By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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."
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.
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.
But perhaps Black's boldest move was his infiltration of the gay enclave on Cedar Springs with Lime, a bar and club he opened in 2001. A blend of atmospherics from South Beach and New York, Lime was a clean minimalist space with bracing green hues, a row of giant flat-screen TVs on one wall and an array of mirrors on the other. It opened to thick crowds and developed a loyal following. But by the fall of last year, Black had divested himself of Lime and soon found himself embroiled in a breach of contract and fraud suit with Lime's managers Eddie Ortega and Simon Garza (owners of Salsa on McKinney Avenue), who allege that Black had entered into an agreement to sell them the club and then backed out. Black countersued, charging Garza and Ortega with breach of fiduciary duty and with failure to pay federal payroll and Texas liquor taxes while they were operating Lime. The outcome of the litigation is pending.
"It didn't work," says Black of his Lime adventure. "I wasn't the right person for it. I just didn't get the job done."
Despite this setback, Black contends his instincts are sound. "I'm very creative," he says. "I'm very visual. I read a lot of magazines. I'm looking for trends. I think I'm always a little ahead of the curve as far as designing places. And I'm open to trying things. I mean, I was a black straight guy on Cedar Springs."
And there was nothing to do after 10 p.m. "There wasn't any place to go," says Shannon Wynne, founder of 8.0 and a small blitz of dance clubs that followed in its wake. When Wynne, 51, opened 8.0 in the Quadrangle in 1980, the city didn't know what to make of it. "It was Siberia," says 8.0 partner Matthew Mabel, 44, of the Quadrangle area. He says the first six months of the club's existence were barren; the beautiful people were there, but there just weren't that many beautiful people.
8.0 merged factory lighting, industrial materials and artwork into a hybrid high-tech trim in the year the home computer burst into the cultural consciousness. Soon the club seethed with sweaty bodies, dancing to hits by the B-52's and Blondie pumped from a jukebox. Emboldened by its success, Wynne created a series of clubs: Rocko, Tango, Mexico, Nostromo. Mabel describes the fast-and-loose temperament as the Wild West. Banks were willing to shower cash on entrepreneurs simply on the basis of an idea. "There was a time when there was a new club opening every month," he explained in a 2000 interview. "There was lots of territory. There was lots of gold. There was lots of opportunity, and there were lots of charismatic figures to lead everyone on."
In the '80s, the city levitated on the proceeds of the "greed-is-good" decade. "People had drugs and people were attractive and people had martinis and nobody slowed down," recalls Wynne of the scene in his club Nostromo, which took hold of the space that is now Sipango. "Real estate was through the roof. There were 25-year-old millionaires in there sending bottles of Dom [Perignon] to people they didn't know." Nostromo was Dallas' brash adolescent nightlife all dressed up in cosmopolitan pretense. It was sharp, edgy and well-groomed with walls placarded with art and a kitchen that offered exotic cuisine such as sushi and artichokes served on glass blocks. Music, such as Depeche Mode, The Romantics and Frank Sinatra, was assembled and played on a six-hour reel-to-reel tape player. Nostromo bulged with Dallas glitterati, which became the lifeblood of Dallas nightlife--a piece of cultural anthropology that very nearly resembles the social hierarchy of baboon troops. "There's always 15 or 20 small females and 15 or 20 strong males that dominate the culture," Wynne maintains. "Their presence legitimizes your place, and if they don't show up, you're as good as dead."
This brood goes by many names: beautiful people, in crowd, hot crowd. But it's more commonly known as the fickle 500, that amorphous pack that brings sparkle to the nightlife culture and attracts the hordes lusting after a position in the fickle hierarchy. To solidify his hold on this group, Wynne opened the Rio Room in the back of Nostromo, an energetic discothèque that sifted out the riffraff with $1,000-per-person club memberships.
