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Can The Ritz Bring Rock & Roll Back To SoFA?

In Music
The Ritz, which opened this past weekend in the former space of The Usual and F/X The Club, has many locals optimistic about a rock & roll revival in the SoFA district.

The Ritz, which opened this past weekend in the former space of The Usual and F/X The Club, has many locals optimistic about a rock & roll revival in the SoFA district.

Three dangling crimson bulbs trace a straight line through the hall, directing eyes to the stage at the far end of the room, while another set of orbs cast a sanguine glow on the shiny black surface of the bar. There, two men sit, sipping bottled water and surveying their brand new venture.

Corey O’Brien leans forward in his stool, forearms on the bar, fiddling with his phone. His pale hands and face float in the darkness. His black shoes, pants, long-sleeved shirt and beanie merge with the surrounding black walls, floor and ceiling. The parts of his neck not covered by the hat are largely obscured by the long, dark locks falling out from beneath the knit cap.

In two days’ time, The Ritz will open to the public, and there is still a lot of work to be done. O’Brien’s business partner, Kyle Gilmore, pulls on his cigarette as the pair discuss the repairs they’ve made to the space, what the club means to them and what it could mean for San Jose’s nightlife scene, which after a decade or more of fits and failed starts seems finally to be making a comeback.

The success of that renaissance could well depend on what happens here, inside this dimly lit expanse at the corner of South First and East San Salvador streets. Once an adult movie theater, it was converted into a music venue in 1989 by a group headed by Fil Maresca, who also spearheaded a guerrilla rebranding of the neglected three-block stretch of a key city street.

Sure, the Market at San Pedro Square is a booming hub of nightlife, and the 100 block of South First Street has picked up steam in the two years since 55 South, Original Gravity and Paper Plane opened up. And in San Jose’s arts and culture district, known since the 1990s as the South of First Area, or SoFA—things have been improving. Singlebarrel, Back Bar SoFA, Café Stritch and The Continental have all brought something to the table. But there is still a void to be filled: a theater-style venue for touring acts.

And according to Maxwell Borkenhagen, impresario of the nearby live music venue Café Stritch, The Ritz is the answer. “It really is this keystone. It’s what we need,” Borkenhagen says. “A big rock club at the heart of the district.”

Borkenhagen’s eyes light up when discussing the new venue, which occupies 400 S. First Street—former home to many previous rock and dance clubs. To him, it promises to legitimize the SoFA district and bring the kind of mid-sized indie, punk and hip-hop acts that one would usually need to drive to San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz or Berkeley to see.

“Walking in there, it was such a breath of fresh air,” he says, referring to The Ritz’s soft open on April 8. “It’s is just as cool as any place in San Francisco or the East Bay. That place has potential.”

That promise was on full display April 12 at the Reverend Horton Heat show, which drew a large crowd—despite it being a Sunday and even though The Ritz wasn’t serving alcohol, as it had yet to secure its liquor license. (The club has since obtained it’s license and the booze is flowing—both in the club’s main bar and the front bar.) The audience whooped and hollered as The Reverend and his band tore through hits like “Psychobilly Freakout.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether the new club will draw the kinds of big names many locals hope it will, and whether the SoFA District will recapture its former glory, when bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and No Doubt performed on the block. The Reverend Horton Heat, along with Agent Orange, The Faction and Dick Dale (all of whom are slated to play The Ritz in coming months) aren’t exactly risky bets in San Jose. O’Brien regularly booked successful shows with skate punk and psychobilly bands at his former venue, The Blank Club—but rarely, at least in recent years, took risks on emerging acts and new musical styles. The jury is out on whether O’Brien and his team will book the younger bands making headlines on websites like Pitchfork and Stereogum. And even if The Ritz can get those groups, will San Jose show up?

San Jose music circuit veteran Jonny Manak of Jonny Manak and The Depressives brushes aside those worries, arguing that O’Brien will be able to book buzzed-about bands now that he has the space to guarantee enough money to both pay the band and turn a profit.

