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OLD NEIGHBOR Garment workers at the building in the early 1900s. More Photos »
IT was back in 1953, when RCA Victor set up a studio in the Grand Ballroom of Webster Hall in Manhattan to achieve a level of reverberation that would help the label compete with Columbia Records. Perry Como recorded his “Como Swings” there in 1959, which displayed Como in slacks and a blue shirt on a golf course.
As the world changed, and music with it, so did the acts the venue attracted: in 1967, Jefferson Airplane staged its first concert in New York inside. On Dec. 6, 1980, U2 ushered in the post-punk era here — it was called the Ritz at the time — when it pounded out “I Will Follow” in its first gig in the United States. And on Feb. 2, 1988, Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, standing on the same stage, before screeching “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” inflated a condom like a balloon.
Since then, live music has been a rarity in the aging building on East 11th Street in Greenwich Village. Instead, the sound most often heard has been electronica, like house music, whose turntable-fueled beats scored popular dance parties where glow-stick necklaces were the accessory of choice.
Now, Webster Hall has finished a $3 million, yearlong renovation of its four-level space and live music has returned in force. D. J. booths have been removed to make way for new stages, and a new venue within the venue, called the Studio, has been added. House music will still throb, but the owners are betting that rock fans can be lured inside, too.
If the plan succeeds — and in this economy, nothing is guaranteed — Webster Hall may solve a problem that has plagued club owners since people started venturing out of their homes to shimmy at night: how do you make extra money from rooms that basically sit unused between 6 a.m., when crowds file out, and 11 p.m., when the doors reopen for business? Some have tried restaurants, to mixed success.
And will everyone get along? After all, rockers and club kids have traditionally gone their separate ways on weekends.
Take Chris Steele, who came to see the band Southeast Engine in the Studio recently. He planned to leave right after the band’s last song, even though his $8 ticket would have covered him for the night at a place where the vinyl crowd shelled out $35.
“Personally this is more my thing,” he said. “I’m more into live music than dancing.”
In a city where fewer people party than they used to, according to club owners, the club’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach is one way to try to increase attendance. It could also serve as a hedge against the recession, which has sent some bar business plunging 40 percent. Finally, a paradigm shift in musical tastes could play to Webster Hall’s advantage.
For a generation raised on iPods that can pack thousands of disparate songs, and who attend music festivals with increasingly eclectic lineups — in June, Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., will feature Nine Inch Nails, Snoop Dogg and Phish — putting an eclectic mix of styles under one roof might seem in sync with the times.
“This is a different world, where you can easily access everything under the sun with the quick push of a button,” said Craig Inciardi, an associate curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland who helped set up its New York annex last fall. “Webster Hall is trying to appeal to these people who have varied musical tastes.”
Charles Goldstein, a cigarmaker, built Webster Hall in 1886 for $75,000, with a design by Charles Rentz Jr., an architect and beer vendor, for “balls, receptions, Hebrew weddings and sociables,” according to a December 1886 article in The New York Times.
But it soon came to be known for rowdy parties, many of which featured live music, like the fund-raiser for General Grant’s memorial in September 1887, or the fete for the French Revolution centennial in May 1889.
In the early 1900s, Webster Hall’s guest lists featured artists of all sorts, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. Around the same time, Greenwich Village became a center of gay and lesbian life, and the club was frequently a gathering place.
Unity Gallega of the United States, which later bought the building, and which still owns it, put on a klezmer concert there in 1978. But in 1980, with the downtown music scene thriving, the company leased out the space to the Ritz, which tended to be more New Wave-focused than CBGB, its more famous, and more punk, downtown neighbor.
Legs McNeil, the author and longtime East Village resident who’s credited with popularizing the term “punk,” recalls seeing Public Image Limited and the Ramones there, but an even more memorable moment was sitting in the club’s balcony listening to someone have loud sex in a bathroom. That same balcony would also shake noticeably when the crowd started dancing, “and you wondered if the whole thing was going to collapse,” he said.
Of course, that was nighttime. Finding a way to fill clubs before sunset has long been a puzzlement to those who run them.
Lotus, a 10,000-square-foot meatpacking district club that closed in 2008 after eight years, filled some of that gap with a restaurant. David Rabin, a Lotus owner who also serves as president of the New York Nightlife Association, a trade group, said that if Webster Hall could lure patrons inside in the early evening, for performances that often kick off at 7 p.m., it, too, might benefit. Any extra revenue, he added, is important during the downturn.
“It’s not an easy transition to become a rock club, and they’re not necessarily going after the same audience, so it won’t be an easy message to get across,” Mr. Rabin said. “But they have a great location, and if they program intelligently, at an appropriate price point, they should do fine.”
Although late-night noise from cars did result in the temporary closing of the club’s block to car traffic in the 1990s — and despite those rowdy parties for General Grant — Webster Hall has not gotten into much trouble over the decades, unlike so many other New York City clubs. It had only six official noise complaints in 2008, said Deputy Inspector Dennis De Quatro, commanding officer of the Ninth Precinct in Manhattan.
Webster Hall’s renovation was handled by Steve Lewis, a New York night life mainstay who’s managed the Palladium, Life and Spa. He and his partner, Marc Dizon, added banquettes, tables, and a small likeness of Michelangelo’s David, covered in green stripes. And though they also put in three dozen flat-screen TVs in a rear hallway that show mind-bending geometric patterns, they kept a lot of what made Webster Hall so unusual in the first place: its mazelike layout, which recalls that of aHalloween-theme suburban haunted house.
Past a pinkish facade, with its bearded-men carvings and griffin light-fixtures, marble stairs descend to checkerboard-tile floors bathed in red lights. Oddly placed thick-frame mirrors line dim hallways. Doors lead from rooms into other rooms, each smaller than the first, like a walk-through take on a Russian nesting doll.
And surprises aren’t surprising, as anyone who used to visit the old Ritz in the early ’80s discovered, when a screen dropped from the ceiling showing grainy early music videos (“Video Killed the Radio Star” was often one) before the evening’s band took the stage.
“The old girl’s always had good bones, always a wonderful piece of architecture,” said Lon Ballinger, the club’s owner. “Our goal was to make her look beautiful again.”
The ultimate judges of whether he succeeded will obviously be patrons, who seem skeptical but willing to keep an open mind. Before a December performance in the ballroom by Cansei de Ser Sexy, a Brazilian band, Sunny Cover, 39, of Peekskill, N.Y., reminisced about dancing at Webster Hall a decade ago.
“It’s insane that this place lasted as long as it has,” Ms. Cover said. “I can’t believe I’m back.”
Nearby, Amanda Cobell, 22, of Kinnelon, N.J., also admitted that she associated the place with “cheesy dance tunes,” an impression reinforced by the preconcert musical selections blaring from overhead speakers, like Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations,” a 1990s club staple.
“Wow, this song reminds me of when I was 10 and listening to Z100 and they would keep saying, ‘Come hear the beats at Webster Hall,’ ” Ms. Cobell said. “I guess I finally did.”
Originaly from : http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/08/fashion/08webster.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1