A story in last Saturday's editions of Style indicated incorrectly that The Marble Bar in Baltimore had closed. The Marble Bar, a showcase nightclub, is still in full operation.
Tonight, at 3 a.m. the last call at Desperado's will be The Last Call.
At a time when increased talent and advertising costs along with decreased entertainment dollars (a lot of which are being spent in video arcades) are affecting the entire music business, many clubs are suffering a similar fate. In January, the internationally renowned Cellar Door, directly across M Street, suddenly shut its doors. Around the country, many showcase clubs have closed: Paul's Mall in Boston, the Marble Bar and No Fish Today in Baltimore; New York's Bottom Line, considered America's premiere showcase, has fallen on hard bookings with the openings of huge clubs like the Ritz.
On a street of glitzy singles bars and tiny ethnic restaurants, Desperado's was the last funky honky-tonk, a place to barrelhouse all night long. For many years and under many other names--Apple Pie, Casablanca, Smokey's, Groovy's, Julie's--it was a poor cousin to the Cellar Door, which got the national acts, while Desperado's settled for the locals and regionals. But ultimately it wasn't the color of the collar but the number of dollars that mattered.
"Joint is really the word," says Rich Vendig, who owned the club during the six years it was Desperado's. "It sustained itself as a joint because of the physical nature of the building. No tenant here ever had the kind of lease with an incentive to do any genuine work on the building." Nestled where M Street runs out on the river side of Georgetown, Desperado's was housed in one of the oldest active buildings in Washington, its 222 years of wear and tear showing in slow cracks and rough bricks. It is part of the National Historic Landmark District.
There was no brouhaha, no tears, no calculated tug at the heartstrings when the decision was made to close Desperado's. The advertising just stopped. The schedule sent out to thousands of regular customers was printed, as always; it simply ended with its entry for Sept. 18.
"I really was loath to advertise or sell the closing of the place," says Vendig. "I just wanted to play our last dates and go out of business. Like Atlantis, it'll slip under the water and be gone and live in some people's memories for some time."
Among other things, Desperado's fell victim to its own inherent space limitations and to the harsh demands of the real estate marketplace. By law it held 200 people; by habit, a few more. But the revitalized Bayou holds 500 and the year-old Wax Museum a thousand, numbers that kept the money-making acts out of Desperado's. Ironically, Vendig had originated the idea for transforming the Wax Museum into a nightclub, and eventually signed on as its operations manager while still running Desperado's.
The Desperado's lease was due to run out in 1984, but the building's owner, who had bought it for$750,000, had decided to raise the rent from $2,000 a month to $9,000, according to Vending, who adds, "for that kind of money it would have to have been really fixed up, more hours, days of operations, happy hours . . . hard to justify on a two-year lease."
The club, like Georgetown itself, had changed over the years: As Julie's in the '50s it was a pizza-beer redneck joint, a rowdy companion to the Shamrock down the street; in the mid-'60s as Groovy's, it was the city's first cinemateque, Bogart and bourbon mixing with hot platters. It was as Smokey's that it first tried to compete with the Cellar Door (Smokey's owner: Jack Boyle, who eventually bought the Door). As Casablanca, it was spackled a blinding white; as Apple Pie, it was a hangout for early '70s anti-war protesters and Georgetown University undergrads. And in 1976 it became Desperado's, its name inspired by the Eagles song and its first few years dominated by country-rock music. "It was big then,"Vendig recalls. "Every band we had in here for a long time had a pedal steel guitar."
Desperado's literally elevated many local bands to their first genuine stage. Many did well only there, drawing loyal crowds. The better bands will move up to the Bayou or Wax Museum (or, for some of the national acts, on to Charlie's Georgetown.).
Over the years, Desperado's brought in lots of renegade music that seldom found a home elsewhere in Washington -- Chicago blues, old-line Motown acts, Texas boogie bands, assorted folkies and crazed songwriters, Cajun and rockabilly deviates, "a combination of what we liked and what we could get."
The Good Humor Band, which was there at the beginning, will close things out tonight. No one knows what will happen to the location; there's a big sign outside, offering it as a "historic landmark"; the building itself is protected by its historic designation. The Cellar Door has been sitting empty across the street since January.
So after 3 a.m., it's memories, mostly good and a few bad (like the doorman who turned out to be an undercover cop). "We tried to put on great music, even if it wasn't in great surroundings," says Vendig proudly. "For a small club, we took it all very seriously. As the bands have filed out recently, I've felt a little bit like Mr. Chips." He raises his hand to an imaginary cap, and gves a little salute.