Scalissi morphs into the King of Cool.
There are many things you could call the Majestic Theatre's Mad Men Holiday Soiree on Saturday, Dec. 15: extravagant, sophisticated, awash in martinis. But don't even think of calling it inaccurate.
The venue will indulge in 1960s-inspired holiday revelry for the second year in a row, and its emphasis on correct period details is nothing short of exacting. Majestic staff have corralled vintage glassware for the cocktails, and Joe Scalissi will appear as Dean Martin, performing highlights from the King of Cool's repertoire. But one of the most essential ingredients is the dance music, carefully selected by Madison DJ Nick Nice.
The party came about last year after Majestic co-owner Matt Gerding told Nice about an idea he had for a party.
"We had done a holiday party in the past but wanted to do something different, as well as something that could be built into an annual event," Nice says.
For Nice, the event was a good opportunity to focus on an overlooked time in music history.
"It was a great way to showcase the era of music that happened during the Mad Men era - pre- and early Motown, early Beatles. There's an amazing amount of killer songs from that era that still sound amazing today," he notes.
Nice says the diversity of his song selections reflects the time period. This makes sense, as the late '50s and early '60s were a transitional time in popular music. Many people still regarded rock 'n' roll as a fad, and the early folk scene was just starting to gain respect.
There was a large market for traditional forms of pop. After debuting in 1958, Johnny Mathis' easy-listening compilation Johnny's Greatest Hits stayed on the charts for 490 weeks. Even in the mid-'60s, the older generation's attitude toward rock persisted: In the 1964 movie Goldfinger, James Bond compares drinking Dom Pérignon champagne above 38 degrees to "listening to the Beatles without earmuffs."
Therefore, Nice's soiree playlist includes everything from early rock and folk to easy listening and swinging big band numbers.
"I try to adhere to music from about 1958 to 1966," he explains. "The idea I have is more that you're at a party in that era, so the music is reflective of what I would be DJing had I been alive then."
Last year's soiree inspired Nice to immerse himself in the music of the early '60s, which he says he knew little about at the time. Research yielded some interesting discoveries. For instance, he found out that the 1962 Etta James song "Something's Got a Hold on Me" was the source of samples used by electronic artist Pretty Lights and rapper Flo Rida.
Having a sense of humor is important. Nice views the era's occasional campiness as an advantage.
"It allows me to work much more humor into my sets than I'm normally able to do," he explains.
Despite all the planning, Nice's sets depend on spontaneity as well.
"There are definitely some rules, but there's some wiggle room since my goal is for the soundtrack to not only fit the vibe of the night but to keep people dancing," he says.
He tries to strike a balance between songs people really played at parties in the '60s and songs picked to elicit reactions from a modern crowd. This approach requires quick thinking and accurate analysis of large groups.
"It's still a party and a proper DJ set," he says, "so for me, it's about reading the energy and mood of the room and knowing what to play at the right moment."