Stirring the Pot
Weekends are typically money nights for Dan Robinson's Voodoo Lounge, but this Saturday may be different. Noticeably on edge, the New York native surveys the mostly deserted interior of his newly renovated Shepherd Plaza nightclub. It's almost 11 p.m., and the place is barely a quarter full. Those who've shown up are all well dressed and represent a racial mix -- white, black, Hispanic.
The Voodoo Lounge's basic decor -- a garish hodgepodge of neon, stuffed wild animals, tacky tribal props and thatched wall coverings -- hasn't changed much since Robinson christened the place early last year. More recent alterations to the club are significant: The old stage is now a lounge area with classy furniture. Just a short ascent up a set of stairs nearby, a shadow box looms. Two women dance within its canvas confines, their figures enhanced by a red spotlight. Down below, a new, expanded stage is large enough to accommodate a full band and then some. Robinson has plans to book live music at the Voodoo Lounge, perhaps even a few of the many hip-hop acts dotting Houston's underground landscape. Right now, though, he'll sit tight, wait -- and worry.
"This is it," Robinson says. "I've maxed out my credit cards. They destroyed me in six weeks -- down 70 percent."
Robinson's troubles began when he overhauled the Lounge's white-bread image to draw a more diverse clientele, bringing in local rap/hip-hop promoters, then DJs from the Box (KKBX/97.9 FM) to lend street credibility to his new direction. The formula worked, and soon enough, the Voodoo Lounge had lines down the block. But not long after the changeover, says Robinson, other club owners, unhappy with the "element" he was attracting to the complex, began a subtle campaign of harassment. Then, he claims, the Trammell Crow Company -- the real estate firm that took over operations at the Plaza last July -- offered to buy him out. That touched off a downward spiral of damaging gossip that in the end might cost him his livelihood: A rumor spread that the Voodoo Lounge was closing; the crowds vanished and business plummeted.
"They're blaming me for the lack of business [at the complex] because I went black," Robinson says.
For their part, the people at Trammell Crow dismiss Robinson's complaints. They see their concerns about the Voodoo Lounge as sound business practice, an effort to keep other tenants at the Plaza happy while maintaining a consistent customer base. They laugh off his accusations of racism and the claims that he's a marked man, attributing them to frustration and perhaps even a little paranoia. Indeed, his efforts to interest the NAACP in his case have been fruitless ("They won't return my calls"), and threats of a lawsuit were abandoned. Currently, the tension has subsided between Robinson and his landlord. But the damage, he says, is already done.
More than anything, perhaps, the problems involving the Voodoo Lounge illustrate the level of tension that can result when an outsider messes with the volatile dynamic of a dying nightlife institution. It's no secret that business is way down at Shepherd Plaza's dwindling nightclubs. The area's hip quotient has hit an all-time low as the fickle "A-crowd" flocks to downtown's revitalized party scene -- and hot spots such as Spy and Jones Bar -- leaving the once-hopping complex in the dust.
"Houston is not like other cities, where there are multiple locations that are hot," says Von Butler, a former club promoter who worked with the Voodoo Lounge in its early stages. "What happened with Shepherd Plaza was that it was already on the decline, and they blamed Dan. It was too dark, you know what I'm sayin'.
"Houston is a big country town. For most clubs [here], a black crowd is their last resort before going out of business, but that wasn't Dan; he's from New York, he wants to make money. The black crowd that he had was an upscale crowd. You go to other cities, and clubs will pull in different crowds on different nights. In Houston, it seems to be a problem."
Over the last 18 months, four Shepherd Plaza nightclubs -- Strict 9, Metroplex, the Ballroom and 8.0 -- have folded. The locations that once housed Strict 9, Metroplex and the Ballroom remain empty today, and what used to be 8.0 is now Amazon 2050 A.D., a gaudy theme restaurant and bar. Word on the street has it, Trammell Crow is looking to phase out all nightclub tenants, eventually turning over the entire complex to store owners and restaurateurs in hopes of luring families and more moneyed customers from the surrounding area. It's something the company doesn't flat-out deny.
