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.