The rise, fall and what’s next for Washington nightclub king Marc Barnes

The Dream was over, and now Love had grown cold. The heat was turned down to save money. Marc Barnes shivered slightly and thrust his big hands inside his Ralph Lauren overcoat. On this last tour of his domain, he walked and talked as if he still owned the joint.

“I don’t know if you ever worked coat check,” he boomed, “but you should work it some nights so you can understand it. Because it is the most [expletive, expletive] in the world.”

Back in the day, he might have been chiding an employee for some minor slip in the smooth safe-keeping of wool, leather and fur — a $5-per-garment, $3,000-per-night profit center for a savvy club owner.

But today, he was trying to crystallize hard-earned wisdom into a few practical points. Behind the glitz and glam, the bling and booty, he was trying to say, running a legendary nightclub is really all about the logistics.

“The worst coat check was for Busta Rhymes,” he said. “We had twenty-five hundred, three thousand inside. Then those people wanted to leave, and the late crowd was just arriving. It was a [expletive] disaster.”

On this Tuesday in December, a small group had arranged to meet at midday in Washington’s largest nightclub. Barnes led a tour of the empty, four-story hip-hop palace. Through the entryway paneled in marble and Honduran mahogany. Around the butterfly granite bar. Inside such richly appointed VIP nooks as the “apartment,” equipped with stove, oven and refrigerator.

Barnes had labored tyrannically over every detail. With his own sweat and reckless audacity — and other people’s money — he had built this club as if conjuring a neon mirage from a pigeon-poop-filled warehouse on industrial Okie Street NE. Talk about a Dream. It was instantly the city’s most influential club when it opened in 2001. An East Coast destination. In 2005, he remodeled Dream and made it Love.

Today, Barnes, at 47, was saying goodbye to his masterpiece, the signature achievement of a remarkable career. He had little choice. He was bankrupt.

At his elbow walked a slimmer, shorter man, bundled in a windbreaker and a knit cap. Dean Smothers, 45, a firefighter, real estate investor and owner of a smaller, less stylish club called the Scene, off Queens Chapel Road NE, had just agreed to buy Love for $7.8 million.

“We’re going to be the hottest club in the city,” Smothers said teasingly.

“I want you to be the hottest club,” Barnes said insincerely but not unreasonably.

Barnes still owns another club downtown, and he would rather cut off his right arm than be second to anyone. However, the only way Smothers would buy Love for $7.8 million was if Barnes agreed to take back $1.3 million as a loan.

“If you’re the hottest club, that means I’m going to get paid,” Barnes said.

A memento in a picture frame caught his attention. “2005 Readers Choice: Best Dance Club.” He smiled, shrugged, left it where it was.

“I’m out,” he called to Smothers and stepped into the wind blowing trash down Okie Street.

***

This is a strange and disorienting time for Barnes and for Barnes-watchers, who are legion in this town.

Since he first made a splash in the early 1990s, throwing gotta-be-there parties at a variety of rented clubs and ballrooms downtown, Barnes has been a winner and a trendsetter.

In the mid-1990s, he took over historic Republic Gardens on U Street NW and perfected his party template: high art finish, strict dress code, chef Lois Spencer’s island delicacies, hip-hop and R&B groove.

Dream/Love was the next step — the megaclub concept reimagined as carpet-plush with clean bathrooms. Meanwhile, he was going national, throwing parties wherever there was a Super Bowl, an NBA All-Star Weekend or an Essence Music Festival.

By the time he opened the Park at Fourteenth— his gourmet restaurant/club/lounge near the corner of 14th and K streets NW — in 2007, Barnes was the Midas of the D.C. clubs.

“Marc Barnes is the only person I know who can go into any city and make half a million dollars in one night,” says Michael Romeo, owner of clubs and lounges including Fur, Lotus, Tattoo and Dirty Martini. “As far as the ‘urban’ field, he started the whole trend.”

