Janet Rothstein, who operates Café Artiste at the Jersey Shore Arts Center in Ocean Grove, has long-standing ties to the community and a passion to bring live original music to the forefront — for no other reason than to give artists a place to be heard.
Café Artiste is currently presenting five acts each Tuesday; the Jan. 8 lineup includes Lisa Kovaks, Regina Goldy, Stringbean & Danny Mulvey, Katherine Quintana and Michael Zuko.
“I started in music with my former husband years ago; we had a recording studio,” said Rothstein. “We had some very interesting people come through: Howard Stern, Tom Petty. But my whole life, I’ve been coming here every summer to Ocean Grove. My parents were from Jersey City and every summer we’d come down here and now I kind of do the same thing, I live in New York City but I’m here sometimes Sunday through Wednesday.
“Years ago, I worked with my friends as a waitress at hotels, I modeled off and on in New York City, then I got involved in film and worked as a DJ to pay my way through film school, which was cool. It was a different time back then, but there are so many talented people out there now.”
The Jersey Shore Arts Center is located at 66 S. Main St. (Route 71), where Ocean Grove, Neptune and Asbury Park converge. The current structure was not always as it is now. Years of neglect and political wrangling allowed the building to fall into disrepair, and it might have suffered the fate of the wrecking ball had it not been for a concerned group of people, along with Janet and her father’s vision.
“I started at the Arts Center because of my father. He bought it for a dollar in 1997 because they were going to tear it down,” she said. “Sen. Joseph A. Palaia didn’t want that to happen, so he approached my father and asked him to make it an arts center. So my father went and got grants and, with the help of the people from the class of 1940 Neptune High School and other volunteers, he was able to get it started, and now there’s dance and guitar rooms and every room has an artist in it.
“But what wasn’t here was music. I said to my father that we needed film and music, so that’s when I started Café Artiste.
“This is my baby. … I am the director of special events for the center, so I started by bringing in a movie on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a singalong. And then we had some film shows. But music is what I love. So I thought … ‘Why not start showcasing songwriters?’ A friend of mine was with me as I was sitting around deciding what to call this and they said, ‘Well, we don’t want to call it The Dining Room. Why not call it Café Artiste?’ ”
Rothstein continued to develop her plan.
“That platform over there was a dining area, but if you look at it, that shouldn’t be anything other than a stage. So I thought, ‘Okay, for two months we’re going to try doing original music and see what happens.’ And then, ‘Okay, how can we make it special so that the artists are treated with respect and the audience really listens?’ That’s why I thought about every little detail that would make that happen, even to the point where there is no crunchy food (laughs).”
She paid attention to details that many may never notice as she set her vision into motion. Maybe it’s a product of her sound engineering days or maybe it’s just great instincts, but the design is akin to layering music tracks so that each supports the other. Something is noticeable only if removed.
“We don’t have prints of famous artists on the wall; we have original art. I decided to make it a show with five artists, only original music, every artist gets four or five songs … The chairs are arranged so that they all face the stage; you’re sending a message to the people as soon as they walk in that the artist is the focus. There’s no bar, no coffee grinder. We sell things on the side, everything is $2, everything is quiet, water is free, but it’s not about the food — although we like to make money to support ourselves. We keep it a little more artisan.
“We serve coffee in a mug, not a paper cup. It is all about respect for the artist and to have created a room where their whole song gets heard. Artists like George Wirth and Frank Lombardi, who write music that are stories … it would be a shame to miss part of their songs, because what they and others do are create images.
“Our first show was July 11, 2017 and the first couple of months I had three artists, but now five seems like a good number in case someone backs out, which has only happened twice … I put it out there that the artists are going to get respected and they consider it an honor to play here, which is lovely … We charge $5 at the door just so we can cover our expenses and people can come as early as 5:30 p.m. for the soundcheck; everything is acoustic-based, no drum sets.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Rothstein is constantly seeking ways to enhance the experience for the audiences.
“We might have a professional dancer from downstairs come up and start a show, I like to shake things up; we may have a magician, a comedian, I don’t know.
“I see this going into social media and promoting artists with live feeds. I see other acts coming in here and using this space for other nights … We’ve got requests to hold CD release parties here … I would like to have three cameras recording in here and make a live YouTube feed, possibly a recording studio if I can make it happen.”
Part of the charm of the room is its links to the past. One such connection is a very large painting of the venue itself with an artist’s depiction of the elder Rothstein in the foreground. Rothstein is quick to mention that many of the things in the venue were recycled, including this unique work of art.
“Molly Johnson … that picture used to be a table and she turned it into a painting. Every week we have a live artist here; some paint the show and some paint during the show. We’ve had a rock ‘n’ roll doll maker, origami, fabric art, oils — something different because I don’t want it to be boring.”
Plans, plans and more plans are formulated. But for the moment, Rothstein is focused on creating the best possible experience she can, once a week, and watching it blossom.
“I figure if you do it and you do it well and do it consistently, then the people will come. I’ve got performers asking to come back and I just think that the energy in this whole building is great. Who knows where we will go from here!”