The Art & Science of Clubland, Part 2
Monday, January 15, 11:30 p.m.
You never forget your first time. "Lua was just incredible," sighs nightclub promoter Mykel Stevens with a smile. He's momentarily lost in a wistful memory for the Española Way space in which he first threw his weekly Back Door Bamby party in the mid-Nineties. Stevens then begins offhandedly running through the subsequent venues that hosted Back Door Bamby -- Liquid, KGB, Groove Jet -- in the process taking Kulchur on a stroll through South Beach's nightlife graveyard. All those clubs are defunct, a reminder of the turnover that is the Beach's true hallmark.
Sometimes the names change (Bar Room is now 320); sometimes they don't (the Living Room, freshly purchased by would-be magnate Shawn Lewis, is now called the Living Room). But both Stevens and Back Door Bamby are still here and still thriving. With fellow promoter Carmel Ophir as his new partner, Stevens has moved Bamby to crobar, where it regularly draws 1000 to 1500 people every Monday night, no mean feat considering the day of the week.
It would seem an appropriate fit given that crobar was one of last year's few lucrative launches in clubland, earning a profit of approximately $2.5 million on revenues of $10 million, according to co-owner Ken Smith. The common ingredient to both success stories appears to be a shared assumption about the nightclub biz -- namely, that it simply is theater production by another name. Indeed Stevens repeatedly describes his job as "doing a show," and he can instantly cite both the evening's "production costs" and his break-even point, which tonight is two and a half times greater than normal owing to the booking of noted New York City house DJ Erick Morillo.
Stevens begins inching away from crobar's entrance, where he's come for a quick inspection, and heads back inside. "I don't like to come out here too often," he says while motioning to the growing clump of people at the waist-high barricades deployed on either side of crobar's velvet rope. "People recognize me and then it's, Hey, Mykel! Mykel!'" Everyone wants to remind him of their mutual friendship, and what kind of promoter makes his friends pay the cover charge? With a sly expression Stevens explains it's much more tactful to let his doormen play good cop/bad cop whenever his name is invoked. Letting lots of people in for free may make you popular, but it won't make you rich.
Every party on South Beach claims to offer a unique experience, but Back Door Bamby is truly different. A look at the folks flowing inside makes that clear: Drag queens are a staple of any promoter's arsenal these days, but most of the Adams-apple ladies strutting into crobar tonight aren't on the payroll. They're just here to parade.
And yes, there's plenty of the Beach's de rigueur black clothing on display, but it's as much art-school black as fashionista black. There's also a smattering of bona fide black people (a rare enough sight in the tonier precincts of clubland), as well as a significant gay contingent, making this the only night on the Beach you'll find large numbers of gay men happily dancing alongside straight ones.
In keeping with that nontraditional spirit, the troika manning the velvet rope is suitably over the top, Studio 54's gatekeepers as envisioned by John Waters. Holding down the drama-queen role is Adrian (one name is plenty, thank you), resplendent in a Gucci hat and sleeveless vest, neatly sculpted sideburns emerging on either side of his dark sunglasses. "Please don't waste my time!" he shrieks apoplectically to a pair of men who keep insisting they're "on the list." Whose list are they on? They're not sure. They might be on the owner's personal list. He's a good friend of theirs, they assure Adrian, except they can't seem to recall the owner's name at the moment.
Adrian frowns and resumes flipping through the pages on his clipboard, exhaling loudly as he turns over each one. Wait, maybe they were put on the DJ's list instead. He's another good friend of theirs. No, they're not too sure of the DJ's name either. Adrian is visibly shaking now, as though he's teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown, when the two men finally surrender and agree to pay the $20 cover.
He's barely finished waving them in when two women squeeze forward and begin frantically imploring, "Discount? Discount?" Adrian appears dumbfounded. One of the women pleads in a thick Mediterranean accent: "We're Italian; we're here on holiday! Discount, okay?" The drama begins anew.
It's hard to take any of this too seriously. Adrian's ostentatious selection of the gathered hopeful via an imperiously pointed finger while second doorman Attila unhooks the rope for the lucky to pass through; Adrian's ability to pause midconversation with Kulchur, whirl around, squeal, warmly hug an acquaintance, and then turn back and continue speaking without missing a beat -- it's part of the show, Back Door Bamby extending out to the sidewalk.
And if it seems to be a parody of the door policies of most Washington Avenue joints, that's because it is. Best of all it's a joke everyone is in on, because at Back Door Bamby -- can you keep a secret? -- everybody will get in. Some clubgoers will wait a few minutes longer than others, and some will pay the full cover instead of a reduced rate, but no one is excluded.
An apparently drunk Latin man shakily leans over the barricade and begins barking rapid-fire Spanish at Adrian. Ash, the third member of the door crew, done up in drag with an aqua miniskirt and matching heels, swoops into action. "¡La linea, por favor!" he snaps at the now-cowed man. Ash tries to keep a stern face for added effect but quickly shakes his head and begins laughing: "Oh, honey, that's all the Spanish I know."
