Indian Givers

They induced the best national acts to play in a small barroom, and now they're shutting down. Blame the owners. Blame the Beach. Blame yourself.

The club's success was gratifying, but it was seasonal. "I started thinking, why not do something in a warmer climate?" says Honerkamp, whose first thought was to open a wintertime branch in Key West. "I'd been down in Key West in the early Seventies, but it seemed like it would be really hard to get an act to travel all the way down there, and besides, the place wasn't the same as I'd remembered it. But I passed through South Beach in 1989 and really liked it."

In March 1992, Honerkamp and 32 fellow investors paid $485,000 for a two-story building on Collins Avenue, just north of the alley that passes for Sixth Street, in a not especially sparkling stretch of South Beach. They spent hundreds of thousands of additional dollars to transform the structure into a bar that was starkly decorated A a long, wood-topped bar, a glass-fronted cooler stocked with beer, a few dozen scarred wooden tables, and, flanking the stage, a mural of couples dancing A but acoustically enviable. "The place was a crackhouse when we bought it," recalls partner Loren Gallo, a friend of Honerkamp since kindergarten. A compact man with a rectangular face and piercing hazel eyes, Gallo was an engineering consultant before switching careers to club-ownership. He owns a piece of the Amagansett Talkhouse and was one of about a half-dozen of the group of 33 who sank sizable amounts into the subtropical offshoot, which he took charge of renovating for music. He had spent time in Miami during the Eighties while working on the Metrorail project, and moved to Miami Beach to head the new Talkhouse staff. (Honerkamp's plan, which he stuck to for the first two years, was to maintain his house on Long Island and relocate to Miami Beach with his family for the season here; during the winter of '94-'95, he made only occasional forays south.) "We were considered pioneers on lower Collins," Gallo says.

The Talkhouse opened in July 1992 to scanty summertime crowds, and then to Hurricane Andrew, which closed down the club for a short while. The owners subsequently added a patio bar in back, semi-open to the outdoors. Storm damage aside, however, the enterprise struggled from the very start.

"We were always undercapitalized," Peter Honerkamp says. "Our initial thing was that if we brought a lot of our friends in, a lot of the people who'd played at the club in Amagansett who nobody else was bringing down here, we'd be able to establish ourselves."

For the owners, importing the Talkhouse modus operandi involved a lot of money, above and beyond fixing up the club. A key component was the logistical phenomenon known in the music business as "routing," a nightmare with which Loren Gallo says he quickly became all too intimately acquainted. "Sometimes it was more expensive to get a band here than to get them to play in New York," Gallo explains, owing to Miami's geographical isolation. "From Atlanta, it's much easier to go to New Orleans or Austin." Balanced against the bigger investment required to induce bands to travel to South Florida was the Miami Beach Talkhouse's capacity, more than twice that of the Amagansett club. A bigger room meant tickets could be sold at lower prices A shows in Amagansett sell out at $40 or more per head; the asking price here tended to be in the $20 range A but it also meant the proprietors had to count on more people to fill the seats and pay the bills.

The bands came, all right. The audiences didn't.
When they failed to sell out, the owners gave away tickets, reasoning that a full house was better than a vacant one, no matter how it was accomplished. "The people who are doing culture here A Miami Light, Tigertail, Cultura del Lobo A we presented with all of them," says Gallo. "Those people do a lot of shows, but they're nonprofit organizations. If the Talkhouse was a nonprofit and got NEA support, it would be great."

Adds Honerkamp: "You start running out to your dentist, to the club where you work out. I'd give out hundreds of tickets. One of the illusions about a music bar, you could be losing three grand on a given night and the place is packed. Anyone who looks in would say, 'The guy's raking it in,' and you're losing your shirt.

"Leo Kottke? Leo Kottke lost money," Honerkamp goes on, reciting a catechism of futility. "Holly Near? We lost a fortune on Holly Near. We got killed on the Mavericks over New Year's in '93-94. Buster Poindexter. Jorma Kaukonen. Jefferson Starship. We got killed on Warren Zevon at first. We lost on G.E. Smith. Lucinda Williams and Joe Ely? We lost money on that."

"Nothing has any enduring power in South Florida. If you get a couple of years out of a business, you sell it," says Tom Bellucci, a man who knows a little about the vagaries of this area: After getting a couple of years out of his own business here, he sold it.

In 1988 Bellucci opened the Island Club at the corner of Washington Avenue and Seventh Street, hoping to satisfy what he perceived to be a demand for a neighborhood bar that was both upscale and no-frills. By the time he sold the place four years later, he had tried everything from food service to DJs to local bands: Nil Lara played the Island Club, as did the pre-major label Mavericks; Natural Causes was the bar's house band. "It's a strange market, a much, much more treacherous market than I've ever seen," says Bellucci, a widely traveled New Yorker whose acquaintance with Peter Honerkamp goes back to Queens. "In New York, you do it right and you'll succeed. Quality doesn't work down here. I can't tell you the look of amazement on [Honerkamp's and Gallo's] faces when something didn't work out or people didn't show up. I could only tell them, 'That's Miami.' The people here are extremely fickle, they don't make plans till the last minute. Maybe we could say this about society A they refuse to commit to anything. It's the only place I've ever been where you can throw a party and people won't show up just because there's something else to do."

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