But perhaps the boldest skimming of the nightlife cream struck in 1984 with the Starck Club, the decadent romper room launched by Wynne's former partner Blake Woodall. Woodall went over the heads of the fickle 500, drawing kings and queens from New York and Los Angeles and international cities. Designed by and named for famed French architect and product designer Philippe Starck, Starck Club was on the cutting edge of interior environments. The unisex bathrooms were designed as lounges with endless mirrors, spans of sinks and screens displaying music videos. Liquor was maintained at a constant chill so that the ice cubes wouldn't shrink when splashed with booze. Former Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks was a limited partner.
"I wanted a big nightclub, a big scene," recounts Woodall, 51, who now operates Vent-A-Hood, a manufacturer of residential range hoods. "We wanted to enlighten Dallas to what was going on around the world." Woodall introduced Starck to Dallas with bracing stylish awe, luring Nicks and Grace Jones on the same stage together for the club's opening party. From that point on long lines scaled up the slick black staircase of the West End club. The doors were rigidly guarded, governed by a permanent guest list and a culling process that sifted dweebs from the fashionable, awarding preference to drag queens and beehive hairdos.
"The Starck Club really made a statement in town," says Michael Morris, who operates Seven, One and Martini and Margarita Ranches. "I mean, prior to that you had promotions like drink and drown, ladies' night; you had all of those terrible, cheesy, corny promotional vehicles to try and get people in the door. And the Starck Club said, 'We're cool. We're opening, and if we think you're cool enough, you'll get in...That made people want it all the more."
But under the slick lights, the smart threads and the Depeche Mode, Boy George and Flock of Sea Gulls hum, Starck was a den of delicious iniquity. "It's probably the number-one open drug bar in Dallas," Dallas police vice division Captain G.G. Parker said in a Dallas Morning News report after an August 1986 raid on the club. Spurred by complaints that drugs were being sold and used openly at Starck, the sweep netted 36 arrests and Ecstasy, Dilaudid, LSD, cocaine and marijuana with a total street value at the time of $9,200.
"It was the most hysterical thing," says a prominent Dallas female executive who was an avid clubber in the '80s and present at Starck when it was raided 16 years ago. "People were just emptying their pockets. All these drugs were just falling to the floor." Police lamented that a good part of their potential take disappeared down the Starck's toilets.
Those loungey rest rooms decked with sinks and mirrors were scenes not only of drug ingestion. The stalls served as nooky nooks where boys and girls gathered for sex.
But the Starck raid seemed an ominous omen, not only for the Starck but for the decadent club scene in general. Woodall snuffed out Starck less than three years after the famous raid, just as a tanking real estate market and the savings and loan collapse were drying up the Cristal and the Dom Perignon. Subsequent attempts to revive it by other operators failed or were short-lived. Dallas was sobering up.
"I believe that the '80s era was an era where many of us figured that what we were living was probably not the best lifestyle," Woodall admits. "There was lots of drugs, lots of alcohol, lots of sexuality and sensuality, and a lot of people got hurt. And I think by the time we got to the '90s, people had matured. In some respects, it was a waste of eight or 10 years of people's lives."
Nightlife ebbed in the '90s, which club owner Russell Hobbs, who created the Deep Ellum haunts Theatre Gallery, Prophet Bar and The Door, characterizes as the era of 12 steps, condoms and "think when you drink."
"When you think about a night going from Nostromo to Starck to the Rio Room in the 1980s, that was a pretty hip night," Mabel says. "There were a lot of big clubs. A lot of them. In all shapes and sizes. From smart to dumb. So it was exciting."
Yet after a few trolls, the redhead seems mildly frustrated. "They're more interested in me than they are in them," she admits to Corcoran, pointing at her husband and his companions.
On a Saturday night a scant seven months later Corcoran is sitting in the same seat in the same red corner. His club is desolate, save for a handful of clubbers in the main bar area. He seems to take the anemia in stride, admitting the recent openings of Sense, Dragonfly in Hotel ZaZa and Drálion in the Centrum building have bled The Sellar dry. Amazingly, it doesn't seem to faze him. Corcoran says such slumps simply prompt him to pull back and surreptitiously plumb market crevices for new opportunity like some nightlife vole.
