The Square's Deal

Goodbye rock-and-roll landmark, hello upscale watering hole

There aren't too many things that have not happened within the hallowed walls of Washington Square. Here's one: lobster parties.

This past Wednesday night South Beach was invaded by zombies. Everybody who rocks was walking around in a daze, stunned as if they'd just run full-speed into a brick wall. "Have you heard?" they said in the tone of teenagers surreptitiously talking on the phone while their parents are in the next room, as if saying it too loudly would make things somehow worse. "What's gonna happen? This sucks. Oh, man."

The announcement had come earlier that day: the venerable venue at 645 Washington Ave. would shut its doors for good on September 25. About the only person who wasn't out of it was, surprisingly enough, the Square's music director, Doc Wiley. At three in the morning he was standing outside the club speaking optimistically about the possibility of a new Washington Square opening, a sort of replacement site for the hundreds of bands the Square has been booking to play live since Bill True and Kevin Cornish opened the club on February 23, 1990.

The vanishing of Miami's premier live-rock spot was part of what was rubbing scenesters wrong. In the past five years South Florida's local music scene has boomed into one of the strongest in the nation, with hundreds of professional bands working a circuit that includes a dozen original-rock venues. CDs and cassettes by these bands are being issued by the bushel. The major labels and national press have moved Miami to their A-lists. In the rock milieu, this place is hotter than its weather.

And what has come with this profound success? First WSHE-FM (103.5) canceled its long-running local music program. And now the scene's linchpin nightclub announces the closing of its doors. There's something wrong with these fixtures -- and no one seems able to explain exactly what it is.

Bill True, who met Kevin Cornish while running a hole-in-the-wall Irish pub in St. Thomas, went to New York University for four years, during which time he frequented a nightspot called Spo Dee O Dee. He had a feeling that "South Beach was going to happen," so he leased what was then a Seventh Day Adventist church on Washington Avenue. "We converted it to a house of rock and roll," True reminisces. The rest is history -- or will be after September 25.

The club owner admits that outsiders have good reason to think the venue was making big profits. "We got good crowds, and people thought we were raking it in," True says. "But ours wasn't a money crowd. And we were always up against this and that. More A/C would've been nice. But it got to be hand-to-mouth. We were successful in every way except financially." (The club did put money into high-grade sound equipment and produced CDs and the annual Thon events.)

True also notes that when he opened the Square, it was the only nightclub on the block. Now there are three upscale clubs virtually right next door. Apart from that, it's well-known that the Square has irritated some of its nonclub neighbors with its late-night loudness and sidewalk congregations. True also says his two-year-old daughter deserves more of his time and attention, which was consumed by his business duties.

His simple solution was to go into partnership with Tommy Pooch, a promoter who's been running Tuesdays at Cassis for a year and who recently took over Mondays at Velvet. Pooch is a charming man with a pet cat and lots of club experience. He started as a barback in New York, then a bartender and manager. He acquired a coat-check concession, and eventually opened Spo Dee O Dee with a partner. When they sold that club, Pooch came to Miami, arriving in January 1991. Washington Square will become Spo Dee O Dee on October 8.

"It'll be the sort of place that uses coasters," quips one insider, contrasting the bare-bones rowdiness of the Square with the upscale trendiness of its replacement. Another source suggests that the Square's old audience has grown older and graduated to the nearby preen-and-pose emporiums -- Chili Pepper, Bash, Union Bar -- that can generate thousands of dollars on any given night.

Money is one thing, rock and roll is another. "We're already scouting a new location for the Square," True says. "Rock is our first love, it's what we do. And all these bands we've been booking? That's one of the reasons we're scrambling to open a new club. It's not our responsibility to provide bookings to local acts, but that is what I love. Doc and Kevin feel the same way." (True adds that Square staffers will be offered jobs at Spo Dee O Dee.)

Soon the work crews will move in and spiff up the venue at 645 Washington Ave. New air-conditioning and interior fineries are part of the plan. And so is something else: "For a private opening," Tommy Pooch says, "we're going to have a lobster party. We put all these lobsters in a little swimming pool and the first 300 invited guests get to pick one out, carry it to the kitchen, and cook it however they want. We used to do these parties at the Spo Dee O Dee in New York." Certainly local rockers will consider that a fine kettle of fish.

 
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