By 11:30 on a recent Friday night, the trickle of guests coming into The Classics disco had become a steady stream. The club vibrated as the music grew louder, keeping time with the spinning lights above the dance floor as they changed from red to yellow to blue. The lights illuminated huge wicker fan-back chairs on the far side of the room.
A woman sitting in a low bamboo chair turned her head ever so slightly to eye the advance of a well-dressed man walking across the room. He asked her to dance. She touched the reddish flower pinned in her hair, stood to smooth her black, oriental-style dress and followed him onto the floor.
Sam Jamison, 25, a nattily dressed man with a boyish smile, sat surveying the crowd. "The city is full of status seekers -- but this club is for a good time." Jamison, who lives in New Carrollton, rates Classics the new number one club in the area.
Like most major metropolitan areas, Washington is a place where trends come and go, particularly on the social scene. Here, discos last only a few years before the crowd moves on.
Recently the crowd moved not a few city blocks, but into their cars and onto the Beltway to this newest dance attraction in Camp Springs, across the street from Andrews Air Force Base.
The club, with its wide rear windows that overlook the Beltway like an airport observation deck, opened last spring, and business has been taking off, according to its managers.
Owner Lawrence Hillman admits there was some risk to opening a disco in the suburbs of Prince George's County. But Hillman, who owns The Room, a small club on New York Avenue in the District and has been in the nightclub business for 13 years, saw a number of advantages in Classics. It's large, has plenty of parking, is visible from the Beltway and "was built for a nightclub -- it has no columns to obstruct the view."
Before DJs began pumping out the rhythms of Diana Ross, Shalimar, and Earth, Wind and Fire for the present patrons, a very different clientele came to the former Classics III Supper Club to hear the crooning of local rock entertainers like Harvey and the Hubcabs and the Admirals.
When that club went out of business, Hillman and co-owner Chad Fentress stepped in. Fentress says they spent about a quarter of a million dollars converting the club into a garden of sorts: deep green carpeting, chrome-and-glass tables, handsome wicker chairs and hanging plants. While the decor outclasses that of any of Classics' competitors, the dance floor quickly becomes cramped.
When not being used as a disco, the club is rented out for fashion shows, banquets and, not long ago, for a Sugar Ray Leonard roast.
Like the patrons at Hillman's clubs in the District, Classics' guests are predominantly black.
"I steered it in that direction," Hillman says, citing his past successes and adding, "whatever WHUR (Howard University's radio station) plays, we play." He also hired some of the employes from the former Mark IV club downtown, which he owned.
"This is like a black Clyde's, a meeting place," Hillman said, comparing Classics to the popular Georgetown restaurant and singles spot.
Fentress and promotions manager J.L. Gregory said Hillman, who is white and has other business interests including real estate, construction and video equipment sales, keeps a a low profile. "He wants (Classics) to look black-owned," Gregory said.
The quest of many Washington area residents is for a club where they feel comfortable. Melvin Caldwell, 34, a musician from the District, said he comes to Classics because the patrons and the staff are friendly. "In this club there are less cliques, so it is easy to meet new people."
Michelle Catchings, a 21-year-old Howard University student, isn't so sure, however. The men are "stuck up," she said. "They're not here to socialize. They stand against the wall watching your legs," she said raising her eyebrows. Not to worry, her solution is to ask them to dance herself.
Catchings' friend, Samuetta Singleton, a 28-year-old secretary from Camp Springs, isn't surprised that the men hang back and watch because there are "usually more women (than men) here." Nevertheless, Singleton says she prefers Classics to many of the clubs downtown. "Decorative-wise I think it's the best," she said, adding that people who come to Classics dress better than the downtown clientele.
Word of Classics has reached a Baltimore man who brought three friends with him to check it out.
"The music sounds pretty good," he said, but he grumbled that there were not enough women. He decided he'd come back on Wednesday, which is ladies' night.
"Being new is an advantage," says Fentress, noting that the club is pulling in people from suburban areas that stretch from Silver Spring to Alexandria, as well as from the District. "I would assume we're competing with Foxtrappe and Tiffanne."
Many of the guests that night did indeed say they also frequent Tiffanne, The Black Tahiti, The Beret, The Black Crystal and Chapter Two, and sometimes the Foxtrappe. All are discos in the District that cater to black clubgoers. Except for Foxtrappe, these clubs are open to the public.
The Foxtrappe, or "Trappe" as it is often called, continues to be the private black nightclub of Washington. Co-owner William Lindsay estimates that one-third of the club's members are Maryland residents.
When the club opened in 1975, it boasted a membership of upper-income professionals such as lawyers, politicians, doctors and business executives. Its dress code and membership criteria were called snobbish by some. But changing tastes and trends have sent some of the old Trappe regulars, many of whom say they have outgrown discos, to new haunts.
While the club still has receptions and private parties on the first floor that attract the early members, now in their 40s, younger patrons in their 20s and 30s fill the disco on the second floor of the club on the weekends.
To keep business coming, the Trappe has opened its doors to many a working man or woman who looks proper and can plunk down the membership fee of $50 a year, or $300 for life.
At Classics, anyone over 24 who is "properly attired" may enter for a $5 cover charge, according to Gregory. He describes the guests as being "semiprofessionals" in their 20s and 30s.
Interestingly, the club is considering becoming semiprivate and offering some sort of membership in the future. "At this time we don't care what kind of job they have," Gregory said. But Fentress points out that with memberships, "you can screen more . . . establish the kind of clientele you want."
Classics owners also are learning a lesson that experience has taught the Foxtrappe. Both clubs are promoting gimmicky special events to draw in the weeknight crowds. Classics just started a Monday Western night complete with a mechanical bull -- and, yes, jeans are allowed. Fentress also is hoping to open Classics for after-work happy hours and for dinner in the near future.