Urban: That’s club-owner lingo for black.

Club owners know what integrationists lament: People tend to self-segregate when they party. From the beginning, Barnes’s oeuvre was not just about entertainment. It was also sociology.

Barnes satisfied the yearning of hip, happening African Americans for classy places of their own. He demonstrated to corporate sponsors that there was serious money in this market. And he showed competitors that it wasn’t enough to throw on some rap music in a warehouse.

Then it all came crashing down in a spectacularly complicated Chapter 11 case in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

In three related filings last summer, Barnes’s family and businesses listed assets of $11 million and liabilities of $16 million. The sale of Love meant Barnes could pay off his largest creditor, EagleBank. That left his family and businesses still owing millions. To keep the family home on a corner lot in Woodley Park, the Barneses are trying to restructure payments on $2.3 million in liens.

On top of everything, last month Redskins kick returner Brandon Banks and a friend were stabbed outside the Park during a scuffle with a patron. Though the altercation had little to do with the club — Banks apparently was never inside — it was more bad news.

As a final insult, Barnes has suffered the defection of key associates deciding they could do better on their own. The febrile nervous system of Washington’s competitive night-life culture buzzes with speculation.

“I think he might be antique,” says Taz Wube, Barnes’s longtime co-promoter who split in 2009, now a partner in Bar 7. “His run is kind of done.”

***

The man at the center of the crisis cultivates an air of outward calm and constant motion.

Every minute or so, his iPhone chimes with a text or a call. Promoters, artists, managers, DJs, hustlers, scammers, lawyers, creditors, debtors, friends asking a favor, friends offering a favor.

“What’s up, babe?”

One of his four all-purpose greetings for male or female.

“Hey, shorty!”

Which always comes out drawled, “Shawwwrty!”

And two unprintable terms of endearment.

He sits at a polished steel high top stamped with the name of the Park, writing numbers on a piece of scrap paper, before the evening rush. He thinks he still knows how to win — pull himself out of bankruptcy, fend off pretenders to the throne of king of the clubs.

“If I asked you to give me a penny today and to double the amount each day for a month, how much would you end up giving me?” he asks.

Maybe $10,000?

Answer: $10 million and change.

It’s what he calls the penny multiplier, the principle he used to pack his parties and clubs with people.

“If I see 200 people a week, and I’m about to throw the most amazing awesome party ever, they’ll bring 10 friends. That’s 2,000,” he says. “It’s making people believe and then delivering. You’re dead after the first one if you don’t deliver.”

He’s mulling a new way to harness the power of the penny multiplier. It’s a project to raise astonishing sums of money for scores of charities. His working title is Step Forth. Barnes would handle logistics. Coat check, so to speak.

“Can you imagine I go from being bankrupt to controlling $15 billion?” he asks. “That’s a Donald Trump story.”

Break

He never fit the image of the party prince. He doesn’t drink, can’t dance, hates to schmooze with the celebrities that his clubs draw like flies.

He prefers to set a scene in motion, like a marvelous toy he built, then stand back and watch with a delighted open-mouthed smile on his face, intervening with harsh impatience when the machinery needs a tweak.

“I want the energy and the craziness — and the ‘fix-it,’ ” he says. “I don’t want to talk to people. I want to fix it.”

He works side by side with his wife of 22 years, Anne, 47, who runs corporate catering (and prefers not to be interviewed). A mutual friend introduced them when Marc spotted Anne George managing an Ann Taylor store at White Flint Mall. Her late father, an Episcopal priest, presided over their 1988 wedding in Washington National Cathedral.

Chase, 20, and Jessie, 19, grew up in Republic Gardens and are in college.

Colin, 12, and McKenzie, 14, attend private school and used to take tickets at Love. McKenzie cried when the club was sold.

Not long after they started their own family, Marc and Anne took in a 14-year-old boy named Antwan Dent, whom Barnes considers his fifth child. Today, Dent is one of the managers of the Park.

