Karaoke nights take over Iowa City bars and restaurants

Bars and restaurants in downtown Iowa City host a variety of karaoke nights throughout the week. Each venue has different niches that make their respective karaoke night stand out above the others.

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Darren Chen

The main show host and events manager Travis Coltrain, sings on the stage during the Open Mic Night at the Joystick Comedy Arcade in Iowa City on Monday, Dec. 6, 2022.

Anaka Sanders, Arts Reporter


Become a superstar — that’s the main goal for the many karaoke nights across Iowa City. There are over eight bars and restaurants downtown that provide singing and dancing-filled karaoke nights where participants can leave feeling like a celebrity.

In the Iowa City bars and restaurants that offer karaoke, superstar wannabes can find a place to perform in the spotlight almost every single night of the week. Karaoke is so popular in the Iowa City area that there are even awards for it. *Little Village Magazine’s* Cedar Rapids and Iowa City award competition crowned downtown LGBTQIA+ nightclub Studio 13 for best karaoke in 2021.

At Elray’s Live & Dive, a Nashville-themed bar that opened in 2019 on Iowa Avenue, hosts “dance party karaoke” every Wednesday at 9 p.m. The general manager, Bret Lanser — or better known as “Mr. Elray,” along with the bar’s owner Anne Franklin, both came from singing backgrounds and spent a lot of time doing karaoke together on vacations.

“We thought ‘Let’s bring the biggest karaoke experience that Iowa City has ever seen,’” Lanser said.

They collaborated with local disc jockey DJ Stuffin, to combine their every night dance music with karaoke songs. Between every participant’s chosen karaoke song, Elray’s plays dance music to keep the crowd pumped up throughout the evening.

In the main room of their multi-room bar, a stage was built for such performances. On karaoke nights, guests get the full range of the stage along with a full monitor and lighting system.

“It’s that you’re there to feel what it feels like to be a famous singer up on stage.”

The night begins with a soundcheck put on by Lanser and the staff where they tend to sing Disney or Broadway-related songs — Lanser’s favorite being “The Circle of Life” from the Lion King.

He said the best part of the night is being surprised by who can sing. Both staff members and regular customers will get up on the main stage and blow the crowd away with their unknowing vocal power. Another fun part of the evening is surprise performances by professional musicians who are disguised in the crowd like Kevin Burt, a famous blues musician.

“Dance party karaoke” night brings a couple hundred singers and spectators into the crowd, dancing the night away until around 1:30 a.m. On the same night at the same time is the karaoke night at the bar Roxxy.

Located in the center of the Ped Mall on East College Street, Roxxy’s location is what makes its karaoke night stand out from others. The eclectic and retro ‘80s theme of Roxxy gathered a lot of attention when the bar opened just last year. Assistant manager Carson Kowalski started working there in August and said the bar has hosted karaoke nights since this summer.

Because karaoke is on at the same time across town at Elray’s, Kowalski said they tend to get the later crowd coming in between 11 p.m. and midnight. At Roxxy, the most popular song he hears is “Wagon Wheel” by Old Medicine Show. His favorite part of the night is hearing the customers sing songs.

“Sometimes it can be pretty surprising to see people have actual musical talent,” Kowalski said. “It’s entertaining.”

To run its karaoke nights the bar just uses Spotify, while other bars use a karaoke program called “Karafun” or hire entertainment services. Bryan Hugh, owner of BeesKnees Entertainment provides karaoke for Unimpaired Dry Bar, a non-alcoholic bar on East Burlington Street, and a couple of bars in Cedar Rapids.

His karaoke nights start earlier on Tuesdays at 6 p.m. lasting through 11 p.m.

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“I get to make people smile and have fun and take their mind off what problems they may be having in their lives,” Hugh said.

A fan-favorite song at Unimpaired’s karaoke night — “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.

Just across the street is La Wine Bar and Restaurant, serving authentic Korean-style dishes and drinks. The bar and restaurant opened in 2019 just months before COVID-19 caused them to close their doors to in-person dining. Earlier this year they reopened, and just a couple of months ago began to host Friday karaoke nights.

La Wine Bar and Restaurant owner Shanshan Kong said they have a stage in their dining area where they are beginning to hold activities. Like Elray’s, La Wine has a professional karaoke and lighting system, allowing them to throw a karaoke night without a DJ.

The main goal of La Wine Bar and Restaurant is to invite people in and create an enjoyable experience — a highlight is that they do not have a cover charge. On karaoke night, Kong hopes that the performers feel like a superstar.

“It’s not important what kind of song, the important thing is when you enjoy what you do,” Kong said.

Karaoke is offered six nights a week and followed by either a drag show or comedy show at Studio’s neighboring bar Joystick. Jason Zeman, the CEO of the Corridor Entertainment Group which runs Studio 13, said in an email to The Daily Iowan that Joystick’s karaoke sets them apart from other venues because it is such a positive, fun, and respectful environment.

“I enjoy seeing people singing together and how karaoke brings people together,” Zeman said. “The whole bar will join in on songs and it’s fun to see people forget their worries together, if only for a few minutes.”

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