CLOSE TO THE VESPA

IF YOU RIDE AN ITALIAN SCOOTER, SKA DANCE AND WEAR SKINNY TIES, YOU'RE A HEPCAT. JUST ASK BOB DARNELL.

"There's a certain mystique about owning something Italian versus something German or Japanese, which is where most of our imports come from," says Tony Weaver, a Phoenix accountant who just parted with his 200cc--the muscle Vespa--for $1,500. "You could do wheelies on it if you wanted to," he says. "But I'm getting to be an old fart. I felt like my luck was running out."

And every once in a while, the more daring scooterists will white-knuckle down the interstate, braving the gusts of passing 18-wheelers. Maybe scarier than the tractor-trailers, though, are the looks from the riders on Harley Davidsons, the growling meanies of the two-wheeler world. If Harleys are hogs, Vespas are poodles. Andre Agassi, meet John Kruk.

"You were like a gnat buzzing around their heads," Weaver says of his encounters with Harleys.

"The more wacked out you make your bike, the more you get laughed at," says Dave Schuttenberg, the ska band member. "I have a friend--he's got mirrors going all the way down the front, and people would just openly laugh at him."

Vespas, even at 70 miles per hour, provide no match for a sneering cycle. However, they do get 100 miles to the gallon and run as smooth as a Swiss watch. What's to prove? Perfection has no competition.

The resurgence Darnell sees in store for Vespas is being ushered in by national advertisers like Esprit, Maybelline and Absolut, who have sought out the bikes for recent marketing campaigns. In the Valley, Vespas have made appearances in display windows at Fashion Square in Scottsdale and outside Pizzeria Bianco at Town & Country Shopping Center.

Some might look at scooters as just another trend. The market is riding fairly high right now on the shoulders of such contraptions as the Honda Elite. But with Vespa dealerships an American thing of the past, those who own the sacred scooters guard them with the satisfied knowledge that there are only so many to go around.

And with no local scooter clubs to recommend themselves, Darnell and a cat named Steve Naughton, a local promoter, came up with the idea of Dance Hall Thursdays at a downtown club called Jackson Street Grill. They envisioned the venue as somewhere the 'Tones--short for Two-Tones, or ska enthusiasts--could satisfy their ska appetites and watch scooter films, after, of course, arriving on their Vespas.

It's a whole vibe, a scene, they're attempting to create as has been done on the West Coast. They even use a logo showing a couple astride a Vespa in their Dance Hall Thursday announcements. "They kind of fit together," Naughton says. "That's what our night's all about."

Big things happening, that's what Darnell sees. Even so, his promoter persona still rubs some people the wrong way.

Says Schuttenberg of Dave's Big Deluxe: "I could see some of the traditional riders looking at Bob as possibly bastardizing the scene, but I don't look at it that way at all. There's people who are elitist. They don't like outsiders in the scene. But I look at Bob as somebody who's taking bikes that probably would rot and getting them back out on the road."

The ska nights have attracted many, but, so far, the Vespas themselves have been pretty rare. Last Thursday, not more than a couple of the scooters showed up for a gig featuring local ska phenoms Kongo Shock and national ska-sters Regatta 69. Everyone else drove big four-wheeled cars.

Inside, they danced as ska dancers dance, a strange mixture of the Twist and amateur speed skating. The more skillful shake about like marionettes, flailing with such force that wallets pop out of pants pockets. Nevertheless, the dancers are quite well-dressed.

Two particularly agile dancers are members of the Deuces scooter club. "We are the scooter club around here," one of them says. They appear to be in their early 20s and are both tall and lanky. They say the Deuces have about eight members and meet at places like Java Road and Orbit Espresso.

Outside, away from the buoyant music, Bob Darnell is waiting under the yellow-orange light of Jackson Street for a scene that is playing extremely hard to get. He leans against the Pickle, parked flamboyantly at the curbside, watching for a couple of friends he thought for sure would make it tonight.

A woman he met inside is hovering nearby, regarding the Pickle and an adjacent red Vespa skeptically. She has no desire to own a scooter. Why? Because they're the in thing, she says, that's why.

Darnell has no use for such an attitude. He purses his lips and sits back, watching for Jim and Andre. That would be two more scooters. They should have been here by now.

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