His face is masked by cigar smoke, but his short, boxy frame is lit up by amber ceiling lights, and his dark suit is ringed with golden sequins.
It's standing room only inside the Cigar Box, a dimly lighted downtown bar next door to the neon glow of Totally Nude Temptations on Grand Avenue.
A group of thirtysomething regulars -- men in dark suits, ties askew, and women in sleeveless blouses -- hem the white-cloaked, rose-adorned tables in the back. Twentysomethings jostle for position near the bar, a scrum of punks and Plaza refugees.
The Cigar Box sits at the base of downtown's revitalization. The Kansas City Live entertainment district is set to break ground this year; the Sprint Center Arena should be open by 2007; and new offices for H&R Block, the IRS and the Federal Reserve will pour thousands of people into downtown. Last August, Totally Nude Temptations announced it was hoping to double its capacity and gain sponsorship from Penthouse. At the Cigar Box, though, the downtown revival has already started.
The Cigar Box used to cater to a semiformal, middle-aged crowd, regulars say. But over the past year, younger people have been showing up and the place has become an underground sensation. It's a depot for waiters and mechanics, a sanctum for downtown singles, a mixer for every nightlife stratum: the baby-faced mortgage broker who's looking to score, the Cerner tech who's been coming for years to smoke cigars, the young-looking woman in a flapper cap and oversized gold-hoop earrings.
Her date brought her here, but she has fallen in love with Al Latta's shtick.
"I think he's sexy," she says, teasing her date. "I want to go home with him."
Latta says he's 50. Accompanied not by a band but by a simple amplifier and a minidisc player loaded with backup music, Latta covers standards by Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr. and Neil Diamond, singing in a low growl just ... behind ... the beat, then rushing to finish each line.
Words come out fast and sometimes garbled. He changes costumes constantly, using the kitchen as a dressing room. He wears a black-and-gold jacket for Sinatra, a white jacket with blue and red sequins for Neil Diamond.
His show slowly crescendos. During "Brown Eyed Girl," he might spin in fast circles alone onstage or find a young lady to pull beside him. He'll grind on her hip-to-hip or lock her up from behind in a sort of lifeguard hold, thrusting the microphone beneath her chin and asking for help with the chorus. Other times, he heads into the crowd to hug familiar men or plant kisses on the lips and cheeks of unsuspecting women. If he spots someone he knows, he'll give a shout-out on the mike: "This one is to Rocky, my friend!" Working the lineup of people on bar stools, he'll cajole each to shout into the mike as an impromptu accompanist.
Request a song and he'll sing it. Buy him a shot and he'll take it. Again and again, he leans too close to his sound system; each song is followed by a trail of feedback.
His repertoire is deep -- between songs made famous by Elvis, Wayne Newton and Kenny Rogers, he does impressions of Clint Eastwood, Muhammad Ali, Sylvester Stallone, Ronald Reagan, Rodney Dangerfield, Jack Nicholson, Archie Bunker, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam and Porky Pig.
He's done this gig five days a week, Tuesday though Saturday, for the past five years. Tonight is Friday: He can tell by the size of the crowd. He knows it's Saturday morning when a second tide of partygoers rolls in.