Why the Biggest Ovation at the Tonys Luncheon Was for a Waiter

Klay Young, a 63-year-old Harlem resident who immigrated to New York as a teenager from Belize, has worked as a server at the landmark Rainbow Room for 30 years, taking orders, ferrying food, clearing dishes for any number of rich and famous people. He has pictures with Mikhail Gorbachev, Liza Minnelli, John Travolta, and Presidents Carter and Clinton.

This week, he served a newly minted dignitary: his daughter, a stage actress who this season made her Broadway debut in a new Lynn Nottage play called “Clyde’s” and scored a Tony nomination for her quick-witted performance as a formerly incarcerated sandwich maker .

Something about that confluence — a breakout performer reaching the literal heights (the Rainbow Room is on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center) where her immigrant father has long toileted as a waiter — brought a much-needed moment of inspiration to an industry still struggling to rebound from a very rough few years.

Here’s what happened: The Rainbow Room, once a restaurant and now an event space, has for years been the home of a treasured Tony Awards ritual: a nominees-only luncheon at which the actors, writers, directors, designers and others up for awards share a meal, get a plaque and bask in a moment of shared glory.

This year, seated among the honorees was Kara Young in her black-and-white Maje dress with the gold necklace she borrowed from her mother. Working the room in his lunchtime uniform of dark blue pants, white shirt and dark blue vest was Klay Young, making sure everyone had what they needed.

When Emilio Sosa, who was helping preside over the ceremony as chairman of the American Theater Wing, got up for the routine recitation of the names of honorees, he paused at Kara Young. He noted that her father her was present — as it happened, he was getting a Diet Coke for a celebrant — and had worked there for years. The celebrities rose to their feet.

“The whole room just lost it,” Sosa said. “To see her coming full circle, from a little girl watching him serve, and he had worked this luncheon for years, to having his daughter her be a nominee was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

Among those moved to tears: Kara Young, who as a little girl on special occasions had come to the Rainbow Room with her father, taking in the sweeping views and dancing with him on the rotating floor.

“I know that job has put food on our table and has given us a really beautiful life,” Kara Young said later. “He’s such an honorable man, and for him to get a standing ovation was the most unexpected moment ever.”

Klay Young, who had been serving chicken paillard and arranging coffee cups at the lunch, was stunned. “Oh my goodness,” he said later. “I had to pause for a second. I looked at her. She looked at me. It was riveting. I could not say anything but ‘gratitude.’ And there were silent tears of joy coming down my face.”

Sosa, a costume designer who immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic and whose parents were janitors and factory workers, said he recognized the emotional power of the moment as soon as he realized the coincidence.

“A lot of times, when young people say they want to be artists, the first thing they get is pushback about how they’re going to earn a living,” Sosa said. “So the pride in this man’s eyes really touched me. And I could not let that moment pass.”

Among those also struck by the event was Nottage, who snapped a picture of the father-daughter pair.

“All I can say is it was an incredible, beautiful, magical moment,” Nottage said. “It felt significant that his hard work led her to her being celebrated in that very room.”

Nominees don’t get to bring guests to the luncheon, so Kara Young was especially delighted that her father was there, even serving the table where she was seated. “The minute that I got there, I started introducing my father to people — it was like, ‘That’s my dad! My dad works here!’” she said. “I felt like my father’s daughter in the room.”

And she had already decided that her father would be her plus-one at the Tony Awards, which will be presented by the American Theater Wing and the Broadway League on June 12. “My father has been taking care of celebrities at the Rainbow Room for so many years — of course he deserves a moment where he’s at the Tonys and being tended to.”

Klay Young has worked in hospitality since 1975 and loves the business. He started at the Rainbow Room in 1992 and has been there ever since but for a period when it was closed; he is now one of the room’s longest-serving employees and holds the title of captain. “He’s a true class act and a beloved member of our team,” said Randall Richardson, the general manager.

Young’s initials are KEY, and he gave the same initials to both of his children, saying, “You open the door with your key — you control your destiny, and nobody can take that away from you.”

Kara Young (her middle name is Erin) said that like many parents, hers were initially worried when she said she wanted to become an actor; at one point they suggested she consider radiology. (Her mother her, also an immigrant from Belize, works in administration at Bellevue Hospital.) “They had very different dreams for me,” she said.

But they are now enthusiastic supporters, seeing all of her shows. “My wife and I make sure we get to every one of them,” Klay Young said. “With any show she’s in, the heart gets full and the eyes get teary.”

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