Four unique clubs get tossed into the struggle of the fittest
photos by Kyle Rhines
There’s a word we use a lot around here when we’re talking about Greensboro nightlife: Darwinism. With a growing gene pool of restaurants, clubs, coffee shops and bars and a fickle but growing stream of potential clients, in the last year or so downtown Greensboro has slogged through the primordial ooze, ending an ice age of deserted streets and empty storefronts and bursting forth with new life.
But it may be time to cast aside our theory about the natural evolution of downtown nightlife, because these days it seems that something more akin to intelligent design is at work, putting ideas and focus behind the growth, nurturing variations, carving niches’… ushering the district into the Pleistocene.
Four new night spots come to fruition this spring in downtown Greensboro, four species of gathering place that are as disparate as the four primal elements’… earth, air, fire, water’… yet they are all part of the same whole.
Earth: the Flying Anvil
219 W. Lewis St.; 336.275.7526; theflyinganvil.com
Sound echoes across the tracks and bounces down the brick corridor of Lewis Street. They’re parking on Elm or the lot across Eugene, or they’re riding their bikes and chaining them to the front railing, or they’re walking hand-in-hand or in loose groups like metallic granules pulled toward a magnet.
They crowd the bar, ordering energy drinks and the cheapest of beers; they fill the corners in games of foosball and pool; in the music hall they elbow for space in front of an angry young band and out on the patio, a scabrous brick and cinderblock enclosure with picnic tables and the barest suggestion of roof cover, they smoke cigarettes.
House manager Brian Crean monitors flow through the door from his little hut in front. Though the club has been in the planning stages for months, it’s now been born and Crean tries to claim his role in the working organism, creating circuits and negotiating patterns as he learns his job.
On a sweep through the barroom he pauses to chat up a customer.
‘“We got the ABC license on Thursday,’” he says as he checks the level on a garbage can. ‘“Pete was ordering booze on a cell phone in the car from Raleigh.’”
It’s the second, or maybe the third, of many opening nights for the Flying Anvil, the downtown brainchild of artists-turned- entrepreneurs who, in the process of building the newest and most hyped club in the ‘boro, manage to keep their feet on the ground.
The place looks like a hipster prison, fenced in with barbed wire and nestled in the junction of the railroad tracks, content in its street cred and screaming to be covered in murals and graffiti.
It’s four days later, out on the scarred brick patio, and Andrew Dudek helps Pete Schroth cut a plank for the sound table. As soon as they get it together they’ll pull the board from its coffin-sized crate on the floor and wire it up. A crew standing on ladders installs the light system above the stage. Art hangs on the walls of the barroom, including a depiction of a BBW in spandex by Greensboro pyrographer Marc Bernstein.
But out on the patio heat starts to gather in the cinderblock oven. Dudek and Schroth snap a blue chalk line on the board and Schroth grips the circular saw. With Dudek holding the cord behind him, he cuts.
The two are part of the ownership team ‘— the part that gets real dirty. And their history in Greensboro includes artistry (Schroth was trained as a sculptor, Dudek fronts local band Dawn Chorus); entrepreneurship (Schroth started the Green Bean coffee shop and Dudek owned Gate City Noise record store); and promotion (between them they’ve flogged rock shows, art openings, media events and an annual rock, paper, scissors tournament).
Today they’re cutting wood. And honing their vision.
‘“I’d like to do a discount for people who ride bikes,’” Pete says. He’s not talking about Harleys. After just a couple events they’ve noticed an inordinate number of bicycle riders among their clientele with no place to park their rides. That will change.
Together they carry the board inside and place it on the frame. Dudek drills in the screws from the center point out.
They’ve got a big show Wednesday night, a Piedmont Jazz and Blues Festival benefit, and then Roomful of Blues coming Thursday night, indie rock on Friday, a tribute band show on Saturday and, on Sunday, a themed night where everybody wearing blue qualifies for cheap drinks.
These act as a prelude for the club’s official opening night, which will span three evenings and feature three distinct types of music: rock with the Rosebuds and a slew of others on Thursday, Americana with the Avett Brothers on Friday, and a Greensboro cover band extravaganza on Saturday with Lube and Walrus.
Anybody feel left out?
Back at the patio to cut another board, Dudek stands on top in a surfer’s pose while Schroth makes the cut. The scrap clatters to the concrete floor.
‘“It’s all about the collaboration,’” Schroth says.
They hustle it inside and affix it to the frame.
‘“It’s a work in progress,’” Dudek says. Schroth laughs.
‘“Very much so, at this point,’” he says.
