If Gary James has his way, his name will be Houston's next household word. You see, the club and party promoter is the next step in our much ballyhooed downtown redevelopment: He will be the one to redefine the way we socialize.
Despite what you think of promoters, Gary's not just blowing smoke. For better or for worse, he has transformed a city before -- namely, Miami. South Beach was desolate in the early '80s when a handsome, young Gary was modeling (and partying) in Europe. When he'd come home to South Florida to visit his family, he was -- gasp! -- bored. "I needed my fix," he says now, with a laugh. So Gary started renting out gallery space and throwing legendary parties, which became known as Avenue A. When the parties got too big, he took them on the road -- to hotels, to cruise ships, to islands. It was a rave, he remembers, before raves were cool.
Miami nightlife experts say that Avenue A was the turning point, but Gary's next venture, The Spot, sealed the deal for South Beach. His partner in the hottest club in the city was none other than Mickey Rourke. But despite The Spot's success, Mickey and Gary had a very public falling out. In fact, an article in South Florida magazine reported that Rourke "wanted to rip the friendship tattoo [they both had them] off Gary's wrist."
But Gary continued to ride the wave in Miami, promoting parties such as Disco Inferno and Bohemia and opening upscale nightspots like Club Lua -- that is, until he and his wife separated and Gary needed a change of scenery. He came through Houston (on his way to see Mickey, with whom he had reconciled, in Los Angeles) and just stayed. His friend Bobby Stark was opening Spy here, and -- get this -- downtown Houston reminded him of a pre-Spot South Beach. Gary had found his next city to conquer.
Sure, there are differences. We don't have a beach (Galveston doesn't count) or any tourism to speak of, but Gary had a feeling. "Only about 5 percent of Houston is going downtown now," he says. "When it hits, it's gonna be big." And, he says, people in other cities are starting to talk about us. The ultimate compliment.
Gary has spent the last year and a half getting to know the lay of the land and "consulting" at Spy. He has had some early missteps: Although they were heavily promoted, his Friday-night Nucleus parties of last month were a dud. By way of explanation, he says the setting, Oz, already had a bad reputation with the locals that he didn't know about. But Gary is older and wiser now (he has even quit drinking!) and he knows that "longevity is the only way to make money in this business."
Now he's promoting Tuesday's "Flow" dance party, Wednesday's swing night and Thursday's upscale Latin-themed "Sabor Caliente" at the new Lava Lounge in the old Urban Art Bar space. He's also working on a no-cover lounge called Bamboo, in the Palace Cafe, for which the only door prerequisite will be a friendly attitude. "Just because you're wearing sneakers doesn't mean you're a bad person," he says diplomatically. He's definitely catching on to the casual Houston sensibility. Next up is a rave for grown-ups in July.
Gary's working so hard, he says, because "you're only as good as your last party." And that goes for cities as well as promoters.