The scrappy and furtive Corcoran has navigated the treacherous Dallas nightlife climate of the post-'80s 12-step-condom-think-when-you-drink era since 1994, when he opened Sipango in the space that was once Shannon Wynne's Nostromo. Deriving the name from the old Turtle Creek private club Cipango whose heyday spanned the '40s, '50s and '60s (the club closed in 1986 and the building was later razed), Sipango was the precursor of the modern Dallas club incarnation, which jettisons huge dance floors and flickering lights for haute grub and sultry lounges. The restaurant-club featured Cal-Ital cuisine complete with wood-fired pizzas, live music in the bar and in 1995, added the revived Rio Room discothèque.
"The key with Sipango is a combination of very strong components: location, management, menu, live music and the willingness of Ron to change," says Brandt Wood, president of the Entertainment Collaborative, whose Jeroboam Brasserie and club Umlaut downtown capitalized early on the current lounge craze. "He has got a great finger on the pulse, and he stays with it."
Opening with some 42 limited partners, Corcoran cashed out his partners in 1997 after Wichita, Kansas-based Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon Inc. purchased half interest in the restaurant-club for $1 million. "My way is not to go head-to-head," Corcoran says, shrugging off the barrenness of his cave club. "My way is to let it blow out. We change. We look at what the future is bringing, and if a lot of people are doing what we're doing, then what we want to do is something different. I always want to stay ahead of the curve. We know how to ride the bottom."
Though Sipango has never realized the revenues it captured in its first couple of years in operation when it generated some $4 million per year, it has bounded back from the slump it slipped into during the Central Expressway construction when revenues were sliced in half. Today Sipango pulls in roughly $3 million per year, and Corcoran has some ambitious changes in the offing. Not only is he talking about buying back Lone Star's stake, he's looking to lease the restaurant to a marquee chef and focus his attention on the bar and nightclub side of the business, completely revamping The Sellar, stripping it of its exclusivity. "Sense has basically taken a lot of wind out of the VIP market," he concedes.
The current climate demands precise execution. Tristan Simon, 30, doesn't wear a lab coat, or even a sport coat. In fact, most of the time he looks like a bleary-eyed, cram-crazed dorm rat, humming not from illicit substances but from profit and loss figures, market data and heady articles from Foreign Affairs, which is stacked on his desk near the spot where he parks his feet. Even when shoulder-rubbing with the designer-thread crowd that swarms his offices and his upscale club Sense, Simon flaunts baggy jeans, rumpled shirts, disheveled blond locks and chin stubble.
Yet he almost single-handedly reinvented the highly tailored VIP nightlife in Dallas with his Henderson Avenue venue, a small members-only nightclub with a gurgling fountain, cozy cushioned privacy enclaves, gauzy curtains, travertine appointments and a restrained sound system that doesn't war with conversation. And he didn't do it by falling in love with a cool concept and crunching some numbers into submission. He did it by analyzing Dallas' cultural personality with the intensity of a psychotherapist and then scrubbing the market to expose ways to indulge its disorders.
"It's a culture of conspicuous consumption," he says dryly. "We're not competing with mountains or water sports or a particularly vibrant cultural scene...It's a money town. Fancy cars. Pretty women. Big houses. That's about what you have."
While this observation may be trite, Simon is genuinely amused with the perception--not to mention fascinated by the prospect of twisting these cultural threads to his advantage. "People use their consumption to burnish their self-image here," he says. "We are in the business of manufacturing mirrors that reflect the preferred self-image of our customers...If you flatter their self-image, you'll be successful. That's hard work because you are dealing with people who are in many cases fundamentally insecure; otherwise they wouldn't be so self-conscious, so self-aware. It's innately fickle work." Club development has never worn a crisper lab coat.
Simon says the idea for Sense surfaced while he was lounging in the bar at Bob's Steak and Chop House. It was codified in his own Henderson Avenue restaurant and bar Cuba Libre, where he noticed many 35-plus adults uncomfortably mingling with the twentysomethings after hours. "Before Sense, there simply wasn't a nightclub or lounge for older affluent people in Dallas to go to after dinner," he says. "I'm 50 years old," declares a Dallas advertising executive at Sense. "I go to most places and I feel really fucking old. It's nice to go out to a place where you can hear yourself think."
