Under the direction of Jenn Duerr, programming director of the Durham Association of Downtown Arts (DADA), Ringside is giving the city's music scene a much-needed shot in the arm by booking local independent bands. Starting with the first Durham Band Showcase, produced by DADA last November, the club has hosted a constant stream of live shows as well as Saturday DJ nights.
Ringside has the atmosphere of a New Orleans speakeasy--down to the buzzer on the door to gain entrée--and décor straight out of Murder on the Orient Express. The front desk could have come from one of those seedy urban hotels you find in a Hitchcock film. Behind it, the ground floor--full of tables and sconces that provide only dim, atmospheric lighting--is part British dinner club, part deliciously seedy hideaway. If you glance up, you'll notice the elaborate railings of the second-floor balcony as well as a giant statue of Mercury in flight, winged sandals and all.
The third floor is a performance space-dance floor where bands set up to play in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows. The walls are papered with what appears to be a vintage boxing photograph: one man stands naked; the other impressively fills out his jockstrap. But the pièce de résistance, after climbing three flights of twisting staircases and velvet drapes, is the fourth floor library with its towering built-in bookshelves, fringed Victorian lamps, gilt-frame oil paintings and, anachronistically, a video projector and retractable screen. Despite the high ceilings and seemingly endless space, the bar is cozy and intimate, full of nooks and crannies that hide an unexpected pool table or place to get away.
Ringside's décor and ambience most certainly reflect the personality of owner Michael Penny: He's casually intimate, an old-school bohemian. And the club's French Quarter feel is no accident; Penny lived there for 10 years before returning to Durham in 1989 to open Boxer's. The now-defunct gay bar was located in a strange, flying saucer-shaped building just off N.C. 15-501 (by New Hope Commons).
"A lot of people really loved that club," he says of Boxer's, "and a lot of people just did not understand that club at all."
Penny holds this interview while sitting behind the second-floor bar, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes throughout. He explains that he'd originally wanted to open Boxer's in downtown Durham. "More than any city in this state, it has a real, hard urban feeling with buildings right on the street, sort of like Manhattan," he says. It took 10 years to find the right building. After spotting the location in '98, he was ready to open "Boxer's-Ringside" in May of 2000.
It wasn't an instant hit. Gay patrons expecting Ringside to be a dance-club version of Boxer's were disappointed.
"I never wanted it to be a gay club," says Penny. "I never wanted it to be exclusively anything."
Everyone who frequented Ringside in its early days seemed to have the same reaction: "This place has so much potential." That potential was finally realized when Penny teamed up with Duerr, who started booking live music for the club through her company, Rhythm Light Productions.
As luck would have it, Duerr discovered Ringside (and Penny) when the rest of the DADA crew was looking for music venue in Durham. The success of the Duke Coffeehouse in the early '90s proved that the town could support a live alternative music venue, but DADA wondered if they could make it work with local bands.
"There are plenty of Durham bands," says Duerr from the DADA offices (a converted garage lovingly referred to as "The Shack"). "They just play out in Chapel Hill."
To date, local acts who've taken the long walk up to the third floor include Cold Sides, Des Ark, The Sleepies, The Samples, Cody Cods, Holy Roman Empire, Razzel, Mais Oui (and their glammed-out "British cousins" Roxotica), and Rhythm Light Orchestra (Rhythm Light Productions' musical side project). Malt Swagger has played a couple of gigs, but prefer not to lug their vibes and pianos up the winding stairway, instead setting up on the first floor. This makes for an especially intimate set, especially with Daniel "The Head" McDermon projecting some of his creepily beautiful '60s educational films on and around the band. "We love to play there," says Malt Swagger's Dave Jernigan. "When we play we like to create a mood, and that space makes it easy."
And that mood was recognized by Duerr, who moved to Durham from San Francisco two years ago with her husband Randall Gilbert (DADA's Development Director) as part of their "Southern experiment." They wanted to see if they could create community spaces and find an artistic community similar to those they'd been a part of in SF. Working at the Carolina Theatre, they met Robert "Manfred" Stromberg (DADA president), who was putting on shows in his house under the name "1111." Inspired by Stromberg's project and Jenn and Randall's experience running a nonprofit performance space in San Francisco, DADA was formed.
Part of the nonprofit's mission is to create an "artistic home and networking base for a variety of self-producing local artists."
With support from the Durham Arts Council, DADA is working with a variety of local organizations, most recently the Sanford Warren Children's Library, to sponsor performance projects and show off local talent in community venues. "This isn't about hipster white people doing art," says Gilbert.
DADA's dream, in fact, is to take a piece of downtown Durham--architecturally stimulating but economically stagnant--and turn it into an artist's haven: a multi-use center with performance space for music, dance and theater along with studio spaces for visual artists. Faced with rising rents in rest of the Triangle, artists have been finding downtown Durham to be a source of cheap and attractive studio space.
"We have a strong belief that artists should take hold of that and be the people that define what 'downtown' becomes," Stromberg says.
To further that vision, DADA hopes to garner grassroots support to influence the redevelopment of downtown into a vibrant city. Despite Durham's empty storefronts, Duerr fears they might be "two years too late."
"If an organization like DADA doesn't step forward," says Gilbert, "the interests with money are going to turn downtown into RTP.
"These owners let property sit vacant because they know that when Liggett is developed ... they can get a half a million instead of the $200,000 the property is actually worth now, let alone the $80,000 they paid for it four years ago."
DADA seems to have found the surrogate for their dream space in Ringside. Duerr and Penny hope to add a stage to the third floor for one-act plays, along with a dumbwaiter to take the pain out of load-in. They also plan to invest in a "real" P.A. with an eye to hosting more bands, cabarets and even touring films.
It was while watching a group of young hipsters walk up Ringside's front stairs for the first time, wide-eyed and amazed by the place, that Penny realized that he'd found his niche.
"It's a gay bar for straight people," he says.