An Open Letter (To A Landlord)

It’s no secret that I have an affinity for the building that sits at 1318 4th Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia.
I would dare say that anyone who may have spent any fair amount of time in it during the years 1989-98 would, perhaps, feel the same way.
For the generation of Marshall University students born between the years 1969 and 1979, it truly was like a home away from home.
On any given night, one could walk through its doors and stumble upon a unique collective of intellectuals, artists and musicians, not to mention an array of live music that was second to none anywhere else in town.
Like all good things, an ending had to eventually come, and it did, but for 10 great years I would’ve put Huntington up against any other college town in this country in terms of entertainment and culture.
I felt that strongly about it, and still do.
This is why it pains me today to see its history not only forgotten (or ever known for that matter) by a new generation of Marshall students, but dismissed by those whom have inhabited the building at the corner of 4th Avenue and 13th Street in the years since.
By my estimation, this steady decline began not long after Drop Shop ceased operations in early summer 1998.
(For those of you keeping score at home, in the more than 10 years that has passed since Drop Shop’s closing 1318 4th Avenue has been known by no less than seven different names.)
The former proprietors of The Stoned Monkey were the first to capitalize on its misfortunes and reopened the building’s doors in the fall of 1998 as Gyrationz.
Although they will likely never admit it, The Stoned Monkey’s owners at the time had been envious of Drop Shop’s success from the outset and practically modeled itself after it.
Proof positive of The Stone Monkey’s envy can be traced to the stories about their penchant for not only booking the same bands after the fact but, apparently, paying them more as an incentive to never perform at Drop Shop again.
(I’ve always been a firm believer that competition breeds success, but that was a philosophy to which they obviously didn’t subscribe.)
The Gyrationz brass can lay claim, though, to a dubious distinction all their own.
In a move that was, at best, questionable, and, at worst, utterly reprehensible, they actually thought it was a good idea to erect a bar squarely in the middle of the showroom floor, easily reducing the venue’s potential capacity and, with it, any chance of booking high-level talent.
But, I will give credit where credit’s due, Gyrationz did land Kid Rock (when he was a relative unknown), a Rollins Band-less Henry Rollins and GWAR, but that wasn’t nearly enough to prevent them eventually renaming 1318 4th Avenue to the Empire Club.
At this juncture, live shows were quickly becoming a thing of the past because, with the exception of a triple-bill featuring Corrosion of Conformity, Clutch and Karma to Burn (in January 2001), dance nights and DJ shows were becoming all the rage.
Not only that, but they were profitable, if only for a little while.
What most nightclub and bar owners fail to realize, however, is that college-aged kids are an unfaithful bunch, and what was popular one week isn’t necessarily the next.
One certainty that has proven its mettle time after time, at least in Huntington, is that if you want to put your establishment on the fast track to closure adopt an all-dance nightclub format.
It’s happened way too often and, if you can provide a view to the contrary, I’d like to hear about it, because it was the fate of the Empire Club and so many before and after it.
Once again, the doors of 1318 4th Avenue would be closed, but not for very long.
Although its incessant changing of the guard has become a running joke in some circles, it must be said that the building has an allure all its own because it has never remained closed for any extended period of time throughout the course of the last 20 years.
Now, I don’t know what I’m more ashamed of, some of the names that have been associated with 1318 4th Avenue in the last 10 years, or the more high-profile incidents that have occurred there.
The Zoo quickly comes to mind, and it was next in succession.
While most of us would probably like to forget it, that calamity is best remembered for the shooting that occurred there in September 2002, when a woman was wounded in the ladies’ restroom by a bullet that came through the wall of the adjacent men’s restroom.
Needless to say, that was the nail in the coffin for that particular endeavor so I’ll take the less is more approach and move on to 1318 4th Avenue’s next occupants.
No, not Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci.
It was, yes, the name of the building for a relatively short period of time and, if memory serves me correctly, was the brainchild of the same group that last ran Mycrofts before its untimely death.
While Goodfellas did book the occasional local act (The Black Knots, The Red Carpet Bombers and The Red Velvet all appeared on at least one occasion), from all accounts, bad business deals eventually led to its unraveling and, surprise, closing.
1318 4th Avenue would next be known as C & O Martini & Piano Bar and, while it may have been a good concept, the attempt at remaking the building’s identity as such was the equivalent of CBGB trying to transform itself into Bob’s Country Bunker. (For the uninitiated, that was the infamous country bar in the film ‘The Blues Brothers.’)
To quote Bill Hicks, “bad idea, brother,” and another failed venture left the building vacant once more.
Then, in stepped Mackie Robertson, then-owner of Marley’s Doghouse on Third Avenue across from Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
He took over in late summer 2007, and remains the building’s present owner, but under his guidance it’s had its share of identity crises.
Robertson first opened it as Chubby's, while continuing to simultaneously operate Marley’s, but that task proved to be too daunting, and he soon closed up shop to rethink his strategy.
In early 2008, he reopened the doors to 1318 4th Avenue as Club Echo, and received coverage in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch as a result.
In that story, written by Dave Lavender, Robertson was quoted as saying (of his then-new approach) “it's going to be sort of back to the Gumby's and Drop Shop type of real good music, where all the local kids are coming out to support it. Gumby's was a really neat club. I mean people still talk about the club, and it's been closed for 15 years.”
So, my only question is what happened?
Well, from what I’ve gathered, that premise was never something that he was entirely sold on.
Aside from a “Gumby’s Reunion” that the venue hosted (which featured Karma to Burn and The New Duncan Imperials) and a headlining stint by Nebula, which no one attended (no doubt due to the lack of promotion, which is another thorn in my side that will undoubtedly merit its own eventual entry on this site), Robertson and Club Echo never delivered on that promise.
Because the ugly truth is this – booking bands is not a profitable enterprise.
Never was, and never will be.
It’s so much easier to change your name (yet again) and identity to that of, you guessed it, a dance club.
First and foremost, I’m not against capitalism, or anyone making money for that matter, but false intentions as a means of making money is something I have a difficult time swallowing.
The plain truth is that the people who book bands do it for one simple reason: because they love it and, sometimes, thankfully, that trumps material reward.
The best place in Huntington for hosting those live bands was, is and always will be 1318 4th Avenue.
The problem is that people have absolutely no sense of history, and rather than honor the past, they choose to repeat recent history, which, as this building’s last dozen years has proven, always culminates with closed doors.
No one may ever classify John Kerwood as a savvy businessman, but consider this – in the last 20 years, Gumby’s has had the longest tenure at 1318 4th Avenue than any business since, including Drop Shop.
Say what you will about Kerwood, but he, apparently, knew something that countless others did not.
It’s a damn shame that they’ve never bothered to learn.


Seth M. Baker said...

This is probably the best and most detailed written history anyone will find on the history 1318th Ave., so long as you don't count the fond reminisces of other musicians who used to play there (and we know their recollections are hazy hehe). Well done sir.

Amazing how one place can define a scene for decades.

What I wonder is this: what happened to the Huntington live music crowd? Why is attendance so spotty?

There are so many excellent bands playing around the area, but seems like people would rather just stay home.

John Kennard said...

Gumby's lives!

(Although I'd probably be dead by now from draft "Beast" if it had stayed open.)