“If you build it, they will come,” Manak optimistically predicts. “Corey just built it. And we have the RockBar theater too. It’s going to show national booking agents that there are two big-ass rooms where they can send their bands to play.”

The Reverend Horton Heat played the second night of the Ritz's opening weekend.

The Reverend Horton Heat played the second night of the Ritz’s opening weekend. Photo by Nick Veronin.

The Day The Music Died

Just a few years ago, this debate was moot. The South First district had a handful of theaters and galleries; destinations where visitors would come and then promptly leave. What existed of a SoFA nightlife scene was fragmented, at best.

It fell apart in the late ’90s, according Sam Ramirez, operator of the recently opened Continental Bar, Lounge and Patio on South First Street. Ramirez witnessed both the rise and the disintegration of the SoFA district first hand. He cut his teeth in the bar and club industry on the street—working first as a bouncer and then as a bartender at a series of local establishments. The way he tells it, the scene was built by locals at a grassroots level and was undone by bad operators and a change of San Jose Police Department policy.

At its height, the intersection of South First and East San Salvador streets was called “The Four Corners”—a reference to four clubs: F/X The Club, The Cactus Club, Polly Esthers and Marsugi’s. Ajax Lounge, which was in the space above Cafe Stritch, was another popular live music and DJ venue. The multi-level Dimensions theme club occupied a former furniture store building that was razed to make way for a residential highrise. After F/X closed, it reopened as The Usual, and continued as a live music venue and dance club. Ajax became the B-Hive, a hip hop establishment, and later Sofa Lounge, before fire code enforcement ended its run.

With the exception of Polly Esthers, a chain, all the venues had been started by local operators with a passion for music and nightlife, and most ran on a shoestring budget.

O’Brien says he was never fond of the nickname “Four Corners.” Nonetheless, he was a regular on the SoFA scene. “It was happening,” he says of his days hanging out at Marsugi’s and F/X, and later working at The Usual. “It was for real.”

SoFA became what it was because none of the clean-nosed developers and businesses would invest in the neighborhood. The city’s redevelopment agency poured public money north of San Carlos Street and brought in new restaurants to compete with SoFA’s cluster of white tablecloth restaurants. “This whole area was worth nothing to anybody,” O’Brien says, allowing the rock clubs to come in and build businesses without much capital.

But then—as so often happens when the bohemian class turns rundown neighborhoods around with music, art and nightlife—the establishment took notice. Hopes of selling new condos to buyers unaccustomed to fights and shootings and sidewalk vomit meant padlocking the clubs that had become increasingly rowdy as rents rose and SoFA became a regional destination. “The city came in and they wanted to do everything,” O’Brien recalls. “They wanted to clean up the street.”

A string of club owners with deeper pockets had invested. After the New York-based Polly Esthers came Cabana, then Glo, then Wet. When The Usual became Spy, Pete Escovedo’s and then Angels. The investment community had little interest in rock & roll, O’Brien says. The venues hit on a formula revolving around Top-40 DJs and expensive drinks. Trouble soon followed.

The San Jose Police Department changed its policy of requiring off-duty officers to be employed directly by the clubs to one in which a parked line of patrol cars herded exiting masses to their cars as quickly as possible when 2am rolled around.

“The result was that people who wanted to avoid police interactions stopped coming out,” Ramirez says, “while those who didn’t mind contending with, and even confronting, the police, continued to show up.” Ramirez himself left downtown and opened a club in Campbell.

Clashes between the police and club-goers rose and by the late aughts, and both Wet and Angels closed after incidents and police enforcement actions. The SoFA nightlife scene was the quietest it had been since music replaced the sex industry as the district’s dominant entertainment in the 1980s.

In recent years, Club Miami drew a loyal but highly niche Latin dance crowd on Friday and Saturday nights. And the 300 block was bracketed by Agenda and Motif on one end and Original Joe’s on the other—with nothing, save the excellent but sleepy Anno Domini art gallery in between. 

A photo of two Wet nightclub patrons. Chuckin' them deuces. Photo by Dave Cabebe.

A photo of two Wet nightclub patrons. Chuckin’ them deuces. Photo by Dave Cabebe.

