frank performed and continued to hone his vocal and performance style. He eventually returned to San Francisco after graduating and got right to work acting.
"I've been sort of a staple of Bay Area theater for the last 20 years," said Frank with a smirk of modesty, "and performed in every bar with a microphone in this town."
The fact is Frank has been practically everywhere from Feinstein's at the Nikko, to places like Mr. Tipples Jazz Club, the Castro Street Fair, Boxcar Theatre, and Trannyshack, to name a few.
In 2005, right at the beginning of his drag journey, Frank was given an opportunity to join forces with his friend, pianist Joe Wicht, to produce and host a cabaret night at Martuni's.
"I am the only drag queen who gets younger when I take off my makeup," joked Frank, whose drag persona is considerably older than he is. Frank said that was a strategic move. "When you start playing a 60 or 70-something-year-old, it means you are set for a long time." Katya is based on a recognizable archetype to anyone in the theater and classical music communities: The aging diva.
"She's a woman of a certain age who was a big star somewhere in the eastern bloc, and now is probably like a Chanel counter lady," joked Frank. "And she has grand stories about this time when she was quite famous and did all these things."
Add in self-indulgent music choices like dramatic arias, "and operatic versions of Alanis Morissette songs," said Frank, and you get Katya Smirnoff-Skyy.
"My pronouns are she/her/auntie," he added, noting that Katya is designed to be a little bit delusional. It's part of her charm.
The atmosphere at Katya Presents is classy and casual, light-hearted and deep. There is always a pianist, a guest, and the host, but the actual content of the show evolves. In the Martuni's shows, Frank and company set out to create a (rare) space for cabaret artists to perform, and they are still going strong.
Keeping Cabaret Alive
"It's always a fun group of people, and it's a fun, festive atmosphere where you're gonna hear all kinds of music. Hopefully, I'll sing something that might be touching at least once," said Frank. "Whenever I'm putting together a show, it's 90 percent for the audience and 10 percent for myself. So I make sure I do something that I wanna do, too.
"Over the last 20 years, the cabaret venues have really disappeared in San Francisco," Frank opined. "We used to have the Octavia Lounge directly across from Martuni's. And there were various other places where cabaret singers could go."
Today, there are far fewer cabaret venues in San Francisco, which Frank said makes places like Martuni's that much more important.
"We've tried to make Martuni's sort of the hub for cabaret and encourage artists to do their own stuff and produce their own shows," he said. "We're singing songs, telling stories, and serving strong drinks," said Frank, and that's really what Katya Presents is all about.
With the 18th anniversary celebration of Katya Presents on May 21st, it's worth noting that Katya & Co kept the show running even when the COVID-19 pandemic shut Martuni's down. From in-person, to online, and now back in person again, the show never lost its heart, or its character.
"Performing is a lot of work, a lot of energy that you can't give to other things in your life," said Frank wistfully, "but the gain can be great."
Over the last two decades Katya Smirnoff-Skyy has become a big name in the San Francisco drag scene, and J. Conrad Frank has been a success in his own right. Never one to slow down, Frank will spend the next few weeks in a starring role at New Conservatory Theatre Center in the San Francisco premiere of Charles Busch's camp play, "The Confession of Lily Dare," which follows one woman's path to ruin, paved with good intentions and humor.
"The play takes place here in San Francisco from 1906 to 1933, where I get to be everything from a schoolgirl, to a cabaret singer on the Barbary Coast, to a madam of a string of whorehouses up and down the El Camino Real, to a washed up old broad in a gin joint on Larkin Street to dying in prison," Frank quipped without taking a breath. "Yet it's hilarious!"
"The Confession of Lily Dare" runs select dates through June 11 at New Conservatory Theatre Center. And Frank is working on new material for Katya too, including an update to the Great American Songbook, which will begin to work its way into Katya Presents soon.
Catch Katya Smirnoff-Skyy in action at Martuni's, 4 Valencia St. at Market, on the third Sunday night of the month. Shows start at 7pm. Tickets are not available in advance, so arrive early.
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