Of all the absurdities of life in Orange County, none is greater than this: if you want to see nationally known rock, pop or jazz musicians perform in a nightclub, there is only one place you can turn within the county limits.
For more than four years now, the 380-seat Coach House in San Juan Capistrano has held a virtual monopoly on national club attractions in every genre but country music and heavy metal. Challengers have arisen over the past two years, but each one has had its lights turned out almost as quickly as a Mike Tyson foe, back in the ex-champ's invincible days.
The first to fall was Michael's Supper Club, which started brilliantly in 1988 with B.B. King as its opening-weekend headliner. Unfortunately for Michael's, its operators neglected to get fire officials' approval for the club's 300-plus seating plan. When fire officials paid a visit, the club's seating capacity was slashed in half, crippling its chances for survival. Michael's managed to limp on for a few more months before giving up.
Club Postnuclear in Laguna Beach also had the look of a major contender when it opened in 1988. After a few months, though, it was apparent that Postnuclear's high-concept, high-tech interior design wasn't going to be enough to make it work. The lack of an alcoholic beverage license and an inability to establish a coherent booking strategy undermined the 500-capacity club's chances to compete with the Coach House for the big acts. Postnuclear remains in business as a dance club and as a venue for the occasional nationally known dance-rock band (including a show tonight by Nine Inch Nails).
Hamptons was the most recent, and most promising, challenger to Coach House domination.
In terms of physical amenities, the converted dinner theater in Santa Ana had the advantage over the Coach House on nearly every count. It had 490 seats, nearly 30% more than the Coach House. With its carpeted, tiered interior, it had more creature comforts than any pop nightclub I've ever been in--potentially a big advantage in an upscale market like Orange County. The sound and staging were excellent, and the sight lines impeccable.
But after about six months in business, Hamptons now appears to be the latest competitor to get in the ring with the Coach House only to be knocked through the ropes. Booking after announced booking has fallen through in recent weeks, including scheduled shows by folk-blues singer Taj Mahal, the Byrds (a version of the band featuring only one original member, drummer Michael Clarke), and a New Age bill of Liz Story, Philip Aaberg and Nightnoise.
It's hard to say just what Hamptons' status is: club owners Al and Barbara Hampton did not return numerous calls placed over the past week. The person answering the phone at Hamptons said he was unable to provide information about the status of the club or its previously announced bookings.
Terry Rindal, agent for singer David Wilcox and guitarist Ottmar Liebert, said Tuesday that he has called off the two performers' scheduled June concerts at Hamptons after being unable to reach club management.
Another agent, Tom Chauncey, said he is "extremely upset" over his inability to get chief operator Barbara Hampton on the phone over the past two weeks. Chauncey said he had booked June concerts at Hamptons by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Loudon Wainwright III and blues singer John Hammond, and plans to hold the club financially responsible for fulfilling those dates.
"They're burning three of our artists," Chauncey said. "The artists are out of income" if the shows don't go on. "We put a lot of trust in (Hamptons), and unfortunately it backfired. The word will travel fast throughout the industry that so-and-so is canceling dates, and you can't trust them."
After three challenges and three knockouts, it's apparent that superior size and physical amenities are not enough to compete with the highly regarded Coach House. Each contender has lacked a good, professional talent buyer with well-established connections in the pop business. And each has lacked either the financial backing, or the willingness, to pay the price for the sort of top-of-the-line acts that have made the Coach House a success.
"The misconception about concert nightclubs is that it's a huge, money-making machine," said Ken Phebus, the Coach House's booking agent. "People who have that mentality open venues without any experience in buying talent. It was true of (Michael's), it was true of Postnuclear and it was true of Hamptons."
But waiting in line is contender No. 4, and this time the story could be different. From all appearances, Peppers Golden Bear, currently under construction at the corner of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, is preparing the best-planned, best-financed of all the bids to break the Coach House's Orange County monopoly.
"They're going to be formidable, there's no question about it," Phebus said. "They have the knowledge of how to book a band, they've got buying power, they've got money and they've got a nice venue. That's what it takes to compete. But the market has what it takes to support both venues."