SoFA’s Glory Days

For those old enough to remember South First Street’s glory days, it was an especially hard blow to watch the SoFA District deteriorate.

Manak refers to the SoFA District of the early ’90s as “the Mecca of entertainment” in San Jose. He remembers heading to the intersection of South First and East San Fernando confident that he’d find something fun going on. “You didn’t have to make plans for the night,” he says. “You just went out, and if one band was shitty (at one bar or club), you just went across the street. It was fucking crazy. There were just people on all corners. There was music coming from every building.”

Eric Victorino, lead singer of Strata, The Limousines and Gestalt, has similarly fond memories of the SoFA scene. “It’s been so sad over the years to see that building just sitting there,” he says. “It was devastating to see it turn into Angels.”

The fifth show Strata played, when they were still called Downside, was at the Cactus Club. At that show, his fledgling band grabbed the attention of a Capitol Records scout—an encounter that led to the band’s first contract and kicked off Victorino’s professional music career.

According to Victorino, the cluster of music clubs functioned as a training grounds for local acts—helping them move from their garages to state and national tours. “It was fun, because there was a hierarchy set up,” he says. “You could get a show at the Cactus and play the tiny room, and you had something to aspire to. Maybe you started at the Gaslighter in Campbell, and you’d eventually work your way up to headlining the Cactus.”

As O’Brien surveys The Ritz just days before the club’s opening night, his business partner recalls touring the venue before signing a lease. “When we first came in here, [Corey] said, ‘I got beat up right here, and did this over here.’”

That fighter’s spirit and sense of belonging that O’Brien brings to the space makes him an ideal candidate to lead the revival of rock & roll in San Jose.

Corey O'Brien on the corner of S. First and E. San Salvador streets. The Ritz's marquee can be seen in the background. Photo by Dan Pulcrano.

Corey O’Brien on the corner of S. First and E. San Salvador streets. The Ritz is behind him. Photo by Dan Pulcrano.

From The Blank Club To The Ritz

After rock & roll died in SoFA—and unwilling to accept that California’s third largest city should go without at least some kind of alternative music club—O’Brien and zine publisher Larry Trujillo seized the opportunity to buy what would become The Blank Club.

O’Brien was at the Cactus Club the night it opened and he looks back on the day that The Usual closed. “The city wiped out all the real culture,” he says of the decline of the SoFA district. 

O’Brien came formed his definition of “real culture” as a wiley skater kid who loved going to punk shows and drinking when he wasn’t cruising the streets on his board. For a time, he would regularly make the trip up to San Francisco to see his favorite bands play at Mabuhay Gardens. But he eventually tired of making that trip and decided to try promoting his own shows locally.

The first show O’Brien organized was a big one: Social Distortion at San Jose City College. “They were our favorite band at the time,” he says of Social D. “They had no albums out yet, they just had singles and were on some compilations. We asked them to play San Jose, and they told us, y’know, ‘Rent a hall! Set a date!’” he says, chortling a bit at his former naiveté. “So we found the student union at San Jose City College and did the show there. We actually made money doing the show. Tons of people showed up. It was a big deal.”

In the early 2000s, Trujillo was managing Plant 51—a restaurant that, while popular, was just barely hanging on behind the scenes. “They were struggling…and I told Larry, ‘Let me know if they wanna sell that place, cause I’ll buy it.” He said the owners would never sell, but two months later, O’Brien got the call. “We all just scraped money together.” The Blank opened in February 2003.

During its 12-year run, the club kept the local scene alive, while providing a venue for rising touring bands and every once in a while snagging a big fish—like Dwarves, The Damned, The Ataris or ISIS.

“It was the phoenix that rose from the Cactus Club and The Usual going away,” Manak says of The Blank. “Without it we wouldn’t have had any national bands in San Jose at all.”

Borkenhagen, put it another way. “If you’re into punk rock and alternative stuff, it was the closest thing to a CBGB’s we had,” he says. “It was a black room that booked rock bands.”

The Blank was not without its faults, and O’Brien is the first to acknowledge it.

