Well guess what, oh brothers and sisters? The Grand Emporium has gone gay!
OK, perhaps not entirely but enough to celebrate. This hunk o' meat was among the many locals who weren't surprised when the filthy, handbill-plastered dive reopened as a sleek dance club in August 2004. (Our own Night Ranger described it as "spaceshiplike.") After all, the new owner was Stuart Salomon, who also owns the Beaumont Club and the Westport Beach Club and at one point had a big hand in the Club XO respectable venues for revelers to line-dance, salsa and dry-hump, respectively. And the Strip knows that lots of old-fashioned rock bands still take to the Grand Emporium stage the current schedule includes alt-rockers Luce, indie-folk act Amos Lee and country-swing old-timers Asleep at the Wheel when the DJs aren't spinning. But this sizzlin' sirloin keeps its eye on KC's ever-shifting nightlife trends, and the current Saturday-night scene at the club is a thing to behold.
One recent Saturday night, DJ Steve Thorell mixed exploding bass beats with shrill sirens and head-spinning lights. In a back lounge lit by glow-in-the-dark tiles, girls kissed boys. And boys kissed boys.
The club had drawn spillover traffic from Westport's gay-chic 303 as well as from the fratty Kelly's and the Plaza's upscale, massively trendy Blonde. It was a bee-yoo-ti-full mix of crowds that the Strip would normally see going their separate ways if they really wanted to dance: the boys downtown to the Dixie Belle and NV, the boys-and-girls to the Empire Room at 31st and Gillham or to Kabal in the River Market.
Yes, this prime cut knows it's sort of sad that gays and straights playing well together is even a noteworthy phenomenon. In a bigger, more sophisticated city, it wouldn't even be an issue. But we'll take whatever unity we can get.
"A lot of times in the club business, you'll have a straight night or a gay night but not both," Salomon tells this rump-shakin' roast. "It wasn't like we set out to have a mixed crowd it just happened and now it's great. It's a little unique environment different from anything I've seen before in the club business."
On its most recent Saturday-night visit, the Strip encountered Mike Collinson, a 31-year-old real estate agent who was sitting with a straight male and female crew, all of whom agreed that they were unique for deciding to go somewhere other than the Plaza. "The crowd is conducive to having a good time," Collinson said.
"You can have 100 people in here, and you feel like there's energy," said Jeff Scheperle, 35, who was flanked by two gay companions.
"It's a place for closet cases to come without being outed," added a gay Latino who refused to give his name. Because he was partly closeted, he could come to the Grand Emporium without fear of what might happen if some co-workers spotted him.
Come the late hours, a straight guy complained loudly that he'd gotten his ass grabbed at the urinal. Welcome to the world of straight women everywhere, the Strip says!
Anyway, this omniscient omnivore knows that what's happening at the Grand Emporium has a lot to do with the way Westport is being run these days.
A series of behind-the-scenes political moves may be pressuring club owners to take dancing to different streets.
Back in January 2004, the party district switched governing factions. Until then, it had been ruled mostly by the volunteer-based Westport Merchants Association. But then several of the property and business owners got together and formed the Westport CID, a "community improvement district" whose members agreed to tax themselves or their customers and use the extra money to spruce up their surroundings. Its board of directors was heavy with real estate types.
The group began collecting fees from the district's merchants, based on the square footage and usage of each business. Four 3 a.m. clubs with dance floors had the highest extra taxes because they drew the most people and needed extra security, according to CID head Tom Brenneis. That means America's Pub, the Beaumont and Beach Club, the Cactus Café and the Hurricane are now tapped annually for hundreds of extra dollars, thanks to the bumping and grinding. Then, sources tell us, at a CID meeting last month, Doug Weltner (a senior vice president of the Grubb & Ellis real estate company) ruminated about establishing a "good neighbor agreement" in which bar owners could be regulated by leases that put limits on dance floors and 3 a.m. licenses.
In any event, Salomon's move outside Westport seems to be a cheap bet that's paying off. The annual cost for a dance-hall permit without CID-induced tariffs is just $125.
Meanwhile, some downtown dance-club owners have acknowledged that the Grand Emporium's hot new Saturday scene has disrupted their business. Gay clubs plan to retaliate by getting bigger or by staying on-message as supergay.
DB owner John Gordon says he'll open a third floor in October to boost his club's maximum occupancy from 400 to 513.
The Strip had heard rumors that NV was planning to recruit mainstream DJs to try to cater to a straight crowd. "In fact, we're doing the exact opposite," NV's Danny Bright told this slab of beef. "Our image is a gay club. It will not be turning into a straight club." Too bad NV has a fabulous rooftop deck that hetero guys all over town might enjoy.
And, you know, that got this rump roast thinking about how, if all the Grand Emporium's old clientele would just come back every once in a while, the club would really be mixed. The Strip advises heterosexual men who might be too afraid to set foot in the place to consider the advantages.
Those perks were evident when we spoke with one dude who was wearing a backward-turned ball cap the uniform of straight guys everywhere. "I'm pretending I'm gay," he told us, explaining that he was trying to ditch a heavyset, tattooed S&M woman dressed in all black and fishnets. He, too, had figured out how to benefit from the androgynous vibe.