On the Town

25 Years Later, It's Still 9:30

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005; Page WE06

ON MAY 30, 1980, the post-punk jazz Lounge Lizards and local new wave band Tiny Desk Unit headlined the opening of the 9:30 club, then located at the downtown address that gave it its name, 930 F St. NW.

Seth Hurwitz, who owns the 9:30 and the I.M.P. concert producing company with long-time partner Richard Heinecke, thought it would be fun to book the Lizards for this weekend's twin 25th anniversary celebrations of the now internationally renowned rock club and I.M.P., but the John Lurie-led group doesn't seem to exist anymore and Lurie could not be reached.

In 1986, I.M.P. concert producers Richard Heinecke and Seth Hurwitz bought the 9:30 club, which last year sold 236,112 tickets. The venue is the focus of the new documentary "930 F Street." (Images From "930 F Street" Tarik Dehar And Jeff Gaul)

Next, Hurwitz turned to psychobilly rockers the Cramps, the first act I.M.P. booked at the now-defunct Ontario Theater in Adams Morgan on a 1980 bill with the Slickee Boys and the Washington premiere of "The Punk Rock Movie." While the Cramps never showed up (though they later played the club many times), the show went on with the movie, the Slickees and roots/rockabilly act Tex Rubinowitz.

Hurwitz wanted to do the Cramps at the 1980 ticket price -- $7 -- but they couldn't be located either. Now Sunday's now-free celebration will feature the always-ready-to-reunite-for-a-good-party Slickee Boys and the first public screening of "930 F Street," an 87-minute documentary by local filmmakers Tarik Dahir and Jeff Gaul (doors open at 6, film at 7, Slickees at 9).

As its title suggests, the film, more than two years in the making, is really mostly about the original club (in the currently-being-remodeled Atlantic Building) and the vibrant subculture of musicians, artists and fans that coalesced around it in the '80s.

"The 9:30 club played a big role in our lives as we were growing up," says Dahir, who like Gaul, came of age in Northern Virginia; both 32, they have been friends since high school.

"We were the typical suburbanite kids going to the deep dark city," adds Gaul, who recalls sneaking into the club at age 12 to catch the Connells, a band his brother had become friends with while going to college in North Carolina. "It was a different animal -- a small club where you could go see big bands -- and there's nothing like that around here or any place I've been, like New York or L.A."

Dahir concedes that "the story we're going to be telling isn't necessarily the one everybody remembers." The film focuses on Washington's punk and new wave scenes, the emergence and impact of the Dischord label and such topics as all-ages shows and the straight-edge scene. The wider range of music presented at the 9:30 is mostly noticeable in the camera's frequent pans across the club's fabled calendar fliers and ads. "930 F Street" honors their creator, graphic designer Mark Holmes, who died in 1990. Holmes's work is widely recognized as helping establish the club's identity, something particularly important to Gaul, who does graphic design for an advertising firm.

"When I was younger, and more impressionable, that was one of the things that was really visceral," he says of Holmes's gritty Xerox/cut-and-paste style designs.

According to Dahir, "The film started out as a chronological history, but the interviews shaped the structure." He and Gaul ended up talking to more than two dozen people, including the ever-insightful Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Embrace/Fugazi/Dischord), a becalmed H.R. of Bad Brains, Peter Buck of R.E.M. (which played the club 18 times) and members of Clutch, Rollins Band, Lucy Brown, Beefeater and other local groups, as well as Hurwitz, Heinecke, 9:30 booker Lisa White, "ambiance director" Chad Housenick and other 9:30 stalwarts, including original owner Dody DiSanto.

There are some vintage performances (many courtesy of Dischord), but tales of classic shows recorded from the crow's-nest in the corner of the old club never panned out. There are plenty of photos of the old 9:30 and some nonperformance footage; thankfully, John Waters was not asked to provide a Smell-o-Vision soundtrack, though there is a very funny segment about the original club's notorious (and for some, still pungent) scent. The current location gets its props, but it's the original 9:30 that is being honored here.

Gaul and Dahir, who works for a software solutions company, worked on "930 F Street" full time for 18 months and part time for six more; the credits include "Funding provided by Tarik's checkbook, Jeff's pockets and Jay's Xmas Gift Certificates" ("our buddy and B-camera man"). They are looking for a distribution deal, as well as funding for another project. Their first venture will receive its world premiere June 19 at the AFI SilverDocs Festival at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring.

In the late '70s, the Atlantic Building, at 930 F St. NW, was home to the Atlantis club, but a lengthy battle between that venue's owner and local musicians sank its prospects. Local real estate developer and arts supporter John Bowers then bought the building and turned its ground-level space over to his then wife, DiSanto. For six years, DiSanto operated the club and shared booking responsibilities with several groups, including I.M.P. (for It's My Party), which rose to prominence with the concurrent arrival of punk, new wave, reggae and roots rock, "alternative" genres that established club and concert promoters were slow to recognize.

DiSanto, who now runs the Center for Movement Theatre and operates the Center, a health and fitness facility at Tenley Circle, sold the 9:30 to I.M.P. in 1986, but for seven years the club was the only inhabitant of the eight-story Atlantic Building. I.M.P. had been booking acts into the WUST Radio Music Hall at 915 V St. NW for a few years, and in 1995, it purchased that venue. After extensive remodeling, it opened Jan. 5, 1996, as the 9:30, with a show by Smashing Pumpkins; the group's former lead singer, Billy Corgan, performs at the 9:30 club June 24 to promote his first solo album.

And in what Hurwitz says is "absolutely sheer coincidence," Kraftwerk -- the first show I.M.P. booked outside the Ontario Theater (it played the Warner in 1981) -- will celebrate the release of its first live album with Monday and Tuesday performances at the club (not free).

Since moving to its current location, the 9:30 has been awarded Nightclub of the Year honors four times by Pollstar, the concert industry trade journal. And for most of that time, it has also been Pollstar's top ticket-selling club: Last year, the 9:30 sold 236,112 tickets. The next five clubs were all House of Blues franchises; the closest competitor was HoB's Chicago location with 219,392 tickets sold.

"It's one of the most active clubs in the country in terms of touring," says Pollstar publisher and editor Gary Bongiovanni. "Whoever is booking has a very good ear because they get acts on the front edge of the curve." That would be Hurwitz and White, though both say they get a lot of input from fellow workers. Heinecke handles market research, and there is a cadre of longtime employees at both the 9:30 and I.M.P., which has been operating the revived Merriweather Post Pavilion for the past three years.

In the first quarter of 2005, the 9:30 was supplanted as top ticket-selling venue by the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, which has a huge advantage in capacity (3,600 compared with the 9:30's 1,000) but has a long way to go before it touches the Washington club's reputation.

"The staff takes this stuff pretty seriously," says White of Pollstar honors and national word-of-mouth. "We like knowing that we're really good at what we do, and that goes from our administrative people to those who work the door and those who take care of the trash."

According to Hurwitz, the topic of franchising the 9:30 nationally has come up on occasion, usually to be quickly shot down. "It's not a formula, not a method, it's an accumulation of personalities and values and attitudes that you cannot replicate somewhere else," he insists.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company