By Bobby Panza
In June 2019, Jonathon Timpanelli concluded a triumphant run as the lead role, Dewey Finn, in the first national Broadway tour of the musical School of Rock. He was performing in front of thousands of people in venues across the country — a breakthrough from his previous work, like his six years at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, where he played Jake Blues several times a day in the studio’s Blues Brothers show.
Seeking his next breakthrough, Timpanelli relocated from Florida (where he had earned a degree in theater performance from Florida Southern College) to the Upper West Side, specifically to West 69th Street between Broadway and Columbus Avenue, eager to audition for new roles in the big city.
Then the pandemic hit. All 41 Broadway productions went dark on March 12, 2020, and auditions for future productions shifted from in-person to Zoom. Timpanelli struggled to secure work. “I had to find a way to pay rent,” he said in a recent interview with WSR. Auditioning, he said, is probably his least favorite thing to do.
In July 2020, Timpanelli’s luck took a turn as he walked south down Columbus Avenue from 69th Street and encountered a woman in the outdoor seating area of Il Violino, the Italian restaurant that has anchored the corner of West 68th Street and Columbus since 1993.
“She looked like she worked there, so I asked for the manager and she said she was the owner,” said Timpanelli. So he asked the owner, Carmen Ortiz, if it would be okay if he sang on the sidewalk outside Il Violino on some nights. “She was all about it,” Timpanelli said. “She couldn’t pay me, but she would give me a meal, which I was very happy with.”
Busking on the Il Violino sidewalk became his first job during the dog days of the pandemic. Timpanelli would haul a large speaker, a soundboard, and a microphone from his apartment and set up his makeshift stage outside.
“I got a shoe box and put my name and Venmo on it and did my thing,” he said. “I had to sing many nights a week, for hours at a time, in all types of weather, to make rent.” On a good night, Timpanelli said, he might earn as much as $300 for three or four hours of singing; other times, he might go home with just $50, along with a meal from Il Violino. A few regulars would throw him $5 every time they saw him. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said Timpanelli. “And also, the most rewarding.”
Also, very humbling. “I went from performing for thousands of people at a time around the country to having people put coins in my shoe box,” said Timpanelli. “But I loved when little kids would stop and dance or the dogs would pull their owner closer to me to lay down and listen to the songs.” Even in the cold and rain, Timpanelli showed up to sing on the street. “It was physically tough,” he said.
A self-described kid at heart, Timpanelli caught another break in September 2020, landing a job reading and doing crafts with kids aged three to five at the Day School on West 69th Street, just steps away from his apartment. Day School later closed in 2023. Around the same time in 2020, he also took on shifts as a barista at Shakespeare and Co. on Broadway. Despite these additional roles, busking remained his primary source of income during the pandemic.
A crooner by nature, Timpanelli sings with a low-tone, silky-smooth verve. At Il Violino, he often performed classics like Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon” or “The Way You Look Tonight” (the latter won a Best Original Song Oscar in 1936 but gained true iconic status when Sinatra recorded it in 1964).
“Those are the tunes that play in every rom-com that takes place in New York City, so I wanted to set the scene,” Timpanelli said. He’s also known for his excellent cover of Nat King Cole’s “Smile,” a song that lifted the spirits of many passersby during the difficult COVID-19 period.
The street performances evolved when Timpanelli crosseed paths with pianist Jacob Khalil, another Upper West Sider who happened to be passing by Il Violino one night. Khalil, also in the throes of the paying-the-rent blues, had never met Timpanelli but was drawn to his stage presence.
“He asked if he could play with me, so we started busking together,” said Timpanelli. The two forged a rapid bond, performing as a duo outside Il Violino occasionally during the pandemic. “He would lug [his piano] out every time from his apartment,” said Timpanelli. “He was hustling as well, going from place to place trying to get gigs.”
The collaboration with Khalil survived the pandemic, and the duo now plays together, with big band accompaniment, on Timpanelli’s new EP, ‘I’ll Keep It Short & Sweet,’ which is available on all major streaming platforms. The album opens with the track, ‘Short King,’ where Timpanelli showcases his comedic flair. “I can’t dunk a ball, but I can make you swoon. And I’m the perfect size, to be your little spoon,” jests Timpanelli, followed by a hilarious reference to Danny Devito you need to hear for yourself.
Timpanelli was also able to craft a one-man act from his work as a busker. “I had such a large repertoire that it helped me cultivate a really great show,” he said. He continued performing at Il Violino until he landed a job through networking, thanks to a friend of a friend, which led him to perform on Carnival Cruise Lines. His inaugural solo show, titled ‘Old Soul,’ took place aboard the Carnival Sunshine vessel on December 24, 2021.
Now, Timpanelli’s ‘Old Soul,’ is booked on Carnival Cruise Lines with multiple productions a month through the end of 2024. He plans to take a couple of months off over the summer due to his upcoming wedding. Timpanelli met his fiancé, Isabel Schulte when she was a guest aboard the Carnival Pride in January 2023. “When you know, you know,” said Timpanelli, who was interviewed by the Rag during his latest voyage on the Carnival Spirit. The two are gradually settling into a new apartment together, located nearby on West 74th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus.
According to Timpanelli, his work now involves constant traveling around the world. He said he takes 100 flights or more a year, shuttling between home, ports, and back again. “I am very grateful to get paid to do what I love,” he said.
Timpanelli said his performances can resonate with audiences of all ages, “whether it’s the older crowd who grew up with the music, to the small kids who enjoy the impressions and comedy, to everyone in between who has some sort of connection to the jazz standards.”
If you visit Il Violino, you’ll find Timpanelli immortalized on their brick walls, alongside legends ranging from Liza Minnelli to Andrea Bocelli and Tony Bennett. Owner Carmen Ortiz told WSR, “He’s part of the history of Il Violino. We were all suffering, and he became part of the family. He made the place extra special.”
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