Stirring the Pot

An interloper tries to inject a little color into Shepherd Plaza's floundering nightclub scene and pays the price.

How Dan Robinson fits into a potential comeback scenario remains to be seen, but he won't be sitting by while others decide his fate. A 20-year veteran of the food and beverage business, Robinson was born and raised in the New York suburb of Scarsdale, breaking into the industry as a dishwasher at a local restaurant chain. After college, Robinson's longtime obsession with the Southwest culminated in him teaming up with other investors to open Home on the Range in Manhattan in 1987. It was during frequent trips to San Antonio to find meal ideas for his new Tex-Mex eatery that Robinson came to appreciate Texas.

Robinson broke from the Home on the Range partnership in 1989. After a handful of other restaurant ventures back home through the first half of the '90s, he landed in Houston. The city had always seemed attractive to Robinson, and it helped that his brother was already living here.

In April of 1997, he signed a ten-year lease on the 4,700-square-foot space that would become the Voodoo Lounge, knowing that its peripheral location on the Richmond Avenue side of the Plaza might be a hindrance.

Robinson says things were already headed downhill when he came to Shepherd Plaza -- though he insists he didn't realize it at the time. "It was not the place to go anymore. That's nothing against Shepherd Plaza; it's just the natural progression: People go to the new places."

Joe Caudill, who oversaw the Plaza for La Mesa Properties before Trammell Crow took over in July '97, disagrees with Robinson, insisting that the complex was still thriving when he left his post. But he does say that the area was attracting what he saw as the wrong element. "I think you know what I'm talkin' about," he says. He refuses to elaborate.

Four months before Caudill's exit, the Voodoo Lounge had started slowly, and with very little fanfare, entertaining customers Thursday to Saturday only. In the summer of '97, a group of African-American promoters approached Robinson about doing a hip-hop/R&B night. The Lounge was closed Wednesdays, so Robinson thought he'd give it a shot then.

"We started with more of a white crowd the first four months," Robinson recalls. "We never had some huge opening; I'm not from here, so it wasn't like I had a mailing list. But we did okay."

But then, quite suddenly, the Voodoo Lounge was doing much better than okay: "[Wednesdays were] very successful -- like 200 people in line who couldn't get in."

Evidently, that success was not accompanied by any sharp rise in crime in the area. Aside from the occasional fight, auto break-in or stolen mobile phone, HPD incident records show nothing extraordinary about the goings-on in and around the Voodoo Lounge since it opened. The Upper Kirby District Association, which closely monitors relations between neighborhoods and businesses in the area, hasn't logged a single complaint about the Voodoo Lounge. Says its executive director, Jamie Brewster, "We have more problems, to tell you the truth, with the clubs in the [interior of the complex] that have motorcycle, midlife-crisis men revving their motorcycles up and down our streets."

Oddly enough, the juiciest bit of information gleaned from the HPD incident log on Voodoo Lounge involves a 911 call in December 1997. Someone reported that Robinson was walking around outside his club waving a gun at customers. The call turned out to be a hoax, and no charges were filed.

"It's always a very well-dressed crowd. People feel safe in my club," Robinson says. "People get at ease -- I think it's because it's small. I had a night that would have been zero where everyone was making some money."

Regardless, soon after the Wednesday hip-hop nights kicked in, the phone calls started: Other club owners in Shepherd Plaza wanted to know what he was up to. Robinson says the first to confront him was Gordon at the Rhino Lounge: "She was like, 'Why are you bringing the blacks here; you're ruining the complex.' Then the fire department started coming, the police department started coming -- every week, sometimes three or four times a night. She would constantly be watching my place more than hers. It was a well-dressed crowd; it was never overpowering."

For her part, Gordon denies she ever made any racially pointed comments to Robinson, insisting that the Rhino Room itself caters to a diverse crowd. She also claims she called the authorities on the Voodoo Lounge on only one occasion, "I have never called the fire marshal on him; I did have the police come [clear out] the parking lot because my employees were afraid to leave at 3:30 in the morning, because it was full of cars with their stereos going and people drinking in the parking lot. That was the only thing I've ever done."

But Gordon does say that she's been less than happy with the Voodoo Lounge: "It just brought a lot of people out that we didn't care to have out here; it chased off our clientele."

But then, she stops short. "I don't want to go there."
After a while, the frequent visits from the city began to taper off -- for good reason, Robinson contends: "We run legal, we're 21 and up, we ID everybody, we have [off-duty HPD] officers on duty, we keep it clean. I'm not in this for the short run."

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