New Owner Harry Morton Sinks His Teeth Into the Viper Room

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 30, 2008

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- On an afternoon when the fabled Sunset Strip is a rotisserie of postcard sunshine and antidepressant happiness, the Viper Room is an oasis -- a remarkably clean oasis, though, for a place known as a den of iniquity. Things look new, orderly, like the joint has taken a breath -- uncongested by cigarette smoke, whiskey breath or whatever else wafts in after the sun's gone down.

It's a little this. And a little that: Vintage newness seems to be what 28-year-old Harry Morton wanted when he took over the club in February, and brought a legacy of business success to a place best known until then as the site of actor River Phoenix's death in 1993 and for being owned by actor Johnny Depp.

"Johnny Depp was here, he was the face of the place," Morton recalled. "And because it had a great, credible music reputation, the big acts would come play for free -- because they just wanted to hang out here and see what it was all about. There's no way a 200-ticket venue could have Bruce Springsteen come play. There's no way a 200-ticket venue would have Lenny Kravitz, or Oasis at their peak. But they played [here] because the place had integrity, it was cool, there was a vibe here. You can't put a value on that. Live Nation can't buy that."

The concert monolith Live Nation bought Morton's neighbor down the strip, the House of Blues, in 2006. Arich Berghammer was with HOB for 11 1/2 years and is now president of both the Viper Room and Pink Taco restaurants. He said that Morton's ethos is pure and that he hasn't been stingy.

" A lot of people would choke at the salary level we operate at, for a 275-seat venue," Berghammer says, referring to the salaries being paid the Viper's general manager, talent buyer and others. "Sometimes I choke." The club has recently hosted the hot indie band Shiny Toy Guns, and comedian Jim Norton. The reunited Knack have been booked. The grandson of the late Arnold "Arnie" Morton (of the steakhouse chain) and the son of Peter Morton (co-founder, Hard Rock Cafe), Harry Morton himself founded the Pink Taco restaurant chain. He's been linked in the tabs with such cultural icons as Lindsay Lohan. But he seems serious about the Viper, which has teetered between being a ghoul magnet and a cheesy rock club since Depp sold his share in 2004.

"I came into the place," Morton says, sitting in a very red room in the bar's downstairs, "and it was not in the condition I thought it would be -- as far as where it stood on the Strip, where it stood on the music scene. The last six months have really been about physically rebuilding the place, and credibly rebuilding the place. . . . It needed a facelift. It needed someone who was going to take ownership of the place, in every sense."

The speculation from the start has been that Morton would franchise the Viper Room -- a move that would put him in genealogical lockstep with his father, who with co-founder Isaac Tigrett cultivated the Hard Rock into a global institution and later the Las Vegas Hard Rock Hotel and Casino (an establishment he sold for a reported $770 million in 2006).

"Absolutely," Harry Morton says, when asked if he still envisioned a nestful of Vipers. "I think, though, that it's a matter of careful planning. I'm not going to just follow a formula because I've seen someone else do it, or because a developer throws money at you. It's something that has to be organic and natural, and it'll happen when it happens."

The economic downturn, Berghammer said, has made the Viper-ites far more cautious about expansion than they were. Still, he says, the offers are coming in regularly from developers who want a Viper Room within their own projects. "Feelers" have been out in certain cities -- New York ("obviously"), Seattle, Austin and Portland, Ore. "I want to go where there are great music scenes," Morton said. "It doesn't make sense for me to go to Orlando, Florida."

Disney World spells tourists, which spells the antidote to cool. Morton knows he has to walk a fine line between being a Hollywood hipster destination and being a place that sells T-shirts. He uses the words "authenticity" and "credibility" to define what he wants in his club, but defining those words is a harder task.

"Authenticity and credibility pretty much went out the window in the music industry, like, 10 years ago," he says with a laugh. "You've got boy bands trying to be punk rockers. It's a joke. We live in a commercial world where everyone's trying to give the public exactly what it wants. For me, it's all about making the place musically interesting. . . . Obviously, the tourists will come if it becomes a name, because that's a price of success."

The Viper Room crowd -- whatever it is now, and will be -- is lucky because Morton isn't pressed to make it immediately profitable. "I have my restaurants; they're the workhorses," he said. "And they allow me to treat the Viper Room with extra attention. I don't have to grind every dollar out of this place. I give the guys a lot of leverage about who we can book. We're interested in creating a great brand. And to do that, you have to spend money."

He recalled his father booking the Rolling Stones to play his thousand-seat Las Vegas venue. "The numbers obviously don't add up," Morton said. "But he saw what that show would do for the brand. I want to do that, in my smaller way."

Morton is at heart a restaurateur, from a family of restaurateurs, but he's also a music freak. "I was always interested in the record business, but how that's changed steered me out of it," he said. "I'm too passionate about it, and subsequently I wouldn't be very successful at it. I'd have a great label, with really great bands, but zero sales. And I simply couldn't bring myself to promote an 'N Sync album. So in the end, this was a better decision."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company