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What started as a few friends hanging out has quickly become Hollywood’s most coveted invitation — and no one has to leave home to get in.
WME partner Richard Weitz wanted a virtual way to celebrate his daughter Demi’s 17th birthday on a Thursday night in late March when most of the world (and her high school friends) were self-isolating due to the coronavirus pandemic. So, the resourceful talent agent booked his favorite Windy City piano man, Dario Giraldo of Chicago’s Redhead Piano Bar, to entertain an intimate group of teens, family members and close friends on Zoom.
But once Demi and pals grew a little restless with the nostalgic jams, Weitz pressed pause for an hour and blasted a round of invites to broaden the base. Friends and WME insiders (from L.L. Cool J to agency president Ari Greenburg) logged on and Weitz could tell by the reception and virtual energy that he might be on to something.
“I want people to have a good time,” Weitz tells THR of why he started the gatherings. “It’s like comfort food — songs and artists that people have literally grown up with that make everyone happy and bring joy in this difficult time.”
Over the course of the next week, he mined his Rolodex, inviting major musical acts to perform from their respective homes with Weitz and Giraldo acting as musical directors of sorts. Slowly, buzz started to build, and so did the number of boxes on the Zoom screen. Two dozen people the first night became more than 200 on April 1 to see Josh Groban cover the Simon & Garfunkel classic “America” with Tina Fey, Clive Davis, Fred Savage, Greg Berlanti, Chris Isaak, Zoe Lister-Jones, Emmy Raver-Lampman (who belted a Lizzo track) and Daveed Diggs looking on. Fey was moved, hitting up the chat box to exclaim, “America? Are you trying to kill me Groban?!” while talent manager David Miner added, “Richard — you’re just the best for helping us all maintain a sense of community.”
For many, the Weitz parties have been a welcome diversion as Hollywood grapples with an unprecedented shutdown due to the virus crisis. Production of movies and TV shows stopped abruptly in March, while movie theaters, live event venues, studios and schools emptied under the directives of political and public health leaders. Social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home mandates in California and New York have led to an abundance of typically social people looking for connections. Weitz, known for his packed calendar and prolific Instagram feed, figured he could lean on his relationships across film, TV, sports and music to bring the entertainment community together.
He’s not alone: DJ D-Nice drew everyone from Michelle Obama to Rihanna for his Instagram Live party, while Gal Gadot, Ben Platt and many others have hosted Zoom gatherings as entertainers have hustled to connect with fans and friends alike.
But few can boast the breadth of entertainer and insider friends and clients that Weitz can. The day after Groban’s performance, the singer-songwriter told The Hollywood Reporter that he joined the gathering in part because he needed it. “It is very Richard Weitz to somehow find a way to create an uplifting gotta-be-there event, even as the world offline is shut down,” Groban said. “It was really fun and cathartic to gather with our mutual friends and share jokes and sing some songs. Finding those small ways to connect, to feel vital, to sing from the heart, they can really make a difference in mental health through this. I’m just glad I didn’t know Tina was on the Zoom until after I sang.”
On another night, John Mayer performed “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “New Light” from his Montana home, even sneaking in a special “Happy Birthday” shout-out to Demi Weitz. The same night, Debbie Gibson sang her ‘80s smash “Only in My Dreams” (and other hits) while Mayer played guitar. Other highlights: Rick Springfield crooning a stripped-down version of “Jessie’s Girl,” Boy George performing “Karma Chameleon,” Adam Pascal revisiting his signature songs from Broadway’s Rent (with some Jesus Christ Superstar thrown in) and Giraldo playing nostalgic crowd-pleasers like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.”
(As a way to help his friend, Weitz helped funnel donations Giraldo’s way to keep income continuing during shutdowns in Chicago.) The War and Treaty — husband-wife duo of Michael Trotter J. and Tanya Blount-Trotter, who are opening for John Legend on his upcoming fall tour — also received rave reviews for their soulful performance “Jealousy” before Rev Run of Run DMC spit out a few rhymes from the group’s hit “It’s Tricky.”
Producer Melvin Mar, a consistent face at each gathering, cites Mayer’s performance of “New Light” as a personal favorite. “Richard is the only person who can make a pandemic fun,” he says.
Last night, more than 300 people logged on in the largest showing yet. L.L. Cool J, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Shell (who’s recovering from COVID-19), Quibi founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and showrunners Julie Plec and Nahnatchka Khan were among those who caught a night of major tributes. Billy Ray Cyrus performed “The Gambler” to honor the late Kenny Rogers; Michael Bolton sang “Lean on Me” for Bill Withers, who died Friday; Giraldo turned in an Adam Schlesinger tribute for the performer who lost a battle with the virus; and War and Treaty also paid homage to Withers via his classic “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
Weitz says he’s confirmed Rick Astley for an upcoming gathering, as well as Frozen songwriters Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Weitz also says he’s looking to add a philanthropy element to raise funds for some of L.A.’s most vulnerable, while adjusting the event times to accommodate time zones in L.A., New York, Nashville and London and making them family-friendly (there are typically at least a few young children on laps).
Those who’ve managed to make it in before the room hit capacity recently include Rob Lowe; Savage; David Foster and wife Katherine McPhee; Monica Lewinsky; Julianne Hough; Max Greenfield; Krysten Ritter and rocker Granduciel (who accepted compliments about his band from Mayer); Jeff Ross (who displayed his roasting chops); and Hollywood insiders like Jennifer Salke; Dana Walden; Sharon Klein; Pearlena Igbokwe; Johnnie Davis; Peter Principato; celebrity photographer Alex Berliner; and the entire Weitz clan: kids Demi and Aidan, wife Candie, brother (and executive stylist) Andrew Weitz and parents Joyce and Stanley Weitz. Oh, and “Hollywood Rabbi” Steven Leder.
Weitz is quick to point out that the gatherings are not designed to be exclusive or elitist — invitees include assistants and family members of colleagues — though he has worked to keep it private to avoid Zoom bombers that have infiltrated other events of late. “I’m fortunate to have the access and the opportunity to help entertain people in the community,” Weitz explains. “I came to Hollywood to be in show business, but first and foremost I’m a fan. I love music, sports, theater, writers, directors, film, TV, just everything creative, so this is my gift back — helping facilitate some comfort and entertainment during a time when community is more important than ever.”
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