The 500-seat Peppers will be a combination concert hall and dance club attached to a restaurant in the new Pierside Pavilion, a commercial complex that also will house movie theaters, shops and offices. Ken Moon, senior vice president of Peppers, said the club, tentatively scheduled to open Aug. 20, is spending about $500,000 on sound and lighting equipment. And Moon said Peppers, which already operates a 350-seat concert club in City of Industry, is prepared to bid "very aggressively" for talent.
The plan at Peppers is to have live entertainment seven nights a week, in all pop genres, with regular shows by national acts augmented by lesser-known local and regional performers. Moon said that aside from rap music, hard-core punk and speed metal, all of which have been ruled out, Peppers will book all musical genres, with plans for considerable attention to alternative rock.
Realizing the importance of a talent buyer who is plugged into the network of agents who decide where and when major pop acts play, Moon tried to hire Phebus, who has 11 years of club booking experience, to buy talent for Peppers. But Phebus decided to remain at the Coach House, citing his long-standing working relationship with club owner Gary Folgner, and his desire to book shows at larger theaters and arenas--an ambition that Folgner is pursuing by promoting upcoming theater and arena shows in Las Vegas, with an eye toward promoting future concerts at the Long Beach Arena and the 3,000-seat Terrace Theatre in Long Beach.
The booking agent for Peppers Golden Bear is Terry Fitton, an Orange-based talent buyer who, in addition to booking the City of Industry Peppers, recently took over as booking agent for Iguana's in Tijuana and the Bacchanal in San Diego. Fitton will have the ability to offer an attractive act shows at more than one club--something that has been an important ingredient in the Coach House's success (Phebus also books the Ventura Theatre and Calamity Jane's in Las Vegas, both owned by Folgner, and the Marquee heavy metal club in Westminster. Additionally, he books some dates for Bogart's in Long Beach and the Strand in Redondo Beach).
Fitton says he is hoping that some form of live-and-let-live mutuality develops, preventing a competitive blood bath.
"I'd rather not say what my strategy is if that doesn't come about," Fitton said. "Let's just say that I will play extreme hardball."
Phebus said he will continue bidding hard to keep the Coach House No. 1. "I can't worry about what my competitor wants" he said of Fitton's hopes for a cooperative, share-the-wealth atmosphere. "I have to do my best for the people who employ me." Told of Fitton's willingness to wage a "hardball" campaign, Phebus readily took up the gauntlet. "When you throw me a hardball, you'd better be careful I don't hit the (expletive) over the fence," he said in a booming voice.
Coach House owner Folgner points to a potential Achilles heel for Peppers Golden Bear: the club's location next door to an as-yet unoccupied condominium complex. Neighbors' noise complaints have been the undoing for more than one Orange County nightclub. According to Moon, Peppers will have three times the normal amount of soundproofing to avoid any noise problems.
If hardball is indeed the game, Orange County could be in for a replay in miniature of the massive ongoing bidding and booking war between the Pacific Amphitheatre and Irvine Meadows. The foreseeable consequences: lucrative paydays that will bring more club-level acts to Orange County but at a premium ticket price. With the Coach House already routinely charging anywhere from $19.50 to $30 and up for the biggest-name acts, it's hard to imagine people paying even more. Then again, the concert business has come to be Orange County's own little theater of the absurd.
UPTOWN MOVES: In other news on the club front, Aldo Bender, former booking agent for Club Postnuclear, has taken over the booking job at NYC, the new dance and concert club in Costa Mesa. Bender said NYC will feature local bands every Wednesday night in its 400-capacity concert room (a second room, equipped for dancing only, holds an additional 300 people). Johnny Monster & the Nightmares perform next Wednesday. Adventure, a Huntington Beach techno-rock band, will play at NYC on May 31. Also booked at NYC is a toga party this Sunday night with Otis Day & the Knights, of "Animal House" fame.
Club Postnuclear, meanwhile, will launch Dance Factory, a Sunday night series featuring funk bands, on June 17, according to manager Steve Clifton. Slapback will kick off the series. Clifton said the Laguna Beach club also is planning acoustic music nights starting late in June.