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.
ANYONE PUT OFF by downtown's grimier denizens would be advised to skip the underground clubs as well. The "cardboard condos" of the homeless often line the outside of Gallery X, the site of some of the first undergrounds. Starting with Groove two years ago, this art space offered the coolest clubbing in town. Six bucks got you in the door and bought you all the beer you could drink. (A drained keg prompted the hasty end to many a Groove.) With the progressive music and erotic/avant-garde art exhibits, you could soak up a little postmodern culture along with your brew.
The underground tradition continued last year with clubs like the Blue Room and the Green Room, which occupied various downtown warehouses. At these later undergrounds, crowds were larger, the music was tamer and the mood lacked some of the chaotic fun that marked earlier undergrounds. During the Green Room last November, for instance, a DJ spent most of the evening scolding the crowd for being too rowdy.
Still, that sense of clandestine partying gave even the later undergrounds, or "raves," real excitement. The events were so secretive that some complained you had to travel in the Valley's hippest circles to even find out about them. The undergrounds were publicized by word of mouth--no newspaper ads or fliers. Some were even by invitation only.
The only reason for this elitism is the questionable legality of the pirate clubs. The organizers realize that the larger the crowd, the greater the chance of a police crackdown. At recent raves, where as many as 600 clubbers showed up, prosecution has been an even greater worry. Thus far, police have made a few friendly calls on the undergrounds, but they have yet to break one up.
"Cops have never gotten any complaints about these things," stresses a Valley DJ known as Blaz, who's spun at countless raves. "If you have a controlled thing going, there aren't going to be any problems."
Far more pugnacious in their opposition to the undergrounds are the licensed club owners in the Valley. They've made it clear to rave organizers that they'll be the first ones to alert police of any unlawful clubbing in the future. Of course, these businesspeople aren't motivated by law-abiding ethics or a moral concern for the under-agers who might be inbibing at the clubs. They simply don't want their profits threatened. "Everyone is playing so hardball now," says Blaz, who's been harassed by club owners all over the Valley. One Tempe nightspot even turns the DJ away at the door. But the chief opponent of the undergrounds has proved to be the Silver Dollar.
"What they're doing is against the law, okay, it's against the law," Blankenship says with real venom. "And I'll stop anybody who tries to do a club without a liquor license. I'll call the police. We pay good money for a license over here, and anybody who tries to do something in a warehouse serving beer, I'm going to bust them. That's the bottom line."
No one can blame Blankenship for trying to protect his profits. But what he doesn't seem to realize is that by cracking down on the underground clubs, he's helping to snuff out the downtown scene he wants to nurture.
"There's no room to be competitive down here," says Blaz. "I always say, `Hey, if somebody's doing something else downtown, that's just going to benefit the scene as a whole.'"
Even if the Silver Dollar does succeed in obliterating the underground competition, it's not likely to help business. The chief appeal of these undergrounds is their outlaw mystique--something no licensed club can offer. "It's just the fact that it's illegal that pops everyone's boner," asserts Blaz.
THE QUESTION FACING Blankenship and the underground organizers is whether their two enterprises can coexist peaceably and profitably in the same scene. Blaz is unsure, given the competition for the minuscule alternative crowd. He figures one way to placate the Silver Dollar is by starting his undergrounds after 1 a.m., thus not cutting into the Dollar's liquor sales.
Another solution is to hold the raves in licensed clubs. Recently, House of Zomba ran for more than a month at the Kon Tiki Hotel, the warped Vegas-Polynesian landmark on East Van Buren. Hosted by DJ Chris Flores, Zomba won a fair following with its psychojazz music and cheesy South-Seas setting. Doing less well was the Bee, which Blaz and his DJ partner Eddie Amador held for one night last month in the West Van Buren cantina the Casa Blanca. Blaz claims the Bee had the lowest rave turnout ever. He blames this on Van Buren's negative image as a haven for hookers and drug crime.
The Bee proved that compromises between the Silver Dollar and the undergrounds are pointless if people are still afraid to come downtown. It's that fear, more than anything, that may eventually do in the area's sputtering alternative scene.
But there are those, like Blankenship, who haven't given up on downtown. "There are a lot of things that are coming in here and creating a better image for downtown," he notes. "That can only help us."
Blankenship is the type of person who can look at the Mercado's candy-colored ghost town and the financially strapped Herberger Theater Center and see hope for the area. A real renaissance in downtown nightlife may be just around the corner, Blankenship says. The Silver Dollar is betting its future on it.
What makes the clubs so indispensible is the honest-to-God big-city feel that they bring to downtown nightlife.
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The survival of the clubs is important if only for their commitment to new music.
"Anybody who tries to do something in a warehouse serving beer, I'm going to bust them."
"There are a lot of things that are coming in here and creating a better image for downtown."
A real renaissance in downtown nightlife may be just around the corner.