The singing server hustle
Brooks has been a Singing Server at Ellen’s Stardust Diner since 2015. The actor-singer started as a host to work his way up to the tough-to-secure audition. That eventually landed him a spot among the singing servers, many of whom have had leading roles on Broadway and in nationally touring productions. Thanks to the capricious nature of show business -- you can be starring in a Tony Award-winning production one day, and bussing tables the next -- the level of talent working at Ellen’s is extraordinary.
“The standard is very, very high,” Brooks tells me in the 50th Street park between the diner and his Hell’s Kitchen one-bedroom (he sleeps in the living room while his 9-to-5 roommate takes the room). “The talent there is insane.”
A performer since his childhood outside of Chicago, Brooks moved to New York after theater school to become a working actor. So far, he has scored background roles on Quantico and Homeland -- but he relies on his job at Ellen’s for a steady income. Brooks wakes up early each morning to check Backstage for audition listings (access to the network of successful Ellen’s alums only gets a Broadway aspiree so far), dropping into one -- or two or three or four – before hitting the gym and going to work to sing for nine hours and balance milkshakes with mini bottles of Fireball on top on his tray amid the pandemonium. The work is nonstop.
At the diner, where Brooks clocks in just before his shift starts, he starts his set with a warm-up song -- “something easy, not too high,” he says. Having warmed up his voice already in the morning, Brooks sees where his range is at for the day (on a recent evening he kicked off with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”). While servers perform, a floater covers their tables, should food be ready or a guest need an extra straw, so they’re not technically plunking down Mama Mia Meatloaf while belting out “Dancing Queen” -- but it’s still a lot to juggle. As soon as Brooks wraps his number and removes his costume sunglasses, he’s back at the point-of-sale system, checking in on orders and bringing a tray of ice water to a table in the back corner.
The set list is built every morning. It alternates between men and women, from the main floor to the mezzanine, and builds a flow of slow and fast songs, with that strategic pre-bucket song really hyping up the audience. Between the sets, tracks by Destiny’s Child and RuPaul keep the energy up.
From the moment it opens at 7am, Ellen’s is pretty much always packed. Some groups stop by for a quick slice of rainbow cheesecake before a show. Others, like a group of older gents in a booth on a Saturday night, linger for hours, ordering $8 beers all night.
“It’s crazy all the time, it’s always busy, there’s always a line, and everyone’s always like ‘Why is there such a long wait?'" Brooks says. “We’re the only place [in New York] that sings for you, of course there’s going to be a wait!”
It’s mostly tourists Brooks serves at the tables, and plenty of adults come without kids. People tend to be polite, but a common question -- which show he’s currently in -- grates on him. “I’m like, ‘Well, I’m working here, so I’m not in one, I’m sorry,’” he says. There can also be a weird intimacy that develops when your server is singing ballads in front of your table. A group recently asked Brooks to cut their hamburger in half, as if he were their parent. That was also a no.