It was as if Barnes were correcting a rupture in his own boyhood. He grew up in the middle-class Hillcrest neighborhood of Southeast, and in suburban Fort Washington, son of an African American entrepreneur and a white British businesswoman.

From childhood, he liked John-Henry-vs.-the-steam-hammer challenges. He once raced the Metro bus on foot home from Deal Middle School in upper Northwest to Hillcrest, and won, recalls his younger sister, Judy Barnes.

“He goes into his room by himself and thinks up the craziest thing in the world, and he comes out and nobody would believe it, but he makes it work,” says his father, Tony Barnes, now divorced from his mother, Carol Marsden.

Father and son are strong-willed, and during a bitter period after 16-year-old Marc cracked up the family car, the youth hopped a bus to Atlantic City. He stayed several months, sleeping in a homeless shelter, on the beach, working odd jobs.

When he came home, he moved out for good. He started a courier company; before he was 20, he had 40 drivers.

Several years later, he and Anne were looking for a way out of the courier business, which was struggling and would ultimately force the couple to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. (At the same time, Barnes would pay more than $60,000 in civil suits filed by two men who claimed he physically fought them.) Barnes happened to meet rising music moguls Andre Harrell and Russell Simmons at a party in New York City. He was with a friend from Washington, Jeff Burroughs, who would go on to a music industry career.

“Marc was coming on to Andre about how hot the party was — almost as hot as one of his parties in D.C.,” Burroughs recalled. “Andre said, ‘If you throw a hotter party than me, I’ll give you a job.’ Marc said, ‘You’re on.’

“I was like, ‘Marc, are you out of your mind?’ . . . He was totally blowing smoke out of his [posterior]. That was Marc.”

He and Anne spent their last $25,000. Barnes tented the back yard of their Hillcrest home, put down a wood floor, hired his wedding caterer, purchased top-shelf liquor.

No invitations: You had to be on The List. Barnes’s couriers whispered the word. Depending on an invitee’s sway within stylish black society, Barnes deputized him or her to invite more. The penny multiplier.

“I told people they were going to miss the second coming of God,” Barnes said.

More than a thousand made The List. Hundreds were left on the street.

“We were shocked,” Simmons recalled recently. “Marc obviously proved he was the better party man than Andre Harrell.”

***

On a recent morning, almost 20 years to the day after that 1991 party that launched a career, Barnes stands at the bar of the empty Park, flipping through Interview magazine, studying the ads.

This is how he gets style ideas. He also takes pictures of architecture, samples fabric and paper stock, consults books on design.

The Park is still profitable. It’s the key to Barnes’s comeback. With four floors paneled with polished wood, it’s the largest of the sleek downtown lounge clubs. Last month, when Stevie Wonder and Jamie Foxx looked for a place to take impromptu turns on the mike after a White House visit, they picked the Park. The Park sold more alcohol than most establishments in the city last year, according to David Cronin, the restaurant/bar division manager for liquor wholesaler Republic National Distributing. It grosses about $9 million a year, according to court records. In December, the most recent data available, the Park netted $113,734 on sales of $936,706.

With Love gone, Barnes has a chance to focus on the Park, make it win bigger. If he succeeds, he’ll be able to pay down his debts and give himself room to maneuver on Step Forth, his charity dream. That’s what today — and every day — is about.

He picks up the magazine and heads to two tiny offices he rents on the eighth floor of a building two blocks from the White House.

Jinna Hagerty one of two full-time graphic artists, is shaping images on her computer screen. Renee Stephens, Barnes’s chief financial officer, is running numbers for the Chapter 11 and reviewing contracts for upcoming acts at the Park.

Barnes is breaking in more project managers to help with the weekly frenzy of brainstorming and executing weekly events.

“I totally thought you’d like Abe spinning,” Hagerty says, showing a mock-up of an electric red Lincoln working a turntable in the Lincoln Memorial.

“Abe looks a little boring up there,” Barnes says.

