In the late 1980s, Vince Vaughn was an unknown actor who moved to Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood from Illinois to pursue an acting career. Years before 1996’s Swingers vaulted him into cult stardom, Vaughn could be found most nights hanging out at local bars like the Derby and the Dresden, soaking in the local music scene that included the swing music revival and Dresden Room lounge mainstays Marty & Elayne.
For more than 35 years, husband-wife duo Marty and Elayne Roberts were the Dresden’s near-nightly entertainment. “Marty crooning and playing the drums and standup bass,” the L.A. Times noted. “Elayne on piano and flute, sweetly winding him up while harmonizing.” The duo had been local legends and good friends of Vaughn for years before Vaughn brought friend and Swingers screenwriter and star Jon Favreau to see them perform their usual mix of jazz standards and contemporary covers.
The result was an instantly memorable appearance — the duo in matching sparkly black jumpsuits crooning Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” while Vaughn explains to Favreau how long to wait before calling a woman — that turned the duo into scene-stealing national stars (albeit steadfastly cult ones).
Last week, Marty Roberts died of cancer at the age of 89. Shortly after news of his death broke, Vaughn took a break from filming to speak to Rolling Stone about his old friends. His tone was hardly a superstar actor bringing in an act for a kitschy cameo, but a proud friend who felt joy at being able to bring wider attention to people close to him. “They were like my aunt and uncle,” says Vaughn.
I was raised in Illinois, but moved to Los Angeles [when I was 18]. Long before Swingers, the Dresden was a local neighborhood place that I used to go to. One of the things I loved about the Dresden was it was really a neighborhood spot with both young people and people in their 80s and a big part of that experience was Marty and Elayne. They were really an antique in their own time in that when we were there in the late Eighties, early Nineties, there was something extremely retro about them. But it wasn’t really kitsch. They were really into that music and that was what they enjoyed. And they were really fun and entertaining. When you first sat down and heard it, you thought, “This is kind of a nostalgia act,” and then as you got to know them, they were really playing songs they loved and doing it in ways that they were excited about.
We struck up a friendship that I had with Marty that lasted forever. I would go and talk to him all the time. Four or five years prior to Swingers, it was probably the place I would go to the most. There was always a hug and “What’s happening?” and they talk about their day and they’d share their stuff that they were going through. We really had a friendship. I really, really enjoyed my time with them.
There was an old woman who came from a retirement home who loved hearing songs from her youth and there were young kids. I had friends there that were in their 70s. And I think the thing that made the Dresden so unique was the focus of the bar was really Marty & Elayne and connecting with people in an atmosphere that was inviting for conversation and just enjoying each other’s time. It was like a place that stood still in a way.
When Jon [Favreau] came to L.A. and lived in that area, I took him to the Dresden and the old Derby. Those were places that I used to go to and we took Jon because it was a neighborhood area before Swingers was even an idea or a concept. It was part of the fabric, and when Jon wrote the screenplay, he just put a lot of the things that existed in the movie; Marty & Elayne at the Dresden being one of them. And we were just living in a neighborhood that had a unique music scene that they were a part of. You’d see ex-punk rockers playing live swing music which was super fun and a great night out.
I was really enjoying the swing scene and the original swing songs. The guys would wear suits and the women would wear dresses and there was something very intimate about the evening. The dancing was super connective; it was just a really positive, fun night out. And Marty & Elayne had their own style of doing it and there was a lot of charisma. Marty was easy and had a carefree attitude; they were somewhat sexual and playful and great entertainment. They were a big part of that neighborhood.
[Owner] Carl [Ferraro] was a friend of mine. I remember going to him and we asked, “Do you mind if we shoot here?” He didn’t charge us. They let us come here during the day and we shot some of the dialogue scenes when the place was closed and he was completely supportive and Marty & Elayne came down to be in it. And then they let us go film at night and when you’d want background and atmosphere — there was no budget on Swingers — so a lot of these places who we knew were allowing us to come in and shoot scenes when it was open. You’d put a sign saying, “If you come in tonight, you agree to be in the film.” [Laughs]
When we made Swingers, we were trying to tell this character story based on our experience. And we were really using the neighborhood and what was around us just happened to be very interesting and unique and cool. Marty & Elayne were a big part of that. I always knew when I would go there or bring people there, people always enjoyed them. Marty was a real entertainer. They were stars in that neighborhood well before Swingers captured them and introduced them to everyone else.
They were like my aunt and uncle. “Good for you, babe. It’s terrific. Way to go. Keep a perspective that it’s a business.” They’re really a throwback to people that can play, have a sense of humor about themselves and there was almost a Louis Prima quality. They were always in on the joke and leaned into it. Sometimes they’d get lost in it and rock and sweat and move the place. And then there was other times they played the song almost with a twinkle in their eye.
Marty was a great showman. In between sets, he would always go around and talk to people and was very personable and was invested in everyone. He’d sit at tables and get to know your name. Where are you from? He’d have a joke with you. He had a great laugh. He’d always use the word “rakish.” “That’s rakish! That’s completely rakish!”
I had stopped in a couple of times here and there [in recent] years. It’s been a while, but we picked up right where we left off. Because I had known them so well, I was glad for them. They deserved that attention [that Swingers brought]. There was something classic and timeless about them.
The fact that that small, intimate setting got to be shared with so many people and then throughout the years that they got to be appreciated, I was of course thrilled for that. They were really timeless classic entertainers and will be missed by anyone that knew them and anyone that had the pleasure to go in there and experience their sets on any given night of the week.