"I'm trying to build it up little by little," says Gigi, looking out from behind the turntables of the DJ booth at the expanse of crobar's main room. The crowd, though sizable, is still gathered at the bars. The only figure on the dance floor is a young man in a wheelchair, pivoting the motorized chair back and forth while nodding his head to the rhythms roaring out of the towering speakers, disco-era cult faves such as Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up" and the eerily percussive "Voices Inside My Head" by Common Sense. "I don't want to hit them right away," Gigi adds. "It's all about setting a mood. Erick is coming up." A good opening act knows he's just there to prime the audience.
"You wouldn't imagine you could have such a party on Monday!" Janinna Meyer hollers into Kulchur's ear in her clipped English. "It's good! Fabulous!" Yelling is the only way to be heard at the bar this close to the dance floor, which now is packed, a tangled mass of waving limbs. Meyer is here with two classmates from the Miami Ad School. They're Germans in their early twenties, just beginning their second semester of school. Kulchur asks what drew them to Back Door Bamby. Could they be celebrating Martin Luther King Day, as the "Free at Last" quotes on tonight's flyers headily announce? Meyer furrows her brow and glances apprehensively at one of her friends. "We're here for Erick Morillo," she says. They've heard him spin back in Germany. He too is "fabulous.
"There's a lot of locals here, not too many tourists," Meyer continues, pointing out one of the keys to a cool party.
And you're not a tourist? You've only been in Miami a few months.
Meyer's eyes flash red. "No! I am not a tourist! I am a local!" She storms off as her two surprised friends try to avoid eye contact with Kulchur.
Erick Morillo hunches over a turntable, his fingers poised. The music has turned quiet. The entire club stares up at him expectantly. Behind Morillo stands Carmel Ophir, who allows this dramatic moment to linger ever so slightly. Then, like a conductor bringing down the baton, he cues a nearby lighting director. In the next choreographed instant, the room is submerged in a wash of blue light, and Morillo lets fly his first record, at a volume almost twice as loud as before.
You can feel the bass rumbling in your stomach as Morillo mixes in a record featuring crowd noise, creating the aural illusion that all of crobar is screaming in frenzied appreciation. "See how he's working the cross-fader," Ophir says admiringly as Morillo's hands dart back and forth from the three spinning turntables to an array of sliders and knobs. Of course considering that Morillo's DJ fee for his four-hour set is in the $5000 range (on top of his airfare and hotel), he'd better work that cross-fader.
If you want to find Ken Smith, just look up. Standing well over six feet tall and with the broad shoulders and physique more commonly associated with a football player than a nightclub owner, Smith is easy to spot. There are two other co-owners, Callin Fortis and Bob Myers (the three oversee Big Time Productions, which operates twelve clubs and restaurants in Chicago), but only Smith prides himself on being a late-night fixture inside crobar.
At the moment he is standing in front of a speaker stack, surveying the bustling dance floor with a satisfied countenance that suggests a hint of smugness. Tapping his arm, Kulchur asks if he's here tonight to work or to play. Smith smiles and stoops down to speak: "I'm always working."
He leads the way to the second-floor VIP room, unused tonight, and settles in on the edge of a sofa. Kulchur is still unsteadily readjusting to the relative quiet, but Smith is practically effervescent even at this hour, a quality that makes him seem far younger than his actual age of 37.
"This isn't real; it's like putting on a stage show," he says, gesturing grandly to the room around him. Ticket-buyers demand entertainment. Put on a compelling show, and they'll come see it. That means utilizing everything from dancing midgets to outlandish costumes to create a vibrant, louche atmosphere. Three-piece suits and matching attitude aren't part of the formula.
"It takes a lot of energy, a lot of focus," he goes on. "But anybody can buy a club. There's no formal training involved. You can't go to college to study clubology!"
Although he reminds Kulchur several times that he does in fact have a college degree, Smith cites thirteen years of Chicago nightlife experience -- working his way up from bartender, doorman, and promoter to his present role -- as much more valuable. "It's eighth-grade stuff: Did my doorman spit on you? Did he say goodnight when you left? I won't tolerate rudeness."
But most of that is Hotel Management 101. Give us something specific you're doing different from the competition.
"When I first came to the Beach, I saw that everybody had these huge bouncers out front. Anytime I see a big guy going" -- he crosses his arms and icily juts out his jaw -- "it freaks me out. That's not the first image I want you to see."
Sure enough crobar's front-door security consists of two fellows who may be a bit on the beefy side, but in their untucked button-down shirts and khakis, they are hardly intimidating. In fact standing inconspicuously off to the side, only their Secret Service-style earpieces hint they're anything more than two schlubs hanging out. There is a hulking figure with massive forearms at the ready, but he remains inside the club's dimly lit entryway, out of sight.
As for the future, Smith is well aware of the fickleness that characterizes this business. "A year in club life is measured in dog years," he quips. Reinvention is crucial. He has a fifteen-year lease on crobar's current site, but he acknowledges this: "If I'm still here in two years, the name on this place won't be crobar, and the building will look completely different."
What about fun? Wouldn't it be nice to just take some time off, enjoy the fruits of your labor? You're not getting any younger, you know.
"Oh, I'm having a great time!" he exclaims, and then abruptly shifts tone: "Being in this business has kept me from having a wife and kids." He trails off for a moment but brightens as a leer forms on his face. "Look," he says, "if I was only interested in having fun, I'd become a DJ. Those guys get laid a lot more than club owners."
Read last week's The Art and Science of Clubland, Part 1.
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