Wong Place, Right Time

Long Wong's Sara Cina looks back on a decade of booze, bars and bands

As you walk down Tempe's Mill Avenue, somewhere past the Gap and Hooters but before you get to Abercrombie & Fitch, you'll pass Long Wong's, a funky bar plopped on the corner of Seventh Street. Within the shiny surroundings, it seems an architectural and cultural anachronism. It remains one of the only standing reminders of Mill Avenue's not-so-distant past, the memories of which have already begun to wilt under the harsh glare of corporate neon.

It might be false romanticism or even hyperbole to try to lionize a crumbling orange building that smells of chicken wings, but it's still tempting to try. Certainly, Mill Avenue was never the Bowery, and even the kindest assessment wouldn't cast Long Wong's as Arizona's answer to CBGB's. But if its walls never sweated like those of the Cavern Club, or saw the same kind of legendary performances as the Marquee, Wong's will forever hold a place in modern local music history, in much the same way that Mad Gardens served as a landmark for early Phoenix punk or as J.D.'s did for country music in the '60s.

Across Wong's patio, Seventh Street looks remarkably like a demilitarized zone. Chain-link fence and barbed wire obscure a massive pit emanating with the grating sounds of progress. Part of this four-block construction site was once the home of the notorious but beloved Six East Lounge.

Ten years after: Long Wong's Sara Cina reflecting on the past, looking toward the future.
Casey Wade
Ten years after: Long Wong's Sara Cina reflecting on the past, looking toward the future.

The Six East was always Long Wong's dirty, sexier sister, a place where musicians would go between sets to avoid stifling onstage drinking ordinances. It was the kind of bar where you could walk in with $10 and stumble out hours later with an amazing story, a cracked skull, or both. "The Beast," as it was called, boasted the kind of image that the city's power brokers didn't want to be a part of their new "Millennium Avenue," and so it was sacrificed to the wrecking ball.

Its demise this past August left Long Wong's as the metaphorical last soldier, fighting against the inexorable onslaught.

If Wong's has remained an unyielding pillar in a community under siege, then its undiminished reputation as a venue for live, original music has to be credited in large part to club booker/bartender Sara Cina.

Cast in the light of Wong's big window pane, Cina looks much younger than her 30-plus years should allow. Her face is framed by long, straight hair and balanced by big doe eyes that have witnessed a lifetime's worth of drunken fools and bad pickup lines.

Cina is a reluctant interview, especially when the subject is herself, and the upcoming anniversary concert celebrating her decade of service at Long Wong's. It's such a dubious honor that she's insisted on nicknaming the event the "Sara's 'She's Worked Here 10 Years? What a Loser!' Party."

To mark the occasion, some of the biggest names in local music have agreed to turn out for a free acoustic show. The concert will feature performances by members of Dead Hot Workshop, the Peacemakers, Gas Giants, Pistoleros, Ghetto Cowgirl, Muddy Violets, and the Piersons. The event is also to be recorded and released as a live album with profits from its sale going to charity.

A decade is an eternity in bar time. The business itself is so transient in nature that it doesn't lend itself to longevity. Hairstyles, fashion, music and drink prices have all changed, but Sara Cina has remained.

Cina is finally cajoled into discussing what, it turns out, has been a lifelong love affair with rock 'n' roll.

A Scottsdale native, Cina began promoting bands when she was in high school.

"I first started going to the Mason Jar when I was 15; it was before I even had a driver's license," she recalls. "That was in the days when the drinking age was 19 and before anyone gave a shit about fake IDs."

Cina's entree into the strange music-biz world came courtesy of Mason Jar owner Franco Gagliano. In the late '80s, the fashion-challenged scion of Valley rock gave Cina the opportunity to run a series of "Marquee Nights" at his club. Although the promotion was short-lived, Cina was able to bring a handful of alternative bands into the primarily metal-oriented Jar.

She became immersed in the business when she went on to work as a booker for the long-lamented Sun Club in 1989. After a year, Cina began managing local stalwarts Dead Hot Workshop, then just starting out. She would work with the band for several more years, but, in the interim, she began an association with the bar she would call home for the next decade.

"I had been hanging out at Wong's forever, and I knew the owners because I booked Dead Hot Workshop. One night, I was sitting out on the patio and they were short-staffed, and they asked me if I would waitress," says Cina, offering a sheepish grin. "And I guess I've never left."

Graduating from waitress to bartender to club booker, Cina's timing was fortuitous. Although the bar had long featured live music, it had been limited to quiet acoustic shows by blues and country artists like Hans Olson and Frank Mackey. In an effort to capitalize on the growing ASU student population, the club's new ownership decided to expand the live music repertoire to include rock 'n' roll -- seven nights a week.

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