We have wandered, it seems, into a time and space where the parameters of fun in the Nineties - bargain-basement sensation as soulless, senseless, and dumbed-down as a television sitcom - have already been exhausted. Other eras of fun are needed for fuel. The Fifties have been used up as a stylistic sourcebook. The Seventies have become one big disco theme party for college students who appreciate the easy camp of flared pants. It's time for the Sixties, when fun was fun, and best of all, everything had meaning, purpose, and boffo production values.
Sixties-style fun is all the rage at the Island Club's Thursday-night theme evenings: the Underwater Ball. Conceived, directed, and produced by owner Tom Bellucci and promotions director Linda Bedell, it appears to have something to do with raising money and awareness for ecological causes, giving the place another Island-of-Lost-Souls big night, and perhaps most importantly, providing socially conscious entertainment as a kind of bar snack. For the occasion the club is done up in a trendy but concerned motif: hanging cutouts of sharks and other fish, imagery from the Save the Whales school of iconography, and quilts composed of individual fabric squares painted by the patrons and sewn together. The whole scene is refreshing and pleasant, with none of that theme-party-gone-awry feeling that infects other club nights.
But our companion, artist Alan Treister, a resident of Berkeley, California (the land of ultimate higher purpose), will have none of this soulful South Beach stuff. Being a member of the Treister development family, of Mayfair fame, he tends to favor the Grove as a stomping ground for simple, unaffected carousing. "I can't stand all these people standing around with all their attitude," he sneers derisively. "This is just style, posing. It's ridiculous. The Grove is my kind of thing; it's like one big impersonal shopping mall, all UM girls and beer. Most of the Beach looks like Beirut. The clubs are great in the Grove - nobody knows anything, and they're not looking for anything except a good time. They all know they're nothing and they don't pretend to be anything else. Look around here. Everybody's worried about acting sophisticated. Nobody's having real fun. And let's face it, that's the point of it all."
Real fun, of any era, being an exceedingly rare commodity, we immediately fell for the hype and headed over to the Grove in search of late-night weekend diversions. The point of it all, unfortunately, was pretty elusive. The Grove, like bell bottoms, Pucci prints, and free love, has lately come to seem like a dated but still potently marketable concept. It's a product - not unlike, say, blue jeans - that has been transmogrified far beyond its humble beginnings, a one-word image (Cher, Liz, Elvis) that is instantly capable of producing a whole range of cozy, if no longer pertinent, associations: long hair, John Sebastian, bong pipes, wild peacocks, trees. All this, of course, bears little relation to the new, postmodern Grove, a place that looks as if it's been pumped up with steroids, money, and gonads, a pop-up toy-architecture land populated with youth gangs, Euro-trash, and the aforementioned University of Miami students, a class of people who readily bring to mind the classic Root Boy Slim number: "So Young, So Hip, So Lame."
The fun tour began, inoffensively enough, at Tu Tu Tango in the CocoWalk complex. In accordance with the mutant-theme-park mentality of the mall, the restaurant is patterned - we think - after some deconstructed French Provencal bistro, with hanging vegetables, people painting at easels, and lots of earth tones. As the very nice ballet benefactor Mark Steinberg pointed out, the place did draw a mixed crowd, "just like the Grove used to twenty years ago." Arguable, but the crowd sure was mixed: socialite and Realtor Brenda Nestor, glamour gal/hustler Bobbi Berkman, in-your-face architect Robin Zachary Parker ("There's going to be a party tonight, buddy"), Brad Arkin of the Arkin Construction family, and our favorite human being in the world, marketing consultant Rebecca Cohen, who was leaving the following day for a new life in California: "Let me tell you, an evening like this makes it easier to go."
After a few drinks at Tu Tu, we hit the streets and soon realized that we did not recognize, or even want to acknowledge, one single person. By 1:00 a.m. things had gotten pretty sloppy, with charming bits of overheard conversations ("When somebody does that to me, man, I blow their fucking head off..." "Shit man, let's get some bitches...") and tableaux that John Sebastian could never have envisioned. At the Tavern in the Grove, formerly the old gay landmark The Hamlet, the UMers crowded in and jammed against each other, like mountain goats butting heads during mating season. Later a group of young Latin athlete/thugs messed with a deranged-looking black street person, whooping, taunting, and finally mounting and riding him as if he were a horse. Not an appetizing sight.
At first glance Stringfellow's in the Mayfair complex appeared to be comatose, surviving on a throbbing life-support system: a closed door, a flickering neon sign, the outside wall pulsating with the simple beat of late-Seventies disco. As it turned out, we were at the wrong door, and the place was still alive, although only just barely: "Yeah, we're open, guy - go right in and check it out." Not much to check. Four Oriental girls danced by themselves. Some Stringfellowish-looking Englishman was having a real quiet dinner. A contingent of the Euro-trash set walked in, realized they were the most glamourous people in the room (always a hateful circumstance) and promptly left, looking confused.
Around 2:30 or so, the new Grove came into focus at Baja Beach Club. Other more straight-ahead offensive clubs have opened in the CocoWalk complex - the none-too-subtle Hooters comes to mind - but nothing could be both as odd and offensive as Baja. A vast Bud Light place that is like one long, especially stupid, surfer movie put together by twelve-year-olds, Baja has chewed up every known entertainment cliche of every known era. The party-hearty, post- Animal House Fifties motif is evoked with drinks served in gallon-size plastic tubs, bikini-clad girls selling beer from huge metal washtubs, and an eclectic playlist of strictly fun music, encompassing everything from the B-52s' "Rock Lobster" to the "Hokey Pokey" to Vanilla Ice.