He walks two blocks to a restaurant for a lunch meeting with four of his Friday night promoters, who are stepping up after a key defection: that of Barnes’s skilled hype-master Mitch Mathis. Promoters take what the artists design and put it on the street and the Internet. They specialize in niches defined by ethnicity, profession and geography.

Barnes slides into a booth. They are mapping out the coming months, weighing such artists as Fabolous, Dwele, Bilal, Jesse Boykins III, Pooch Hall, Terrence J.

Not A-listers, but the right spice for the night.

“I know Bilal’s good, but what’s he going to do for us?” Barnes asks. “At happy hour, am I going to have hundreds of people?”

Happy hour is an obsession, going back to Republic Gardens. Pack in a chic desirable crowd early, and you’ve won the night.

“This is what you all never understood,” Barnes lectures the young promoters. “Other clubs can’t catch up. People are tweeting, ‘I’m in line, this line is crazy, come here,’ and that’s where everybody wants to go. . . . It's the simple penny multiplier.”

The promoters hang on the boss’s words.

Beny Blaq, 33, specializes in what he calls “an urban business-class crowd.”

“The only problem with Beny’s crowd is, they are right above middle class, or right there,” Barnes says. “It’s not necessarily a money crowd.”

“Right,” Blaq has to admit. “They aren’t going to come and drop bottles every week. That’s not them.”

So Barnes has his eye on yet another promoter to join the Friday team, to fill another niche: “He can bring in some ballers, some people that spend three, four and five thousand.”

Barnes has one fundamental marching order for his promoters. They must do more than out-compete Mathis, the defector.

“Every week I gotta put my foot in this [expletive]’s [posterior],” Barnes says. “Right now I’m trying to kill. ... I want to make sure every day is a killer.”

Reached by phone later, Mathis, 29, says it was time to move out on his own. With his company, DT Nation, he promotes at such clubs as Shadow Room, Eden, Policy and Reserve.

“I’m the next generation,” Mathis says. “I’m his number one competition right now. He can’t let me take him.”

Mathis continues: “Marc is a genius. He’s the guy who built the blueprint for people like me and anybody else like me who looks at the urban market as very sophisticated.”

However, “in order to win big and huge, you have to team up with the guys who are up and coming and allow them to do their thing. If they have a different vision, then you got to accept that.”

***

The one flaw in the fabled party that night in Hillcrest, as a business model, was that everything was free.

Barnes started finding places to rent and charging money.

At first, he says: “I didn’t understand the costs and the security and this and that. We were getting broker and broker.”

His struggle with this dynamic would be a theme of his career. His instinct always was to spare no expense.

He discovered his chef, Spencer, working in a West Indian restaurant. Before the chef accepted a job at his new Republic Gardens in 1996, she informed Barnes that there were two kinds of crab meat — jumbo lump for $20 a pound or back fin for $10 a pound.

“He said, ‘What do you want to use?’ ” she recalls. “I said, ‘the $20,’ and he said, ‘Then use the $20.’ That’s when I said, I have to work for that man.”

Happy hours were epic, featuring Spencer’s crab cakes and jerk chicken. Republic stayed packed through the night.

Driving out New York Avenue NE one day, Barnes spotted a for-sale sign on a dilapidated warehouse. Owner George Basiliko wanted $1 million. Barnes proposed that Basiliko take back the $1 million as a loan. Barnes would pay $15,000 down and $10,000 a month while he cleaned the place out.

Construction was a gonzo, 24-7 improvisation. “We’d go visit law firms to see what they looked like,” Barnes says. “I was like, dig a hole right there, put a wall here, build a staircase there.” In six months, it was built — and the party people came.

The liquor order hit close to $3 million a year wholesale, the biggest in the city. Based on a conservative average of 8,000 partyers a weekend, at least 400,000 flocked to Dream in each of the early years.

“We used to fight over who was going to count the money,” Barnes says. “We didn’t want to count the money, because it was so much money to count.”

