Musical Chairs

Yes, I'm getting tired of ringing this bell, but what's a reporter to do when his beat's infrastructure is self-destructing in a nasty, crumbling cycle of closure and doom.... The city's inner-Loop clubs are dropping like flies. First Goat's Head Soup blew up (although that loss was hardly the first in a long year of disappointments), and now Rockefeller's gets its assets grabbed by the Internal Revenue Service. What, pray tell, do it mean? Does this town not have a sufficient pool of business professionals to maintain a stable base of venues? Or does this town of millions not possess the economic power to sustain a healthy live entertainment industry? Or is this the way the nightclub business has always been and always will be, only seemingly amplified by some end-of-the-millennium countdown?

In the case of Rockefeller's, don't be too surprised if the venerable showplace rises from cold ashes yet again. Rockefeller's co-owner Jim Grisham tells me that as long as the reported $32,400 in payroll taxes that Rockefeller's owes the IRS remains outstanding, the club will remain closed, as it has been since five IRS agents seized the property on the morning of June 20. But over the phone last Thursday, he seemed optimistic about the chances of finding investors to pay off not only the IRS debt, but an amount of similar magnitude the club presently owes various creditors and even performers.

"Money has been the problem ever since the bankruptcy," Grisham says, referring to the venue's 1992 reorganization. Following the bankruptcy was an ill-fated partnership with Entertainment One, the corporation that ran Rockefeller's West up the flagpole for three months last year. That turned out to be a strike two of drained resources, and strike three led to the closing on Monday. "At this point Rockefeller's was literally depleted of all capital. We couldn't withstand any significant losses [on shows], and we had several."

Grisham is presently talking with several possible investors, none of whom he wishes to identify at this point, and without laying odds, he thinks a reopening is possible, but only under ideal circumstances. "It's either capitalize properly or don't do it at all. It's important that there are funds available for the business to function the way it needs to, and if it's a matter of just reopening and struggling along the same way we have been, then it's not worth it."

Sanford Criner -- who has owned the building housing Rockefeller's since before it became a nightclub, operated the venue until 1983 and remains the landlord -- expresses hope that the present Rockefeller's owners, Grisham and Don Gomez, will be able to keep the club alive. "It would be a real shame to see it change," Criner says. "Slowly over this 15 years or so it has built up a substantial history. It'd be sad for the city, and it'd be sad for me personally." Grisham and Criner also agree that there's a roughly two-week window of opportunity to get Rockefeller's rolling again (about a week by the time you read this).

By the way, the Rockefeller's-promoted Jerry Jeff Walker show scheduled for July 1 at the European Tavern is, by all the latest accounts, confirmed and happening.

As it becomes something of a macabre tradition to lead off this column with news of another club closing, it also becomes important to try to dig up the good news. I stumbled across some in the person of Jim Green, owner and former manager of famed New Orleans show spot Tipitina's. Green was willing to confirm on record that he's actively in the market for real estate on which to open a Houston version of Tipitina's. Although it's far too early to know what, if anything, may come of Green's interest, he does say that he's getting restless for the music-biz bustle he experienced over the nine years he and his wife, presently proprietor of Mientje's Coffee Shops, ran the New Orleans Tipitina's. The couple moved to Houston last year to enter the java market, but Green sounds ready to give the music another go. "Houston needs a really good all-around music club. There's a major void here, and add on top of that the clubs that have recently closed." He's looking for something in the neighborhood of a 1,000-seater, inner-Loop, to book "everything but opera." Anybody sitting on some empty real estate?

And in the final bit o' club news this week, jazz club Cezanne, which many had feared would close with the onset of July, remains open. Musician Ken Ward, known both for his playing with Sebastian Whittaker and others and for his booking at Ovations, plans to cut Cezanne's Thursday night music but to continue booking on Fridays and Saturdays. Ward is setting up Cezanne as a Da Camera-style subscription series whereby patrons will subscribe monthly -- probably $20-$25 a month, he says -- and in return be granted admission to that month's program of eight weekend concerts. Non-subscribers will still pay the cover at the door. "I expect to lose money in July," says Ward, "but that's okay if we can keep it open.


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