End of the Roadhouse
Good Times Flowed At the Surf Club, But the Tap's About to Run Dry
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007
The exact whereabouts are like secret knowledge, passed around by people who grew up in places like Mount Rainier, or Bladensburg -- when they were hard-living blue-collar white-complexion neighborhoods just over the city line, before they got "art districts," brew pubs and Salvadoran restaurants, and everybody else moved to Calvert County.
Now around midnight you're scrutinizing the scribbled address by the dashboard light. Can't be. Yup, is. This is the place.
On the edge of rushing Kenilworth Avenue, between a tire shop and a used-car lot, is a blunt brick-and-cinder-block bunker. No windows. Exterior shafts of dim yellow, green and blue light illuminate beer signs. On top, a small neon beacon: "Surf Club," with silhouettes of a cocktail glass and musical notes. Parking is in back. Somebody has brought his dump truck.
It looks like the kind of place where it would be best not to make eye contact. Where a wise man has probably said, Son, if you don't start it, there won't be any.
Put your faith in the rusty electric guitar nailed like a religious icon to the facade, and step inside.
It's not often you can be present at an extinction.
* * *
Chick Hall's Surf Club, born in 1955, is the Washington area's last roadhouse.
Not to take away from a few other joints that bear elements of that classic American style of refuge, but Chick's is the last of the originals, combining all the essential ingredients: Planted hard by the highway. Offering live music six or seven nights a week -- preferably country, honky-tonk, a rootsy blue sizzle. Charging little or nothing at the door. Featuring a big oak dance floor -- but no line-dancing, friend, and no mechanical bulls or Urban Cowboy airs, either.
Chick's has got "atmosphere," all right. As authentic and earned as callused hands, not re-created and market-tested like pre-faded jeans in Branson, Mo.
It's the kind of place where guys still use a pocketknife to groom their pool cue tips. Where the mechanic next door comes in to ask his buddy at the bar for help with a timing belt. Where mothers used to send their youngsters to drag Daddy the hell home for dinner. Where there was sawdust on the dance floor -- only guess what, it wasn't really sawdust, it was powdered shuffleboard wax. Where the fading "rules" are still printed on the wall -- "Anyone fighting will be barred" -- and posted side by side are schedules for the Redskins and NASCAR.
Chick Hall -- a country-jazz guitar virtuoso who made Armed Forces Radio records with Glenn Miller -- installed himself as the main attraction, the house band in his own house. But he had lots of help. Patsy Cline sang her heart out at the Surf Club, when it was located not far away on Bladensburg Road in Colmar Manor. Jimmy Dean, Roy Clark, Charlie Daniels, Lefty Frizzell, Jim Reeves dropped by to jam. In 1975 Chick relocated to the current location, 4711 Kenilworth Ave., in Edmonston.
The newer place is based on a sketch that Chick and his wife, Martha, made of their dream roadhouse. They nixed windows to make it harder to burgle. The mirrored ball above the dance floor was Martha's idea.
From doors-open in Colmar Manor to last call in Edmonston, Chick, 84, or his sons -- Chick Jr., 61, and Chris, 55 -- and a revolving cast of musicians, friends and family have been the house band, bartenders, servers and bouncers for over half a century. It must be the area's longest-running home-away-from-home house party.
But as Hank Williams once put it, forever's a long, long time.
So pull open the heavy front door under the tattered awning. Cover: $0.00. Two impressions smack you right away, and it's a tossup as to which is more incredible.
First, the band is smokin' . Chick Jr.'s fingers fly up and down his 35-year-old Telecaster, declaiming a six-string history lesson from swing to country, blues and rock in every solo. He grabs a beer bottle and uses the fat end as a slide. Chris, on bass and vocals, does a muscular "Folsom Prison Blues" and an aching "Amarillo by Morning."
And yet, the 4,500-square-foot room, with about 35 tables, 140 chairs, 24 bar stools and four pool tables, is nearly empty. One couple sways on the dance floor.
Chick's is this way most of the time, brilliant and lonesome. (Rule-proving exception: periodic zydeco nights, a latter-day desperate measure, when lots of people come to dance and drink water rather than beer, doggone it.)
And yet, the hottest house band in Washington plays on, to an empty house, night after night after night. It's one of the noblest, most heroic gestures you'll ever see, because it is so principled and doomed.
"Dad always said, if we got 200 people in here or one person, we're going to play the same amount of songs, we don't slack off," Chris says. "They're paying the same amount for beer; they deserve a show, too."
"As long as I know there's one or two people out there, I'm okay," Chick Jr. says. "I still get butterflies every time I play."