People still talk about the party in the summer of 2003 when Beyonce and Destiny’s Child reunited before 13,000 at Dream. Gilbert Arenas’s 25th birthday bash in 2007 redefined over-the-top.

But Barnes struggled with his zeal to make magic at any price. The Beyonce event cost $350,000 or $400,000 and netted maybe $5,000 or $6,000, Barnes estimated.

“I don’t know how to half-[way],” Barnes says.

Wube, his former promotional partner, says, “He’ll get a sponsorship for $100,000, but he’ll spend $120,000 throwing the party.”

The legacy of this approach, Wube adds, has been to turn club-goers from customers into connoisseurs. “After leaving a Marc event, people walk around like inspectors. He upped the standards on what night life is.”

But too much of the same good thing breeds boredom, if not contempt. The switch to Love came after a decline in Dream’s attendance. Some people complained about the lines, crowds, prices.

As the economy soured, partyers weren’t as free-spending, either. Barnes took on debt to create the Park, and the clubs cannibalized each other. At the Dec. 31, 2009, party featuring Trey Songz, there was a non-fatal stabbing in a stairwell. Police shut the club for several weeks. Heavy snow damage kept it closed until spring.

Barnes had been ready to move on, anyway, but now it was a matter of survival.

***

He’s one of the most popular petitioners at the federal courthouse. Nearly every African American on the courthouse staff whom he passes from the metal detector to the courtroom greets him.

“Marc, how you doing?” “Marc, take good care.”

Under oath, Barnes clues in the white judge and lawyers as to why Howard Homecoming Weekend is the biggest deal of the year. He illuminates the paradox of wealth and class — how a certain recent evening at the Park was less profitable because the mix included too many lawyers and not enough bottle poppers.

He says the bankruptcy resulted from his own overspending combined with the stalling economy and Love troubles. He and his wife earned about $1 million in 2008, according to court records. They got in over their heads buying homes they thought they’d give their kids. Everything was leveraged to pay bills piling up at the clubs and at home. They returned a Porsche, a BMW and a Mercedes-Benz to the finance companies.

Barnes and his clubs owe about $735,000 in back D.C. taxes, plus interest and penalties, according to the city tax office’s claim. Since the bankruptcy, he says he has paid $400,000 in new sales taxes. He employs 73 people.

This past New Year’s Eve, at the Park — a year after the party that sealed Love’s doom — his iPhone chimed.

“Happy new year, babe,” he said. “Let’s hope this year is a better one than we had.”

The caller was Paul Bassan, one of his largest creditors, owed $399,500.

Bassan says he first lent Barnes money when Love needed cash. Barnes paid him back, then asked for another loan to build the Park.

“He’s a good guy,” says Bassan, who owns International Collision Center in Rockville. “He’ll pay me back whenever he can.”

Several of Barnes’s largest creditors talk that way about him.

“I have no axe to grind with Marc Barnes, notwithstanding the fact he owes me a million-three,” says Michael Rubin, an investor known for buying and preserving green space in Montgomery County ($1,368,926.11). “I like the guy.”

Accountants at Bank of America ($80,028), Neiman Marcus ($65,000), Citi Cards ($31,147) and others might disagree. But these Washington-rooted friends with money got swept up in the romance of Marc Barnes.

“My uncle just loved Marc Barnes,” says John Swagart, co-trustee of the late Basiliko’s estate ($1,018,000).

That debt is not the Dream deal, which paid off handsomely, but later borrowing. Something clicked between the self-made Greek American real estate player and the big-dreaming club maestro.

“They were two characters,” Swagart says. “Marc would come in, George would say, ‘How much do you need? What are you going to pay me?’ It was truly on a handshake.

“George got a kick out of his part in doing the whole thing.”

***

Barnes has come to rest, briefly, beside DJ Quicksilva on the fourth-floor balcony, a perch from which he can also survey the action on the third floor.