The eras tend to blur together after a while. Patrons are encouraged to get up on cubes scattered around the club and live out the life of a Sixties go-go dancer. Police whistles, a true Seventies disco touch, occasionally pierce the crowd noise. A state-of-the-art Eighties game section - the ultimate college activity center - is crammed with video gun slingers, Foosball, and every other conceivable dumb thing. For some reason the waitresses wear T-shirts that say, "I got Lucilled. You bitch. You slut. You whore." Everyone is tanned, healthy, brain-damaged, and seemingly oblivious to all the weird incongruities.
In the lounge, two piano players run through a repertoire of rock-concert standards, and then invite the crowd on stage for a feel-good fest: "If you love each other, get up and give your neighbor a hug." Amazingly, strangers embrace each other, clap for the old-time gospel segment, and wave their arms back and forth, anthem-rock style, in loving tribute to the spirit of music.
Directly beside the stage, the yearning masses mill around the entrance to the upstairs dance club, clutching admittance cards and waiting for their numbers to be displayed on a video monitor. The festival of sentiment has not, somehow, affected the massive doorman who surveys our card: "It don't look too good. You got a long way to go, pal - 1200 people have to leave before you can get in. I don't mean to laugh, but you gotta see the humor, right? It's kinda funny." Kind of funny. Kind of not fun. Kind of time to call it a night.
Personally, and that's really what matters with the whole question of entertainment, the Beach would seem to be a little higher on the fun scale. For one thing, there always seem to be new clubs sprouting up. While Gloria Estefan and her people reportedly continue to scour Lincoln Road for the ultimate Hard Rock Cafe site, the huge and ultra-fancy Hippodrome, at 727 Lincoln Road, is set to open, or might have already opened, or can't be bothered to open. Maybe. Sort of. We're not saying.
Co-owner Bernie Martinez, along with partners William Midler (bizarrely enough, a microbiologist) and entrepreneur Carlos Cruz, have done the important work and got the concept down: "We are going to re-create a Roman coliseum, with chic people, Hollywood's best, the paparazzi set, and bring the old Rome to the new, right to South Beach." Martinez, formerly with the clubs Illusions and My Dreams (some kind of paranormal theme here?) insists that everything is going swimmingly: "We should be opening sometime in the early fall or late summer." Another Hippodrome spokesman, citing the demands of secrecy ("We don't want other clubs to open the night we do...not that we think we have anything to worry about") will only suggest that the club might open a week or so before the publication date of this column, August 21. What does that mean exactly? "I can't say." Don't call us, we'll call you. Don't even bother to show up. Even mega-ritz clubs, apparently, have gone underground.
Mega-ritz or not, opening dates seem to be problematic. After many delays, pronouncements, manifestos, et cetera, The Butter Club, according to one of the partners, New Yorker Richard Garcia, will be opening "before September 15th. We're shooting for August 28th, but anything could happen." The construction problems, says Garcia, came with the decision to expand the "cabaret, dance club, art gallery," and enclose the open back-yard area of the space at 655 Washington Avenue: "The city has been supportive, but very difficult about permits." (A common enough refrain among the New Era carpetbaggers, Manhattanites who want to colonialize South Beach and prosper in the golden land, where everything is warmer, cheaper, and almost as fabulous as New York.) Garcia plans to work on the private-membership thing and keep the place down to a manageable level of 550 A-crowd types: "You get a hundred extra people, it gets crazy and no one drinks."
It's crazy, everyone drinks, and George and Leo Nunez of Warsaw have to be making, as they say on the old fun Beach, a beautiful dollar. Warsaw celebrated its second anniversary (no raids yet and still counting) last weekend with a series of festivities and a new interior by club veteran George Tamsitt. There had been a distinct pining-for-Broadway look about the place, gone slightly seedy and used up, with enormous hanging renderings of glittering stars from the homosexual universe. Now everything seems somehow lighter, lusher, and more perfectly attitudinal. The Art Deco elements - the gold-leaf panels, beautifully etched windows, and so on -that Tamsitt utilized to great effect for the original make over in 1986, during the site's incarnation as Ovo, have been kept. As Tamsitt puts it, "A new modern structure - sleek, contemporary, and masculine - has been added on to Art Deco. The two don't go together, but it works."
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Over the main resurfaced bar, a small stage has been added with a revolving turntable for dancers. A series of platforms lead up to the open second-floor aubergine lounge, accented with eerie neon lighting. There are three new bars, plush velvet carpeting, computerized lighting, and a new stage, with rope netting for dancers to frolic on. According to Tamsitt, the operating philosophy of full-scale fun decadence won't be changing much. "It'll be the usual Warsaw madness: fat ladies, midgets, and pigs."
Big conceptual changes are, however, planned for Downtown, the straight disco Tamsitt manages across the river from downtown Miami. The club closed down August 9 and will open again some time in early to mid-October. (But then, who really knows about these things?) "I never thought the place should be all straight - I mean, this is 1991 - especially considering the location," Tamsitt says. "We're going to reopen as a mixed club called Metropolis. It's going to kind of resemble the 1929 silent movie, with layered constructions and cross-fading lighting. You might see a superimposed window frame, and then behind it, another color or dimension mixed in."
Another dimension of fun might soon be added to Ocean Drive. Several French investors are reportedly looking at the second-floor club space contained within the hideous shopping mall across the street from the News Cafe. (At one time, Corbett Monica was supposed to open a comedy club there.) The vital thing - the name - has already been invented, and is too, too cunning: Le Boy.
In the deranged rumor category, Eighties simpleton and Nineties workout spokesman Don Johnson, along with several other no doubt fun-bedazzled investors, are supposedly eyeing the old Club Nu space. No one is sure about the name - Donnie's? Viceland? - but the concept definitely needs work. (Is there such a thing as too much fun?) Naturally the place will probably open during this year's fashionable season: "Sometime in the early fall.