Montgomery filmmakers see the finish line with ‘The Bayou’ odyssey

March 7, 2012

It started as a vanity project between friends — a documentary to provide the last look inside the Bayou before the famed Georgetown rock club closed its doors in 1998.

More than 13 years later, the film chronicling the life of what was once D.C.’s biggest nightclub has become a lot more.

“When we started this project we had no idea how rich a history the club had. Not a clue,” said executive producer Dave Lilling, who is running the project out of the offices of his Silver Spring production company. “You kind of get lured in.”

To many Washingtonians, the Bayou was the small, seedy venue that used to occupy a spot on K Street under the Whitehurst Freeway near the Georgetown waterfront. It began as a dixieland jazz club in 1953 and then switched to a rock venue in 1965 with a house band called the Telstars. In the 1970s and 1980s, it evolved into a spot for the biggest national touring acts. U2 played its first U.S. show there. Billy Joel performed a song for his first live album. Foreigner, the Police and Bruce Springsteen, among others, came through.

Mickey Mantle and Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant are rumored to have been kicked out of the joint, writer Vinnie Perrone said. The Bayou’s legend and place on the cultural map grew. When it held its last show on Dec. 31, 1998, it was the longest continuously running rock club in the District, according to the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Developers bought the property in 1998, and its owners failed to get it recognized as a historically significant place. The building was razed, and a Loews Cinema was built in its place.

The film is “telling the story of not just a club, but a 45-year span of time in terms of musical taste in Washington,” said chief writer Bill Scanlan, a former on-air personality at DC101. “The Bayou proved that rock ’n’ roll nightclubs could be successful in the area. That piece of culture, however at times gaudy and loud and outrageous it could be, that would’ve been gone. I feel like we helped preserve a good piece of that.”

Scanlan came to Lilling with the idea for the documentary, and the two got permission to film during the final weeks of the club. Along with Perrone and creative consultant Dave Nuttycombe, the group conducted hours of interviews with patrons, local bands and others involved with the club. The idea was to wrap up the project quickly.

In 2000, the team came to a crossroads.

“I thought we should just go with it,” Perrone said. “The club’s life was still pretty much fresh.”

The others wanted to delve deeper by getting footage of an unannounced appearance by Springsteen during a 1981 Robbin Thompson show and an interview with Joel. Those fell through, and the group itself faced lengthy interruptions from full-time jobs, family and other obligations.

About a year and a half ago, Lilling decided the 90-minute film, which Maryland Public Television has agreed to air this year, needed closure. One of the benefits of waiting so long to complete the documentary was the advent of social media, which allowed the production team the ability to reach out to Bayou clubgoers and employees who otherwise would not have known of the project. Some contributed memorabilia — placards, photos and live records recorded at the club that now sit in Lilling’s office.

“Just as a D.C. native, anytime a piece of history vanishes, I’m one of those kind of guys thinking, ‘How can I keep it around in at least some form?’ ” Nuttycombe said.

Lilling hired Adam Bonsib, a 23-year-old Gaithersburg native, to cut and edit more than 100 hours of interviews. The group hopes to have a rough cut done in June. Lilling estimated the project will end up costing more than $100,000, but he wasn’t sure of all of his expenses, as the process started more than a decade ago.

The group started a Kickstarter campaign online to raise $22,000 for copyright costs of music they use in the film. They are hoping to raise the money by the Web site’s March 31 deadline and also are taking donations by check.

On Monday, 110 backers had donated nearly $14,000 of the needed funds.

“It’s time to get this done. It’s time to get to the finish line, really for all the people who have contributed,” Lilling said. “It’s truly been an odyssey, and it’s been worth it.”

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