Standing on couches before bottle-strewn tables, toasting and posing for the jubilant crowd, while local radio jock Big Tigger eggs them on, are New York rapper Fabolous and Washington rapper Wale.

Tables in the vicinity of the celebs were sold for as much as $3,000, including booze at $250 a bottle and up.

One table over from the rappers is a boisterous group of bottle poppers, including Washington Redskins offensive tackle Stephon Heyer, who is boogieing all 332 pounds of himself in a loose-hanging black tank top. His group has already spent nearly $4,000, and now the big man calls for a bottle of Ace of Spades champagne, listed on the menu for $1,000.

Heyer tries to pour Barnes a drink, but Barnes swigs his Voss water. He’s in fix-it mode: In the space of 15 minutes, he orders one of Fabolous’s cronies to extinguish whatever it is he just started smoking; relieves his crowd-blocked servers by passing empties and fulls back and forth over the dancing horde; suppresses a shoving match.

A woman in hot pants and high boots bends over and presses her posterior against Barnes’s leg. Wrong guy. He eases her aside.

“Sherwin!” he calls to his elegant general manager, Sherwin Robinson. “I need a busboy with a bucket and rag. There’s throwup.”

Quicksilva is ecstatic. “Hey, Marc Barnes, we shut down the city again! Marc Barnes, you make it look easy!”

Nearby Josephine closes at 2 a.m., and promoter Vann Ashe II ends up at the Park. “A lot of us worked for him and branched out,” Ashe says. “Tonight, his marketing and promotion were a little stronger than ours.”

Near 3 a.m., Barnes turns up the house lights. Carpet cleaning machines are revved up while bartenders count receipts.

“Thanks, Marc,” says bartender David Weiss. “The last few weeks have been great.”

“That’s because they make me work,” Barnes says, referring to the defectors and challengers. “They know I can’t let them beat me.”

Later, Barnes, the perfectionist, is hard on himself. If he’d advertised on radio, he says, it would have been a bigger night.

Still, “it made money,” he says. “More than that, it made people look.”

***

Four days later, Barnes arranges to have Pooch Hall transported directly from Dulles Airport to the studio of WKYS (93.9).

He wants the star of BET’s “The Game” to plug Pooch’s party at the Park later this evening.

Meanwhile, Barnes stops by the office to review VIP invitations, then attends a political fundraiser on H Street NE, where D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray greets him by his first name. Barnes has good political connections: His clubs have been a favorite fundraising venue, and he and his businesses have donated $13,000 to various D.C. candidates since 2002, according to records.

Every half-hour, he gets a text with the crowd count at the Park. At 9:30 p.m., it’s 620. “Not bad,” he says.

As he steers his black Range Rover eastward, he tunes in WKYS.

DJ Angie Ange is interviewing Pooch. They chat for several minutes. Barnes gets increasingly agitated. No mention of the Park.

He calls in to the studio.

“Angie, I gave you the biggest [expletive] out there,” he scolds. “Can I get some pub? All right, baby. I love you.”

The song “You Be Killin’ ’Em” by Fabolous comes on the radio. Barnes sings along in his deep, toneless voice.

“You be killin’ ’em, you be killin’ ’em.”

Pooch’s voice breaks in.

“Hey, yo, I’m with my girl Angie at 93.9. I want you at the Park tonight, where we goin’ to be killin’ ’em, killin’ ’em!”

Barnes chuckles.

He drives through the night — from the fundraiser, to a Bethesda restaurant he admires, back to the Park.

“The Park is winning right now,” he says. “I’d like to get everything paid off, and then figure out the next hurdle. I guess that will be Step Forth.”

On the floor of the back seat, scuffed and footprinted, is a draft of a marketing brochure. The title page has an American flag and the words, “Step Forth America” and “A Thousand Charities, A World of Difference.”

News research contributed to this report. David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at montgomery@washpost.com.

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=3, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=3, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
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