Kings of Clubs

The coke-drenched era of nightclubs is over, but now a new group of entrepreneurs is ready to reinvent the scene

It's a cold, clear Sunday morning as Keith Black shuffles through the sand spread over the sidewalk on Pacific Avenue and opens a makeshift plywood door. It spills into the vestibule of what will soon be the first cathedral to Dallas nightlife in the new millennium, though it's hard to visualize that now. A grid of scaffolding crisscrosses the exterior of the circa 1888 Hart Furniture Building as its Italianate-style façade is restored to its original luster. Inside the cavernous 50,000-square-foot interior, a tangle of steel studs and cables is slowly being skinned over with plywood and Sheetrock amid the piercing screech of saws.

Black calls his temple Blue. "It's going to be the best facility that has ever been in this city," boasts the veteran club creator and operator. If not the best, Blue is certainly the most unusual. Located next to the Majestic Theatre downtown, it will be a sultry sweatshop of metallic beads, marble bar tops, velvet curtains, backlit murals, conga players and belly dancers. With quick waves of his hand Black indicates where each diversion will be fixed: the huge stage and dance floor; "pods" where professional dancers will writhe and twist; cables from which aerialists will streak and tumble; and octagon satellites hovering in the darkness waiting to unleash clouds of CO2 gas over the dance floor. Black says a side-benefit of the latter is that it will lower the dance floor's temperature some 5 to 10 degrees. "But it's really for 'wow' factor," he stresses.

Black's wow factor doesn't come cheap. He estimates the tab for Blue and its adjoining restaurant Kindal's will swell to $5 million before the club opens in June. (Kindal's is expected to open sometime next fall.) Black is building Blue with a combination of bank loans, private investment and $1.4 million in tax increment-financing district funds from the city of Dallas. His goals are ambitious, as he seeks to draw some 10,000 clubbers per week with a mix of high-tech light, video and eclectic music never before unleashed in Dallas. To ensure broad appeal, he aims to juggle and juxtapose this searing, assaultive pump and grind with cool serenity. Black points to the second level that holds a series of private rooms and VIP lounges equipped with soundproofing, clear views of the dance floor and stage, private bars, private rest rooms and decorative touches such as black-lit jellyfish aquariums embedded in the walls. "This is more muffled to where you can have a conversation," he says, pointing into the steel studs that outline the private spaces like the bars of a canary cage. "When you get tired of getting beat up by the sound, you can come in here where it's a little bit more chilled and laid-back."

Blue will be a flurry of adult distractions including belly dancers, VIP lounges, aerialists, a huge dance floor and a restaurant; below, club denizens plead to get past the doorman at the Starck Club, a 1980s den of sex and drugs.
Mark Graham
Blue will be a flurry of adult distractions including belly dancers, VIP lounges, aerialists, a huge dance floor and a restaurant; below, club denizens plead to get past the doorman at the Starck Club, a 1980s den of sex and drugs.
"People had drugs and people were attractive and people had martinis and nobody slowed down," howls '80s club mogul Shannon Wynne, top. Now, says Wynne's one-time partner Matthew Mabel, below, clubs are run by geeks in lab coats.
Mark Graham
"People had drugs and people were attractive and people had martinis and nobody slowed down," howls '80s club mogul Shannon Wynne, top. Now, says Wynne's one-time partner Matthew Mabel, below, clubs are run by geeks in lab coats.

While patrons might risk a pummeling at the hands of Blue's sound system, Black is in peril of sustaining a ruthless market battering. Aside from the fact that his gritty multimillion-dollar splash comes during an economic slump, Black also must contend with a small rash of upscale, high-profile nightclubs that have either opened or are scheduled to open in the next several months--a spate not seen since the city went club crazy in the 1980s. That frenzy struck in the midst of an economic boom and petered out along with the city's plummeting '80s fortunes. This more upscale spate is erupting in the midst of a sagging economy, color-coded terrorist alerts and international upheaval. So why now? What's fueling this counterintuitive burst of club building?

Perhaps the most striking difference is the economic cycle point in which each boom hit. The '80s club swell erupted in the midst of a real estate bubble and subsided as the savings and loan debacle and changes in tax law facilitated its collapse. Today's smaller lounge boom took hold as the telecom, dot-com and high-tech bubbles were bursting, terrorism shattered our collective illusion of security and war jitters rattled the social psyche.

Tristan Simon, operator of Sense and Candle Room in the Henderson Avenue area, suggests that the sudden rise in new nightclubs is merely coincidental, that many of the upscale concepts that bubbled onto the landscape over the past couple of years were conceived and financed when the economy was surging. "What's not happening right now is new upscale restaurant and bar projects are not being conceived and financed," he says. "Equity markets are just impossibly tight."

But others see the current spurt of upscale clubs as a natural outgrowth of economic and social uncertainty, as well as the complexion of the culture itself. "There's a lot of stuff out there today that raises the anxiety level," says Nikita and Samba Room creator Royce Ring. "And alcohol is the great soother. We're dominated by e-mail and voice mail and cell phones and technology. The opportunity to rub shoulders with people and look them in the eye and hold a drink in your hand is kind of the extreme opposite."

The operational horsepower Black will contend with is formidable. In addition to Sense and Nikita, his competitors include Brandt and Brady Wood's Entertainment Collaborative (Umlaut) and Ron Corcoran, whose private club The Sellar is drilled underneath his 9-year-old restaurant Sipango. Black also will contend with the looming six-level mega restaurant and dance club Purgatory just a couple of blocks away created by Dallas businessman Brandon Barr, who restored the Lakewood Theater and shopping center, and the financial muscle of Phil Romano, who is developing the private club Opus Room above the Cidnee Patrick Gallery across from the Crescent Hotel.

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