Washington's nightclub scene, which in recent years has lost such important venues as the Wax Museum, the Cellar Door, Desperado's and Charlie's Georgetown, is taking some important steps toward recovery. Several new clubs are scheduled to open within the next few weeks, and others are in the planning stages.
The newcomers include:
*East Side, at 1824 Half St. SW, a two-room, 1,000-person establishment whose owner envisions it as "something like the Palladium in New York -- a real hot party-dance-entertainment club."
*The Bank, at 915 F St. NW, which will hold 450 people and function primarily as a dance and video club.
*The Oxford Club, at 3340 M St. in Georgetown, a 200-seat restaurant offering live jazz.
*The Copa, in Springfield, Va., a remodeled movie theater with a 650-person capacity, which will feature videos and occasional live rock concerts.
"This town is starved for rooms," says longtime club owner Frank Polar, who at various times has owned Wayne's Luv, Zanzibar, the L.A. Cafe (now the Roxy), Annie Oakley's and Numbers (he sold the last two during the past six months). Polar is behind both the East Side and the Copa; tonight, he'll host a private opening party at the East Side. After a month of private affairs meant to acquaint Washington's trend-setters with the club, it will open to the public.
"People have just been waiting for this to happen," Polar adds. "Frankly, outside the 9:30 [club] and the Bayou, the town is kind of dead. We're going to be looking at up-and-coming groups that have not made it yet but are on the verge of breaking, with a heavy emphasis on English groups." The first concert act at East Side, however, will be the Chicago-based dance-rock band Ministry on April 2. Michael Jaworek of the Warner Theatre will be handling the bookings.
East Side is located in what was formerly a well-known nightclub, the Pier. "It was a tremendously hot gay bar," says Polar, "but as straight people discovered it in the mid-'70s, it [became] one of the hottest dance clubs in D.C." Its business eroded in the '80s, however, and three months ago, Polar and his partner, Tom Keely (who owns Cagney's, the trendy new-wave bar), bought the space. They have been remodeling it ever since -- installing, Polar says, some $250,000 worth of lights, sound, video and laser equipment.
The remodeling, which will continue for a couple of months, will create two 500-capacity rooms, one featuring live music two or three nights a week and the other dance/rock/video. Both rooms have 18-foot ceilings.
Polar's other new project, the Copa (formerly the Wild West), will be a multitiered nightclub "with the original 50-foot screen still in place for videos." The owner says that the suburban club, located "in the middle of nowhere" at the intersection of Rolling and King Mill Roads in Springfield, has been doing strong business strictly with videos; starting March 19 with a double bill of British bands (Foghat and Wishbone Ash), the Copa will feature occasional live concerts. (The Nighthawks are scheduled for March 23.)
Back in downtown Washington, the Bank will be opening in the next week or so, barring last-minute inspection problems. Located in the former Equitable Bank building, just down the street from the 9:30 club, it is designated as a historic landmark; with its two-story columns and Tiffany doors, the club should be easy to spot.
According to manager Russell Hirshon, the Bank will emphasize dancing and video, though occasionally there may be live acts for private parties. There will be three levels with different kinds of music -- soft jazz and early big bands on the VIP level (caviar will be available along with 11 brands of champagne); New York-style dance music on the ground level; and progressive new wave and pop in the basement. The club will also showcase some of Washington's top visual artists, and what may soon become de rigueur for clubs, a laser.
The Oxford Club will open on the site of the old Side Door restaurant, just a few doors down from Desperado's. It also will feature three floors, including a second-floor dining area, a basement lounge and a street-level room with music from a quartet led by local saxophonist Marshall Keyes.
"We're not going to have the big-name entertainers," says owner Bill Pinkett. "We're not offering a show per se, just a place for people to come and listen to jazz in a comfortable atmosphere."
Other recent developments on the club scene include the emergence of a Chinese restaurant as a venue for new bands. The shutting down of Friendship Station and the Gentry on Capitol Hill, both over liquor license issues, was a double blow to struggling local groups, whose biggest battle is often finding a place to struggle publicly. (Those who survive the initial struggling phase can usually find a home at the 9:30 or the Roxy). But then along came Ted Liu's, a Chinese restaurant at 1120 20th St. NW. Since starting to book live music eight months ago (shades of Madame Wong's in Los Angeles), it has become a haven for bands from Washington, Virginia and Maryland.
Although small (200 capacity), Ted Liu's is also charming, and necessary. There's live music three nights a week. The Velvet Monkeys hosted a release party for their new single on Wednesday and on Saturday, the Newkeys will celebrate their debut album, "Acts of Love." Unfortunately, the restaurant has had financial difficulties and is reportedly up for sale.
Meanwhile, the owner of the Gentry, Sia Siod, says that he will reopen that club once the transfer of his liquor license has been approved by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. And there is apparently more activity planned for downtown: Investors are looking at a building at 1239 Ninth St. NW that once housed another gay bar as the site for an 800-seat nightclub, with a target opening of late spring or early summer.
The status of the Cellar Door and Charlie's sites remains unclear. The old Cellar Door location at 34th and M streets NW has been undergoing remodeling; owners Jerry Stanley and Bob Keppart had hoped to reopen it as the Comedy Stop in November, but have not yet received licenses from the ABC board. "We're alive and well, but a little frustrated," says Keppart. Still, he adds, "We're 60 percent completed [remodeling] and we're timing things to coincide with the ABC board's approval . . . There's no legal reason why we shouldn't have [a license], so it's not a question of if, it's a question of when."
There has been talk that the Charlie's site will reopen under new ownership as a Rumours-type singles bar, but the club will probably stay dark until some outstanding legal problems are solved.