In its nearly three-year existence, The Lunchbox served as a singular venue for experimental music in metro Phoenix. While its shuttering will be felt dearly, the Valley isn't exactly a stranger to closed venues. Over the years, a slew of great clubs and dive bars have all gone under, either the victims of gentrification or the result of a mostly fickle population. We’re paying homage to three such Valley venues gone before their time with a series of oral histories. These interviews are a chance for the owners/promoters to share what made these spots unique, what went wrong, and what's still left to learn. Now, pour one out for these local institutions.
Nita's Hideaway, 1975-20041816 East Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe ('75-'02)
and 3300 South Price Road, Tempe ('02-'04)
Current Occupier: Tempe Marketplace and QuikTrip
Biggest Shows: Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, Mars Volta, Jimmy Eat World, Death Cab for Cutie, Guster, Coheed and Cambria, Sleater-Kinney
Person of Interest: Charlie Levy, promoter, 1995-2004
A Real No Man’s Land: "The original owner Nita (Craddock) was a former rodeo queen. When she first opened in '75, there were all-dirt floors. It was back on the county island (an unincorporated area), and on one side there was a junkyard, complete with junkyard dog, and an adult bookstore on the other. It wasn’t easy to get to, and you got there because you wanted to."
A Big Break: "At the time (1995), I was managing a band called The Piersons, but they got banned from most venues for things like too much drinking. Brad Singer (former owner of Zia Records) suggested we go play at Nita’s. People would go drink there right after work around 2 to 3 p.m., and the place would be dead by 7 or 8 p.m. So I went and asked if the band could play, and they said, 'Okay, you keep the door.' It was a ghost town there – after the DUI laws, Nita’s wasn’t doing as well as it had in the past."
A Scary Facade: "A lot of bands pulled up and thought Nita’s was scary, and some bands couldn’t believe they were playing here. Probably because it was a county island and there was no police. But then it all went well, and we could lock the doors and go after hours."
New Horizons: "When Mark (Covert) bought Nita’s around 1998, that’s when it really flourished. A lot of Tempe bands wouldn’t play Nita’s, and so they did a lot of punk and rockabilly. It was Mark who really let the scene take off. If Mark hadn’t taken over, Nita’s would have been the same with punk and rockabilly."
The Fun Never Ends: "You had bands like Modest Mouse, who set off firecrackers they bought in Albuquerque at 3 a.m. in the parking lot. We’d let James Hall and Pleasure Club come and play, and you’d have the whole staff standing on the bar; everyone just stopped working. Or a guy like Ralph Stanley, who said, ‘We’re gonna make this honky-tonk a church.’ Ralph actually had a (New York) Times reporter with him, and he said it was the best show of the entire tour."
A Day in the Sun: "It was such a truly organic thing, and a really special time. You had these bands staying at my house — Jim Adkins (of Jimmy Eat World) met his wife, Amy, there. There wasn’t YouTube at the time, and you saw a band for the first time when you saw them live. It was a snapshot of Arizona music."
A Long Time Coming: "We didn’t have much say when Tempe Marketplace came in. But it had been talked about for years and we knew, so it didn’t just happen one night. There were still people lining out the door."
The Best of Times: "Back then, you had bigger bands and local bands to see, and people didn’t have the access they do, so people tended to see more local shows. Nowadays, there’s more places, like Valley Bar and Last Exit Live, for local bands. But I don’t see Nita’s in these places – Rhythm Room is its own thing just like Nita’s was its own thing. We just lucked out with time and place, and I had a great time working with my friends."
No Google: "I was looking up Flaming Lips playing Nita’s on the internet, and there’s not one thing [of performance video]. It’s amazing for the people that were there. You literally had to be there."
Emerald Lounge, 1949-2005 1514 North Seventh Avenue
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Current Occupiers: Starbucks, Pei Wei, and SideBar
Biggest Shows: Hypno-Twists, Seven Storey Mountain, The Green Lady Killers, Korova Milk Bar, the Getaways, Lovers of Guts
Person of Interest: Greg Riggins, owner, 1995-2005
The Bar Life: "I’m a real big fan of '60s bars, and my whole life I wanted to be a bartender. I love being in and operating bars. Both my grandparents owned bars in Missouri, and I was taken home (from the hospital) to a bar."
Down and Dirty: "I got involved in 1995. The neighborhood at Seventh Avenue and McDowell wasn’t what it is today. Emerald was a real dive bar, and I kept it as it was for a while. We could get away with a lot, like drinking in the parking lot."
The Right Crowd: "At the time, there wasn’t a lot of access for younger artists in the area, except maybe the Mason Jar. But we were serving regulars like Christopher Pomerenke of Les Payne Product and Brian Smith of Beat Angels."