Water: Rum Runners
212 S. Elm St.; rumrunnersusa.com
‘“It came to me in the shower,’” Steve Jones says in the lobby of the Kress Building, a room awash in morning light from the big upper windows in front. ‘“I thought, ‘I’ve got to put a billboard at the airport.””
That’s the way it’s been for nearly a year with Jones and his two partners, Steve Carnish and Andrew Shoffner, their neurons flooded with thoughts about their enterprise in the grand old structure on Elm Street.
‘“I call it the jewel,’” Jones says.
They’ve transformed the Kress Building, designed and built in 1930 by Samuel H. Kress’ chief architect Edward Sibbert, into an Art Deco interpretation of a Roman bath, with Corinthian columns standing in relief against freshly plastered walls and ceiling recesses that capture echoes from the terrazzo tile floor.
They’ve partitioned off the lion’s share of the space, built a kitchen in the back and fashioned bars that look like tiki huts. They’ve carted in ladderback chairs painted orange and yellow and blue and green, installed tin roofs and commissioned a mural on the partition, a beach scene with palm fronds swaying and the ocean stretching off into the horizon.
In the echo chamber that is the lobby of the Kress Building, you can almost hear the waves crashing against the shoreline.
And at the center of the room, in a place of prominence, twin piano hulls sit on low risers waiting for their electronic guts to be installed.
Rum Runners has been a waiting game from the start, this linear process of transforming an American architectural treasure into a sing-along piano bar with a casual menu and a coastal motif. First they restored the plaster flourishes and dental moldings, touched up the marble near the front of the room, disassembled the marble staircase near the back and then put it back together again like a puzzle after the wires and pipes had been laid.
‘“You know what the rules are,’” says Shoffner, ‘“but when you’re trying to make current code and an 80-year-old building mesh, and the city’s trying to work with you, you can’t just go to the book where it says, ‘A then B then C.’ You can maybe do A better than code but B may be impossible to achieve.’”
He says the project has been a challenging one: utilizing the layout and the partition wall; surgically busting holes in the 8-inch concrete floor; compartmentalizing the power grid; creating an alcove by the elevators so the sound doesn’t carry to the upper floors through the shaft.
But now, he says, land is in sight ‘— they should be open in two weeks.
The concept, spun off a successful corporate chain started in Lansing, Mich., revolves around the idea of a one-night vacation with frozen drinks, surfboards hanging from the ceiling and dueling piano players up front belting out tunes to which everybody knows the words.
‘“These guys are a cross between a Vegas floor show, a comedy act, a human karaoke machine and a standard piano entertainer,’” Shoffner says. ‘“They get on the stage every night and they may have a few songs they know they’re gonna do, but it’s a different show every night.
‘“It’s non-stop,’” he adds. ‘“There are four [piano players] and they rotate, so the music never stops.’”
The crowd is invited to sing along. The employees are required to.
‘“Depending on crowd size and level of business, once an hour everybody gets on stage,’” Shoffner says.
‘“It is absolutely part of the interview ‘— you have to have a huge personality: number one, to want to work here if you’ve ever been to one of these places; number two, to know that you’re gonna have to get on stage once an hour every night.’”
And no, he says, Simon Cowell will likely not be there to throw verbal tomatoes in his British accent.
‘“If he does he’ll have a nice sandwich,’” he laughs, ‘“but we won’t ask him to critique anybody.’”
Fire: Disco Inferno
212 S. Elm St.
It smells like sawdust in the Inferno. Sawdust with a hint of smoke.
We’re one floor below street level, in the belly of the Kress Building beneath the cavernous piano bar. Workmen pace off footage, hammer and saw, twist and fasten as they raise the dust with their boots.
It’s hot down here.
Yet this is the place that Paul Talley, owner of Arizona Pete’s and Jethro, the only mechanical bull in Greensboro, has chosen for his foray into downtown nightlife.
But if I may make a comparison between Talley’s business interests and early John Travolta movies, his first venture is more Urban Cowboy while Disco Inferno is strictly Saturday Night Fever. The Boy in the Plastic Bubble has no place in the equation.
‘“I’ve done a lot of research,’” Talley says in the dressing room, one of a warren that branch off the main floor. ‘“Saturday Night Fever, Grease, documentaries on Steve Rubell’….’”
Manhattan’s nightlife pioneer, who in the 1970s gave the rich and famous inebriate class a no-holds-barred playground in Studio 54, was a primary inspiration.
‘“He died young,’” Talley says, ‘“but man did he have a good time.’”
