House at Odds in Empire Gamble

Rose Apodaca Jones is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

You might say the odds are not with the house.

Opening a spectacular 13,000-square-foot nightclub with a 1,200-square-foot dance floor, deluxe billiard tables, valet parking and a $7 cover in this sluggish economy is what some would call a gamble. Especially considering that the club, the Empire Ballroom in Costa Mesa, is only to be open Thursday through Saturday nights.

But the really odd part is that the club plans to succeed by spinning House music exclusively.

House is a genre that other clubs have already discovered doesn't go over well in Orange County--at least not with the upscale, 21- to 35-year-old set that most splashy clubs try to attract.

None of this fazes the unnamed financial backers of the Empire Ballroom, which opened its doors to the public last weekend. The club is managed by Gregg Mullholand and Mike Tuomisto (formerly a co-owner of Newport Beach's defunct N.Y.C.).

Empire Ballroom is an 18,000-square-foot former factory that has been gutted and recycled into what architect Rick McCormick of Hatch Designs in Costa Mesa dubs "neoterric post-Industrialism." He defines neoterric as recent or modern-- "It basically means taking an old building and giving it (a) new use," says McCormick, who also designed the interiors at the Shark Club, Metropolis and N.Y.C.

Typical trendy urban touches have been incorporated, such as exposed pipes and beams. The once graffiti-covered brick walls have been sandblasted to their original gray state, and concrete walls have been warmed a rustic orange. Rich varnished woods and plush sofas and chairs--favorite signature details of McCormick's--complement the otherwise hard, industrial setting.

About 200 parking spaces are designated on the 2 1/2 acres the building sits on--not nearly enough to accommodate the number of patrons (up to 1,000 nightly) the club anticipates. Many will likely use the lots of the surrounding industrial complex.

In contrast to other large clubs in the county, Empire Ballroom will not serve food . . . at least, not yet. Neither manager could make up his mind on this topic. Mullholand finally concluded that "people don't like to eat where they party."

The focus here will be on dancing.

"This will be the first hard-core dance club since N.Y.C. closed," Mullholand said.

Indeed, with a domed ceiling, a lounge overlooking the floor and a sound system designed to keep ears ringing long after you've left, the dance area is sure to impress. Less impressive is the touted entertainment from L.A. and New York.

Says Mullholand: "We don't hire deejays or go-go dancers from Orange County."

Maybe they should, and lower the cover charge.

Likewise, the dress code amuses. "Nightlife attire" is spelled out as no sneakers or shorts, though hot pants are welcome. Ballcaps are a no-no, unless one accessorizes an Armani suit, Tuomisto says.

All this without an attitude, both managers claim.

"It's not going to be snotty," Mullholand promised. "We're going to be upscale but fun, not expensive."

Uh-huh. We'll see.

* EMPIRE BALLROOM

* 640 W. 17th St., Costa Mesa.

* (714) 631-8349.

* Open Thursday through Saturday, 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.

* Cover: $7.

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