If you closed your eyes, you’d swear Frank Sinatra had been resurrected. Max Hartman — who once performed as Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” and Curly in “Oklahoma” on Lake Highlands High School’s stage — has the crooner’s voice down pat, and his weekly lounge act as alter ego Max Vontaine earned him the distinction of 2007’s best entertainer from the L.A. Downtown News.
So how did you come to be the Frank Sinatra of downtown Los Angeles?
I grew up doing musical theater both at Lake Highlands High School and my local church [Lake Highlands United Methodist Church]. They had some really special people — parents and others they’d hire who were pretty pro directors. I really got my taste for performance through that. Nancy Poynter, a longtime theater teacher at LHHS, was really a brilliant woman. I kind-of was a natural, but she taught me the discipline and taught me to respect the form of theater. Along the way, I picked up drums and guitar and always was a singer in bands. I started writing my own material and started a band called Mur. We came out with a record in 2001, and played all around town and around Texas. In the meantime, I was also a company artistic associate at Kitchen Dog Theater. My ideal night was to have a performance at Kitchen Dog and then throw my guitar in my car and do a performance in Deep Ellum.
When did you move to Los Angeles?
About three and half years ago with the band. We played for a year or so, and then I and one of the other founding members went our own ways creatively. Max Vontaine was a way to continue to entertain and get to work more often out there.
Why Max Vontaine?
I was given the name by Ricki Derek [a Dallas performer]. I basically took his act and did my version of it out in L.A. I used to perform with him when he did a cabaret or variety show, and I would be the lounge lizard who would come in and do Tom Jones or Neil Diamond. I’ve done some interesting gigs — I played at a biker baby shower in the valley, and played at a thing for Matthew McConaughey last New Year’s.
Any reason you chose to perform as a crooner?
My father, Judge [Merrill] Hartman, was big on that music, and I used to give his mother, my grandmother, a ride out to East Texas each month to visit her brother. Sinatra was always a common denominator of music for us, and she always made me turn it up really, really loud. I’ve always been a good mimic, and I just discovered that I have a very similar tone to Sinatra to start with, so I throw my voice a little bit, and I don’t try to jazz it up and do my “own” arrangements and stylings of the tunes. I think it’s more fun to do the phrasing that Frank did — straight down the line. I get a lot of people confused and wondering if I’m lip-synching.
Many people would recognize you as March Madness’ Coach Zero. How did that gig come about?
When I got to L.A., a friend of mine was kind enough to introduce me to his commercial agent, so I started auditioning for commercials and managed to book a few. I played a lounge singer and sang ballads to a Ford Focus, which was really over-the-top cheesy. For Coach Zero, I just went to an audition like usual, and did two commercials. The next thing I know, I’m going to Chicago so they can do a shoot and make life-size cardboard cutouts of me, and I’m thinking, “What in the world?” I’ve had people from New York to Nashville to wherever sending photos of them posing with my cardboard cutout, but I can use it to drive in the HOV lane, so that’s pretty cool. I got to go to San Antonio to do a shoot with the Final Four and met the Kansas coach. I’m sure the perception here of some folks is, “I see your commercials all the time. You must be busy.” I spent one day on it last September, and haven’t done anything since. It’s a strange life.
Did you buy one of the Coach Zero 12-packs?
Yeah, I bought a 12-pack with my face on it. That was a weird experience. In San Antonio, they had cups. You know you’ve made it when you’re on a plastic cup at the Final Four. You’ve done something — I don’t know what that means. It was surreal and, I don’t know, disturbing in some ways.
What’s next for you?
I’m committed to my initial plan: Five years and see how far you can make it and how you feel. I’m currently working on my own record, and there’s a feature film that I’m supposed to be involved with this summer playing music, written by a writer friend of mine. I’m playing a — go figure — lounge singer from Atlantic City.
Listen to the stylings of Max Hartman at maxvontaine.com, and see him as Coach Zero at cocacolazero.com/coachzero/home.jsp.