By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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Weekends are typically money nights for Dan Robinson's Voodoo Lounge, but this Saturday may be different. Noticeably on edge, the New York native surveys the mostly deserted interior of his newly renovated Shepherd Plaza nightclub. It's almost 11 p.m., and the place is barely a quarter full. Those who've shown up are all well dressed and represent a racial mix -- white, black, Hispanic.
The Voodoo Lounge's basic decor -- a garish hodgepodge of neon, stuffed wild animals, tacky tribal props and thatched wall coverings -- hasn't changed much since Robinson christened the place early last year. More recent alterations to the club are significant: The old stage is now a lounge area with classy furniture. Just a short ascent up a set of stairs nearby, a shadow box looms. Two women dance within its canvas confines, their figures enhanced by a red spotlight. Down below, a new, expanded stage is large enough to accommodate a full band and then some. Robinson has plans to book live music at the Voodoo Lounge, perhaps even a few of the many hip-hop acts dotting Houston's underground landscape. Right now, though, he'll sit tight, wait -- and worry.
"This is it," Robinson says. "I've maxed out my credit cards. They destroyed me in six weeks -- down 70 percent."
Robinson's troubles began when he overhauled the Lounge's white-bread image to draw a more diverse clientele, bringing in local rap/hip-hop promoters, then DJs from the Box (KKBX/97.9 FM) to lend street credibility to his new direction. The formula worked, and soon enough, the Voodoo Lounge had lines down the block. But not long after the changeover, says Robinson, other club owners, unhappy with the "element" he was attracting to the complex, began a subtle campaign of harassment. Then, he claims, the Trammell Crow Company -- the real estate firm that took over operations at the Plaza last July -- offered to buy him out. That touched off a downward spiral of damaging gossip that in the end might cost him his livelihood: A rumor spread that the Voodoo Lounge was closing; the crowds vanished and business plummeted.
"They're blaming me for the lack of business [at the complex] because I went black," Robinson says.
For their part, the people at Trammell Crow dismiss Robinson's complaints. They see their concerns about the Voodoo Lounge as sound business practice, an effort to keep other tenants at the Plaza happy while maintaining a consistent customer base. They laugh off his accusations of racism and the claims that he's a marked man, attributing them to frustration and perhaps even a little paranoia. Indeed, his efforts to interest the NAACP in his case have been fruitless ("They won't return my calls"), and threats of a lawsuit were abandoned. Currently, the tension has subsided between Robinson and his landlord. But the damage, he says, is already done.
More than anything, perhaps, the problems involving the Voodoo Lounge illustrate the level of tension that can result when an outsider messes with the volatile dynamic of a dying nightlife institution. It's no secret that business is way down at Shepherd Plaza's dwindling nightclubs. The area's hip quotient has hit an all-time low as the fickle "A-crowd" flocks to downtown's revitalized party scene -- and hot spots such as Spy and Jones Bar -- leaving the once-hopping complex in the dust.
"Houston is not like other cities, where there are multiple locations that are hot," says Von Butler, a former club promoter who worked with the Voodoo Lounge in its early stages. "What happened with Shepherd Plaza was that it was already on the decline, and they blamed Dan. It was too dark, you know what I'm sayin'.
"Houston is a big country town. For most clubs [here], a black crowd is their last resort before going out of business, but that wasn't Dan; he's from New York, he wants to make money. The black crowd that he had was an upscale crowd. You go to other cities, and clubs will pull in different crowds on different nights. In Houston, it seems to be a problem."
Over the last 18 months, four Shepherd Plaza nightclubs -- Strict 9, Metroplex, the Ballroom and 8.0 -- have folded. The locations that once housed Strict 9, Metroplex and the Ballroom remain empty today, and what used to be 8.0 is now Amazon 2050 A.D., a gaudy theme restaurant and bar. Word on the street has it, Trammell Crow is looking to phase out all nightclub tenants, eventually turning over the entire complex to store owners and restaurateurs in hopes of luring families and more moneyed customers from the surrounding area. It's something the company doesn't flat-out deny.
"We're trying to go more mainstream restaurant/club rather than strictly club," says Janice Meinzer of Trammell Crow, which manages the property for Shepherd Plaza Associates. "We think those have more long-term viability."
That's of little comfort to the nightclub owners still struggling to stay viable, still hoping the complex can thrive again. "It was a hot spot," says Rhino Room manager Lynette Gordon. "I think this is a fabulous location; I think it should come back, and I hope it will come back."