By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Nevertheless, some believe Black's Blue is the shrewdest move of them all. "I don't really regard Nikita or Sense as anything other than kind of reshuffling the deck that was already there," says Matthew Mabel, president of the hospitality consulting firm Surrender, who was at the forefront of the Dallas club rage in the '80s. "A $ million nightclub next to the Majestic Theatre? Now that is the kind of thing we haven't seen in a while. That's a big idea. There's definitely room for one big over-the-top nightclub in Dallas."
His sunken living room is a neat collage of black granite, black leather, sound and video equipment, and a 500-gallon saltwater aquarium lodged in a portal that opens into the kitchen a few steps above. "If things don't go well downtown, I'm going to eat that one," he says, pointing to a bright orange grouper tucked under the coral, revealing for the first time a ripple in his calm.
Yet his project has pedigree. Black, 47, was reared in Detroit, the son of a Ford Motor Co. laborer and the youngest of three brothers. He claims he has been working in bars and clubs since he was 11 years old, doing odd jobs in venues his older brothers operated. "I used to sweep up, and I was the janitor," he says.
But his ascent from club custodian to club mogul wasn't a foregone conclusion. At 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing in at some 290 pounds, Black was a natural athlete. "I was blessed to be big. I was the biggest," he says. "Baby Huey."
With his heft and athletic skill, he won college football scholarships and flirted with a career in pro ball before being cut by both the Houston Oilers and the defunct U.S. Football League's LA Express--both times before he could play. "After that I figured I'd do something else," Black says. "I guess I wasn't very good."
During his college days at the University of Texas-El Paso, Black worked for El Paso club operator and fellow football player Marshall Armstrong, with whom he developed a close professional relationship. In 1989, they zeroed in on Dallas, hoping to score club riches opening Iguana Mirage in a space under the United Artists Theater on Park Lane. But their club survived just a couple of months, done in by noise complaints from the theater above. Black then set his sights on Houston, opening Richter 9.9 with Armstrong in 1991, a large club catering to black professionals.
But the shelved Iguana Mirage concept was kept alive, and in 1993 it was reopened in the NorthPark East Shopping Center. Iguana was an over-the-top, $3 million, 21,000-square-foot super club with a Mayan bar sporting the façade of a South American Indian temple, walls that changed color, a sizzling wok food station fixed 6 feet in the air and a 100-seat restaurant. "He likes to do big things," says Blue marketing manager Carolyn Neff, who collected covers at the door of Iguana Mirage. "He doesn't just want to do a nightclub; he wants an entertainment complex. There really aren't any big dance clubs here...nobody was creating adult dance clubs anymore."
Black and his partners reaped some $5.5 million in revenues in the club's first year of operation, and Iguana was the top-grossing nightclub in Texas in 1994.
But the club crumbled in a bitter rift, according to Black's attorney John Stewart. Mort Meyerson, a limited partner in Iguana, filed a lawsuit alleging that Black was stealing money from the door of the club and that employees were delivering cash proceeds to him nightly. The court subsequently appointed a receiver, who ran the club for a year. "After a complete investigation, it was determined that there was no money being stolen from the door," Stewart says. "What was being brought to him every night was the operating reports." Stewart says the suit was ultimately dismissed, though the club folded not long after the dispute was resolved.
Before Black lost control of his highly successful Iguana Mirage, he took over the space on Lovers Lane that once held the club Confetti's and turned it into The Spot, which later morphed into the Spy Club, Black's most enduring project. He also channeled his energy into strip clubs, including Erotica on Matilda and Club BéBé on Lovers Lane near the Spy Club (both Spy Club and Club BéBé were scraped from the ground to make room for H.E. Butt's Central Market).
Though Black refuses to discuss his foray into the gentlemen's club business, he admits that his proudest moment as a club maestro was his resuscitation of the Black Orchid Cabaret, a strip club in Detroit he took over from his brother following his death in the early '90s. After tightening the operation, Black claims he drove revenues from $200,000 annually to more than $1 million before selling it in 1997.