But as a business model, it's nuts. Lately the Surf Club has been running on fumes and equity loans. The brothers can afford to pay musicians only the embarrassingly low fee of $50 a gig.
Finally, "under duress," the Halls have decided to turn out the lights. They accepted an offer on the place, $1 million, according to Chris. He's not sure what the buyers have in mind, except it won't be a country roadhouse. Efforts to reach the buyers for this article were unsuccessful.
The actual swan song keeps getting postponed, and there's been more than one "farewell" party. The sale is set to close today. After that, Chris has agreed to run the bar as a tenant for two final months of roadhouse music.
Naturally, rumors of the demise have conjured forth more customers than usual to pay their respects. You don't know what you got till it's gone.
"Nobody wants to talk to me while I'm alive," says Chris, sad but not bitter. "Everybody wants to come to my funeral."
A Clean Living Society
Outside the main door are five rickety chairs and a reeking bucket filled with cigarette butts. Here's where the musicians and old-timers come to smoke, get some air, swap stories.
Tonight's topic: What's killing the Surf Club?
"Nobody goes out anymore," says Jim Stephanson, guitar player for Hillbilly Jazz, the Thursday night combo led by Chick Jr.
"With the TV and the Internet, people are geared to stay home," says Chris.
"What's really sad is I don't think you can be a working musician anymore," Stephanson says.
Basically, roadhouses stand in the way of society's relentless march toward clean, safe, calculated living. So they are being eradicated, converted into mattress factories, dialysis clinics, parking lots.
Chris started noticing it in the 1980s. Drunk-driving laws got so tough that even responsible drinkers got nervous. Next they banned beer-to-go sales -- no more six-packs for the road after the liquor stores closed. Then no more smoking.
At the same time, people began to tolerate, even embrace, preprogrammed culture. DJs and karaoke became acceptable. Music grew ever-present -- plugged into the ear of everyone walking down the street -- yet less real: The live, handmade, spontaneous experience has been rendered exotic and expensive, not an every-night thing.
"There's very few places where you can just pick up your amp, put it on the stage -- they already got the sound system -- crank it up and play," Stephanson says. Chick's also hosts blues jams and visiting acts.
The neighborhood changed, too, of course. Chick's was created for a white, working-class country crowd, most of whom lived in the neighborhood. Now African Americans are regulars but still a minority in Chick's, despite being a majority in the surrounding neighborhoods.
Latinos have yet to figure out Chick's, or vice versa, even as Latino clubs and stores spring up all around. The Spanish-speaking guys who come in to shoot pool and drink Coronas say Chick's for them is a place where there's not much wait for a pool table. They disappear when the music starts and return when the night is almost over.
"The heritage of a segment of the population goes down the drain when one of these establishments closes," says Mark Opsasnick, who grew up in Greenbelt and wrote a history of local music, "Capitol Rock," while hanging out at Chick's.
"All the country people moved out," says Richard Marcus, another guitar player who comes by to jam.
Yet people will make a special trip to venues where they pay $40 a ticket. Why won't they drive where it's free?
A Place to Call Home
Once upon a time, the main drags out of Washington were thick with roadhouses, night clubs, juke joints. The Dixie Pig, the Wheel Bar, the Rustic Cabin, the Crossroads, a dozen more, a four-piece combo in each one, playing loud and hard into the night.
You'd hit several places in the same evening. It was wild. One night Martha Hall and a friend were headed to the Rustic Cabin to see Jimmy Dean, and they came upon Roy Clark on a motorcycle. They dared him to ride it into the Cabin, and the future star of "Hee Haw" obliged, according to Chick Jr.
Chick Sr. was weary of the road when he bought the original Surf Club in 1955. A previous owner came up with the name for reasons now forgotten. Chick Sr. was popular with his Charlie Christian-style Gibson. He'd see regulars come in and he'd launch into their favorite song. When he detected they were about to leave, he'd play it again.
It was a mom-and-pop operation, with Martha helping behind the bar, the boys sweeping up, and joining their old man onstage. They kept the music more old-school than the trendier places, and the Surf Club got the reputation of being a little bit "redneck," a little bit rough.
From the police blotter, March 1957: "Knifing Follows Dance Squabble." A Texas truck driver had the temerity to dance with the wife of a man from Mount Rainier. Words were exchanged, the men stepped outside, and the Texan ended up with 14 stitches in his left buttock and nine in his stomach.
The Surf Club has a cameo in "Hard Living on Clay Street: Portraits of Blue Collar Families," a 1973 book about the Mount Rainier neighborhood by Joseph T. Howell. Renamed the Bronco for the purposes of the study, the club is where one character describes pool table brawls. "It was definitely a macho, very country environment," Howell recalls now. "People would drink a lot and people would get in altercations."
