Maybe it was a sign from God.
In June 2002, the owners of Nita's Hideaway were fighting for the club's life. About to be booted from their longtime location near Rio Salado, owners Mark and Abby Covert fought hard to move to a much larger vacant building at Price and Southern. I joined dozens of music lovers who packed the Tempe City Council Chambers to counter the opposition of the neighboring Tri-City Baptist Church, which didn't want Nita's brand of fire and brimstone anywhere near its righteous doorstep.
It was like a scene out of Footloose. And like in Footloose, in the end the music prevailed -- for a while, at least. The Tempe City Council saved Nita's, but not for good. Two weeks ago, the 30-year-old club's doors shut. And it would truly have taken an act of God to save Nita's Hideaway this time.
The Coverts are real grown-ups with adult children around my age, but their doe-eyed passion for live music and running a venue is like that of 20-year-olds. Their loss is the music community's loss. Nita's was the one viable venue in town, run by true music lovers, that could host a local band for 200 people or a national act that drew more than a thousand. Now the locals will have to return to strip-mall bars, and you'll likely catch the nationals at the Marquee Theatre.
Inside the new building, Nita's is nothing but a shell. Sitting with Mark and Abby Covert in the cavernous void is a depressing experience, as, sad-eyed, they describe the battle to keep Nita's alive over the last two and a half years.
The troubles, the Coverts say, began with the neighboring church, whose opposition prevented the start of extensive renovations for 90 days. That meant that large shows originally scheduled had to be held outdoors at the old Nita's at McClintock Drive and Rio Salado Parkway, where the stage, lights and sound equipment had to be rented at substantial costs, minimizing any profit the Coverts would have made at the new venue.
When construction finally began in the club, in September of 2002, numerous problems with the building pushed the costs far over the initial budget. "We opened basically with about $120,000 of unresolved debt," Mark tells me.
Debt wasn't the only issue facing the Coverts. Denver-based promoters Nobody in Particular Presents opened up the Marquee Theatre, formerly the Red River Music Hall, shortly after Nita's move. That meant a dearth of national touring acts for Nita's.
The floundering live music market in the Valley was hurting Nita's as well. Bands that had previously drawn 800 or 1,000 people now were only bringing in 500, by Mark's estimate. But the Coverts were characteristically undaunted. "We were always optimistic that we were going to be able to recover from any of this because we knew we would be able to develop the little room," Mark explains, referencing "Little Nita's," the side room where local bands could play comfortably to crowds of 200 or so.
For the Coverts, the shitstorm was just beginning.
In May of last year, the air conditioning went out. After a costly replacement, the new A/C unit's compressor blew up on a Monday in June; Nita's had Neko Case scheduled to play on Thursday, the Gin Blossoms on Friday, and the Peacemakers on Saturday -- all tremendous draws. To keep the shows on, the Coverts had to knock down a wall and rent a mobile mass air-conditioning system, at a price of about $13,000.
At this point, the Coverts were out of resources, so they approached the property's elderly owner, Charles Winslow, with a proposition that would defer five months of rent by spreading it over a subsequent 36-month payment plan. Mr. Winslow, who the Coverts speak of affectionately, agreed to help the Coverts and Nita's back on their feet.
Nita's future seemed finally assured, but fate had other plans.
Winslow's wife died near the end of last summer, and subsequently his attorneys and accountant took control of the property while Winslow mourned. "The whole tenor of the negotiations changed," Mark tells me. "It went from, We're going to try to help you get in a position where you can be successful,' to You're in default and if you don't give us $60,000 by Friday, you're out.'"
Winslow's attorney, John Sinodis, did not return my calls.
The Coverts had to decide whether it was worth continuing to fight for the club, or if they should cut their losses and give up. "That wasn't what we wanted to do," Mark tells me. "We [had already] suffered, we thought, through the worst part."
The club owners nearly reached a deal with the attorneys, but the plan initially acceptable to both parties was subsequently withdrawn. On December 4 of last year, late at night, the Coverts were awakened by the alarm company phoning to say that the alarms at Nita's were going off like crazy. The locks were being changed by the landlord's representatives. Most of the next day, Friday, the Coverts were negotiating with the attorneys to get the keys so that they could hold the scheduled Friday and Saturday shows. At the last possible minute, the Coverts signed a temporary new deal with the attorneys, and the shows went on, but not for long.
Two weeks ago, with negotiations at a standstill between the Coverts and the property owner's attorneys, the Coverts knew that another lockout was possible, even likely.
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"At this point, there's more than a 50-50 chance that they have the right to interfere with our business. We made the decision that we had a responsibility to the people we did business with to tell them the truth," Mark explains. He called the various promoters with shows scheduled at Nita's and advised them to relocate their shows. Then, after a final night of music by local bands, the Coverts closed Nita's Hideaway.
This past weekend, negotiations with the landlord's representatives came to an end. Nita's will not reopen at that location. The Coverts have poured more heart, soul, sweat and finances into keeping the live and local music scenes vibrant and alive than any band member or promoter locally. Despite protests from their children, they've vowed to look at opening Nita's at yet another location at some point in the future.
"I'm not gonna fold up my right to be in this business," Mark tells me amidst the gloom of his gutted club. "If it didn't work, it certainly didn't work not because we didn't try, and not because we didn't pull every rabbit out of the hat we could."