Midtown Getdown

Rich's goes straight, and the wait for a first-class, midsize Houston venue could be over

Well, the Music Awards season is finally at an end, so that means you can expect two things from Racket: One, faster response time on e-mails and phone messages, and two, a column with a bunch of stuff I didn't have time to chase down during the busiest time of my year. And so here we go.

At last mine eyes have seen the future of the coming of the long-awaited, first-class midsize venue, the one we haven't had since Rockefeller's munched the grapes of wrath. Oddly it's been in Midtown all along, ready to roll for the last 20 years, flying under your radar right there on San Jacinto. Or make that gaydar, because the place I'm talking about is Rich's, which is no longer a gay club. Houston house legend Sean Carnahan and former Hyperia honcho Neil Heller have bought the place and are in the process of re-branding, re-centering, re-naming and remodeling the 21-year-old dance palace. "We're gonna have a little of everything," says Carnahan. "We'll be keeping Saturdays for DJs, we'll do some plays, some of the bigger comedy shows, some gay stuff and we're gonna put a stage in and bring in some bands."

I dropped in one hot afternoon last week to check out the joint, which is temporarily doing business as 2401 San Jacinto. ("We've got about a thousand candidates for a new name," Carnahan says. "We'll probably just pick one of 'em out of a hat.") My first impression of the place is that this is it, this is the place we've been waiting for. The interior of the two-story club -- all silvers, purples and reds -- is wonderful. Twenty-one years of the queer eye will do that to a place. It just goes to show you -- gays really are ahead of the aesthetic curve. While my eyes rarely had seen a club so well-appointed and nicely done, the main reason Rich's went on the market was that the newer, even nicer South Beach had cleaned its clock in the dance-palace stakes over the last few years.

But even if Rich's is yesterday's news on the gay scene, I believe it's the future for everyone else. Think of Houston's larger showcase venues with their functional interiors and poor attention to detail, and you've thought of everything that Rich's isn't. Every railing, tabletop and seating area, every inch of wall space, has been designed carefully to contribute to a pleasant whole.

Out back there's a largish, wooden patio studded with potted palms and a bar overhung with flowering bougainvillea. Meanwhile, the upstairs -- and in a welcome change from most other multilevel clubs, there are plenty of staircases -- has two terrific smaller rooms. The Leopard Room put me a little in mind of Elvis's fantabulously tacky Jungle Room at Graceland. Except Elvis's African-esque cellar-crypt didn't have a panoramic view of the Houston skyline and a good 70 percent of the rest of the city; nor did it have a large bar, nor a small stage for DJs and little bands, nor a capacity for about 250 people. A few feet around the corner, there's another small bar, the back of which is lit by hundreds of wall-mounted votive candles, whose light flickers off the sparkly deep red that overhangs the bar. Even the green room downstairs is visually stunning -- the walls are draped with purple cloth, and a score or so of small mirrors are suspended in front. It's something like what I imagine Prince's boudoir to be, and it's got the kind of touches that make it a place visiting bands and DJs will remember and tell all their buddies about. (There's also a storage room upstairs containing what looks to be Southern Importers's entire inventory -- literally tons of decorations for special events, ranging from tiki-hut regalia to sheiks' tents to silver, nude male torsos, which according to Heller come from "Carnahan's private collection." He's kidding, of course.)

So much for the visuals. What about the nuts and bolts? "Neil and I are psycho about sound," Carnahan says, and it shows. Rich's has long been known for having well-above average sound, but Carnahan and Heller say it's going to be even better. "We want to have the best sound in Houston, hopefully in Texas and later the entire Midwest," says Heller. "I'm gonna be bringing in enough equipment to kill an elephant." And they both promise to do the same for lights, and the air-conditioning is already eminently up to snuff. (The one possible snag is parking. Even in the heart of gentrifying Midtown, San Jacinto Street is plenty funky, especially at night. But the McGowen Metro stop is a mere three blocks away, and the trains are running late enough to accommodate clubbers now. So with a little creativity on the part of the customers, parking shouldn't be a problem.)

Meanwhile, they've got some remodeling to do. The main focus of the master plan is to rip out one of the two huge downstairs bars and install a big stage, a move that will almost double the size of the dance floor from its present 900 square feet. There's no hard-and-fast deadline, though they say they've got contractors lined up and the remodeling will be done ASAP. Promoters are drooling already at the prospect of bringing in bands.

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