But says Chick Jr.: "The reputation was always worse than it really was. . . . There were people there strictly to listen to music, people there to pick up women, people letting off steam from the daily grind. . . . People would come in for drinks after work. They'd go home, shave, shower, eat dinner, and later I'd see the same guys listening to music."
No one's getting 14 stitches in the buttock anymore. From the kindly veteran waitresses to the Chinese takeout that gets delivered when the kitchen is closed, the roadhouse feels like a secret society you've been admitted to. This creates a bond among strangers.
The old days are on the minds of two cousins shooting eight ball one recent afternoon.
"My mom used to drive me over there to get my dad out," says Lloyd Dodson Jr., 46, a home improvement contractor, whose father drove trucks during the week and cut trees on the weekends. "She'd say, 'We're going to get your daddy.' She'd push me inside. I'd say, 'Daddy, you gotta come home.' 'Where's your mother?' 'She's at the door with a butcher knife.' "
Dodson's cousin Thomas Grubbs, 55, visited the old club only a few times and kept his mouth shut in there. But the current location became "home away from home":
"You'd say: Where are you going? I'm going 'home.' I'm going to 'the club.' I'll meet you home, I'll meet you at the club."
Grubbs worked for a fence company. He and his co-workers always sat at the same table. The guys from the nearby concrete company would occupy the far side of the bar, and so on.
"Just good people," Grubbs says.
Hitting the Road
Onstage, the expressions on the faces of Chick Jr. and Chris are impassive, inscrutable. Likewise their band mates, Louis "Blu Lou" Rao on guitar and Chip Clemmer on drums. (Other house combos include venerated members of late local guitar legend Danny Gatton's rhythm section.)
This is roadhouse cool: undemonstrative, unsentimental, unimpressed. No cowboy boots, no cowboy hats. Real country is jeans, sneakers, T-shirts. Save the drama for the music.
Chick Jr. sticks out his bulldog lower lip and watches the fingers of his left hand. He casts the occasional economical, meaningful glance over his glasses to his brother, indicating the start or end of a solo. Chatter is limited to comments like "This one starts in B."
Chris was a union electrician before he took over the club from Chick Sr. in 1993. He also coached junior varsity football and baseball at Laurel High School. Chick Jr.'s day job is delivering auto parts. After they close the roadhouse, they plan to start gigging as the Hall Brothers -- exactly the rootless musician's life Chick Sr. sought to avoid 52 years ago when he put his name on the Surf Club.
The place looks as if it's been accessorized by the interior decorating firm of Messrs. Jack Daniels, Miller & Bud. Beer posters cover most of the wall space. Red lampshades over the pool table say "Jack and Coke," which, if you don't know, is "America's cocktail."
At the rear of the stage, "Surf Club" is spelled out in blinking Christmas lights, beneath gold tinsel that hangs like shaggy bangs. At the front is a harmonica crushed in a rat trap.
Unlike self-consciously "important" venues such as the Birchmere, whose caretakers meticulously document shows with posters and autographs, history and posterity are treated casually at Chick's. There are few souvenirs, little written record. The legacy lives mainly in the oral history of a million stories told around the bar, yarns elaborately re-spun outside in the exiled smoking section, with the bats flitting over the empty parking lot.
Most of the tales feature past musicians, defunct bands, bulldozed clubs, kept alive in the midnight retellings of a diminishing circle of people who remember or understand. The same perishable destiny awaits the Surf Club and its denizens.
"There's a picture of Dad, between the two Bud Lights," Chris says, pointing to one of the few wall photos, a smiling gent on the day he retired, his image disappearing into the shadows between the two electric signs advertising light beer.
Chick Sr. has Alzheimer's and can no longer hold a guitar. When Chick Jr. plays for him some of the songs he learned from his dad, a flash of recognition will brighten Chick Sr.'s face. He'll try to hum along on jazzy gems such as "Guitar Boogie Shuffle," "Stardust" and "Sweet Georgia Brown."
Three nights a week the roadhouse hosts pool leagues. The eight- and nine-ball players constitute a crowd of reliable consumers of adult beverages. They grew up in the neighborhood, then moved away. Evenings at Chick's have been a way to go home again.
"The Surf Club is like one of those old country songs," says Butch Romero, 49, the body shop manager for Capitol Cadillac, shaving his cue tip with a knife. He grew up with Chris in Mount Rainier; now he lives in Gambrills.
"Ride on, Surf Club. The Surf Club rides on like an old cowboy."
Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.