A Change of Heart: "One day, I’m throwing bones (dominoes) with a regular, when someone palms a dollar tip off the bar. And I lost my shit about it. I’m already struggling to make money, so I took out the CD jukebox and the pool table. I added a 45 jukebox with stuff like Alice Cooper and Bobbie Gentry. And then I just started booking shows people wanted. There was a lot of local support, and I just let people do what they want. People will give you plenty of help if you’re letting them do something they really want."
A Happy Mess: "My definition of a dive bar is just a place for locals. I didn’t have the funds to be anything other than what this place was. The toilet was once lined entirely with band stickers."
Filling a Void: "Booking was a lot different back then. You had people send you press kits, or you did everything over the phone. But I didn’t try to curate the musical experience here. I’m 61 years old now, and my taste is not mainstream at all. The punk movement went over my head. But if you wanted to play at my club, you could play at my club. I was booking (hundreds of) shows per year, so I didn’t have time to curate. But if you didn’t like a band in one room, you could go to the other and see a new band in 45 minutes."
Room for Brainiacs: "Tato [Caraveo, current booker at Lost Leaf] did murals at the club. I gave the Hypno-Twists a regular Wednesday gig. Devotchka played a couple of their early gigs here. I like being around smart and creative people, to interact with them. I wanted to deal with people of my own kind."
Just Another Casualty: "There was no steady decline – Emerald was the victim of gentrification. At first, I was going to be able to maintain some first-floor space, but the people negotiating were just unreliable. Then we were gonna move to where SideBar is, but if you think about it, it’s a real bad space for a venue. I’d have to get all new licenses approved. I knew the neighborhood was changing, and I’d have a fight on my hand, so I just sold them my license."
The Downside of Progress: "I’m not resentful about anything. It’s funny, though, you have somebody do something with a venue and then suddenly the landlord’s interested because there’s money to be made. So they go and kick out the people who brought value to the place."
A Place for Everyone: "I don’t have any grandiose intentions or thoughts about what I did. I don’t know if what I did was important. But it was an important moment in time for the people who went there. A bar really is about crafting a place for people to get laid. If you’re not doing that, then what are you doing?"
Ruby Room, 2007-2009717 South Central Avenue
Current Occupier: Last Exit Live
Biggest Shows: Les Payne Product, Seven Storey Mountain, The King Khan & BBQ Show, Kristeen Young, The Pack A.D., Minibosses
Person of Interest: Greg Riggins, founder and owner
A Burning Beacon: "Eric [Dahl, owner of Lost Leaf] had just moved into Roosevelt Row. But I thought where the artists were going was into south-central Phoenix."
A Change of Pace: "I didn’t just jump right in. I looked at something like 150 bars trying to find something I liked. But it was a minor bit reflexive. My wife had just passed previous to losing Emerald. And I found a good place around 2007 — at the very beginning of the recession. I was a little before my time, and there was a large amount of hubris involved."
Old Dogs, New Tricks: "I really love bowling alley bars. Any time I’d travel to an American city, I track one down. I like the darkness, and the wrought iron. But that kind of dovetails with my hubris. Where the bar was at wasn’t far from the stadium, but I didn’t play sports on the TV. Just old Scopitones and Ed Sullivan music videos. Yelp was also just starting at the time, and it wasn’t what everyone liked. I should have been more open to what people wanted."
A Slice of Danger: "The appeal of Emerald and Ruby was that it seemed like the area would be scary, but it was still safe. You could be somewhere that seemed shady and dangerous, but it wasn’t. I think it was that I wanted to choose my customers. From a business standpoint, I blew it."
A Matter of Principle: "I was never presumptuous enough to be a tastemaker in music. I let the artists do their thing. I was mostly booking whoever came through. But I knew never to play around with artists – there’s not a lot of money in live music. I’d always given them 20 percent of the register and the door, plus a bar tab. And I never did a show that cost more than $3 at the door. I wanted to make bands want to come back."
Loving the Grind: "Mostly, I loved hearing bands that I loved. A lot of times you can block out the music, but then sometimes you’d have to stop and listen and go, ‘Whoa, what is this?’"
A Bad Landing: "I like to think I had a venue that I let people use, and that’s all you could say. But the one development that hurt was that it didn’t end on a successful note. It ended with me beaten to death. Things I worked my whole life for had fizzled out. If I could go back, I wouldn’t buy the Ruby Room. My wife, Rhonda, and I — I got remarried at some point — still can’t say anything about Ruby Room without looking away."
A Third Act: "I worked at a local resort for a while and they’d let me do whatever I wanted. But you can’t be a music club with shows two nights per week. And they wouldn’t let me build a small stage. So after six months, I left to go make more money bartending."
The Love Remains: "I still love this business, and I’d love to book shows even for my own satisfaction. I’d do it all again because I feel most at home in a bar than I do anywhere else."
Closing Thoughts: "Emerald was nothing but fun and excitement. Ruby was fun but not always exciting."