“We’ve done a lot of big shows here, like huge production shows,” O’Brien says. Still, he continues, “bands would come here and just not be happy, and we could see it when they walked in. We need a bigger place; we need a room that has everything we need.”

At 8,000 square feet, The Ritz more than triples the size of The Blank. It has a capacity of 537—versus The Blank’s 188. It’s about the same size as Slim’s or The Independent in San Francisco. And as such, O’Brien says he will be gunning for the level of bands that play those venues.

In response to critics who dismiss his risk-adverse booking history, O’Brien first concedes, then goes on the offensive. 

“I agree with them!” he exclaims, saying he is well aware that The Blank Club rarely booked a band that would have been covered by the likes of Pitchfork—a website he says he reads every day.

There were lots of reasons why he didn’t book many of the bands popular in indie rock circles, he says—chief among them being cash. Bringing in bigger names costs money, and with only 188 people at a sold out show—even when he raised ticket prices above the $5-$10 range—the club would barely break even and sometimes lost money.

“X sold the place out,” O’Brien says, referring to the the time he booked the late-’70s punk icons. “It was a $30-$40 dollar ticket and we lost money.”

There were other factors that held back The Blank, too. “It was a destination,” Manak says, pointing out that for many years there was nothing in its vicinity but The Caravan Lounge and the Greyhound bus station. “You didn’t go to The Blank unless you planned ahead of time to go to The Blank.”

All of this combined with the club’s poor layout—a small stage, no backstage, no parking for bands—led to band complaints.

But “excuses suck,” O’Brien says, explaining what his plan to bring bigger and better bands into The Ritz.

“We looked at every detail when we built this club up, because it has to be perfect, so when the bands leave, they speak well of The Ritz,” he says. “That’s the only way we’re going to get people here.”

Everything from the custom-built subwoofer to the monitors and on-stage mixing board, to the two green rooms backstage—complete with a private bathroom, a shower and a washer and dryer—is aimed at wooing bands, O’Brien says.

Gilmore says that he and O’Brien are going to do their best to bring the best music— “from jazz, to hip-hop, to rock & roll to punk”—and that the only thing left is for “San Jose to show up.”

‘Stepping Up’

Upon securing the keys to what would become The Ritz and walking into the building where he worked as a bartender and drank as a patron, O’Brien was met by an olfactory assault. “It smelled,” he recalls. There were dead rat carcasses lying about the place, holes in the roof had allowed water to leak into the hall and collapse portions of the drop-down ceiling, and parts of the floor were rotted out.

In a way, the interior of what is now The Ritz could be seen as a metaphor for the entire downtown scene. In just a few months time, using connections he built over a lifetime living, working and skating in San Jose, O’Brien was able to transform the building. Similarly, in just a few short years, the local nightlife scene has been revitalized—by craft cocktail and beer bars and new restaurants. 

“I’ve been one of those people who has been super pessimistic about downtown San Jose for a long time,” Victorino says. “But then Stritch kinda made me change my mind and turn things around, and now I think The Ritz is going to solidify that.”

Manak is decidedly more enthusiastic. “I’m so fucking excited,” he says. “This is the best news I’ve heard for the scene in 10 years. This is going to light South First on fire. There are people who are 20 and 30 years old in San Jose who have never experienced this. They’re going to lose their fucking minds.”

Borkenhagen, himself in his mid-20s, is hopeful that Manak is right. “The Ritz is a beautiful blank space and a fresh start,” he says. “People have their expectations, but The Ritz is not The Blank.”

The artistic director of Cafe Stritch—the current go-to venue for the freshest sounds in local indie rock—says was once very skeptical of San Jose. In fact, he says, he “hated” the city for turning its back on the kind of music he loved. But these days, he is far more hopeful.

“My hope is that The Ritz embraces the fact that there is a lot of different programming that’s now possible that has a big audience here,” he says. “And I hope that audiences are ready to step up, just like Corey is stepping up.”

For more info on upcoming shows at The Ritz, visit the venue’s website. Jody Amable contributed to this story.

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