Every Wednesday night people who work as store clerks, counselors and cosmetologists by day risk ego, pride and reputation to perform for three minutes in the spotlight at Mr. Henry's on Columbia Road.
For some of the amateurs -- a singer with a quavering voice or a comedian with a bad routine -- the risk is great.
On a recent "open mike" night, a particularly pretty young woman stepped into the circle of light to sing. Some of the men in the audience, who later admitted they had been prejudiced by her looks, expected the voice of an angel. But halfway through the song she lost all of her fans.
And when she announced she would sing her second song a cappella, even the men pleaded for mercy and in chorus yelled, "No!"
Despite the brutally honest audience, the amateurs still come each Wednesday to the club at 1836 Columbia Rd. NW. By the time the show begins at 9:30 p.m. there are 30 people signed up to perform -- musicians, singers and comedians, both regulars and newcomers.
"There are some singers here who are incredibly bad," said John Patton, who sat in the audience one recent Wednesday night. "How many times do you want to see the same bad guy sing the same bad song?"
True, there are those regulars who refuse to believe the previous boos and come back to test the audience -- and themselves -- one more time. But there also are those regulars who are so talented that the word "amateur" seems a misnomer.
"Eighty percent of them have raw talent," said Tom Saputo, Mr. Henry's regular vocalist and keyboard player who backs up the performers.
"I ask them to name some fairly common songs," Saputo said. "I can play in any key. Generally, though, they don't know the key.
"Most of them don't have experience under their belt," Saputo said. "They have day jobs and would like to go on into entertainment, but they don't have the knowledge or the strength to do it, 'cause keeping up on that 9-to-5 is hard."
Lynda Huston, administrative assistant by day and a veteran of "open mike," falls into that category.
"I would love to be able to sing music all the time, but it's a risky business," said Huston, who is known at Mr. Henry's as a pretty good vocalist. "Momma said, 'Be a secretary so you won't starve.'
"I've been singing since I learned to talk," she said. "A lot of people here feel like me. They're all here pursuing that dream."
Ann Vigas, part owner and manager of the club, has come to know all of the regulars since she started "open mike" nearly a year ago.
"I see mostly the same faces, a lot of students from Howard University and then a little bit of every kind of profession," Vigas said.
Performers drop by early to sign the list, knowing anyone past No. 23 might not get on. Then they run off, returning about the time they estimate they're going to be on. People in the audience arrive early, too. But they can't leave; by show time there's a line of people waiting on the front porch and the restaurant is packed.
On a recent Wednesday, Saputo opened the show singing a soulful ballad. He then called the first performer, a woman who wasn't present. "There's a $20 charge for people who don't show up," Saputo joked.
No. 2 wasn't present either, but No. 3, Nathan Heathman, a C&P Telephone Co. service representative, got up from his table, strolled to the stage and crooned his way through Luther Vandross' "If Only For One Night."
"Right on! Do it!" Ann Cantey yelled from her seat in the audience.
Did she know Nathan? Had she ever heard him sing before?
"No, just having fun," Cantey said.
When Jorge Porta, a Georgetown Women's Club hair stylist by day, stepped up to the mike, he apologized about having to sing his songs in Spanish.
"How many Marias are there in the house?" he asked, trying to calm the crowd before singing the standard "Maria." Several women, including Ann Cantey, waved their hands in the air. A clear favorite this night was vocalist Lee Johnson, who moved the entire audience to clap to the beat of his fast songs, and had the women screaming and swooning over his love ballads.
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Cantey yelled, adding, "And I'm not playing this time. That man's good!"
"I've been coming here for the last four or five months. I love it. It's home," said Johnson, a second tenor and baritone who said he has sung with bands and performed on USO tours. In between bands right now, he works full time as manager of a Peoples Drug store.
"He sings so sweet you can pick up girls while he's up there," one guy in the audience said of Johnson. "He leaves the girls weak, waving their napkins and saying, 'I surrender.' "
A little later another male singer stepped into the spotlight, started singing a cappella, then stopped abruptly, apologized, and broke into another song.
"This guy can't sing," said Big Jack, the 260-pound bouncer at the door. Big Jack has heard plenty of singers, a fact validated by his T-shirt, which had the message "I Survived Talent Night At Mr. Henry's" stretched across his massive chest.
"Some of them can't sing but it never stops them from coming back every week anyway," Big Jack said, adding, "We do get a lot of good comedians."
One of the regular and favorite comedians, Recoe Walker, ran through a rather risque routine, opening with: "How many of you ladies are card-carrying contraceptive holders?" and throwing out one-liners such as, "If your mother and father don't have children you probably won't either."
Most of the jokes, and a dance and pantomime to a record, got laughs, but of course, as in most routines, every joke didn't deserve a laugh.