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Goodbye, Proletariat

The Montrose clubhouse is closing. What now?

Owning a nightclub, particularly one including music as a significant part of its business plan, isn't quite the same thing as gathering a huge pile of cash in the middle of a room and setting it ablaze, but it's close. Between the vast amount of capital required to even open, maintenance costs of everything from beer coolers to PA systems and the steep taxes levied by regulatory bodies such as TABC, most months having enough money left over to pay the bands and the staff, let alone turn an actual profit, is an accomplishment.

Add the inherent stress of operating a business where all it takes to go under is a slow month or two — and where all it takes for that to happen is customers deciding they don't like your drinks, your servers or your artists, or they just like the club down the street/across town a little better — and it's a wonder the turnover rate isn't any higher than it is. Informal Internet research turned up several articles estimating the average nightclub's lifespan at around two to three years: "The nightclub business is a high-risk and short lifespan business," advises Powerhomebiz.com. "It is an expensive venture with a high mortality rate."

A Rock Box crowd turns the Proletariat's beat around, circa 2005.
Matt Marrand
A Rock Box crowd turns the Proletariat's beat around, circa 2005.
Eric "O.G. Style" Woods passed last week at age 37.
Eric "O.G. Style" Woods passed last week at age 37.

Houston, however, is unusually blessed in that several clubs and music venues have managed to remain viable for years, sometimes even decades, becoming local flagships for everything from folk and honky-tonk to metal and synth-pop in the process: Fitzgerald's, Anderson Fair, Rudyard's, Numbers, Blanco's, the West Alabama Ice House and McGonigel's Mucky Duck have all hung around long enough to intoxicate, entertain and employ multiple generations of Houston night owls. Naturally, the list of places that didn't make it is a little longer: Liberty Hall, Love Street Electric Circus, Rock Island, the Abyss, the Unicorn, Instant Karma, Pik 'N' Pak, Rhythm Room, Fat Cat's, Helios, Power Tools, Catal Huyuk and the Axiom, to name but a few.

Until it was announced the Proletariat would close in early February, it seemed like it was headed down the former path. Opening in September 2002, the squat cement building at Richmond and Montrose (onetime home of the beloved Blue Iguana) quickly became a fixture on the local nightlife circuit, especially for twenty­somethings who could not only distinguish between Diplo and Devendra Banhart but likely owned several MP3s by both. Besides offering a stage and actual paying customers to artists who likely would have otherwise bypassed Houston altogether — TV on the Radio, Broken Social Scene, Art Brut — the Proletariat went out of its way to foster local music. Its "commune nights" were no-frills, cross-genre, eminently affordable affairs where any band who wanted stage time could have it, even if it was their first time playing in public. Or period, for that matter.

On the other end of that spectrum, Proletariat was beyond packed for weekend shows by honor graduates of Houston's indie scene, from Spain Colored Orange and Fatal Flying Guilloteens to Bring Back the Guns and Jana Hunter, too many times to count. Other weekly events, like ghetto-fabulous no-cover Thursday-night DJ showcase Rock Box and Friday's endearingly awful karaoke amateur hour, made the club something very rare indeed: a hard-core hipster hangout that never took itself too seriously, nor its customers for granted.

"It always feels comfortable and unpretentious," affirms Matthew Wettergreen, who cohosts KTRU's "Revelry Report" Friday nights with partner Phillip Beck. "There's almost never any trouble — unless we're making it — and it's just as acceptable to sit by yourself with your laptop and a Red Bull than to take Jägermeister shots with all the bartenders."

At least Proletariat's run ends in an appropriately unique manner: Rather than having succumbed to traditional ­nightclub-killing maladies like mismanagement or regulars simply moving on, it's a victim of eminent domain. The club sits squarely in the proposed path of MetroRail's University line — the roughly ten-mile span between the Southwest Freeway at Westpark and the Gulf Freeway at Elgin/Lockwood, following Richmond for the western half of its route — and the building itself is thus targeted for demolition sometime after construction on the line begins this summer. After Metro's plans were finalized late last year, Proletariat owner Denise Ramos, who was facing a long list of much-needed physical improvements to the space, decided to get out.

"There was so much we needed to do for the space itself," she told the Press's music blog Houstoned Rocks last month. "We were getting so much grief for our sound equipment, and believe me, I've been dying to get new sound equipment in there. I was dying to do a little makeover to the back room. Because of all that stuff, the back-and-forth [with Metro] and having to prolong all these things I need to do, honestly I just started losing a little momentum."

The Proletariat's greatest achievement may be that while they are certainly sad it's being forced to shut down, few in the vibrant, eclectic music scene that coalesced around the club think that scene itself is in much danger of disappearing. "[The club] has certainly contributed to the current state of the Houston music scene, which we feel has never been stronger," says Wettergreen.

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