Value Added: A ‘passion project’ leads to documentary on the Bayou
By Thomas Heath,
The late Georgetown music club known as the Bayou was where U2 made its second appearance in the United States — in December 1980 as a warm-up band for a D.C. punk band, the Slickee Boys.
The club was a launching pad for bands looking to go national and remains a piece of Washington history that cuts across the business, music and political worlds.
It was where Foreigner began its ascent. It was where the Democratic National Committee held a fundraiser. The Dave Matthews Band was a steady presence. And it was where visionary businessman Jack Boyle — think LiveNation — learned the ropes on his way to becoming a big-time promoter.
Two “Wild Bills” — Dixieland’s Whelan and jazz artist/cornet player Davison — played there. Joan Jett did, too. A young comic named Eddie Murphy had his audience howling.
And now, some scrappy locals are putting the finishing touches on a 90-minute documentary — tentatively titled “The Bayou: D.C.’s Killer Joint” — that they plan to broadcast on Maryland and Virginia public television stations. (Disclosure: My wife works for WETA.)
The film’s four creators have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars over the past 13 years to take on something that is going to earn them zip — except perhaps a lode of self-gratification.
It’s not how I would spend my time, but you have to respect people who shelve their TV remotes, get off their duffs and become entrepreneurs, especially when there’s no obvious payday.
The group, led by local freelance video producer Dave Lilling and C-SPAN’s Bill Scanlan, estimates $200,000 worth of their time and money has been spent. They know something about the craft. Lilling, 54, has been producing videos for companies, broadcasters and nonprofits for two decades. Scanlan was the producer for DC101’s Greaseman before joining C-SPAN.
Lilling and Scanlan recruited music consultant Dave Nuttycombe and former Washington Post sportswriter Vinnie Perrone.
The club’s long history
The Bayou began at 3135 K St. NW, beneath what is now the Whitehurst Freeway, as a barrel factory in the late 1800s. It was home to various clubs starting in the 1930s, including an after-hours joint called the Hideaway. There was a mob hit in the Hideaway in 1951, and the building’s owner — auto dealer Percy Klein— closed the club and padlocked the building. But it stayed in the family.
It reopened in 1953 as the Bayou, and two brothers from Virginia — Vince (a lawyer) and Tony (a dentist) Tramonte — leased the building with a gentleman named Mike Munley, who posted $15,000 upfront to turn it into a jazz and blues club. The Tramontes bought Munley out soon after.
The Tramontes eventually sold their interest to Cellar Door, Jack Boyle’s Georgetown-based concert-promotion company, which was looking for a roomier club to get the fire marshals off his back.
The Bayou “was a bridge between small clubs and big venues like the Capital Centre,” a since demolished arena in Landover, said Lilling. Under Boyle, the club forged its identity as a launcher of smaller acts such as Dave Matthews, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Blues Traveler.
“Jack Boyle was a true impresario, who knew how to make a club work,” Perrone said. “He was the ultimate bottom-line guy, which helps explain his decision to sell the club when it was still profitable.”
The club closed on Dec. 31, 1998, after the building was purchased by Georgetown developer Anthony Lanier of Eastbanc.
And that’s where Lilling and Scanlan come in. The pair, who were classmates at the University of Maryland, were fishing for a “passion project” around that time.
Scanlan heard the club was closing and went down to Georgetown for a visit. He and Lilling received the blessing of the club’s manager, and they began their mission.
First, they scrounged.
Lilling, who prides himself on low overhead at his one-man-band company, Metro Teleproductions, in Silver Spring, decided early on that the key would be to keep expenses to a minimum.
He called in favors from his network of freelance cameramen to shoot interviews with everyone from Aerosmith’s Joe Perry (before a performance at the Nissan Pavilion) to Carl Anderson, who got the role of Judas in the 1973 film “Jesus Christ Superstar” because of a Bayou appearance.
Although most of the interviews were done shortly after the club’s closing, because the filmmakers were doing this in their free time, it took years for the documentary to fully develop.
In 2010, Lilling splurged on a $5,000 state-of-the-art editing machine. That year, he entrusted Adam Bonsib, a New York University film-school graduate, with turning Perrone’s and Scanlan’s script into a visual story.
“I obviously employ a lot of people, so I was asking for favors of them to shoot material, asking camera and audio people on a regular basis,” Lilling said. “We winged it.”
A running tab
On the cost side, operations still will run to more than $50,000.
The big expense is “clearances,” which is permission to use video footage from bands, newscasts and television shows. A one-minute clip from “Entertainment Tonight” deemed pivotal to the documentary could run several thousand dollars. Another piece of footage from an MTV broadcast for Foreigner at the Bayou — “a seminal moment in Bayou history” — could reach $5,000 to use.
Lilling said his clearance budget is between $15,000 and $22,000.
“You can’t just throw stuff on the air,” he said, adding that he has hired a consultant to handle clearances of 50 songs and videos.
On the other hand, he discovered a 1957 Bayou recording of Dixieland jazz artist Joe Rinaldi playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” in the National Archives, which means it is the public domain and therefore free. Some music is covered by public television’s general licensing agreements, but it still has to be cleared.
The rest of the costs include $15,000 to pay an editor to smooth out the rough cut. Another $8,000 will make sure the sound is seamless and clear. Because there is no narrator, the film will employ graphics and visual effects to help tell the story. Cost: $10,000.
The filmmakers exploited the Web, creating a “Bayou in Georgetown” Facebook page to help promote the film.
The team also made a deal with online fundraiser Kickstarter to help them raise $22,000. The deal gives Kickstarter and the International Documentary Association, which clears donations, each a 5 percent cut of the raised funds. That leaves just shy of $20,000 to help cover some of the costs.
Perrone said the story “was too compelling” to ignore. “And we were willing to grow poorer to tell it.”
Not everyone was poorer for the club’s closing: The Klein family received a handsome price from Eastbanc for its real estate, and Boyle was paid to relinquish his lease.
Eastbanc, ironically, built a movieplex on the site — to keep the public entertained.
For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.