Xanadu. It was the colossal palace that Charles Foster Kane built as a monument to himself in Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane. Xanadu was staggering in scale, and absolutely breathtaking in its devotion to lavish excess. But, despite Kane's persistent efforts, it was never finished and never supplied anything but misery to its inhabitants.
Well, Cajun House in Scottsdale isn't quite as grandiose as Xanadu. And many of its visitors would argue that they've had plenty of great times at the club/theme restaurant. But the similarities aren't difficult to spot.
Cajun House opened in March to an avalanche of hype and anticipation, widely heralded as the grandest and most expensive nightspot ever built in the Valley. Yet, from the very beginning, Cajun House has been dogged with problems. Its proposed name--Cajun House of Blues--required a swift modification when reps of the House of Blues chain objected to the overt similarities. Then, before the $8 million nightspot opened its doors, one of the key players in the project, Jim Carlin, sued for damages after being fired by L.A.-based owner Victor Perrillo.
Once the business got going, it only took a few weeks before guests at the nearby Rodeway Inn started complaining about the extreme noise levels emanating from the open-air venue. In mid-April, facing pressure from the City of Scottsdale, Cajun House ceased booking live music until structural improvements could be made to reduce sound leakage.
Now, Cajun House is back on its feet as a live venue, and raking in considerable money. But nagging complaints in the community continue to spoil its party. For one thing, Carlin has pressed on with his lawsuit, seeking $2 million. Three weeks ago, he deposed Perrillo, who was forced to explain where the club's concept originated. During the same week, co-directors of operations Charles Todd and George Monzures resigned from their positions at Cajun House. Carlin says they were forced out by Perrillo, while entertainment director Glen Parrish insists they left amicably (Perrillo himself declined to respond to New Times' interview requests). Nonetheless, their joint departure struck an odd note considering the cheery tune Monzures sang in a March 16 Arizona Republic story, where he was quoted as saying, "It's like a dream come true for everybody."
Carlin says he created the concept of a New Orleans-style nightclub, and was dropped by Perrillo--whom he calls "the principal maniac"--only when all the logistical hurdles had been cleared. He says the two men had a handshake agreement that Carlin would be a 30 percent owner in the club, a point that Perrillo denies. Supporting Carlin's cause, however, is a liquor-license application which lists Carlin as a 30 percent owner. Carlin says the club is headed for more turmoil because it's run by unqualified people.
"I was the only one there who had any knowledge of the operation of a club or a restaurant," he says. "They've basically taken that concept and destroyed it. The other thing is, all these guys came from somewhere else, like California. I've been in this Valley for nine years, I know everyone in town, I know what these people like, what the market's gonna bear. These guys were completely clueless."
One undeniable fact is that the swampy blues theme originally meant to define the club has become so much window-dressing. Where live music is concerned, the shotgun approach has become the rule.
"I'm all over the board, I'm diversified," says Parrish, a former manager for Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks. "I wanted to keep some blues in here on a regular basis, 'cause that's how they formatted the club when it originally opened. We're more in the vein of the House of Blues with a twist to it. 'Cause the House of Blues does very diversified acts. I won't do any rap, because of the location in Scottsdale, and I won't do any hard-core punk."
While competition among clubs inevitably leads to some strained feelings, Cajun House seems to have aroused more than its share of antipathy from rivals, who see a lot of money being waved around with what looks like little true understanding of the roots music supposedly being celebrated. For the upcoming New Year's Eve show, for instance, the club is paying $4,000 to Louisiana favorite Terrance Simien, as an opening act, no less. While the generous fee--about twice what he would normally command--is well-deserved by the hardworking Simien, it's so out of line with the market, it inevitably leads to some head-scratching.
Can this venue continue to pay such exorbitant sums indefinitely? What will happen to roots artists if the bottom falls out? As with all such theme restaurants, one has to wonder if the short-term benefits outweigh the possible damage done to venues more committed to roots music. Parrish understandably sees his challenge as the need to make Cajun House stand out, regardless of the cost.
"When I first got here, I went and checked out all the blues places in town," he says. "I thought, 'These guys are all great, the local people are all really talented musicians, but they're all doing covers of other people's stuff, basically, and they're playing seven nights a week and just rotating from one place to another.' So the philosophy that I had when we first opened was to bring out-of-town talent in town."
He adds that the Cajun House's guaranteed dinner and bar crowd allows the club to spend huge amounts on talent, and still make a profit.
"You have to be smart about the shows that you do book," he says. "They have to work for the club. We don't always look to make money at the door, that's why we always have a cheap ticket price. I feel that if you give people something for free, they're going to come to your place and appreciate what you're doing for them, and they'll spend their money in your place."
Nonetheless, Cajun House booking practices can be extremely curious at times. David Hickey, booking agent for Texas blues singer Marcia Ball, says he got burned by Parrish recently. Hickey had booked a Ball show with an old friend at Mr. Lucky's when Parrish called and begged him to book her at Cajun House for more money, saying his boss was a huge Ball fan. Hickey agreed, then heard nothing from Parrish for weeks. Then, a week before the scheduled November 12 show, Parrish canceled Ball's appearance, telling Hickey he had a private party planned.
Doubters say the club's business is already beginning to flag, and that the collective lack of nightclub experience of Parrish and Perrillo will be its undoing. Carlin goes so far as to say that Perrillo's personality will sabotage the club.
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"He is an egomaniac," Carlin says. "He's 36 years old, he's got multimillions of dollars. He's the kind of guy who needs to be the center of attention, and if he's not, he makes everyone miserable. It's that way in his social life, it's that way in his business."
Lemming Migration: Local guitar-pop fans continue to mourn the breakup of The Lemmings, who called it quits after a private-party show on Halloween night. When guitarist Jim Mules told the band he was quitting at an October 29 rehearsal, singer Andrew Ruybalid decided to throw in the towel on the whole operation. Let's hope these ex-Lemmings will be fruitful and multiply into new bands soon.
Six Strings Down: Beloved Tucson guitarist Rainer Ptacek died November 12 at 12:15 p.m. of brain cancer. After being diagnosed with a brain tumor in early 1996, Ptacek had made a strong recovery until suffering a seizure on September 30. He spent his final six weeks in a home-hospice-care program. His friend Jonathan Holden says that despite his grim condition, Ptacek continued "writing and recording at a prolific pace" in the final weeks of his life. Holden offers hope that some of Ptacek's many unreleased recordings, including some acclaimed live tapes, eventually will make their way into record stores. Ptacek is survived by his wife, Patti Keating, his sons Gabriel, 20, and Rudy, 13, and his daughter Lily, who just turned 2.