Rubell’s legacy was to transmogrify the NYC club scene, which had grown stale after the Vietnam War era, by infusing nightlife with vibe and entertainment. Astonishing light shows, over-the-top decorations and performers who mingled with guests were part and parcel of the Studio 54 experience, and Talley plans to borrow heavily from these elements.
‘“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do,’” Talley says. ‘“Instead of just putting up a building with four walls and music ‘— I’m gonna do that, but I’m gonna have actors and actresses in costumes walking around the floor. Let me give you an example: when the Village People’s ‘YMCA’ comes on, the Village People are gonna come out and perform it.’”
Not the real Village People, of course, but thespians culled from the local talent pool.
‘“These drama people,’” he says, ‘“they kind of hang together.’”
He walks around the length of the room. He’s built three bars, two that form a corner in the back and another small one, right by where people will be waiting in line for the men’s room on busy nights.
‘“I’m gonna put a hot chick back there,’” he says.
The stage and DJ table dominate one end of the house and before them lies the foundation for a grand, light-up disco floor as big as a swimming pool that will make you want to mutter, ‘“I think the Puerto Rican couple should have won.’”
‘“I call it ‘Modern Retro,”” Talley says. ‘“[We’ll play] all the old music; [we’ve got] the old-school dance floor. Everything else is very high-tech. Video projection walls, plasma screens. Of course, we’ve got a big mirror ball to hang right in the middle.’”
And though the room looks’… raw and unfinished, Talley says he’ll have the fires in here blazing in a couple of weeks.
‘“We clear some of this shit out of here, put a coat of paint on the walls’… you’d be surprised,’” he says. ‘“We’re gonna do a soft opening ‘— I’m not gonna tell a soul ’cause, you know, something will go wrong’… some bug will rear its ugly head.’”
And then it’s burn, baby burn.
Air: the Roof on Greene Street
113 N. Greene St.; 336.273.4111; greenestreetclub.com
The best way to get up to the roof is a long climb up an enclosed stairwell that opens on the elegant barroom with windows on the terrace.
‘“This is gonna be glass all the way up,’” Greene Street manager Michael Umphenour says, twirling his finger as he marches up the steps.
We exit onto the roof, three stories high, and the glare off the Lincoln Financial Building’s tinted windows brings sunspots to our eyes.
Another flight and down a catwalk, we’re on the highest deck.
The wind blows strong across this aerie, swept up from the corridors below, riffling our hair and causing the ends of our cigarettes to burn bright.
We can see the tower of the United Methodist Church to the north, the peak of the Guilford Building to the southeast, the Wachovia Building, the old county courthouse, the radio tower and, off to the northwest, the bright lights of First Horizon Park.
‘“You should see the fireworks from up here,’” Umphenour says.
By the end of next week all the downtown denizens will be aware of Greene Street’s new rooftop deck, the loftiest place to drink in town. But for now it’s just us: me and Umph, Rhines with his camera and Scoot, aka Jeremy Houghton, who’s spent the afternoon fastening feet to the outdoor tables that lay in a grid on the deck.
‘“It won’t be long before we get some umbrellas up here, some cocktail waitresses,’” he says, taking a seat with the rest of us. ‘“It’s gonna be awesome.’”
The staff here has been buzzing about this project for a year, dedicating spare hours to its construction, keeping mum in public about the details. And in the meantime they’ve been enjoying it before all the people come up.
‘“That corner right there,’” Jeremy says, ‘“tell me that wouldn’t be perfect for a hot tub,’” Houghton says. Then, shifting gears, ‘“You should see the fireworks from up here.’”
You can see the display emanating from First Horizon every Friday, he says, better up here than you can at the stadium. We speculate on whether the Grimsley fireworks will be visible from this perch on the Fourth of July. It’s possible, we surmise.
And a fresh breeze blows across the boards.
The space is something of a divergence for the Greensboro nightlife stalwart which first saw life as a dance and live music hall five years ago, then morphed into a college party bar and then added live rock shows by acts from the fringes of the big time.
The rooftop will add a new dimension to the business.
‘“We meet with the architect on Thursday for the kitchen design,’” Umphenour says. ‘“We’ll have a limited menu at first but soon we’ll be open for lunch and afternoon cocktails. During the day we’ll be open for private parties, luaus.’”
But first, club owner Kenny Efird wants his staff to enjoy one more bash up here in the rarified air above downtown before his newest venture becomes open to the public. They’ll be giving it a test drive this weekend in a private affair, which might be a tougher ticket than ACC basketball.
One more thing:
‘“If you could get it across,’” Umphenour says, ‘“women should not wear high heels up on this deck. They’ll take a spill on this deck.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.