In Brightwood, it’s like old times at the reopened VIP Room


People stream into a party before the guest of honor arrives. The VIP Room has been a special place for D.C. social elites for many years. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
October 25, 2013

The ceiling of the old social club in Northwest Washington has been raised, and the building has been expanded to include additional rooms, an outdoor patio and a big-screen television. The banquet hall has been widened to be ready to celebrate retirements, birthdays and christenings, just like in the good old days when the club’s original owner, Abner “Sam” Sampson, advertised the VIP Room as a go-to place for families in the Brightwood neighborhood.

Bo Sampson knows his father would be proud. Sam Sampson loved his neighborhood social hall from the moment he opened it in 1978. For 27 years, the venue was known for hosting events attended by the likes of boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, then-Mayor Marion Barry and media mogul Cathy Hughes.

“The reason my father opened the VIP Room back then was because he wanted the ordinary person to be treated like a VIP,” said Bo Sampson, Abner’s oldest child. “VIP stands for very important person, and in his life, my dad loved everybody.”

Now, after being shuttered for nearly a decade, the VIP Room is back, thanks to Sam Sampson’s family, who want to honor their patriarch by reopening the club.

The family — sons Bo, Gary and Mike, daughter Yolanda and widow Earline — has poured thousands of their own dollars into the new venue. Like in the old days, the social hall will host an array of small family events, neighborhood parties and musical performances.

In a quickly changing city where so much is new, the family said it wants to recapture some of the good times created by the gregarious salesman, who made his living selling Air-Way vacuum cleaners door to door, starting in the 1960s.

He died in 2011.

“The VIP Room was a classy place that sort of catered to classy adults. We had all of our events there, and you had to dress up,” said Fred Brown, 80, a longtime friend of Sampson. “He had men dressed up in tuxedos with towels over their arms serving chitterlings, chicken, greens and corn bread.

“He made soul food classy,” Brown said.

Indeed, on a recent Saturday night, a party celebrating the venue’s reopening reminded many of the good old days. Jazz saxophonist Sharon Thomas, a local favorite, performed. She was followed by Big Tony, lead singer of the legendary go-go band Trouble Funk. Earlene Sampson, dressed in a cream pantsuit and gold blouse, danced and greeted guests just like her late husband used to.

And as an added bonus, Bo Sampson borrowed a page from his father’s playbook by showing up at a “surprise” birthday party he had planned for months.

One of Sam’s favorite pastimes was planning his own surprise birthday parties and feigning surprise while people feted him. The celebrations became legend.

“Sam was known to give himself a surprise party, having everyone to come and he would come late and jump off the table,” Brown said. “He had capes, Batman outfits, whatever came across his mind. He could off all of the lights and come in and we would say, ‘Surprise!’ ”

At least for an evening, it was like Sam never left, family members said.

“My dad really believed that every person was important, and he wanted to make sure that everyone had a place to come to have a good time,” said Gary Sampson, an emergency medical provider for the D.C. fire department. “As a family, our core values are to work hard and to keep pushing until you make it.”

The night of the party, some hung around to munch on a late dinner, watch college football on the big screen and catch up on local politics and neighborhood happenings.

Anthony Forbey, who worked at the VIP Room as a young adult, said that “it is like being back in my musical home. I am comfortable being here. It’s a nice, close place where I am able to come.”

Yolanda Sampson said the family realizes that duplicating everything about the salesman will be impossible: Sam poured his life into the club, often refusing to take vacations because he wanted to make sure the venue remained open.

“We used to take family vacations every summer, but after he opened the VIP Room, we never took any more vacations because my husband was always working there,” Earline Sampson said.

“It was his heart. He never left the place until it was clean,” she said.

It was Sam Sampson’s devotion that has led his family to rekindle his dream. Earline, who said the couple met when he came to her home to sell her a vacuum cleaner, said that her husband kept the VIP Room going even in sickness. Bo said that even though his father was the owner, the VIP Room was always a family business and that it’s up to the family to keep his dream alive.

“My father grew up poor. He was a person who could communicate with all people, black and white people,” Bo Sampson said. Restoring the venue “is about what my father stood for: People in the community having a good time.”

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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