"We're trying to go more mainstream restaurant/club rather than strictly club," says Janice Meinzer of Trammell Crow, which manages the property for Shepherd Plaza Associates. "We think those have more long-term viability."
That's of little comfort to the nightclub owners still struggling to stay viable, still hoping the complex can thrive again. "It was a hot spot," says Rhino Room manager Lynette Gordon. "I think this is a fabulous location; I think it should come back, and I hope it will come back."
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."
Obviously, Robinson was encouraged by the Wednesday crowd at the Voodoo Lounge, and less impressed with the turnout on other nights, including a Latin-themed Thursday that never got off the ground and provoked more grumbling around the complex. In January '98, he began carrying over the urban theme to Saturday and Sunday. After all, it made perfect financial sense.
"If I like rock, that's cool, but I'm not into this for a personal ego thing," says Robinson. "I'm in this to make money."
With his weekends starting to rage, Robinson was on a roll. He went to his landlord asking permission to host a special Mardi Gras event on Fat Tuesday. That's when Robinson's conflict with Trammell Crow's company began.
"They wanted to know what I was doing; they didn't like my ads," says Robinson of his meeting with Meinzer and another Trammell Crow associate. "They wanted to know who I was trying to attract."
At first, says Robinson, Trammell Crow said no to his Mardi Gras request, but ultimately property management relented and he got clearance to hold his bash. The party -- which was held in the club and parking lot and was co-sponsored by the Box -- went off without a hitch. Sometime later, though, Trammell Crow came to Robinson with a proposition. "They said they wanted the Voodoo Lounge closed," he says. "They didn't like the clientele, and [asked] would I be interested in doing something that would be a better fit for the complex."
While Meinzer admits there was dialogue between Robinson and her company and that some of it has involved problems with his patrons (primarily loitering), she dismisses any accusations that race played a role in the concerns. "All we're trying to do is create synergy at the shopping center. We would never single out a particular race, saying they're the ones causing the problems. There was some negotiation as far as our trying to reposition the shopping center, but it didn't work out -- as far as trying to consolidate club space. It was a tenant mix [issue]."
According to Robinson, those negotiations started out promisingly but soon deteriorated. First there was the proposal to expand the Voodoo Lounge space and turn it into a sports bar (an idea Robinson was willing to think about). Then, there was the possibility of changing themes and moving into the old Ballroom locale. Finally, says Robinson, Trammell Crow cut to the chase and offered to pay him to get lost. "The last thing I wanted was to be bought out," he says. "I like the area."
But by that point, Robinson was so fed up, he agreed: "So I started cutting back on my advertising, held back on any new changes."
Eventually, though, all proposals dried up completely. Sources at Trammell Crow say the negotiations broke down because Robinson has virtually no capital, making him a poor financial risk. It was at about this time, says Robinson, that word had already gotten out about the nightclub's imminent (and false) demise. "I was supposed to be closing at the end of May," says Robinson, "out before the summer started."
Of course, it's well into the summer, and the Voodoo Lounge isn't gone yet. Robinson has sunk thousands of dollars into interior renovations and has overhauled his entertainment lineup in a way that -- while less dominated by hip-hop -- still isn't likely to please the folks at Trammell Crow: Starting this month, Tuesdays and Fridays are set aside for rap, hip-hop and R&B, hosted by DJs from the Box; Sunday is Latin night, with DJ Juanito from La Boom Club in Cancun; for the rest of the week, the emphasis is on a mix of dance music for all races and cultures. Another format change sure to grab some attention is Wednesday's male and female striptease contest, for which that new stage and shadow box ought to come in handy. Top prize is $300.
But one Trammell Crow representative who preferred to remain anonymous believes that the Voodoo Lounge's time has come and gone -- and that competition is the only villain. "The bottom line is, his demise -- or, at least, his trending downward from his peak -- is more attributable to the dynamics of the club business. The Roxy is absolutely knocking 'em dead, and that's all his old customers."
Still, Robinson has no plans of fading quietly into the sunset.
"Here, if you're doing well, they try and shut you down. I'm not backing down," he says. "They're never going to get the A-crowd back here. None of these clubs are anything special."
Except, of course, for the Voodoo Lounge.
E-mail Hobart Rowland at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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