Simon insists he isn't interested in building true nightclubs. Instead, his aim is to create "residential lounges," places where people can congregate after dinner, preferably one purchased in one of his restaurants. Sense was originally designed to serve as a digestive respite for his yet-to-open restaurant Hibiscus, a spot that will showcase the work of his chef Nick Badovinus and whose guests will automatically be admitted to Sense. This symbiosis is replicated with Candle Room, his new private club just off Henderson geared for the 21- to 35-year-old denizens channeled from Cuba Libre.
This low-key club concept is not lost on other operators, whether they came upon the idea concurrently with Simon or were inspired by it. Nikita in the West Village incorporates some of the elements of Sense, as does Umlaut, The Sellar, Black's Blue with its various VIP levels and the loungey bars in restaurants such as Dragonfly, Drálion, Paris Vendome and Samba Room. But none has unraveled the essential elements that make this concept tick with Simon's precision.
"Privacy is a necessary commitment," Simon insists. "I'm not interested in doing stand-alone bar work that isn't private, because you can't control your clientele. In the bar business the customer is your product. Everything else--the music, the décor, the drinks themselves--are just a backdrop to the customer as product. I want to control my product."
But already there are operators who believe they have spotted weak points in Simon's game plan. Sense, they say, is generating pockets of dissatisfied demand itself by wearying patrons with its $10 martinis and $12 glasses of chardonnay as well as creating discomfort levels by functioning as little more than a twentysomething pick-up joint for the middle-aged and well-heeled. Those are the discontented crowds Nick & Sam's managing partner Joe Palladino is hoping to exploit. Inspired by the success of Sense, Palladino, along with Nick & Sam's founder Phil Romano, is developing an upscale and private 4,000-square-foot nightclub. To feed the club, slated to open by September and tentatively called Opus Lounge, Palladino will generate a VIP list nightly from those who dine at Nick & Sam's in addition to a permanent list of Nick & Sam's regulars. He plans to shuttle them the few blocks to the club from Nick & Sam's via a standing fleet of limos. "I have four years of a high-end clientele here," the former New York City cop and Las Vegas restaurant operator boasts. "I want to make it an institution. I want to start creating my own personal niche in this city...I want people who live in the city, people who fly into the city, to say, 'You know what? I have to get into Opus Lounge.'"
Opus will have a dramatic entrance with an elevator that lifts patrons up and spills them into the middle of the club brimming with velvet draperies, wood appointments, cold seafood platters, a half moon bar and something Sense and other lounges in town don't offer: a dance floor.
Romano says he wants Opus to be an after-dinner respite that is couple-friendly, a place where a guest can feel comfortable bringing a date or spouse. "Sense is a meat market," Romano says. "Why would I take a date into Sense? It's like taking a ham sandwich to a banquet."
But such operator me-tooism only confirms for some the status of Simon as club innovator. "The Tristanization of Dallas is not dissimilar from the Shannonization of Dallas," says Wynne, drawing a comparison to the club boom he spearheaded in the '80s.
In one respect the comparison exposes more incongruities than similarities. The club boom in the '80s was in many respects a mass movement of large dance halls that fed off powerful impulses, such as the throngs of all ages that would eagerly lay in wait for Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" before swarming the dance floor. Today's clubs are smaller spaces with candles, soft furniture and draperies. "The culture is focused on more refined experiences, better design, better food, better flavors, better environments, new spirits, new wines...as opposed to the great big dumb experience," Mabel observes.
"It isn't as much socializing through dance as it is socializing through hanging out," Wynne says.
The other person Black seems to model himself after is his late father. "He was square as hell," Black says, dabbing his red eyes after recounting the stunned but silent look of pride he remembers on his father's face when he flew him to Dallas to show him Iguana Mirage. He composes himself. "I'm what you don't think of as a bar owner," he stresses. "I really don't drink that often. I don't stay out late. I'm in bed by 11:30, 12 o'clock. What you would normally think a club guy would do, I don't. I'm not much of a schmoozer. I'm a boring guy."