THEY ONLY COME OUTAT NIGHT UNDERGROUND AND ON THE STREET, A DOWNTOWN SCENE STRUGGLES TO LIFE

It's Saturday night at downtown's Silver Dollar Club, which, this particular evening, is hosting a Fish Dance. The club's been given a cool aquarium motif, with slides and film loops of fishy images projected on the gray walls and a makeshift screen. The music isn't bad either--if hard-edged Eurodisco is your speed.

But even with such attractive bait, nothing much is stirring at the Fish Dance. No more than thirty people are milling around the starkly industrial nightclub, which has been doing inconsistent business at 417 East Madison since opening in January. Co-owner Randy Blankenship watches as four or five young women--all interchangeably lovely enough to be in a Robert Palmer video--walk in, pay the $5 cover and then walk back out again when they realize how dead the joint is.

"Where are they going?" Blankenship anxiously asks a door attendant.
"They'll be back, I bet," the door attendant replies.
He bets wrong.

When Blankenship bought the Silver Dollar with a couple of partners last year, he was well aware that downtown Phoenix rolls up its sidewalks after dark. People warned him that any nightclub--especially the "avant-garde, underground-type" place he was planning--didn't have a chance on a seedy stretch of East Madison. But Blankenship figured that, with the slow gentrification of the area and the construction of the America West Arena, the Silver Dollar had a shot at success. Or at least survival.

"I thought most people could enjoy getting out and going downtown," he says. "Of course, you're always going to find your skid-row bums. But we thought, hey, we have a great space here. Let's take a gamble. So we dump a bunch of money in here and find out that Phoenix isn't ready for this type of thing yet. Everybody's still scared to come downtown."

The Silver Dollar, which catered to a blue-collar clientele during its previous forty-odd years in existence, isn't the only club to find downtown an inhospitable place for hip nightlife. Having an equally hard time of it are the underground (and often unlicensed) clubs operating out of downtown bars, art galleries and warehouses. These have to contend not only with clubbers skittish about venturing south of McDowell, but also the opposition of police and rival, licensed club owners--including the folks at the Silver Dollar.

The survival of the Silver Dollar and the underground clubs is important if only for their commitment to new music. If you're jonesing for the latest cutting-edge dance single, the undergrounds--along with Alwun House's biweekly Dance-A-Rama--are some of your only downtown options. And for those who got disco out of their systems in the days of Donna Summer, the Silver Dollar's efforts to showcase some live local music along with the dance tunes is especially encouraging.

But music aside, what makes the Silver Dollar and the underground clubs so indispensable is the grimy character and honest-to-God big-city feel that they bring to downtown nightlife. They offer the only alternative to Arizona Center's upscale chain nightclubs and their safe, shopping-mall setting. The Dollar and the undergrounds are clubs without dress codes or happy hours or "networking" young professionals.

"You won't find any yuppie assholes here," Blankenship says.
The real question is, who will you find at the Silver Dollar? The club has courted locals of all persuasions, from west-side gearheads with its Metal Mondays to Valley gay males with its Boys' Night Out. It wooed the disco crowd with provocative themes like "Black Out," where a flashlight was required to boogie on the unlit dance floor.

The Silver Dollar's main problem has been in capturing a wider clientele than the downtown arts-hipster clique. "The Scottsdale crowd, the Ten Downing [Street, a Scottsdale nightspot] crowd, the Tempe crowd, the ASU crowd--they won't get out and move around," Blankenship gripes. "I guess they can't put enough gas in their Jeeps or something."

Particularly frustrating to Blankenship has been the Silver Dollar's inability to lure the ASU alternative scene away from Tempe clubs like Asylum and Max's. After all, out-of-state collegians are often the ones who whine loudest about the Valley's dearth of happening clubs "like the ones back home." "I can't understand why they're not making the fifteen-minute drive from ASU, other than the fact that they're scared," says Blankenship.

Not that a trip to the Silver Dollar is entirely without risk. The club had been open for only a month when a couple of patrons had their cars stolen from streets adjoining the Dollar. Because of the incidents, the management plans to offer valet parking and a secured lot in back of the club within the next few weeks.

Blankenship shrugs off the car thefts saying, "They come with the territory." The same thing could be said of the drunks and transients who occasionally wander into the hip watering hole. The club discourages their business with cover charges, higher beer prices and a lack of wino-pleasing libations like Thunderbird.

"What happens is, the people in this area--the vagrants and bums--they pop their heads in the door and usually quickly leave," claims Blankenship. "They say it's too wild for them." A few club regulars would dispute that claim. Reportedly one down-and-outer staggered in recently and was only too happy to rub elbows with the Silver Dollar scenesters.

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