On Tuesday, Washington’s newest museum opens in an unlikely place: the 9:30 Club. The local music institution is celebrating its 35th anniversary with the 9:30 World’s Fair, an interactive installation that co-owner Seth Hurwitz describes as a “funhouse.”
While brainstorming ways to celebrate the club’s 35th birthday — and the 20th anniversary of its move from 930 F St. NW to 815 V St. NW — Hurwitz, who bought the club in 1986 with Rich Heinecke, knew he wanted to do something different from the all-star concert that capped the venue’s 30th anniversary festivities.
“That was so magical, I didn’t want to mess with the memory,” Hurwitz says. “I knew it had to be something [we’ve] never done.”
His initial idea — creating a circus-style attraction within the 9:30 Club — evolved into an interactive history of the venue. From Tuesday through Jan. 9, fans will file into the club in hour intervals for a free journey through the club’s storied history — from its dingy but beloved origins on F Street to the award-winning, nationally renowned V Street location.
The World’s Fair will include a re-creation of the old 9:30 Club, a tour of the backstage area, a mosh pit re-enactment, archival photos and video, and a multimedia cube that simulates the concert experience from in front of and behind the stage. (You’ll even get to walk onstage, like so many of your favorite rock stars.) A tattoo artist will be on-site offering free 9:30 logo tats, and there will be photo booths and silk-screened T-shirts featuring old posters.
You’ll also be able to snag the club’s new oral and pictorial history book, “9:30: A Time and a Place,” before anyone else. Compiled by Roger Gastman, the book, which is available for preorder at 930.com, offers a more detailed history of the club, testimonials from the people and bands who were there in the beginning and tons of photos.
To get you ready for the World’s Fair, here are some interesting 9:30 Club facts from the book.
The stage moves.
The old 9:30 Club held only 199 people. When the club moved to V Street in 1996, Hurwitz wanted to increase capacity without sacrificing intimacy. That’s when the club’s then-production manager, Chad Houseknecht, had a brilliant idea: Put the stage on wheels and move it around as needed. This way, the club can feel as packed with 500 people in attendance as it would during a sold-out, 1,200-person show. “Performers like to feel that they are playing to a full house, and it’s our job to feed their delusions,” Hurwitz says. Another way the club caters to performers is the swanky (and graffiti-free) backstage area, with bunk beds, a kitchen area, a laundry room and free 9:30 Club cupcakes. “People just like to know they are being thought of,” Hurwitz says.
The old 9:30 Club had an anything-goes attitude.
The old 9:30 Club had its quirks — a giant support beam near the stage, rats, a distinctive smell — but it was all part of the charm of a space where anything was possible. In 1980, the club’s first year, 9:30 hosted video dance nights — then unheard of outside of New York. (This was also before MTV.) Original co-owner Dody DiSanto even staged fashion and art events at the club. Eventually, the club took to routinely uniting two now-iconic D.C. music scenes — punk and go-go — on the same bill.
F Street was also renowned for hosting bands before they broke big (not unlike the 9:30 Club of today). Nirvana, Bjork, R.E.M. and Rage Against the Machine graced the old 9:30 Club stage before finding (bigger) fame. Even more impressive were the bookings for the 3 Bands for 3 Bucks nights. Whenever the club had a last-minute cancellation, or no touring bands were available, it would host a show with three local or up-and-coming bands for $3. Living Colour, Live and the Smashing Pumpkins were all part of the 3 Bands for 3 Bucks club — the Pumpkins would even go on to headline the V Street grand opening in 1996.
The old 9:30 Club is still alive inside the new 9:30 Club.
For 35 years, the 9:30 Club’s logo has remained the same — save for a minor tweak made when the club changed addresses. The familiar digital clock-style “9:30” originally leaned to the right. In 1996, the slant shifted slightly to the left. “Nobody ever noticed the logo slant change until years later when we pointed it out, which was the idea,” Hurwitz says.
Another nod to the past: The “Food Food” sign on the club’s main level, indicating where you can order grub during shows, is modeled after a Chinese takeout sign that was next door to the old club. The bar from F Street also made its way to V Street and now lives in the basement Backbar. “I think when you make yogurt, you use the culture from the previous batch,” Hurwitz says. “So we wanted to use the culture from the previous batch.”
9:30 Club gives back to the community.
When Hurwitz and Heinecke finalized the deal to buy the former WUST Music Hall on V Street, they also needed the blessing of the neighborhood association. So they talked to Lawrence Guyot, a civil rights activist who was also the neighborhood advisory commissioner. He advised the owners to hire people from the neighborhood and to promise to buy 50 turkeys for community members every year around the holidays — a tradition that is still alive 20 years later. (The 9:30 Club ownership group is even called 50 Turkeys LLC.) The club also hosts a holiday drive every December where patrons can donate used clothing, canned goods, household items and money in exchange for the chance to win free entry into every show at the club for an entire year. “There is nothing as satisfying as giving and helping,” Hurwitz says.
23 acts have played there 20 or more times.
The book includes a list of every act that has played the club more than 20 times, including The Toasters, Trouble Funk, Gwar, The Roots, Thievery Corporation, Chuck Brown and D.C. punk legends The Slickee Boys, who played the club an astonishing 84 times. The repeat performers are a testament to both the club’s longevity and the way it treats acts. “We have relationships with a lot of bands that get stronger each time they play,” says Hurwitz, who is also the chairman of I.M.P., which books the club and many other D.C. venues. There is, however, one notable performer who has never played the 9:30 Club: rapper/actor Will Smith. In the late ’80s, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were booked to play the F Street club. Hours before he was to perform, Smith “came in, took a look around and canceled two sold-out shows,” Hurwitz says. “He just didn’t think it was worthy.” In 1998, Smith was back in town and requested free tickets and backstage passes to an Oasis concert at the new club, a request Hurwitz swiftly denied. “The only answer was, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” he says.
9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW, Tue. through Jan. 9, free, see 930.com for times.