Philadelphia has always been a dance music haven.
South Philly's Chubby Checker invented the Twist. American Bandstand started here, as did TV dance shows like Jerry Blavat's Discophonic Scene and Dancin' on Air. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Sound of Philadelphia aided in the invention of disco. Techno and house music locals Josh Wink and King Britt ran their Ovum label from home.
With all that came nightclubs with impossible-to-avoid dance floors - Chez-Vous; the Bank; Second Story and its basement gay club Catacombs; Circa; off-South's hallowed dance hall Fluid; after-hour clubs Revival and Black Banana; Delaware Avenue hot spots Egypt and Asylum. All are gone the way of the dinosaur.
Within the last decade, though, Center City clubs G Lounge, Whisper, Ten/Six, and Rumor started strong, as did spaces in Old City and the waterfront, such as Morgan's Pier, Lit Ultrabar, and Zee Bar.
"When we opened G seven years ago, everyone was secure in their jobs and money flowed," says Mark Marek, who owns G and Rumor, then and now. In 2011, The Inquirer wrote about the wealth of clubs within downtown's growing restaurant scene. "It was like clubland's golden age had returned," says Clark Maloney, a bar/restaurant consultant and veteran nightclub manager, most recently, Whisper.
But this summer, G and Whisper closed - temporarily, says each. Ten/Six closed at the beginning of the year. Another top dance party, house-hop DJ Lee Jones' weekly Sundae, occurred less frequently. The dance scene took a spiritual hit when Fluid manager Oronde Gibson, 43, died recently after a stroke. "It's like losing family," says Jones.
What happened to clubland?
Along with entertainment options and the inability of most people to afford the time and money for a full evening of dining and dancing, Maloney believes dance music is no longer a rarity. "Before, you could only hear underground sounds in clubs," he says. "Now it's everywhere: SoundCloud, YouTube." When the star spinners do come through - the dog and pony show of what Maloney and Jones call interchangeable "lip-syncing DJs" doing the "same sets whether it's Philly, Stockholm, or Sao Paulo" - they cost clubs between $10,000 and $75,000, without giving those spots the brand loyalty they did in the past.
"Patrons who come to Whisper, already buzzed so they don't spend on drinks, face the talent like it's a concert and ignore my bar - a huge chunk of revenue," Maloney says. He adds that Whisper, owned by Drew Milstein and several investors, closed shop on July 2 amid promises to renovate and reopen in October with a "slightly different concept."
Jones altered his weekly Sundae's outdoor gatherings when its most recent home, Morgan's Pier, started its own Sunday jam. "That's just smart business," says Jones, opting for less frequent but still packed parties at such venues as West Philly's City Tap House or Northern Liberties' Piazza where kid-friendly environments prevail. "Focus on the next generation," says Jones, mentioning that it's their parents, the over-35 set reliving the soundtrack of their youth, who attend Sundae.
Old-school values are what Jones believes can solve Philly's current dance-club problem.
"Pseudo big-name, top-dollar DJs don't work," he says, pointing to Voyeur, a Gayborhood hot spot that has never ceased being successful. "They didn't buy into that hype, and they're busy, so crowded they're expanding their basement dance floor." Jones believes Voyeur and Sundae's greatest strength is not relying on social media to engage crowds. "Because it doesn't [work] - so do it the old way, hit the streets with fliers. Introduce yourself. So many people downtown have probably never been to Whisper or G because they don't know they exist. They're probably not friends on Facebook. Doesn't matter if they are. Give them a flier during lunch hour and they'll remember. Promotion needs to go back to 'How are you?' "
Mark Marek believes in pressing the flesh and staying on the job. He and G Lounge co-owner Danny Govberg closed in June because Marek witnessed lulls in attendance and decided something beyond renovation was necessary: G had to reinvent itself, especially considering that Rumor is a block-and-a-half from G Lounge, and that he also owns Columbus Boulevard's SoundGarden DJ palace. G had to become a more human place. "Look, DJs aren't underground anymore, and beyond all the bells-and-whistles of technology a nightclub's focus is still that disco ball, something old school."
Along with hospitality, G Lounge will offer burlesque-infused entertainment and turn away from high-gloss electronic dance music. "I'm bringing something real that doesn't exist: a Roaring Twenties nightlife vibe with choreographed dancers, illusionists, and such, on stage and tableside," Marek says.
Marek isn't certain G's redo will change clubland's fortune, but he believes dedication will. "Many clubs have absentee owners, probably why they fall apart," he says. "Owners have to be hospitable, patient, and there to succeed. You got to be immersed."